'Banning Cow Slaughter Has Become More Important Than Banning Man Slaughter'

In an exclusive interview to The Wire, author Nayantara Sahgal answers her critics about her decision to return the Sahitya Akademi award

There is an autumn chill in the air here in Dehradun but it is still too hot to sit out in the sun in the mornings. The Mussoorie hills, rising almost above her drawing room, are covered in haze and the beautiful pink camellia in Nayantara Sahgal’s garden is not yet in bloom. So we sit inside her gracious house, full of national history and personal memories, to discuss her recent decision, like other writers in India, to give up her Sahitya Akademi Award.

Since Sahgal, 88, returned the award she received in 1986 for her remarkably insightful novel Rich Like Us, she has been congratulated by many and slammed by others. For many, she is just the niece of India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, but she is also the daughter of Vijayalakshmi Pandit, an integral part of the freedom struggle and the Indian political scenario thereafter.

As Sahgal herself wrote about the Emergency for The New Republic in 1976, “Censorship has been the most highly effective instrument of India’s dictatorship, keeping people ignorant about an event in another town or even half a mile away in their own town. The enormity of censorship, as we now know, can never be understood by people in countries where information is freely available…”

In 2015, Sahgal felt compelled, to return an award she received as a writer, in protest against another form of censorship, more insidious and in some ways, more dangerous. Many more writers have now done the same. Here she answers questions about her decision to return her award and the criticism she has faced:

Since you returned your Sahitya Akademi Award four days ago, you have been congratulated but also quite viciously attacked and accused of hypocrisy and tokenism. Is it that some people have not understood your reasons?

Let me say that apart from the reasons I have mentioned in my open letter (The Unmaking of India, October 6, 2015), I am giving up my award because of my concern over the Sahitya Akademi’s silence over the recent attacks on writers.

In 1976 I was on the Sahitya Akademi’s advisory board for English. At that time I had requested the Akademi to condemn censorship. I wrote to the then secretary, that “It (the academy) seems willing to be a servile body, an obedient servant of dictatorship”. A literary academy, (set up by Jawaharlal Nehru as were all the cultural Akademis), is concerned with freedom of speech. Writers need space to write without censorship. The Sahitya Akademi did not raise its voice then. I requested them to. They refused, so I resigned.

I could not stomach a situation where an organisation like the Sahitya Akademi did not raise its voice against censorship which is the death of writing. The Sahitya Akademi did not raise its voice either when Perumal Murugan was persecuted. He has now given up writing and lives in fear for his life. The Akademi did not take a stand.

My giving up the award does not have to do with riots, whether the horrific events of 1984 or 1992-93 or 2002. I can and have spoken specifically on those. This is about writers and no one can speak for us when we are endangered. On television, Uday Prakash said he was thinking of leaving the country. That is the extent of despair which writers feel today, after the deaths of MM Kalburgi and the lack of action in the investigations into the deaths of Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare. Look at the way UR Ananthamurthy’s death was celebrated by the same organisations which threatened and killed Kalburgi, all because he objected to Narendra Modi.

We have to safeguard freedom of speech and freedom of thought. We have to safeguard the secular culture we gave ourselves. We elected not to be a Hindu Pakistan. We elected to be a secular state.

How is this BJP-led government different from the last NDA government under Atal Bihari Vajpayee?

As a democracy, we expect governments to change. It would be a very unusual situation if governments did not change! The BJP [or Janata] governments of the past, especially under Atal Bihari Vajpayee were quite different. Vajpayee was a civilised man with an open mind and very sensitive to the diversity of India. He reprimanded Modi on the way he handled the Gujarat riots. The BJP in the past observed the rules of governance whether in government or as the opposition.

In 1978, Vajpayee had sent me as part of a delegation to the United Nations. He was a friend of mine and also became a good friend of my mother, Vijayalakshmi Pandit. And it was he who appointed me as ambassador to Italy though it did not materialise.

Vajpayee once told me that throughout his parliamentary career he had argued with Nehru, opposed him and his ideals. It was only when he sat in Nehru’s chair, he said, that he understood why Nehru did what he did. Nehru, for instance, welcomed opposition, he nurtured it in Parliament. He listened very carefully to what the opposition said about him. Things have changed. The BJP may have Hindutva in its beginnings but I do not think the Jan Sangh was militant in its Hindutva origins. Shyama Prasad Mookerjee was entitled to leave Nehru’s Cabinet when he did, over the issue of refugees. Hindutva was responsible for the murder of Mahatma Gandhi but it had to lie low. Today’s situation is very different.

Have you been following reactions to your stand on social media?

I am not very familiar with technology but I have been hearing about some of the abuse and some of my friends have refuted some very crude charges. However, while people can go on an attacking spree on social media that does not mean it reflects the prevailing view.

In fact I have to say that I am overwhelmed by the support I have received not just from friends, but also from strangers. The support is not just for me but also for what I’m standing for, where all Indians have the right to choose their own ideology, religion and so on.

Most Hindus, in fact, reject Hindutva. I am a Hindu. I’m a believer. I’m not an atheist. I know there are millions who think like me. But I fear that for many of today’s young people, their education has been neglected in the fields of humanities and literature. They are not perhaps familiar with our modern history or recent literature.

Did you read journalist Rajdeep Sardesai’s column accusing you of hypocrisy and tokenism?

I am disappointed that a man like Rajdeep said what he did. He could have checked the facts with me on my stand on the Emergency and riots. Too many people in the media are not willing to speak out in the current climate.

I have been very open in my opinion with everything horrible that has happened. I have never been silent. My upbringing has taught me to speak up. Was it not John Donne who said, ask not for whom the bell tolls?

Let me remind Rajdeep and others of that.

Where are we going now as a society, as a nation?

It is a moment of transition. We can choose to strengthen our institutions of democracy and culture or we can move towards a Hindu nation. It’s a choice that India has to make, because of the alarming decisions and policies and statements of this current government. That is why so many of us have given up our awards. It is not a token gesture.

As for Narendra Modi, I would have been overjoyed if a humble chaiwallah had indeed risen to become Prime Minister. But it was the powerful chief minister of Gujarat who presided over a massacre who became Prime Minister.

We are also seeing now a systematic destruction of Nehru’s heritage.

I have said before that this government has a psychopathic fear of Nehru. But this term “Nehruvian” is a misnomer. The ideas began under Mahatma Gandhi and the freedom movement. Of secularism, of inclusion, of democracy, of bringing India together cutting across caste, class, religion and gender.

We rejected the idea of a religious republic, in spite of being a Hindu country, a religious country and agreed to an atheist prime minister. It’s remarkable. The current government’s mantra of development began with Nehru. Now we live in times when fantasy and myth are replacing history and science. We are living in a fantasy where banning cow slaughter is more important than banning man slaughter.