Writers Step up Protest, Four More Return Sahitya Akademi Award

New Delhi: Decrying the rising intolerance and communal atmosphere in the country as manifested by incidents such as the murder of writer MM Kalburgi and the lynching of a Muslim man over rumours that he had eaten beef, four eminent writers  announced on Sunday that they were returning their Sahitya Akademi awards, while Kannada writer Aravind Malagatti resigned from the body’s general council – joining the growing protest by litterateurs and cultural personalities that has already seen more than a dozen resignations and open letters directed at the literary institution, the government and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Eminent writers Gurbachan Bhullar, Ajmer Singh Aulakh and Atamjit Singh from Punjab and GN Devy from Gujarat today announced that they were returning their Sahitya Akademi awards like several other authors including Nayantara Sehgal, Sarah Joseph, Uday Prakash and Ashok Vajpeyi demanding that the Akademi speak out against the killing of its member Kalburgi and other rationalists and the “communal” atmosphere in the backdrop of the Dadri lynching incident.

Recently, literary figures like Shashi Deshpande, K Satchidanandan, P K Parakkadavu had resigned from their posts in the Akademi, citing similar reasons.

Among those who have also raised their voices are the Carnatic vocalist T.M. Krishna, the poets Keki N. Dariwalla and Adil Jusawalla, the Hindi author Mridula Garg and the Urdu writer Rahman Abbas.

Akademi’s response

Eye of the storm. Vishnwanath Prasad Tiwari of the Sahitya Akademi. Credit: National Book Trust

Eye of the storm. Vishnwanath Prasad Tiwari of the Sahitya Akademi. Credit: National Book Trust

With the writers’ protest over its “silence” on rationalist MM Kalburgi’s murder growing louder, Sahitya Akademi chairperson Vishwanath Prasad Tiwari came out with a statement saying the apex literary body stands for freedom of expression and condemns attacks on any writer or artist anywhere. It asserted its commitment to the “core secular values” enshrined in the Constitution and the “right to life of all”.

Bhullar said he was perturbed by the attempts to “disrupt the social fabric of the country”

“During the recent past, the attempts at disrupting the social fabric of the country, targeting particularly the area of literature and culture, under an orchestrated plan of action, has been perturbing me,” he said.

The 78-year-old author born in Bathinda in Punjab had been awarded the Sahitya Akademi for his 2005 book of short stories Agni-Kalas.

A renowned Punjabi playwright, Aulakh said he was very pained by the attacks on “progressive writers, leaders of the rational movement and the forcible saffronisation of education and culture”.

He said he was “very upset over the communal atmosphere being created in the country and the central government was not performing its duty as the representative of a secular and democratic country”.

Punjabi theatre personality Atamjit Singh said he was returning his Akademi Award as he “is very upset over the incidents communal hatred in the country for the last some months”.

In more embarrassment for the Akademi, Aravind Malagatti resigned from its General Council, condemning its ‘silence’ over the killing of progressive thinker and scholar Kalburgi.

“Killing of personalities like Kalburgi, (Govind) Pansare and incidents like Dadri lynching are an attack on the Constitutional rights in this country. They are highly condemnable,” Malagatti said.

Malagatti is among 20 representatives from various universities in the General Council of the Sahitya Akademi.

Adil Jussawalla. Credit:

Adil Jussawalla. Credit:

A federation of Kashmiri scholars, Adbee Markaz Kamraz, too expressed solidarity with the eminent writers for their decision to return Sahitya Akademi awards, asking the top literary body to break its silence over the increasing “communal frenzy”.

Poet and critic Adil Jussawalla, who won the Sahitya Akademi honour for his 2014 work, also urged the literary body to condemn the “unacceptable censoring” of writers by “violently intolerant groups.”

Jussawalla said he has written to chairperson of Sahitya Akademi.

In his statement, the Akademi’s chairperson said,”We wish to emphasise that the Akademi stands for freedom of expression of all writers, irrespective of caste, colour, creed or nationality.

“Sahitya Akademi condemns the attack on and murder of any writer or artist anywhere.

“Sahitya Akademi is committed to the core secular values enshrined in the Constitution of India and the golden principle of the right to life of all,” Tiwari said.

Stating that he was pained at reports in the media that Sahitya Akademi is “silent” on many recent events, he said, “I as the President can express my official views on any matter only after placing the same before and getting the requisite approval form the Executive Board of Sahitya Akademi in the next meeting.”

Appealing to the writers community, Tiwari said since the Akademi, India’s National Academy of Letters, is also run by writers, they should come forward and protect the dignity of the autonomous body.

Nayantara Sahgal hits back

Author Nayantara Sahgal who has returned her award to the Sahitya Akademi. (Photo: Ranjona Banerji.)

Author Nayantara Sahgal who has returned her award to the Sahitya Akademi. (Photo: Ranjona Banerji.)

Meanwhile, in a response to remarks Tiwari had made that accused her of having “profited” from the Sahitya Akademi award which she had now returned, Nayantara Sahgal said on Sunday in a statement that she was sending a cheque for one lakh rupees to the Akademi:

“I am writing to you in response to your comments about me to the Indian Express of October 7th: ‘Her Award-winning book has been translated into several Indian languages. She earned all the profits. She can now return all the Award money, but what of the credibility and goodwill she earned through the Award?’

“I have considered the Award a high honour, but my “credibility” had been established decades before 1986 through my long career as a writer, as had the “goodwill” and recognition I have received over many years in India and abroad. You have mentioned “profits”. The Award in 1986 would perhaps have been Rs. 25,000, but not more than Rs. 50,000. In consultation with Ashok Vajpeyi, who has also returned his Award, I am enclosing a cheque for one lakh rupees.

“The fact that so many writers are returning their Awards or resigning from Akademi posts makes it clear how anguished we are that you have remained silent over the murder and intimidation of writers and the threat that hangs over dissent and debate. Has the Sahitya Akademi, like Pontius Pilate, washed its hands of its responsibility to safeguard our Constitutional right to freedom of speech?”

Malayalam poet K Satchidanandan has also decided to quit all posts in the Akademi while another Malayalam short story writer P K Parakkadavu also said he will quit the Akademi membership.

Bhullar said the “serious challenge posed by regressive forces in the domains of literature and culture” have led him to raise his voice.

“Literature, culture, multi-faceted creative arts, history -all representing the excellent attainments of humanity-are being debunked, ridiculed and demeaned,” he said.

Devy says ‘moment of reckoning’ has come

G.N. Devy of the Bhasha Research and Publication Centre, Vadodara, Gujarat. Credit: Hadley Robinson

G.N. Devy of the Bhasha Research and Publication Centre, Vadodara, Gujarat. Credit: Hadley Robinson

In his letter to the Akademi, the writer GN Devy said:

It is with utmost regret that I convey to you that I wish to return the 1993 Sahitya Akademi  Award given in the category of books in English to my  work After Amnesia (1992). I do this as an expression of my solidarity with several eminent writers who have recently returned their awards to highlight their concern and anxiety over the shrinking space for free expression and growing intolerance towards difference of opinion.

These eminent writers have already stated their concerns in statements sent to you as well as through media interviews and discussions. I need not, therefore, state again what has already been conveyed to you. However, I would like to add that I visited Dharwad in the first week of August, just three weeks before the shocking attack on the late Dr. M. M. Kalburgi which resulted in his death. I was there to deliver the First V. K. Gokak Memorial Lecture. You may recall that the high office that you hold at present, on behalf of the literary community of our country, was at one time held, among many other mighty predecessors, by V.K. Gokak. He was the Principle of Willingdon College during the years of the Independence movement. On one occasion, when the police came to arrest students, he stood at the entrance of the college, blocked their entry and asked them to first arrest him before they touched the students. It was this kind of concern for freedom that he brought to the institutions he headed. I hope you do not think that he was not sufficiently pragmatic.

When I gave the Gokak lecture, Dr. Kalburgi was still alive. Alas, he had to fall to the forces of intolerance. A week after his killing, I participated in a Seminar organized by the Sahitya Akademi. This was in Nagpur. I was to preside over the Inaugural Session. I was quite dismayed to see that the seminar began without a word of reference to the recent attack on a scholar honoured by the Akademi. Therefore, when my turn to speak came at the end of the session, I asked the audience if they would object to my observing a two-minute silence to mourn the dastardly killing. Please note that all of them stood up in silence with me. If our writers and literary scholars had the courage to stand up in Nagpur, I fail to understand why there should be such a deafening silence at Ravindra Bhavan about what is happening to free expression in our country.

I have personally known both of you as my seniors, and have admired your writings and imaginative powers. May I make bold to say that your moment of reckoning has come? I hope you will give this country the assurance that it is the writers and thinkers who have come forward to rescue sense, good-will, values, tolerance and mutual respect in all past ages. Had this not been so, why would we be remembering the great saint poets who made our modern Indian languages what they are today?   The great idea of India is based on a profound tolerance for diversity and difference.  They far surpass everything else in importance. That we have come to a stage when the honourable Rastrapatiji had to remind the nation that these must be seen as non-negotiable foundations of India, should be enough of a reason for the Sahitya Akademi to act.

The journalist Aman Sethi, who received a youth award from the Akademi in 2012 for his book A Free Man,  also announced on Sunday that he was returning it.

With inputs from PTI

The story has been edited to add the information about Aman Sethi.