Returning awards symbolic; writers must take lead & gain mass support

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Returning awards symbolic; writers must take lead & gain mass support

Panini Anand @paninianand

The protest

  • Many noted writers and poets have returned their Sahitya Akademi awards
  • This comes in the wake of the killing of Kannada writer MM Kalburgi by right-wing goons

The reaction

  • Many right-wing leaders and writers have labelled the return of awards as politically-motivated
  • The Akademi has now urged the writers and poets to reconsider their decisions

More in the story

  • How the writers have shaken up the establishment
  • How they can turn this into a mass protest for freedom of expression

There's no doubt that the writers and poets of India have made history by returning their Sahitya Akademi awards and, in one instance, the Padma Shri.

It is significant because the people returning the awards do not belong to one school of thought or ideology, they don't write in one language or belong to a particular caste or religious identity. They're not all roti-eaters, or fans of sambhar, cow-belt dwellers or Dravidians.

They come from different backgrounds, sensibilities and economic brackets. Yet, what brings them together is the message they are trying to deliver - "Mr Modi, we disagree with you, and with the assault on the freedom of expression happening on your watch, being conducted by people of your ideology".

How the fire started

It all started after the killing of Kannada writer and rationalist MM Kalburgi.

A progressive poet and journalist, Abhishek Srivastava, was talking to noted Hindi writer Uday Prakash. Both were worried about the recent killings of Kalburgi, and before him, of Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare. They were contemplating a strong protest against these incidents of hatred and vandalism.

Prakash was deeply hurt that the Sahitya Akademi didn't utter a word of condolence; it didn't even organise a memorial meeting for Kalburgi. He said, "how can the Akademi totally dump someone whom it once awarded with its most prestigious award? This is very disappointing and painful."

He made up his mind to start the protest by returning the award, and announced it the next day. In his first interview after the announcement, Prakash told Catch about the reasons, and why others must follow in his footsteps.

Protest and counter-protest

Now, many more poets and writers have returned their awards. On 20 October, a meeting of writers and poets at the Press Club of India strongly condemned the attack on the freedom of expression.

On 23 October, a silent march led by many prominent writers, poets, artists, journalists and filmmakers went to the Sahitya Akademi and submitted a memorandum.

These protesters were welcomed by a few right-wing writers, publishers and ABVP activists, who were staging a counter-protest against "the returning of awards and disrespecting the Akademi by some writers with a political agenda".

Writers' message: "Mr Modi, we disagree with you, and with the assault on the freedom of expression"

At the time these two protests were happening inside the Sahitya Akademi campus, a top-level meeting of the Akademi was taking place to discuss the situation.

After the meeting, the Akademi took out a resolution, which stated: "We request the authors who returned awards or have dissociated themselves with the Akademi to reconsider their decisions."

Shaking up the establishment

In a country where regional language writers and poets can't even survive for a few days on the money they get from these awards, reactions like 'return the money with interest' are shameful.

In fact, the desperate comments by politicians and members of the RSS and its sister organisations have proven that the writers have been effective in their attempt to get the government to take notice.

And yes, Mr Arun Jaitley, you are wrong when you say that this is a manufactured revolt - it's actually the least the writers can do. The atmosphere in the country and the incidents surfacing every single day are reason enough to register a protest against the brutalities being committed under the patronage of the establishment.

What next?

For the writers and poets, the important question is - what next?

This is a fight between citizens of the country who believe in the idea of plurality, diversity and democracy with respect for all on the one hand, and the establishment, along with its fundamentalist goons on the other.

This protest has clearly shown that the writers' fraternity is not on the latter side. But it is more important for the writers to identify themselves with the public at large now. And that will not happen merely by returning the awards. That's akin to a 'Like' on Facebook; it doesn't achieve anything.

There has been no strong political movement in literature for the last few decades, except some random instances. Poets and writers have not taken to the streets and led the masses.

I can't remember the last time writers led protests against farmers' suicides, atrocities on Dalits, communal violence and attacks on democratic values and civil liberties. Indeed, they were part of many such protests, but never in a leadership role. There hasn't even been a great piece of literature in the last few years which has helped any cause.

Lead, don't follow

Just who is a writer? It's a person who identifies and portrays the best and worst of our society.

Who is a poet? One who gives voice to feelings, emotions and expressions that resonate with most human beings.

Writers, you are our voice, our pen, our paper, our expression. The time has come for you to take the lead.

You have to start going among the people and addressing them... in schools and universities, in public places, in markets and corner coffee shops, in political spaces, in different sections of society, in cultural spaces.

Akademi resolution: "We request the authors who returned awards to reconsider their decisions"

And, of course, to fronts where people are fighting for their rights - from the slums of Delhi to Kudankulam, Jaitapur and suburban areas where the looting of land is on.

In rural areas, where MNCs are looting resources; in state capitals, where corporates are manipulating the laws, policies and affecting the livelihoods of millions; in the North-East and Kashmir, where democracy is being held at gunpoint. People need you.

The weakest links

Just mentioning the struggles of these people in stories and poems is not going to help, neither will the returning of your awards restore their freedom of expression. If this is your demand, you have to do or die for it. You have to become the voice of the 'navjagaran' or new awakening.

This is also important because the government is now trying to target the weakest links in the chain. Munawwar Rana, an Urdu poet who dramatically returned his Sahitya Akademi award in a TV debate, says he's got a call from the PMO to meet Modi sometime in the next few days.

Rana is a popular poet, who has often reaped benefits of political opportunism. The government might try to use weak links like him to sabotage the writers' collective action.

The only way to not let this happen is to get the people's support. If writers and poets don't go back to the people, TV debates and weak faces will start dominating the agenda.

To gain public support and keep their heads high, to take the fight forward and make the returning of the awards meaningful, this is the time to act. It's now or never for you, writers and poets. The people are waiting for you; what are you waiting for?

Panini Anand

Panini Anand @paninianand