The silence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s and institutions such as the Sahitya Akademi is permitting a new “degree of thuggish violence” in India, author Salman Rushdie has said against the backdrop of more than 20 writers returning their awards or quitting their posts in the Akademi.
The 68-year-old Mumbai-born author said he wasn’t taking sides between the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the opposition Congress but he believed there was something different unfolding in India.
“There are attacks on ordinary liberties, the ordinary right of assembly, the ordinary right to organise an event in which people can talk about books and ideas freely and without hostility. That seems to be in real grave danger in India today,” Rushdie told NDTV from London.
“...I think what’s crept into Indian life now is a degree of thuggish violence which is new. And it seems to be, I have to say, given permission by the silence of official bodies, by the silence of the Sahitya Akademi which is what so many of the writers are protesting about, by the silence of the Prime Minister’s Office. Mr Modi is a very talkative gentleman, he has a lot to say on a lot of subjects and it would be very good to hear what he has to say about all this,” he said.
The lynching last month of a 55-year-old Muslim in a Uttar Pradesh village over rumours that he had slaughtered a cow and repeated attacks on writers and rationalists expressing dissent has led to a debate on a climate of growing intolerance in the country.
Rushdie joined the growing chorus of protests on Monday by tweeting about his concerns.
“I support Nayantara Sahgal and the many other writers protesting to the Sahitya Akademi. Alarming times for free expression in India,” he tweeted, referring to Jawaharlal Nehru’s 88-year-old niece, who was among the first to lodge her protest against the Akademi’s silence.
Since then, a string of writers have either returned their awards or quit the Akademi to protest against the murders of noted rationalists and the lynching at Bisada in Uttar Pradesh.
Rushdie said he wasn’t a fan of any political party. “I don’t support either side of this argument. Obviously, when ‘The Satanic Verses’ was banned, it was banned by the Congress of Rajiv Gandhi and then, there was the episode of Jaipur which was the last time we had to talk like this by long distance,” he said, referring to the cancellation of a proposed video link session featuring him at the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2012.
He said he stood in solidarity with Nayantara Sahgal and others who returned their Sahitya Akademi awards to take a principled position on attack on liberty. But he pointed out that his tweet supporting Sahgal had attracted “10,000 hateful tweets”.
I support #NayantaraSahgal and the many other writers protesting to the Sahitya Akademi. Alarming times for free expression in India.— Salman Rushdie (@SalmanRushdie) October 12, 2015
Three Sahitya Akademi winners from Punjab – novelist Baldev Singh Sadaknama and poets Jaswinder and Darshan Buttar – have announced they are returning their awards in solidarity with other writers protesting against the government.
In a joint statement, the three authors said they were protesting against the atmosphere of terror being created by the BJP government. “If there will be need, we will cross all barriers to save this country from religious fundamentalism,” said Jaswinder.
The authors from Punjab joined Kashmiri writer Ghulam Nabi Khayal, Urdu novelist Rahman Abbas, Kannada writer-translator Srinath DN and Hindi writers Mangalesh Dabral and Rajesh Joshi, who have backed the spiralling protest by litterateurs against the “communal” atmosphere that has emerged following the killing of rationalist MM Kalburgi.
Khayal said he wanted to join the protest against the “growing communalism in the country in last one year”. He added: “When have we heard that a person will be stoned to death for rumours of eating beef when in reality he had eaten mutton. Such kind of barbarism is unheard of in today’s time and age.”
Punjabi author Waryam Sandhu and Kannada translator GN Ranganatha Rao said they had informed the Akademi of their decision to give back their awards. Noted litterateur Rajesh Joshi described the situation as worse than the Emergency as he announced his decision to return his Akademi award to protest against growing religious intolerance and elimination of those who wish to speak.
“After the Dadri lynching, the Urdu writing community has been quite unhappy. Therefore, I decided to return the award. There are some other Urdu writers who also want to join the protest. It is high time we stood up to the injustice surrounding us,” Urdu writer Rahman Abbas said.
Under fire from several quarters, the Akademi has called a meeting of its executive board on October 23. Sahitya Akademi president Vishwanath Prasad Tiwari said the institution is committed to the core secular values enshrined in the Constitution.
Read: Shashi Deshpande quits Akademi to protest Kalburgi’s murder