12 Oct 2015

The flawed logic of the award-returnees – By Swapan Dasgupta

Let me state at the outset that I have a great deal of respect and admiration for writer Nayantara Sahgal who I have had the privilege of knowing for the past 37 years. I have also had very convivial conversations with Ashok Vajpeyi, poet and culture apparatchik, during various literary festivals over the years. I may not have shared all their political likes and dislikes — and Sahgal has occasionally teased me about my “wrong politics”— but there is more to life than common voting intentions, or so I hope. 

Therefore, when Sahgal takes it upon herself to publicly disavow her Sahitya Akademi award, a gesture that Vajpeyi and some others have emulated, the least I can do is to seriously examine the rationale of their protest. Regardless of whether they were right or were guilty of over-reaction bordering on grandstanding, it is unworthy to attach base motives to their symbolic assault on the Narendra Modi government. 

I will, therefore, desist from echoing the charge in the social media that Sahgal is guilty of selective indignation: she received her award barely two years after the massacre of Sikhs following Indira Gandhi’s assassination. As a public-spirited writer, Sahgal has been known to take stands. She had the courage to publicly oppose the Emergency imposed by her cousin at a time when other ‘liberals’ either willingly acquiesced or went into hibernation. Whatever else Sahgal may or may not be, she has a mind of her own. 

Nor will I insult Vajpeyi’s undeniable credentials as a Hindi poet by alluding to his close association with the late Arjun Singh or pointing to the fact that all the public offices he has held—Chairman of Bharat Bhavan (Bhopal), trustee Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, member ICCR and Chairman Lalit Kala Akademi—have been courtesy Congress governments. 

Frankly, the political inclinations of individuals are irrelevant—unless, of course, they choose to make it relevant. 

Returning a state award—to be distinguished from those who refuse the award in the first place—is not a casual gesture. Rabindranath Tagore returned his Knighthood after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919 and a further clutch of notables returned honours conferred on them during the Non Cooperation movement and Civil Disobedience movements launched by Mahatma Gandhi. In more recent times, the writer Khushwant Singh returned his Padma Bhushan in 1984, protesting against Operation Bluestar, but accepted a Padma Vibhushan in 2007. Apart from Singh’s understandable emotional outburst at the storming of the Golden Temple, the other protests, not even Tagore’s, weren’t necessarily centred on an event, although that may have been a trigger. In returning the honour conferred on them by the British Raj, they were questioning and challenging the legitimacy of the state that had honoured them. They were suggesting that British rule in India was illegitimate—a symbolic act of rebellion. 

Sahgal, Vajpeyi and the others who returned their awards in the wake of the murder of two ‘rationalists’ and the beef lynching in Dadri were entirely right to be outraged. It is a sad day for India if individuals are targeted for their views, their faith or lifestyle. But the grim reality is that these things happens, and often despite the best efforts of the state. Last week, in an incident that was reminiscent of the Taliban attack on MalalaYusafzai Maoists in Chhattisgarh killed a teenage girl for daring to attend school; in Delhi, an extremely brutal rape brought forth street protests; and in West Bengal, political murders have become routine since the mid-1960s. These incidents can be multiplied and they bring no credit to the country. 

However, if we were to react to each ugly incident by questioning the legitimacy of the state, India would descend into a state of emotional civil war. To protest against wrong is legitimate; but to extend that outrage into challenging the legitimacy of a state is to carry things a bit too far. There is a fundamental difference between the Indian state and the government of the day. We can oppose a government and even campaign to ensure it is voted out in due course. Sadly, we can’t build and rebuild an entire state apparatus because of seasonal shifts in the mood. 

Sahgal and the others hate Narendra Modi, and in likelihood hated him ever since the day he entered public life. The reason may well be aesthetic. In the words of one of their intemperate advocates: “As our Prime Minister we have a man who can’t even be dignified by being called ‘uncultured’, but an ignorant egomaniac who has deliberately made a successful political career of being an enemy of culture wherever and whenever he suspects he may have found it.”

In normal circumstances, such vitriol would never have passed editorial muster in a mainstream newspaper. But these are exceptional times. So intense is the hatred of Modi—Sahgal called him a ‘fascist’—that the government’s alleged sins of omission have been merged into a disavowal of the Union of India. 

In 1961, in protest against India’s takeover of Portugese-held Goa, a gifted poet by the name of Dom Moraes, then living in London, tore up his Indian passport before a TV camera. It was an act of puerile bravado characteristic of a man with an inflated sense of self-importance. But India forgave him and he flourished as a pickled socialite in Mumbai for the rest of his life. 

I think, maybe quite unwittingly and in a fit of rage that comes naturally to writers and poets, there is a tendency to emulate Moraes. Modi may not be everyone’s cup of tea but he is an elected Prime Minister. Under him, there has been no institutional shift in democratic function—as Sahgal must have realised when she denounced Modi quite spiritedly at a function in Teen Murti House last August. Had India become ‘fascist’ under Modi, Sahgal would have met the fate that Nehru’s daughter reserved for her political opponents during the Emergency. 

It is known that some people believe that protest is the dharma of the writer and poet. They may be right but that also makes these rarefied protests seem a matter of habit, cloaked in intemperate language. 

Sunday Pioneer, October 11, 2015

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