The singular, explosive, incalculable political power of living within the truth..”
VáclavHavel, ‘The Power of the Powerless’
A number of writers, poets and artists recently have resigned from their positions in the Sahitya Akademi, India’s ‘National’ Academy of Letters. Many have also returned the awards they received from this institution. This unprecedented event was triggered by a growing discomfort around the institution’s silence on the violent attacks taking place around the country against writers. The institution could not be persuaded to offer a public statement of condemnation for the murders and announce its solidarity towards writers and artists living under the shadow of violence and intimidation. It was deemed a moral and political failure on the part of the institution to not offer a word of protest against the perpetrators, thus refusing to uphold the values of its own raison d’être.
In his letter of resignation from the General Council and Executive Board, poet and critic K. Satchidanandan wrote to the Akademi’s current president V.P Tiwari, that annihilation of writers was beyond politics, a threat to thinking and writing itself, and the Akademi’s reluctance to even hold a condolence meeting was against the liberal and democratic principles of the institution’s origins and history.
Nayantara Sahgal returned her award, holding the institution guilty of not upholding the responsibility to safeguard people’s constitutional right to freedom of speech. Another eminent Hindi poet, Ashok Vajpeyi, spoke about “the right to dissent”, and said if the Akademi failed to protest, writers should protest instead. Both Sahgal and Vajpeyi targeted the Prime Minister for his silence against the crimes, what Sahgal called the “reign of terror.”
The noted Urdu novelist Rahman Abbas returned his award citing the “systematic” crushing of dissent and rational thinking. Another writer who sent back his award, GN Devy, gave details of his association with one of the slain writers, MM Kalburgi, and expressed shocked over the Akademi’s silence. Hindi writer Krishna Sobti and Malayalam novelist Sarah Joseph also returned their awards citing similar reasons, with Joseph also calling the present situation “terror-like”. Joseph also mentioned, like many others writers who returned their awards, the lynching of an ironsmith named Mohammad Akhlaq by his Hindu neighbours on the outskirts of Delhi following an orchestrated rumour of his having eaten beef. Writers and Muslims find themselves under threat from intolerant sections of the majority.
The Prime Minister took time to break his silence. During an election campaign in Bihar he simply said that Hindus and Muslims should fight poverty instead of each other. His culture minister questioned the political leanings of the protesting writers and said, “If writers are unable to write, let them first stop writing.” The finance minister responded harshly on Facebook, calling it a “paper rebellion” of writers he identified as “left or Nehruvian leaning”. He found their gesture “manufactured” and a case of “ideological intolerance”. He alleged these writers were recipients of a “past patronage” adhering to a politics that had lost relevance. The murder of Kalburgi and Akhlaq, the minister also pointed out, did not happen in BJP-ruled states, so the Central government couldn’t be held responsible.
Resisting a culture of fear
But the facts raise different questions. Kalburgi was threatened by Hindu right-wing groups in Karnataka for his ideas that supposedly hurt Hindu sentiments, and was shot after he gave up his security. It is upon the Centre’s directives that BJP-ruled states announced the beef ban. The manner in which the issue has been politically hyped led to vigilante, cow-protection groups like the one in Dadri that killed Akhlaq. Another writer, Govind Pansare, was killed in Mumbai for his book on Shivaji, where he demonstrated the great Maratha king, far from being a Muslim hater as propagated by Hindu nationalists, had Muslim generals. There has been no condemnation by the Central government, let alone any eagerness for enquiry, against those visibly involved in all three killings. To say Hindus and Muslims should not fight with each other is a tactical ploy to equalise a grossly unequal relationship of power. The poor aren’t poor because they fail to fight poverty but because it is thrust upon them by governmental policies. In India, there is currently an acute poverty of the mindset regarding religious and cultural matters, which also needs to be fought.
To trivialise the fact that writers are finding it difficult to write under an atmosphere of fear demonstrates the attitude the culture minister has for culture. It is shocking to even ask: What is more “intolerant” – killing people for their ideas and food habits or protesting against such killing? Will being “left or Nehruvian”, apart from meaning irrelevant, cause intimidation and violence? Is it being construed that writers of a particular ideological dispensation deserve fear and outrage under the new political regime? The question that however seeks an answer is: If left and Nehruvian politics have no relevance, why are writers who are accused of following a liberal-left perspective being targeted so viciously? Or is it precisely the secular and rationalist power of their ideology that is making their perpetrators uncomfortable? It is difficult to hold ideas to ransom by coercion. The dissenting pen is mightier than the sword. In politics, no one kills weak enemies.
The assumptions regarding “left and Nehruvian” intellectuals were best countered by what historian Romila Thapar said at a panel discussion, launching a new forum and website for cultural resistance. Talking about the prevailing cultural intolerance in today’s political atmosphere, she reminded the audience of Mao Tse-tung’s ‘Cultural Revolution’ in China where “every polluting idea” was banned in the mainland. Even Shakespeare was banned by the Communist government in 1966, and the ban lifted a decade later after Mao’s death. It was illuminating to realise that a left-wing regime can produce a similar dictatorship against ideas as a right-wing one, once both shared a closed idea of a national culture. What needs to worry us, Thapar warned, is not simply the censorship against books and ideas in China while Mao’s regime lasted, but the time it took for these books and ideas to return after the regime ended. Thus cultural resistance has to bear in mind the paranoia of authoritarianism across ideologies in history. The killing of Pansare and Kalburgi resonates against such a danger.
The spectre of dissent
It was in October 1978, ten years after Soviet tanks rolled into the city of Prague, as the erstwhile USSR invaded Czechoslovakia, that Václav Havel finished writing his famous essay, ‘The Power of the Powerless’, dedicated to the great Czech philosopher, Jan Patočka.
Havel began the essay proclaiming a spectre that was haunting Eastern Europe called “dissent”. Dissent simply meant for Havel, “living within the truth”, which by desire and logic is the opposite (and a refusal) of “living within the lie”. Making simple but pertinent distinctions, Havel accuses ideologies of creating a “bridge of excuses between the system and the individual”. He distinguishes between “the aims of the system” and “the aims of life”, alluding to the difference between “appearance” and “reality”. Further in the essay, Havel makes an interesting point about how the dissidents of the Soviet bloc informally stood by the “principle of legality” while defending those who were prosecuted for acting in the spirit of universal human rights. The important conceptual point elaborated by Havel in this essay can be drawn from the distinction he makes between “abstract political visions” and “concrete human beings.”
Do these ideas find a resonance in India’s current political atmosphere marked by a resurgent cultural fundamentalism? Writers and artists who resigned in protest and returned their awards, reaffirmed the idea of writing itself as an act of dissent, hence living within the truth. If the aim of the new political regime is to coerce and homogenise ideas, writers will challenge it with the contradictory impulses of life. If the cow is sacred for the majority community and beef banning becomes a cultural necessity, it will be asked if in a democracy others can be forced to follow the norms and sentiments of the majority. If saving the cow entails the murder of men, the moral and legal status of such an act has to be clarified. If the murder of writers is the best way to respond to their ideas, the political agenda behind such violence needs to be explained to the world. In the name of development and cleanliness, if Dalits and Muslims are lynched and artists attacked, the violent difference between ‘abstract visions’ and ‘concrete life’ becomes clear. To fight for the legal rights of writers and artists in this regard also becomes part of civil responsibility. Among the reasons theatre artist Maya Krishna Rao mentioned for her returning the Sangeet Natak Akademi award is the government’s failure to “speak up for the rights of the citizens.”
All of Havel’s ideas around the justification of dissent seem fitting in India’s present context. Modern regimes under various ideologies have thrown up instances of such dictatorial tactics to silence the critical space of ideas. We are further saddled by extreme intolerance regarding other people’s religious and cultural habits. There is an air of threat and violent intimidation. It appears to be bizarre and unnecessary. But power has never been known to act and think in the interests of those who are powerless. That is why Havel rightly called dissent the power of the powerless.
Manash Bhattacharjee is a poet, writer, translator and political science scholar from JNU. His first collection of poetry, Ghalib’s Tomb and Other Poems (2013), was published by The London Magazine. He is currently Adjunct Professor in the School of Culture and Creative Expressions at Ambedkar University, New Delhi