Negotiating the right to dissent
Are We Faced With a Situation Where Writers Who Question Established Views Face Danger to Their Lives?
A bizarre situation has emerged in the Hindi literary world where a so-called doyen of Marxist criticism is lambasting those who are raising their voices in protest against the apathy of a government-financed literary institution towards murderous attacks on eminent writers and the burgeoning culture of intolerance in the country.
The 88-year-old Namwar Singh, former President of the All India Progressive Writers’ Association, is accusing those writers of being “headline hunters” who returned their Sahitya Akademi awards or Padma awards to register their protest. And mind you, these “headline hunters” include the 90-year-old iconic Hindi writer Krishna Sobti who has not only returned her Akademi award but also relinquished its Fellowship. According to the Akademi’s website, “The highest honour conferred by the Akademi on a writer is by electing him as its Fellow. This honour is reserved for ‘the immortals of literature’ and limited to twenty-one only at any given time.”
So, is Krishna Sobti, who generally keeps herself away from the hustle-bustle of the literary world and leads the life of a near-recluse, a “headline hunter”? Is the 80-year-old Dalip Kaur Tiwana, a highly respected Punjabi fiction writer who handed back her Padmashri to the government, craving for some cheap publicity? Does renowned Malayalam poet-critic K. Satchidanandan need any media exposure? Is the 88-year-old Nayantara Sahgal, daughter of Vijaylakshmi Pandit and niece of Jawaharlal Nehru, really in need of seeing her name in newspaper headlines?
Those who are familiar with the Hindi literary world and the curious shenanigans of the “Marxist critic” cannot but feel amused as he is known for not missing on any invitation to release a book or to preside over a meeting.
Some years ago, I happened to be at the India Habitat Centre and came to know about a book launch function presided over by Namwar Singh and Rajendra Yadav and organised by Vani Prakashan. It was a book of short stories written by a young woman writer Jyoti Kumari. When Rajendra Yadav took the microphone, he profusely thanked Vani Prakashan for inviting Namwar Singh to preside. With a twinkle in his eyes, he said he was reminded of a satirical piece by Harishankar Parsai in which a petty political leader is shown sitting with a sword in his hand and threatening to behead himself. His relatives and friends are pleading with him to not take any such drastic action. “No,” cries the leader, “a neck that has not been garlanded for three days has no right to remain. It has to be cut off.” And then, Yadav said in his inimitable style, “I must thank the organisers for saving Namwarji’s neck today.” This is Namwar Singh for you who had no hesitation in singing paeans in praise of Pappu Yadav when his autobiography was released two years ago.
On February 20, 1970, poet and revolutionary Amilcar Cabral delivered his speech “National Liberation and Culture” celebrating the life of Dr. Eduardo Mondlane, the first President of the Mozambique Liberation Front, who had been assassinated a year ago. The opening sentence of his speech was: “When Goebbels, the brain behind Nazi propaganda, heard culture being discussed, he brought out his revolver.” Cabral, leader of the liberation movement in Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde, himself fell to the bullets of the assassins three years after delivering this speech.
Are we faced with a similar situation where rationalist writers who question established views face danger to their lives? Is it without any legitimate reason that highly respected writers from different Indian languages are feeling so incensed and disgusted over the Sahitya Akademi’s deafening silence over the murder of veteran Kannada scholar M.M. Kalburgi that they feel morally bound to return their awards? When Union Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma and BJP spokesman Siddharth Nath Singh talk of checking the backgrounds of the writers, are we wrong in hearing the sound of the Gestapo’s footfall? When the “cultural organisation” that summons the entire Union Government before it to take stock of its performance says that the writers who are returning their awards are suffering from the “disease of secularism”, is it not symptomatic of the times we are living in? What is in store for our Constitution that too suffers from the same “disease”?
It is a matter of personal satisfaction that the trailblazer of this protest was Hindi writer Uday Prakash who set off the chain of events by returning his Sahitya Akademi award last month. And, as the oft-quoted Majrooh line goes, “Main akela hi chala tha jaanib-e-manzil magar, log aate hi gaye aur karvan banta gaya.” (I set out alone towards my destination but, on the way, people kept joining me and a caravan was formed.)
Credit: The Hindu