From the Grave of Tamil Poet Inquilab, a Final Act of Defiance as Family Rejects Award

"Those who criticise and question power are being brutally silenced today. To accept an award from this government will be a betrayal of his writings and the kind of life he led".

Chennai: The family of the late poet and writer Inquilab, born Shahul Hameed, has decided to decline the Sahitya Akademi award because of his lifelong opposition to the government.

Inquilab was selected posthumously for the award on December 21 for his collection of poems, Kaandhal Naatkal (‘The Days of the Flame Lily’). “It is in keeping with his aspirations,” his daughter Amina Bharvin said. “He has always remained a voice for the oppressed, the underprivileged and backward. That is how he would like to remain in public memory. He had written that he never expected awards for his works, and that the governments only gifted him with interrogations and arrests.”

“Those who criticise and question power are being brutally silenced today. To accept an award from this government will be a betrayal of his writings and the kind of life he led,” she added.

Throughout his life, Inquilab faced persecution from the bureaucracy for his political positions on various issues.

In 1980, four Dalit children from Kolappadi, a village in Perambalur district of Tamil Nadu, were murdered for drinking water from a common well. Their death failed to shock a rigidly casteist society. The police released the accused but arrested the families of the deceased for performing the funeral. In a powerful, searing response to the Kolappadi incident, Inquilab wrote ‘Manusanga da‘ (We too are human beings) – a song that soon became an anthem of the Dalit uprising in Tamil Nadu.

Tamil poet Inquilab.

“The Kolappadi well water burnt our kids, the water burnt our kids, yet which landlord was touched by this law for the caste Hindus?,” he wrote. The song was not just an expression of his pent-up anger over one incident. When he wrote that the Dalits’ bones and flesh were burnt in fire lit by caste Hindus and that the government and the courts were adding fuel to it, Inquilab was also venting his anger over the Kizhavenmani incident where 44 Dalits were killed by their landlords in 1968.

The song was performed everywhere in the 1980s. “The song featured in the international documentary Faces of Change that told the story of five people fighting discrimination,” said A. Kathir, executive director of Evidence, an organisation that works on Dalit rights. “Imagine, there was this one song that took on the government, politics and the caste system when the mainstream media had failed the Dalits,” he added.

‘Manusanga da’ was no one day wonder. Inquilab believed in speaking truth to power – a quality that rightfully earned him the moniker ‘people’s poet’. Inquilab once wrote: “All I have written are translations. The light I see in the eyes of the youth, the wrinkled brows of those who struggle – I have translated them as poems.”

Inquilab was not just a poet; he also wrote short stories and plays besides being a political commentator. In his plays Avvai and Manimegalai (eventually staged by veteran theatre artist A. Mangai), Inquilab sought to re-examine and challenge the patriarchal notions of mythological women.

The well in Kolappadi where four children were murdered for drinking water in 1980 is not in use now. Credit: Evidence Madurai

After his death on December 2, 2016, Inquilab left a legacy that his family now hopes to live up to.

Inquilab once wrote that awards were only meant to honour people like him “if he chose to live like the dead”.

“Inquilab always wrote in detail on why he was either accepting or rejecting an award conferred to him. I think it is unfair that the Sahitya Akademi is being conferred on him now. He could have taken the decision if it was announced when Inquilab was alive,” Mangai said.

Mangai added that Inquilab would have most certainly declined the award. “Killing free voices like those of Gauri Lankesh and Narendra Dabholkar on one hand and giving awards to someone like Inquilab who has always espoused the cause of free voice on the other is devastatingly ironical,” she said.

If alive, Inquilab would have probably been the first – and only – Tamil writer to return an award even before it was officially conferred on him, joining the long list of writers who have returned their awards in the last three years. In his death, he continues to remain uncompromisingly so.

Kavitha Muralidharan is an independent journalist.

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