In the last couple of weeks many eminent writers are queuing up to return their Sahitya Akademi awards as a protest against the Government of India for its alleged silence over recent incidents of communalism and violence in the country. They also claim they are protesting against Sahitya Akademi's stand of choosing to remain silent and not expressing its opposition to this silence to the government. The entire narrative makes one think Sahitya Akademi is a government run institution and so protest against it is a meaningful way of expressing opposition to the government.
However, Sahitya Akademi is NOT a government-run institution. It is an autonomous institution devoted to promoting literary causes. The Akademi awards are awarded by a jury set up by it and not by the government. Only 5 members of its 99 member strong General Council are nominated by the GoI.
In this context, what does returning of Sahitya Akademi awards by the writers imply? Does it mean these writers considered their award as a reward for their political patronage?
It must be noted that even during the Emergency days Sahitya Akademi remained neutral and continued to maintain its focus on its primary responsibility. By expressing the opposition to a particular ruling dispensation by resigning from an autonomous institution or by returning the awards it gave away aren't these writers attempting to politicize the institution? We've already seen how politicization of institutions of historical research for decades has led to a distorted view of Indian history. We don't want the same to happen to other institutions. Or may be it has already happened and what we are seeing is just symptomatic of that deeper malaise.
One can understand the politics and hypocrisy in the stand taken by many of these writers if one were to look at how they responded during similar or much worse situations in the past. Nayantara Sehgal, niece of Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru, was the first to return the award. In an open letter she said this was "“in memory of the Indians who have been murdered, in support of all Indians who uphold the right to dissent”. One wonders why she accepted the Sahitya Akademi award in 1986 shortly after the 1984 Sikh massacre which Rajiv Gandhi reasoned as "when a big tree falls, the earth shakes". Was it not a moment to stand up and be counted for this eminent writer? Why didn't she return the award to make her point then? I think she herself answered these questions instinctively when she replied to a journalist, "This is a different case, now we have a Hindutva government".
One of the latest writers to join the #AwardWapasi League is the Kashmiri writer Ghulam Nabi Khayal. He had won the Sahitya Akademi award in 1975. Reason cited by him is that the "minorities in the country are feeling unsafe and threatened. They feel their future is bleak." The immediate question that comes to one's mind while reading this is where was this eminent writer when the minorities in Kashmir, the Kashmiri Pandits, were hounded out of Kashmir in the late 1980s. The fear expressed by him in this instance had played out in its entirety in Kashmir. Why didn't he feel the same concern then? Why didn't he return the award then? Similar questions can be posed to all the other writers by citing different incidents.
A writer's weapon is his word. I would have more respect for all the eminent writers who returned their awards if they had chosen to publish a literary work to express their protest and tried to win a Sahitya Akademi award for that! But that would be hard work. Instead, they've chosen the lazy option of protesting against an institution which recognized their potential and earned them respectability.
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