When writers spoke

October 28, 2015

Indian writers and cultural activists wear black cloth over their mouths as they carry placards and a banner during a silent protest march outside Sahitya Akademi or National Academy of Letters, in New Delhi, India on Friday (AP)

Several Indian writers, individually, returned their awards to protest the ever-growing attempts to snuff out dissent.

Their collective strength has now forced the government to make the right noises to curb motormouths.

In the peak of an agitation, it is very unlikely that a single individual can change its course and force the government of the day to decide policy. And, in a society that is multi-lingual, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, the idea should be completely out of the box for it to make any impact. This was what a noted Kannada writer and thinker, U R Ananthamurthy, did a few decades ago when the southern state of Karnataka was in a state of tumult, trying to decide on the language for the medium of instruction in primary schools.

The question was whether primacy should be given to the state language, Kannada, or mother tongue of the student or English. Ranged against the government were the pro-Kannada organisations, the Kannada writers etc. In that emotive state, it was Ananthamurthy who delivered the message in very simple words. He insisted that Kannada should be given primacy but English shall be taught as a language because it expanded the ‘horizon of the children’. Ananthamurthy faced flak, as he did for several such suggestions for the rest of his life, but what stood out about him was that he had the moral courage to take a stand.

His suggestion changed the course of the agitation and made the government adopt a policy that was more inclusive. Ananthamurthy’s approach to the problem was not different from the layers of richness that he saw about life in a village that he so eloquently expressed in his novels. It was his contribution that comes to mind when writers across the country returned their awards to the country’s premier literary body, the Sahitya Akademi, only to face severe criticism from those in power or the political right.

The criticism, sometimes bordering on the personal, has come in from all and sundry. From the most powerful federal minister to the head of the ruling party to the most
ordinary of political functionaries. It has largely focussed on whether these writers had objected when Indira Gandhi had curbed freedom of expression or when M F Hussain was attacked etc.

Clearly, the context of the situation and its timing were lost somewhere. Fundamentally, it boiled down to the simple fact that the writers and artists waited for a couple of months for
the Akademi to react to the killing of a Kannada academic and writer, Dr M M Kalburgi, by allegedly rightist goons who had also done away with rationalists like Dr Narendra Dhabolkar and Govind Pansare. When the Akademi did not even so much as issue a statement condemning the murder of Dr Kalburgi, the writers one after another started sending back their awards and resigned from its executive council.

Their protest came, significantly, after the Dadri incident [where a Muslim man was killed by a mob because of rumours that he had beef in his house]. Their issue was simply that there was a serious threat to freedom in both the incidents. In one, there was no freedom to eat and in another there was no freedom of expression. Dr Kalburgi was shot dead at point blank range because his research was quite contrary to the popular belief system of a caste group in the southern state of Karnataka. He was not merely a researcher but also a campaigner who pointed out the digression from the original path of their social order.

The writers, some of them highly respected ones, fundamentally delivered the message to the Akademi and, thereby, the government that what was happening in the country was not right. The atmosphere of hate or intolerance for the other view point, particularly those guaranteed under the Constitution, was something that needed to be curbed by those who enjoyed political power.

This was also because it is those hangers on or those close to the current ruling dispensation who were indulging in the campaign of hate that was leading to hate crimes. Added to that was the fact that the most powerful man in the country, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, kept quiet for too long instead of curbing the motormouths in his party.

When it was finally done, it was only several days later that the Akademi responded to the writers’ expression of anguish. What the writers effectively did was to deliver the message to the people as well as the government that the wrong had to be corrected sooner than later. It took a little more than a fortnight for a senior federal minister to tell a television interviewer, categorically, that the Muslims can eat what they want while respecting the sentiments of others. Perhaps, if the same statement had been made soon after the murderous attack, things would not have gone thus far.

In fact, their action exposed something more. It showed that coupled with media criticism, the government suffered from a persecution complex. By not understanding the nuances in criticism of outrageous comments by those in power, the government blindly painted everyone, including the writers and the media, with a black brush. This is not very different from the late Indira Gandhi considering all those critical of her to be anti-national and abrogating the rights of the people. The media had faced the brunt of it during her time. It is beginning to face criticism and, maybe, sooner than later is bound to face the heat this time, as well.

But, what the writers showed by their protest, that many agree with and many more do not, was they had collectively risen to fill up the critical role of a public intellectual, a role that Ananthamurthy had so brilliantly played during his life time. It is a role that is so very critical to point out the implications of an action or inaction in situations like this, regardless of whether it is a pro or anti an ideological belief. Not every disagreement has to necessarily mean physical elimination.

A ‘barbaric’ solution
Some judges can surprise everyone with their verdicts. Sometime ago, a judge ordained that a victim of rape should talk it over with the rapist and settle down with him since she was presumed to be an orphan. Mediation was the key, the judge felt. Now, comes another one from the same high court in the southern city of Chennai. The judge has suggested castration of the paedophile to curb the mentally debilitating assault on the psyche of children. The interesting aspect of the order is that the judge is well aware that his suggestion is ‘barbaric’ and he deemed it necessary to say so as a solution to a ‘barbaric act’.

His outrage at the rising incidents of paedophilia is understandable considering that he was hearing a case of a British national who had sought relief from a trial court after having exploited a young child. But, the judge obviously forgot that the country’s jurisprudence does not believe in the eye-for-an-eye rule.

Civilised societies have long ago moved away from retributive form of punishment though there is still a debate on the correctness of chemical castration. In fact, the Justice J S Verma Committee, whose suggestions after the Delhi gang-rape changed several laws governing rape, had rejected the proposal for castration of rapists or those indulging in paedophilia because it violated human rights conventions.

Clearly, the aspect of human rights is something the judge overlooked. There was a case a couple of years ago where an accused paedophile had got away quoting violation of his human rights just because he was housed in a prison cell where there were no fans. The judge, obviously, did not see the implications of his verdict before making the suggestion. But, it must be said to his credit that his other suggestions to the federal government to include a sexual education programme for children to be wary of such elements in society, among other proposals, were quite good.

For all her tantrums, the West Bengal Chief Minister, Ms Mamata Banerjee, has a way of sending out messages. They may appear a bit crude at times but there are no doubts about her effort at maintaining equanimity. Last week, it was time for the deity of power, Maa Durga, to be sent home after nine days of prayers, fun and frolic. The idols of the deity are immersed in water after a farewell that is not different from a mother biding adieu to a daughter when the latter leaves for her husband’s house.

Since, Saturday was also the last day of Muharram, when a replica of the tomb of Hazrat Imam Hussain is carried through the streets by the Shiite Muslims, Banerjee decided the Hindus could hold the immersion process for sometime.

The purpose was clearly to prevent unruly elements from exploiting the situation to create untoward incidents when there were two processions of two communities being taken out. The interesting aspect of this diktat from Banerjee was that none grumbled about the delay in the immersion of the idols. That’s just another meaning of the idea of India.