The Dissent of Writers Tells Us the Truth of Today's India

It is dismaying to see that the brave reaction to the action of the writers in returning their awards has been either petty or trivialising

A postmortem report was posted on Twitter the other day. It said that a man named Mohammed Yakub Shaikh had died an unnatural death. This was at a Toyota Service Centre in Mumbai on September 29. The report described the cause of this unnatural death in the following terms: “Respiratory failure due to pulmonary air embolism with pressured air in large and small intestine, thoracic and abdominal cavities and scrotal sac.”

The medical language is clear but doesn’t conjure the brutality of this obscure death: Yakub Shaikh died because pressurized air was inserted into his body through his anus. His body filled-up like a balloon and his eyes appeared to pop. He was dead within seconds.

Shaikh was murdered only a day after the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq Saifi. Shaikh’s family suspects bigotry played a role in this killing too. Only a thorough investigation into the particulars of the case can reveal what really happened.

I am writing about this murder because I remember the moment I first read about it. It filled me with a deep sadness. I thought once again of the lynching in Dadri. The thought that took root in my heart, as it has so often in the past few days, is that these killings have become common in India. In saying this, I’m being guided by context, the atmosphere of things, the historical frame.

Let me go further now and say something about the admirable action of the writers who have returned their Sahitya Akademi awards. These writers are responding to this sense of despondency that I had described above. Majoritarianism is ruthlessly silencing dissent and is brazen in its oppression of minorities. And these writers who have protested are rightly expressing their anger at the ways in which political leaders have either been silent or offered rationalizations that seek to absolve the killers.

It has been dismaying to me that the response to this protest has been either petty or trivializing. The Akademi President, Vishwanath Prasad Tiwari, commented that Nayantara Sahgal had benefitted from her award, her work had been translated into other languages, her credibility had been enhanced. Was she going return all of that? Sahgal responded with greater graciousness than I would have managed, sending the Akademi an amount that was four times what she had received as her award. While this was a fine riposte, one had to shake one’s head at the poverty of Tiwari’s imagination.

As the Akademi President, Vishwanath Prasad Tiwari, ought to at least have addressed the anguish, if not also the courage, of the writers who were surrendering the honor that they had once no doubt cherished. Lacking insight as well as gravitas, Tiwari’s remarks remained indistinguishable from the extreme silliness of the likes of Chetan Bhagat who asked on Twitter whether the protesting writers were also going to return their passports. I’m glad Bhagat wasn’t around when Tagore renounced his knighthood to protest the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. What smug note would he have sent Tagore?

A few years ago I interviewed a poet in Gujarat, Akeel Shatir, who had been asked to return the sum of ten thousand rupees given to him by the Gujarat Urdu Sahitya Akademi because his book contained an anti-Narendra Modi remark. Shatir is a poor man. When I spoke to him on the phone, he was sitting in the phone booth that he owns. The award money, even at ten thousand rupees, wasn’t an inconsequential amount for him. He wasn’t so much worried about the money. He wanted to recite in his poetry the truth of Gujarat after the riots. I want to quote here a few lines of his poetry that he read out on the phone for me—I recall them now because I want to say that the writers who have protested the Sahitya Akademi’s silence are also telling us the truth about what is going on in India at the moment:

Abhi zindaa hoon main, dekho meri pehchaan baaki hai /
Badan zakhmi hai lekin abhi mujhmein jaan baaki hai /
Tum apni hasraton ko zaalimon marne nahin dena /
Shahadat ka mere dil mein abhi armaan baaki hai

I am still alive, the person I was is left in me /
This body is wounded but there is still life left in me /
You, my killers, don’t let your ambitions die /
The desire for martyrdom is still left in me.

Amitava Kumar is the author of several books. His latest work is a collection of essays entitled Lunch with a Bigot: The Writer in the World. He can be followed on Twitter @amitavakumar.