‘Should I Return My Sahitya Akademi Award?’

Jayant V. Narlikar. Source: IUCAA

Jayant V. Narlikar. Source: IUCAA

In a letter to President Pranab Mukherjee, noted astrophysicist Jayant Narlikar, founder and now emeritus professor at the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Pune, clarified why he wasn’t returning his Sahitya Akademi award even as he voiced concerns over the rising intolerance in the country. He received the award in 2014 for his Marathi autobiography Chaar Nagarantale Maze Vishwa. Narlikar’s contention is that the award carries a dignity that lies above the “fracas”. The full text is reproduced here.

A simple yes/no answer will not suffice: in an assembly of intellectuals, a reason for the answer will be expected. Here is the reasoning leading to my answer given at the end.

Sahitya Akademi, along with many other akademis was set up by the Government of India to encourage the nation’s development in various intellectual pursuits. Thus, I have been a Fellow of the Indian National Science Akademi for my work in science. Likewise the Sahitya Akademi looks after the literature emerging from contemporary India. Lalit Kala Akademi looks after the status of performing arts. And so on and so forth. These academies serve the role of patrons of their field through the organization of meetings and through special awards.

The awards given by the Sahitya Akademi have acquired a high status since they identify excellent literature in no less than twenty four languages. The selection process is transparent and has largely remained unscathed by criticism, nepotism or political interference. Indeed an award is considered a fitting recognition by the nation, of the creativity of the awardee. Like the Republic Day honours the Sahitya Akademi awards have a national importance. To me, getting the Sahitya Akademi award was a warm pat on the back as I feel is the case with many other awardees.

Against this background, the shocking killing of a distinguished Kannada litterateur has evoked strong reactions not only from the man in the street, but also from literary circles. The Sahitya Akademi reacted to the news rather late, by holding a condolence meeting in Bangalore on September 30. Nevertheless several literary leading lights have expressed anguish at what they consider inertia on the part of the Akademi. Indeed the reaction has reached such a level that many Akademi awardees have returned their awards as symbol of their anger at the Akademi’s lack of feeling.

However, my own reaction is different from the above. Certainly, the Sahitya Akademi should express in strong words its shock at the above event. Its Fellows and awardees should put pressure on the Akademi to come out with a strong condemnation of what is seen as suppression of free thinking. However, to sacrifice the Akademi awards in the above way does not seem to me to be appropriate. The awards carry a rare dignity reflecting their national character and so should remain above the fracas.

And, in the last analysis, incidents like this are indicative of a deterioration of the law and order situation for which the government (and not Sahitya Akademi) is ultimately responsible. So the main burden of the public wrath should be directed at those responsible for maintaining law and order and not at the Sahitya Akademi.

Jayant V. Narlikar