India’s top literary body, the Sahitya Akademi, condemned on Friday the killing of rationalist thinker MM Kalburgi, as it urged writers to take back awards they recently relinquished to protest rising intolerance in the country while coming out in support of their demands.
The academy passed a resolution during an emergency meeting to denounce the Kannada author’s murder and asked the Centre and states to thwart such attacks amid a spiralling campaign by writers against a climate of hostility and bigotry that they say has been growing under the Narendra Modi government.
The move came hours after a silent protest in the Capital by about 100 prominent writers with black gags and armbands who demanded the institute pledge to take stern steps to safeguard free speech and the right to dissent.
“The Akademi condemns the killing of writers and we appeal to the writers to take their awards back,” said Krishnaswamy Nachimuthu, an Akademi council member and Tamil scholar. “We appeal to the state and central governments to take steps to prevent such incidents in the future.”
At least 35 writers from across India have given up their awards since the brutal killing of a Muslim blacksmith in an Uttar Pradesh village over rumours of consuming beef to mark their anger over growing violence against minorities and the killing of rationalist thinkers such as Kalburgi.
Noted author Nayantara Sahgal was among the first to return her award on concerns over a “dangerous distortion of Hinduism”. After her, a string of writers including Ashok Vajpeyi turned in their honours to express their anger over the Akademi’s silence on rising attacks on free speech in the country.
The academy has been awarding works of literary merit in Indian languages and English since 1954.
Though the literary body finally broke its widely-criticised silence on the issue, some authors were not prepared to reclaim their awards, saying larger issues remained unaddressed and the protests would continue.
“I will not take back the award I have returned,” said poet Manglesh Dabral, who was awarded by the Akademi in 2000. “The issue was not just of Kalburgi murder. The country is in a situation of undeclared emergency. Under the present government there are powers, which are killing minorities, Dalits, and there is no freedom of expression.”
Noted poet Keki N Daruwalla told HT the Akademi’s resolution was in accordance with the demands of the protesting writers, but the condemnation had come a little too late.
“Why did the Akademi wait for 50 days?” he asked. “The president and the vice-president should have made a statement much earlier. As far as taking back my award is concerned, I have not given it a thought.”
Sahgal said she would speak to fellow writers and issue a statement on Saturday
The writers’ revolt kicked off in September after 76-year-old Kalburgi, a known critic of Hindu idolatry, was gunned down in his home by two unidentified men. It reached a crescendo in recent weeks following the UP lynching and violence over beef in parts of the country as well as ink and paint attacks on columnist Sudheendra Kulkarni and a Jammu and Kashmir legislator.
As eminent authors including Daruwalla, Geeta Hariharan, Anuradha Kapoor and Shekhar Joshi marched in protest on Friday, another group of people staged a counter-protest, alleging that the move by the writers to return their awards was motivated by “vested interests” and the literary body should not buckle under “pressure”.
Activists of the BJP’s student wing, the ABVP, also took part in the protest led by the Joint Action group of Nationalist Minded Artists and Thinkers, JANMAT, which too submitted a memorandum to the Akademi, questioning the motive of the writers.
“We want to appeal to the Sahitya Akademi to maintain its autonomous nature and not come under pressure from the very same writers who had earlier appealed to the people of the country to not give their mandate to Prime Minister Narendra Modi,” JANMAT said. “These writers are engaged in undemocratic actions.”
The Akademi’s meeting was attended by 20 of its 24 executive council members. Author K Satchidanandan, who resigned from all positions in the literary body, saying it “failed in its duty to stand with the writers and to uphold freedom of expression guaranteed by the Constitution”, did not participate.
“We have asked him to reconsider his decision and have not accepted his resignation,” said Sahitya Akademi president Vishwanath Prasad Tiwari. “It was a unanimous decision of all the members and all writers to stand together in their decision to condemn the killings.”
(With agency inputs)