Was M. M. Kalburgi the first rationalist in India to be killed? The Kannada scholar was a wellknown fighter against superstitions, prevailing mostly in Hinduism. He was an opponent of the idol-worships, something that made him enemy of many Hindu extremists. He was unfortunately gunned down this August. But then he was not the first such rationalist to die in India. Two years ago , in 2013, a Maratha rationalist , Narendra Dabholkar, the founder-president of Maharashtra-based Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti—an organisation set up to eradicate superstition, was also killed, but his killers remain at large.
The notable aspect in these two condemnable murders is that they took place in two states under the rule of the Congress party. The Congress is in power in Karnataka and the Congress was in power in Maharashtra in 2013. The only difference now is that while the Congress ruled the central government in 2013, now it is under the so-called rightist (which is actually not the case as the Bharatiya Janata Party too swears by one variety of socialism) BJP and led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But then the fact that is to be remembered is that under India’s federal distribution of power, law and order, that is, Police, are under the control of the state government, not the central government.
These basic facts are important to understand the sheer hypocrisy, dishonesty and double standards involved in the massive hue and cry among a section of India’s literary personalities and performing artists in the wake of the tragic killing of Kalburgi. At the time of writing this, 23 Indian writers who had received awards at various points of time from the Sahitya Akademi, India’s highest literary body, which is supposed to be autonomous but funded by the Ministry of Culture, Government of India. Their ostensible reason is that the Akademi remained silent on the killing of Kalburgi at a time when there is a growing “atmosphere of intolerance” of independent views in India under Modi.
What I am going to do is to tell you about these ladies and gentlemen and their ideologies. But before that, let me point out how selective they have been in their protests. None of them returned their awards when Dabholkar was killed. None of them uttered a word of condemnation when noted Islamic scholar Maulana Masoodi (a great proponent of liberal Islam) and Sarvananand Kaul Premi were brutally gunned down by the fundamentalists in Kashmir. None of them ever dared to protest against the then Congress government in Delhi and the Communist government in West Bengal for hounding the asylum-seeker Bangladeshi novelist Taslima Nasreen. None of them shed tears over the ethnic cleansing of the Hindus in Kashmir. And none of them hesitated to accept the government-honours under the Congress regimes, even though the Congress government witnessed arguably the most horrendous communal riots in the form of anti-Sikh pogrom all over the country in 1984.
Now let us begin with Hindi writer Uday Prakash, who was the first to return the award last month over the “silence” of the Akademi. Uday Prakash claims to be a “secular, liberal and pro Dalit and minorities” in his outlook. He studied at and taught for some time in India’s Left-dominated Jawaharlal Nehru University. When the Congress ran the central government in 1990s, the Ministry of Agriculture had commissioned him to research, write, and direct the 15-episode television documentary Krishi Katha on Indian agricultural history, broadcast in 1997. Prakash won the 2010(India was under the Congress rule) Sahitya Akademi Award in Hindi for his collection of short stories,Mohan Das.
We have K. Sachidanandan, a poet and critic writing in Malayalam and English. He is a former Secretary of Sahitya Akademi and was serving in the General Council, Executive Board and Financial Committee of the Akademi before he left these posts in the ongoing series of protests over silence. He also claims to be a public intellectual “upholding secular anti-caste views, supporting causes like environment, human rights and free software”.
Then there is Ashok Vajpeyi, a former civil servant, known not for his eminence in the bureaucracy but for being a crawling courtier along with his works in literature to late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Congress strongman Arjun Singh. In fact, under the Congress governments, he became a Vice-Chancellor; Chairman of Bharat Bhavan Trust in Madhya Pradesh; trustee, Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA); member, Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR); executive board member of the Sangeet Natak Akademi; and chairman of Lalit Kala Akademi, India’s National Academy of Arts.
We have also the likes of high profile Nayantara Sahgal, a niece of independent India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who has returned the Sahitya Akademi award she had won in 1986 for her political novel Rich Like Us. Her conscience did not prevent her from receiving the award soon after, what I said, the anti-Sikh pogrom in 1984, and that too when the country was run by the same Congress party. In an interview to a newspaper, and I am going to reproduce a major portion of that, Sahgal explained why she returned her award. She said, “We need to save the idea of India. India needs that atmosphere of trust and appreciation again. Unfortunately, today, we are ruled by people whose mindsets belong to the Dark Ages. We are being governed by people who are fascists by mind and ideology. The country is going through dangerous times…. A few months of Modi’s rule, and people who voted in the name of development have realised their mistake. The Modi model of development is a farce”. And then she goes on to say how the Congress party can revive its lost glory and expresses her happiness by adding, “I believe Janata Parivar is doing a good job of raising their voice both inside and outside the Parliament. The need of the hour is for the Opposition parties to get together and present a united front.”
As can be seen from above examples—they are illustrative, not exhaustive—almost everybody who has returned his or her award and resigned from some posts holds strong political views (so-called liberal and left) that are not in tune with the views of the present Modi government. Almost all of them got awards and owed their positions because of their proximity and familiarity with the previous central governments. Viewed thus, their resignations are sheer political acts; they have nothing to do with literary freedom. It may be noted that the Congress, in its long decades of power, had cultivated a particular breed of ‘intellectual’ of the leftist, liberal and secular category assiduously. It had given them Rajya Sabha tickets, Padma awards and other such prizes, including jobs in government and myriad cultural and social organisations that come with low salaries but high perks like houses in Delhi. Obviously these “sarkari intellectuals” are uncomfortable and worried that Narendra Modi cannot be seduced by them as was the case before. Their agony is that they will no longer get the political patronage. So it is better that “we quit to get the martyr status and retain some public sympathy”. And this is what they have exactly done, and in the process demonised Modi.
In this context, I will like to point out the absurdity on the part of the 90- year old author Krishna Sobti, who has severed her ties with Akademi by returning her Fellowship and award. To her eternal credit, she had declined the Padma Bhushan award by the then Congress government in 2010 by stating that, “As a writer, I have to keep a distance from the establishment. I think I did the right thing.” If that was her view then, then why is it that she has crossed that distance to join issue with a government which is not even accountable for the killing of an intellectual in a state ruled by the Congress party? Secondly, if you want really intellectual freedom then why do you want the Akademi to be a part and parcel of the government? Because, one can always protest legitimately in a democratic country against the government of the day and there is no need to equate the government with an autonomous organisation.
My last point is that though these ladies and gentlemen have cried over the absence of tolerance of views in a democratic and pluralistic India; their own record in this regard is abysmal. In the process of opposing the Modi regime, they have exposed their own intolerance of alternative views or ideas of a different government that they have not been used to. Their cries of “saffronisation” are sheer bunkum. Given an opportunity, they will muzzle every voice that is against their philosophy. And this is what they did when in power. As my friend Sushant Sareen has written in his Facebook post, “If Hitler and Mussolini imposed war, butchered millions of Jews, put a muzzle on dissent and speech, Stalin and Mao did even worse. And yet the commies present themselves as poster boys of liberalism. What a travesty!”
By Prakash Nanda