41 writers return Indian award over ‘rising intolerance’

October 14, 2015

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Indian activists shouting slogans against PM Modi during a protest in New Delhi calling for investigation into recent beating death of a Muslim man by a mob in late September. — AFP/File
Indian activists shouting slogans against PM Modi during a protest in New Delhi calling for investigation into recent beating death of a Muslim man by a mob in late September. — AFP/File
Books by Indian writer Nayantara Sahgal are arranged for illustration purpose at a bookstore in New Delhi, India, Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2015. — AP
Books by Indian writer Nayantara Sahgal are arranged for illustration purpose at a bookstore in New Delhi, India, Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2015. — AP

NEW DELHI: When a gang of thugs ambushed a Mumbai book launch by dousing the compere in ink, India's literati saw the attack as yet another blot on the country's reputation for tolerance since Narendra Modi came to power and dozens of writers returned India's highest literary honor to protest growing climate of intolerance in the country.

"Such attacks may have happened earlier too but this time it's different," said celebrated writer and historian Nayantara Sahgal, following Monday's incident.

"Now the ruling ideology is Hindutva, which, in a classic fascist tactic, demands that all Indians think alike," Sahgal told AFP.

The 88-year-old niece of India's first premier Jawaharlal Nehru caused a storm earlier this month when she handed back her 'Sahitya Akademi Award' which is bestowed by the government to honour India's leading writers.

As of Wednesday, 41 writers from across the country have since followed suit, several of them saying they were protesting the "rising culture of intolerance" since the right-wing Modi won a landslide election last year.

The novelists, essayists, playwrights and poets had returned the awards they received from India's prestigious literary academy, saying they cannot remain silent about numerous incidents of communal violence or attacks on intellectuals across the country over the past year.

The writers, who write in English as well as regional languages, are also angry that India's National Academy of Letters has said little about the attack on the well-known rationalist Malleshappa Kalburgi, an award-winning writer in the Kannada language gunned down in August for his writings against superstition and false beliefs.

India's overwhelmingly left-leaning cultural elite has never been a fan of Modi or his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which has an unashamedly Hindu nationalist agenda.

But while there was an uneasy truce between the two sides during Modi's first year in office, a series of recent episodes have prompted many to warn of a major threat to India's cultural and religious pluralism.

'Not my India'

The killing of a leading rationalist author in the southern state of Karnataka in August sent a shiver down writers' spines, while the recent lynching of a Muslim accused of eating beef caused further deep unease.

Police have detained for questioning several Hindu activists for applauding writer MM Kalburgi's murder.

"I cannot accept, leave aside understand, that in my country scholars are murdered because they have campaigned against religious superstition or because they've criticised Hindu idol worship," the prominent television journalist Karan Thapar wrote recently in The Hindustan Times.

"And I'm appalled that a man is barbarically battered to death for eating beef or possessing it in his fridge. This is not my India. It can never be. And, yet, it is," Thapar said.

Comments by Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma pledging to cleanse India of "cultural pollution" from the West, and that the Bible and Quran are "not central to the soul of India" in the same way as Hindu holy books, have fuelled fears that the country is being run by religious ideologues.

The government has also been accused of appointing Hindu nationalists to prominent education and cultural positions, including chairman of the Film and Television Institute of India.

Sharma, who is a close confidant of Modi, insisted the government would only tolerate protest that fell within "the democratic framework of our constitution", and condemned the murder in Karnataka.

"As a minister, as a person, even if a single person is killed in any part of the country it pains us," he told AFP at his New Delhi office.

"We criticise it in the strongest possible words. It should not happen." But asked to specifically condemn this week's ink attack in Mumbai, carried out during the launch of a book by a former Pakistan foreign minister, Sharma would only respond: "It should be (a) democratic protest."

Several senior BJP members who are outside Modi's inner circle have voiced disquiet at recent events, with former deputy prime minister Lal Krishna Advani condemning "increases in cases of intolerance".

Modi, a prolific Twitter user, has drawn widespread flak for either remaining uncharacteristically silent or being conspicuously slow to react to the acts of violence.

Rushdie weighs in

"I think what's crept into Indian life now is a degree of thuggish violence, which is new," Indian-born author Salman Rushdie told the NDTV network. "And it seems to be, I have to say, given permission by the silence of official bodies... by the silence of the prime minister's office."

"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," added the British-based Booker prize winner who endorsed Sahgal's move to return her Sahitya Akademi award.

On Wednesday, Modi broke his silence over the killing of an alleged beef-eater in the volatile state of Uttar Pradesh, describing the September 28 incident as "unfortunate".

But the premier in the same interview with a local newspaper, also accused the opposition, not the BJP, of polarising the issue along communal lines.

Modi's appeal last week for peace between Hindus and Muslims, without specifically referring to any incident, sparked criticism that more was needed from the premier in the wake of the lynching.

Sharma's response to the criticism is that law and order is the responsibility of state governments and accusations that Modi's government is partly to blame says more about the political leanings of its critics.

"Before this government came, there were many high-profile murders, incidents, and riots and none of these people said anything. So you have to ask yourself why they are only raising it now?"

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