NEW DELHI: Booker Prize-winning novelist Arundhati Roy and at least 20 Bollywood award winners added their voices on Thursday to the artists, scientists and historians who have returned their national awards in protest against the government’s silence over the climate of religious intolerance and violence plaguing India.

Filmmaker Sanjay Kak, who was among film industry figures who returned their National Film Awards in Mumbai, said that those protesting “have deployed their visibility — and credibility — to articulate the growing anxiety of a vast number of Indians, those who may remain less visible but are no less perturbed at what is going on around them”.

Arundhati Roy, most famous for her 1997 novel “The God of Small Things”, said in a sharply worded editorial in The Indian Express that millions of minority people including Muslims, Christians and members of low-caste or tribal communities “are being forced to live in terror, unsure of when and from where the assault will come”.

Already a number of writers have returned awards to the country’s top literary institution, the Sahitya Akademi, over disappointment that it has not condemned the killings of atheist activists who campaigned against religious superstition or Muslims rumoured to have slaughtered cows or eaten cow meat.

Roy said she was “ashamed of what is going on in this country” and was pleased to return her 1989 national screenplay award and “to be a part of the political movement”.

“I believe what artists and intellectuals are doing right now is unprecedented, and does not have a historical parallel. It is politics by other means,” said Roy, who in recent years has become a civil rights activist.

Saeed Mirza, left and Kundan Shah who are among Indian film industry figures returning National Film Awards address the media in Mumbai, India, Thursday, Nov. 5, 2015. —AP
Saeed Mirza, left and Kundan Shah who are among Indian film industry figures returning National Film Awards address the media in Mumbai, India, Thursday, Nov. 5, 2015. —AP

Many of the protesting award winners have criticised Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party for not speaking out against religious attacks, saying their silence has encouraged Hindu hardliners to justify the attacks and assert Hindu superiority.

Modi had insisted during his election campaign that he would be prime minister for all of India and guaranteed protection for minorities. But he has said little on the subject since taking office.

Modi’s government has dismissed the growing protest as a political ploy to tear down the governing party. “The entire purpose of these protests is to derail the development agenda of the Narendra Modi government,” Urban Development Minister Venkaiah Naidu said on Thursday.

“The country is being subjected to damage and unnecessarily wrong information is being given about political intolerance.”

On Thursday, a separate group of writers, academics and artists came out in support of that stance and accused their protesting colleagues of having a soft corner for anti-Modi parties.

“A section of the nation’s intelligentsia has expressed outrage at a perceived mounting intolerance in society,” said a statement signed by 36 Modi supporters, including the head of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations. “Failure in the elections is now sought to be avenged by other means,” the statement added in an allusion to the Modi-led BJP’s victory in last year’s general elections.

Published in Dawn, November 6th, 2015

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