Filmmakers Kundan Shah and Saeed Mirza as well as author Arundhati Roy were among two dozen artists who returned their national awards on Thursday, joining a snowballing anti-intolerance campaign with members of the intelligentsia accusing the BJP-led government of stoking religious tensions and muzzling criticism.
The development came against the backdrop of a swirling debate over rising intolerance in the country after the mob lynching of a Muslim man in Uttar Pradesh over cow-killing rumours and violent attacks on rationalists.
Roy, who won the Booker for “The God of Small Things”, announced in a column for the Indian Express that she was returning her 1989 National Award for Best Screenplay for the film “In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones”, saying she was proud to be part of what artists and intellectuals had started.
“I am very pleased to have found a National Award that I can return, because it allows me to be a part of a political movement by writers, filmmakers and academics who have risen up against ideological viciousness and an assault on our collective IQ that will tear us apart and bury us deep if we do not stand up to it,” she wrote.
Rival parties and activists have criticised Prime Minister Narendra Modi for not making reassuring statements as they accuse the BJP and its fringe groups of fanning communal passions for political benefit while promoting conformists and gagging dissenters.
The ruling party struck back, terming the campaign politically-motivated and an attempt to “derail the development momentum” created by the Modi government, even as a group of writers, academicians and artists came out in its support.
“Are we unwise that we will ourselves destroy our mission of development?” Union minister Venkaiah Naidu said in the presence of BJP chief Amit Shah at a press conference in the Capital, as the party released a compilation of articles that defended the government and questioned the protesters.
In the past two months, over 50 writers and filmmakers have returned top government awards and prominent scientists have signed petitions against rising communal polarisation and attacks on free speech.
Several Union ministers have hit the headlines over their remarks, including VK Singh, who allegedly compared the killing of two Dalit children in Faridabad to dogs being attacked with stones. This week, some BJP leaders also hit out at actor Shah Rukh Khan for his comments on intolerance and likened him to a Pakistani agent, drawing widespread flak.
Kundan Shah, who won his award for the cult classic “Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro”, said his decision was sad but necessary to protest against the appointment of actor Gajendra Chauhan, considered close to the RSS, as the chairman of the FTII, India’s premier film school.
“Is Gajendra Chauhan the right choice? This appointment is an insult to our intelligence and standing by this choice is kind of a slap on the thinking populace of this country,” he said. “This is not a protest against BJP only— we’ve protested through our work against the Congress government too.”
Mirza, a former chairman of the FTII and known for his films like “Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyoon Aata Hai” and the TV show “Nukkad”, said a protest started by the institute’s students had become bigger as a movement against “intolerance, divisiveness and hate”.
More than a hundred students of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) supported by several leading names from the entertainment industry have been protesting against Chauhan’s selection, saying he lacks the “stature and vision” to head the school and has been appointed because of his political leanings.
Last week, Khosla Ka Ghosla director Dibakar Banerjee and 11 other filmmakers returned their national awards in support of the FTII students and protesting against mounting intolerance.
However, Indian Council for Cultural Relations president Lokesh Chandra, author S L Bhyrappa and scholar Kapil Kapoor were among 36 intellectuals who lent their support to the BJP-led government in a statement on Thursday while panning the protesters.
“India has witnessed a curious spectacle these last few weeks. A section of the nation’s intelligentsia has expressed outrage at a perceived mounting intolerance in society. In the forefront are the usual pallbearers of Indic civilization - Congressmen of various hues, Marxists, Leninists, even a handful of Maoists,” they said. “All in all, the protests are much ado about the declining clout of a pampered section.”
(With inputs from HT Correspondent in New Delhi)