Come September, and the annual ritual of observing ‘Hindi fortnight’ starts, culminating in the celebration of Hindi Diwas (Hindi Day) on September 14 – when meetings are held to discuss how to promote Hindi in official work, and awards are given to those who have contributed to popularising the language in various ways.
However, this year’s Hindi Diwas has been mired in controversies involving the Sahitya Akademi (National Academy of Letters) and Delhi Hindi Academy. While the Sahitya Akademi is an autonomous institution set up by the central government, the Delhi Hindi Academy is an autonomous institution of the Delhi government with the chief minister as its ex officio president. In 2015, the Sahitya Akademi was in the news when a number of writers returned awards and other honours they had received over the years to protest what they saw as a growing culture of intolerance towards cultural and literary freedom in the country and the Akademi’s shocking silence over the murder of writers, including the Kannada litterateur, M.M. Kalburgi. This ‘award vapsi’ was criticised by ministers in the Modi government and by Akademi supporters like Hindi critic Namwar Singh, who had emphasised the fact that the institution was autonomous and was run entirely by writers who had been elected by an electoral college comprising of writers.
It has been common knowledge for a long time that the three central akademis – Sahitya, Lalit Kala and Sangeet Natak – are as, if not less, ‘autonomous’ as the public broadcaster Prasar Bharati and their strings are really held by the puppeteers occupying the union culture ministry. Yet, since they are the national academies, they are expected to maintain their own dignity, as well as that of writers and artistes.
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However, ever since Prime Minister Narendra Modi has come to power, a systematic and multi-pronged campaign has been launched to remould various cultural and academic institutions and change their character in accordance with the government’s pro-Hindutva and pro-market inclinations. During the past week, the reality of the Sahitya Akademi’s autonomy was thoroughly exposed when it issued an invitation card that carried, perhaps for the first time in the history of the institution, the logo of a private company, Zee, along with the Akademi’s logo. Writers were shocked to see that the Akademi had, in collaboration with Zee Entertainment Enterprises Limited, invited them to attend a function to observe Hindi Diwas where “widely discussed scholar and honourable member of parliament Subhash Chandra” would discuss the challenges facing Hindi and their solutions along with reputed Hindi poet and scholar Ashok Chakradhar.
How and when Zee News owner Subhash Chandra became a “widely discussed scholar” is anybody’s guess. When asked, Akademi president Vishwanath Tiwari expressed ignorance and when pressed, said that the Zee must have paid some money to organise the function. It was apparent that he had no clue about the function and the decision was taken elsewhere. He was not even aware if such collaboration was permissible under the institution’s charter or not.
Last year, when writers were returning their awards in protest against repeated attacks on rationalists, Tiwari had ridiculed them while raising the banner of the Akademi’s autonomy and independence from the government of the day. It may be recalled that from February onwards, Zee News played a prominent role in creating a ferocious nationalist frenzy against Jawaharlal Nehru University and its students, labelling the institution a hotbed of anti-national elements. On other issues too, it functions more as the mouthpiece of the Modi government rather than an independent, professionally-run news channel.
It may be recalled that even under the Manmohan Singh regime, efforts were made to forge links between the Sahitya Akademi and the corporate world, with a Samsung- Sahitya Akademi Tagore Literature Award instituted, leading to widespread protest demonstrations and sit-ins in which well-known writers and intellectuals took part. The collaboration lasted three years and, in view of opposition from writers, was never repeated. However, it now seems the Akademi is again in a mood to embrace the corporate world and is even prepared to go to the extent of inviting corporate leaders to address literary functions.
Simultaneously, an unseemly controversy has erupted over the way the Delhi Hindi Academy has insulted writers by first offering them awards for propagating Hindi digitally and then withdrawing the offer within two days, ascribing the faux pas to a “clerical mistake”.
A different kind of award vapsi
According to Ashok Kumar Pandeya, he received a phone call from the Academy informing him about the award and asking him for his consent. This was followed by a letter that formally offered the Bhashadoot award to him and requested him to attend the function on the evening of September 14. However, on September 12, he was shocked to receive another letter that withdrew the award, saying it had been offered to him by mistake. Before the official phone call from the Academy, he also had a telephonic conversation with the institution’s vice president, Maitreyi Pushpa, a highly regarded Hindi fiction writer. However, now Pushpa is expressing helplessness in this regard. Two other writers – Arun Dev and Santosh Chaturvedi – have been similarly treated by the Academy. To add salt to their injuries, while the letter announcing awards to them was signed by the Academy’s secretary, the one that cancelled the announcement was signed by a mere ‘office in-charge’. Incidentally, Ashok Chakradhar, former vice-president of the Academy, happens to be one of the recipients of the award.
Writers are up in arms against the palpably insulting behaviour of the Hindi Academy. Two of the awardees – Lalit Kumar and Rahul Dev – have announced that they would not accept their awards. Two members of the governing council, Prof. Harish Naval and former Jansatta executive editor Om Thanvi, have said that they would be dissociating themselves from the Academy and resigning from it. All of them are very much concerned with the violation of the Academy’s autonomy and the insults heaped upon unsuspecting writers.
Thanvi, in his resignation letter dated September 14, made it clear that he was not even aware of the existence of these awards, or when the decision to institute them was taken and by whom. Moreover, no discussion took place in the governing council as to who would be selected for these awards. In Thanvi’s view, the Academy’s autonomy has been thoroughly compromised and it did not make sense to continue his association with it.
The Delhi Hindi Academy’s website informs us that it is an autonomous institution that the Delhi administration set up in 1981. However, it is an open secret that just like the Sahitya Akademi, its autonomy too exists only in name. That’s why the present episode brings back memories of 2010 when top ranking Hindi fiction writer Krishna Baldev Vaid was similarly treated. While the jury was still in session to decide the Shalaka Samman – the Hindi Academy’s highest award – for the year 2008, the secretary rang up Vaid and gave him the good news that his name had been finalised for the award. However, senior Congress leader Purushottam Goel got wind of it and wrote a letter to the then chief minister Sheila Dikshit, saying that Vaid was undeserving of the award as his writings contained obscene passages. Dikshit intervened and the official announcement was not made. It gave rise to a peculiar situation when the next year’s award was announced for poet Kedarnath Singh while the 2008 award remained unannounced. A large number of well-known writers including Krishna Sobti protested against the complete surrender of its autonomy by the Academy.
Whatever the official state of the language, Hindi writers are exercised today over two issues: the autonomy of literary institutions, and the dignity and self-respect of writers. On both counts, recent events do not augur well for the future.
Kuldeep Kumar is a senior journalist who writes on politics and culture.