Return of Awards a “Spontaneous” Form of Protest, Says President

President Pranab Mukherjee during the inauguration of the first ever World Indology Conference at Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi on Saturday. Credit: PTI Photo by Shahbaz Khan

President Pranab Mukherjee during the inauguration of the first ever World Indology Conference at Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi on Saturday. Credit: PTI Photo by Shahbaz Khan

New Delhi: President Pranab Mukherjee believes the return of awards – or ‘award-vapasi’ – is a way of protest and that the decision by various artists and academicians in India to return their honours was evidently spontaneous.

His latest observation – made during an interaction on Wednesday with a delegation of writers, artists and academics who had gone to submit a resolution – puts into perspective his earlier statement on National Press Day, November 17, which was read by many as a criticism of those who were returning their awards.

If India has survived even though many other ancient civilisations have disappeared, this was due to its pluralism over millennia, President Mukherjee said, while interacting with the delegation.  He noted that the protests by members of various fraternities have made the issue of intolerance a matter of nation-wide debate.

Acknowledging that the ‘award vapasi’ has been “spontaneous” is also a gentle presidential put down of the claims senior ministers like Arun Jaitley have made that the writers and artists had acted as part of a “manufactured revolt.”

Earlier on November 17, Mukherjee had noted that prestigious awards were “a public recognition, of talent, merit and hard work, by peers and leaders in the profession” and thus “should be cherished and valued by those who receive them.” He was also quoted as saying: “Sensitive minds sometimes get disturbed by some incidents in society. But, expression of concern over such events should be balanced. Emotions should not overrun reason, and disagreement should be expressed through debate and discussion.”

His views were presented in the media as a slight rap on the knuckles for those returning their awards. But the president has through his latest statement sought to make it clear that he believes that those feeling wronged have as much right to return their awards as to resort to any other means of democratic expression.

The delegation which went to see him on Wednesday comprised poet Ashok Vajpeyi, painter Vivan Sundaram and journalist Om Thanvi.  They called upon Mukherjee to thank him for speaking repeatedly against growing intolerance and to request him as the head of state “to do all that is possible to advise and persuade governments, both of the states and the Centre, political parties and all others to act decisively so that the ethos of tolerance, mutual cooperation, respect for plurality and difference, scope for dissent and dialogue, freedom of expression are all ensured and given full and free expression both in deeds and words”.

They also submitted to him a statement that was openly and unanimously adapted at a convention held in Delhi on November 1, 2015 which called upon political parties, the Central and state governments to “desist from overly or covertly supporting or encouraging such trends of intolerance by deed or silence, institutions, groups, etc. which are in fact undermining the cardinal republican values and which are working to spread an atmosphere of hatred, revenge violence without fear of law in the utter disregard of constitutional spirit of India.”

The artists and academics also urged the parties and the governments to remember that they draw their legitimacy from the constitution and, therefore, it is incumbent upon them not to bypass or subvert the basic principles and vision of the constitution. “We wish to request our MPs that they should fully and responsibly use their right of free speech in parliament in the public interest,” the delegation said.

Ever since the September 28 killing of Mohammad Akhlaq in the Dadri area by a mob of Hindu fanatics triggered a debate over growing intolerance, President Pranab Mukherjee has been at the forefront of the raging controversy, repeatedly issuing statements on the need to protect secularism and pluralism.

Just a week after the killing, he issued his first statement while being presented a coffee table book – `The Nationalist President, Pranab Mukherjee’ – at Rashtrapati Bhawan. “We should not allow the core values of our civilisation to wither away. Over the years, our civilisation has celebrated diversity, plurality and promoted and advocated tolerance. These values have kept us together over the centuries,” he had said.

Then too Mukherjee had noted how “many ancient civilisations have collapsed but the Indian civilisation has survived because of its core civilisational values and adherence to them. If we keep them in mind, nothing can prevent our nation from forging ahead.”

About a fortnight later, he reiterated the importance of pluralism while attending a cultural event at Birbhum district in West Bengal around the Durga Puja celebrations. Here he spoke about how “humanism and pluralism should not be abandoned under any circumstance”. In a release issued by Rashtrapati Bhawan and titled “Is tolerance and acceptance of dissent on the wane, questions the President”, Mukherjee was also quoted as saying that: “Assimilation through receiving is a characteristic of Indian society. Our collective strength must to be harnessed to resist evil powers in society.”

He insisted that Indian civilisation had survived for over 5,000 years ony due to tolerance. “It has always accepted dissent and differences. A large number of languages, 1,600 dialects and 7 religions co-exist in India. We have a constitution that accommodates all these differences,” he reasoned.

Most recently, about a week ago, Mukherjee had while inaugurating the first International Conference of Indologists again expressed concern at India “today witnessing events without precedent; when the world is struggling to deal with the worst impulses of intolerance and hatred that mankind has ever witnessed”.

He therefore urged that “this is the time to reinforce the civilisational values that bind together the complex diversity of modern-day India and promote them among our people and the world”.