Writer Nayantara Sahgal has returned the Sahitya Akademi Award she won in 1986 for her novel “Rich Like Us” to protest against the increasing attacks on the right to dissent, which she says are “unmaking India.” Hindi poet Ashok Vajpeyi has followed suit, returning a similar honor on similar grounds. Earlier, Hindi writer Uday Prakash and six Kannada writers had returned their literary awards. Writers have voiced their protest in the past too. After Operation Bluestar, Khushwant Singh surrendered his Padma Shri award. Nayantara Sahgal had protested against the Emergency too. While returning the award on Tuesday, she said this was “in support of all Indians who uphold the right to dissent, and of all dissenters who now live in fear and uncertainty”.
Even though most artists and writers would claim to be apolitical, art does not take place in a vacuum. All good art is political, and the return of an award makes a strong political statement. As Toni Morrison puts it, “The ones who try hard not to be political are political by saying, ‘we love the status quo.'” The present practice of returning awards has been triggered by the killings of writers and rationalists in Maharashtra and Karnataka, including those of MM Kalburgi, Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare. The latest victim of a growing culture of intolerance is Mohammad Akhlaq, who was lynched recently by an organized mob on the suspicion of eating beef. Amidst all this the studied silence of Prime Minister Modi has only added to the prevailing mood of disenchantment.
The inaction or tacit support of the political leadership has emboldened fundamentalists and parties like the Shiv Sena, which has now created another controversy by demanding the cancellation of a proposed concert by Ghulam Ali. Every such demand diminishes the plurality of India. The courageous gesture of returning awards sends a strong message to the government. Critics have panned Nayantara Sahgal, Jawaharlal Nehru’s niece, for what they have called “selective outrage”, but what she, Ashok Vajpeyi and others have done is an act of bravery -that too at a time when it is convenient to remain silent.