London (PTI): Noted novelist Anita Desai has said she will return her Sahitya Award if the Akademi does not make it clear that it is not a government body but an independent one that exists to defend free speech and the right to question and dissent.
Her comments came after at least 34 writers, over the past weeks, handed over their Sahitya Akademi awards in the aftermath of the killing of Kannada writer M M Kalburgi and Dadri lynching incident, among other issues.
“If it is not able to declare and pursue such a policy, I will be obliged, in solidarity with my fellow writers, to renounce my membership of the Akademi and the award it gave me when I was a young writer in more hopeful times,” Desai said in a statement distributed by PEN International here.
The 78-year-old author who received a Sahitya Award in 1978 for her novel “Fire on the Mountain” said she was born in an India that enshrined democracy, pluralism and the freedom of speech in its constitution.
“I do not recognise India of the present time where, under the banner of ‘Hindutva,’ intimidation and bigotry seek to silence writers, scholars and all who believe in secular and rational thought,” she said.
The author said in an atmosphere where there is no security or support for those who voice dissent, criticism or rational thought, there can be no intellectual or artistic work of any worth.
“It saddens me that the august body of the Sahitya Akademi has not been able to support and protect writers from the intimidation and violence, verbal and physical, watched publishers withdraw books, universities delete texts from syllabi, distort and manipulate history, and silently witnessed institutions like the National Book Trust, the Nehru Museum and Library, and the University of Nalanda replace distinguished scholars,” Desai said.
“At this crucial moment I appeal to the Sahitya Akademi to make clear that it does not represent any government or its policies, but is an independent body that exists to defend free speech and the right to question and dissent, in short what the constitution of the country promised us,” she said.
Desai, who was shortlisted three times for the Booker Prize was in 2007, was elected as a Sahitya Akademi Fellow, one of the highest honour conferred by the literary body on a writer.
Recently, writers from 150 countries expressed solidarity with Indian authors and artistes who returned their prestigious awards in protest against “rising intolerance” in the country and have asked the BJP government to provide better protection and safeguard free speech.
The president of 1921 founded body PEN International, had earlier in a letter to the President, the Prime Minister and the Sahitya Akedemi, urged them to take “immediate steps” to protect the rights of everyone, including writers and artists.
Desai is among many writers including noted writers Nayantar Seghal, Ashok Vajpeyi, Shashi Deshpande and Ganesh Devy who have spoken out against the rising intolerance in the country.