Protesting Authors : Time Government Paid Attention

Brutal lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri for allegedly consuming beef has divided political discourse and civil society in the country down the middle. Such a divide may have the seed of derailing prime minister Modi’s development agenda. For the first time in Indian history, right wing fringe element hooligans have tacit support of party in power at the centre. A  storm of protest has erupted against the environment of intolerance and effort to undermine pluralistic future of India.  Many noted writers who were awarded Sahitya Academy recognition for their work have returned their Sahitya Academy awards to government. Luminaries like Salman Rushdie, Amitabh Ghosh, and Vikram Seth and many columnists like Gopalkrishna GandhiMrinal Pande, have spoken out in support of the protest. 

Predictably, some people have criticised the move. 

Timing and motive behind outrage of writers has been questioned  Many riots, interference with freedom of expression, instances of massive corruption have happened in India. Why no writer have ever surrendered his / her award before?

  •  Mr. Arun Jaitley, finance minister of India has called the protest a paper rebellion stemming from ideological intolerance.
  • Author Tasleema Nasreen who had faced protest in India from Islamic fundamentalists while launching her book in India, has blamed Indian authors to exhibit double standard.  According to Nasreen, Indian writers defend Islamic fundamentalism, while flaying Hindu right.
  • Columnist Swapan Dasgupta wrote that authors protest has politics at its base. Some authors like Ms. Nayantara Sahgal and Mr. Ashok Vajpeyi, have dislike for Prime Minister and his ideologies. Besides, Ms. Sahgal is niece of first Prime Minister of India, who legacy Modi is trying to unravel. Mr. Ashok Bajpeyi is a member of a left political dispensation. So their antipathy to Mr. Modi may be understandable. Other authors may have joined the protest movement when they found the moment opportune. 
  • Columnist Chitra Subramaniam went on to claim that plurality of India is an abstract idea which is never on threat. Only disgruntled authors upset for not getting adequate importance in present dispensation are spearheading the movement.
  • Chetan Bhagat also commented on political dimensions in writers protest.
  • BJP spokespeople and sympathisers have tried to point out if Narendra Modi can be blamed for Gujarat riot, why not chief ministers of states ruled by opposition parties. Conversely, if Narendra Modi and BJP can be blamed for lynching of Akhlaq, blame congress party for killing of rationalists and intellectuals. For example,
    • Lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq happened in UP, a state governed by Samajwadi Party;
    • M. M. Kalburgi was gunned down in Karnataka, a state ruled by Congress Party.
    • Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare were shot and killed in Maharashtra, when there was congress lead government in both state and at the centre.

There may be merit to all such arguments. The following are my take on the controversy.

  • I think, authors protest is a very unique nonviolent attempt at shaming the government. It is a very Gandhian way. It appears to be working. More BJP and/or government tries to attack the protestors by imputing motive, more they look small. Timing of the protest cannot be questioned, because may be time for such an idea has come now. At the same time, authors have opened themselves to criticism, if in future they desist from criticising any ruling dispensation for similar offence with comparable or better tactics.
  • An author must pick up his / her pen to defend the defenceless and protest against atrocities committed by powerful against the poor and downtrodden. So by nature, authors will always be left of centre in their political ideology. There may be a synergy between left leaning parties and authors. But that being the nature of things, one cannot attribute special motive to such synergy.
  • There is undoubtedly a deep seated antipathy that exists between left leaning intellectual class of India and Prime Minister Modi. Mr. Gopalkrishna Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, had written an open letter in Hindu about how Mr. Modi does not have the mandate to govern India. Murder of rationalists and Mohammad Akhlaq have simply reinforced such a stereotype. Case of Mr. Modi was not helped by party members and spokespeople, who have tried to rationalize such killings and/or tried to downplay an abhorrent communal lynching to a simple law and order problem. So much so, NDA alliance partner Akali Dal has also urged Mr Modi to rein in loud mouthed and crass BJP / Sangh functionaries, or damage his own image.
  • Mr. Modi has come to power promising growth, development, opportunites and jobs. Mr. Modi had promised a transparent, corruption free administration. Mr. Modi, however, has to balance his development agenda against Hindu supremacist agenda of his fellow travellers. After one year of corruption free governance, chauvinists are raising their head. Mr. Modi must nip such divisive forces in the bud, or his development agenda may go for a toss. Already, congress party with majority in Rajya Sabha has been successful in slowing down progress of government by stalling key bills. The protest of authors in the backdrop of growing intolerance may give them further opportunity.

  • It appears Mr. Modi and his team are losing the battle of perception, despite many good work. For this reason, it is important to cultivate intellectuals and thinkers who can convey the message of government to masses. Mr. Modi has successfully, bypassed media and intelligentsia and tried to speak to masses. He may be successful in wining elections, as many others had done before him. But if intelligentsia is alienated, they will forever paint him in black despite good work.
  • Mr. Modi has been elected to govern all of India. If minorities do not feel secure under his rule, it will usher in parties that believe in political dynasty, corruption and inefficiency. Many members of minority community have joined Mr. Modi to usher in a change of clean, developed, corruption free India. Repeated attacks on minorities, not only put minority members of BJP  in an uncomfortable position, it also damages prospect of BJP widening its base among all caste and communities of India.
  • Finally, as a prime minister of India, it is responsibility of Mr. Modi to give a healing touch to all people, from any caste or community, affected by right wing violence initiated by religious extremists from any community. Mr. Modi must make it clear in unequivocal voice that his government will not brook any intolerance and caste and communal violence as long as it is in power. No development agenda can work over dead bodies of India citizens.

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