Every freedom is under every kind of attack today – the right to life, to speech, to express, to choose which god to pray to, what food to eat and clothes to wear, what partner to choose…the list goes on. The attacks can be verbal, physical, rape and murder. The brutal killings of Dhabolkar, Pansare, the later lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri, followed by the motivated indifference of both the cultural bodies and the government was when it became difficult to stay silent anymore.
As I see it, some fundamental issues to do with freedom are on the front burner today, and they are all connected – will someone tell me what I should speak, who my friends should be, what theme I choose to work with and the perspective from which I interpret it? And if I don’t comply, must I fear for my safety? Life and cultural expression are not separate, they lie on a continuum when tolerance is under attack. Returning an award is an expression of that, fundamentally. It’s not about polarising, it’s about gathering around and fighting for a single theme – tolerance.
Conversation has changed
It is not just writers and the creative community who sense that the key of conversations in the country has changed in the last year or so. It is not even about individual crimes like rape and murder, which do happen everywhere in the world. The point is the general environment – it is about a whole atmosphere that seems to be manipulated by some machinery. Terrible statements and vicious attacks, typically aimed at inflaming passions between Hindus on the one side and Muslim and Christians on the other, are everyday occurrences. Dalits, adivasis and women are often particularly singled out. Those involved are from the broad Hindutva stream. Anyone can make that out. But more worryingly, there are ruling party MPs, and ministers.
Both from goon squads – who enjoy protection from the government – and from within the government of today, there has been a steady, continuous, threatening move to redefine who makes a ‘good Indian’. It’s not enough to be simply Indian anymore. On the one hand, women are reminded that they are not ‘Indian’ enough unless they follow a dress and behaviour code, Hindu women are extolled to produce 4 -10 children to solve the ‘menace’ of rising numbers in the minority communities and, on the other hand, the Culture Minister, Mahesh Sharma promises to “cleanse every area of public discourse that has been Westernised and where Indian culture and civilisation need to be restored — be it the history we read, our cultural heritage or our institutes that have been polluted over years.”
So much so that even the first citizen like the late President of India, APJ Abdul Kalam needed a good chit from Sharma. Referring to the late President he described him as someone who was a humanitarian and a nationalist, “despite being a Muslim.” It was a BJP minister who appealed to Parliament to throw out the word ‘secular’ from the preamble of the Indian Constitution. These are only some examples from the last few months.
A blind eye
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s response has usually been to turn a blind eye, to remain silent for long periods or to choose to attack ‘pseudo-secularists’ for ‘polarising politics’ when he should actively reining in, with a firm hand, all those within and without the government who whip up an ethos of intolerance, who humiliate, rape and kill in the name of Hindutva. A government with 282 seats in Parliament carries weight, carries an even bigger responsibility, carries the power to ensure an environment of tolerance and a sense of security for every Indian. It was he who needed to take the lead.
How can one not be outraged? How can one not express outrage? How can one not choose to do it through an action that will get the government to sit up and take note?
What is truly amazing is the ‘award returnees’ did not sit together to decide on this course of action. It’s more like an electric current that’s zigzagging its way, even as this is being written, and ‘charging up’, as it travels through the length and breadth of India, our India.
In both pre- and post-independent India, artists and writers have expressed their thoughts, have protested whenever there has been a threat to what constitutes humanity and humaneness. Many among the writers who have stood up to be counted today have done so in the past too. I have personally made dance, theatre, comedy shows taking up a range of issues from AFSPA to the Babri Masjid to the 2002 pogrom in Gujarat, the policies of the Congress government, its complete inertia in answering questions posed by youth who walked daily in the wake of the horrific gang rape of December 2012.
Yes, we have voiced outrage when the previous government did not ensure protection to M.F. Husain in his own country but, equally, we expressed outrage at the circumstances that led to his self-imposed exile, that is when the same right wing goons destroyed his works of art and attacked him. All this, after the 90 odd years that he lived, practiced and rose to the top as an artist in this same India.
Yes, many of these writers have expressed outrage at communal riots that took place during the regime of previous governments; yes, they have spoken up, whether through creative writing, statements or marching on the street. Many of us will continue to do in so many different ways. And no one can dictate what the issue may be or the form it will take. But, yes, it will always be around restoring humaneness, around the politics of humanity.
Overwhelming public response
The award is one instrument I had and I hope that by giving it up, along with many of my colleagues, it will help to jolt the government on the one hand, and on the other, reassure all those who believe that intolerance should not be tolerated, that it affects every one of us. I hope many in the juries who chose us support us today for that reason. From the overflowing public responses, particularly through social network sites, it is clear that in returning the award we have only lived up to the expectations of our readers and audiences.
The question is, why, on all those occasions, was there no excitement of the magnitude we see these days – from ministers, the press, saffron-robed ‘cultural leaders’ and an anti-liberal section of the population? Why so much agitation now – just because every day more and more writers and artists are doing the simple act of returning their awards or resigning from state-supported cultural bodies?
The answer, so plain to see, is because they are nervous. Writers of the highest calibre, with a large public following, from a wide range of languages, from different corners of this country, who were chosen to be recognised with top honours by the top cultural bodies of India, are speaking out in one voice. In a way that is unprecedented in this country – by returning their awards. Everyday, their numbers grow, even as this is being written. Their readers and admirers cheer them for their bold step. They take up front page news, everyday. Unprecedented. Enough to get news channels to invite them on a daily basis on prime time. Enough to get the government nervous. Enough to give an alternative, humane voice and politics, a shot in the arm.
Maya Krishna Rao is a playwright and theatre actress. She has returned her Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in protest.