Awards should be cherished and valued by those who receive them, President Pranab Mukherjee said on Monday, virtually disapproving of returning of honours by a section of writers and artistes over “growing intolerance in the country”.
In first public comments over the returning of awards, the President called for a “balanced approach” and said “emotions should not overrun reason”.
“Such awards should be cherished and valued by those who receive them. Sensitive minds sometimes get disturbed by some incidents in society. But, expression of concern over such events should be balanced. Emotions should not overrun reason, and disagreement should be expressed through debate and discussion,” Mukherjee said at an event to mark National Press Day in New Delhi.
At the same time, he also called for “open mindedness” and “appreciation of genuine criticism” — remarks apparently directed at the government.
At least 75 writers, historians, filmmakers and scientists have returned prestigious awards to protest what they say is an attempt by right-wing organisations to muzzle free speech and individual rights, citing murder of rationalist MM Kalburgi, mob lynching of a Muslim man in Uttar Pradesh over rumours of beef consumption and murder of two Dalit children in Faridabad. The returning of awards has also come under criticism from within the intelligentsia.
On Monday, noted filmmaker Shyam Benegal too opposed returning of awards, saying it was “not a healthy trend”. “Awards are from the nation, not from the government. People should learn to fight the government politically but not by returning awards, which doesn’t make any sense,” Benegal told IANS agency.
The President’s remarks evoked mixed response. “We have to look into the reasons. So, definitely, they (intelligentsia) would have been feeling so much hurt that they are forced to return the awards. So, why they are being forced to return these awards is something which needs to be seen and corrected,” Congress spokesperson Ajay Maken said.
Poet Ashok Vajpeyi, who returned his award, told HT, “I think the advice is well given. The returning of awards had been a spontaneous reaction against the growing intolerance which the President has himself found necessary to speak about three times.”
At the function, he paid tributes to legendary cartoonists like RK Laxman and Rajinder Puri. Citing the example of Jawaharlal Nehru, Mukherjee on Monday also recalled how the former prime minister often told cartoonist V Shankar not to spare him in his cartoons.
“This open mindedness and appreciation of genuine criticism is one of the lovable traditions of our great nation which we must preserve and strengthen,” he said.
He also maintained that people should have “confidence in the idea of India and the values and principles enshrined in our Constitution. India has always been able to self-correct whenever such a need has arisen.”
The President also said that freedom of the press in India forms part of the freedom of expression which is guaranteed by the Constitution as a fundamental right.
In a democracy, he said, various challenges will emerge from time to time and these should be addressed collectively.
“We must ensure that the letter and spirit of the law always remains a living reality,” he said.