After being flummoxed for a few days by the decision of several Sahitya Akademi award winners to return their medals, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has finally been able to gather its wits together to respond.
If it was initially taken aback, the reason was not only the unusual nature of the protest, which is vastly different from the political brouhaha which it usually faces, but also because the party has never had much to do with culture since its defining characteristic is Hindu nationalism with its religious and xenophobic components.
As a result, the BJP didn’t seem to know how to counter this curious form of protest, which has an element of Gandhian renunciation about it.
Some of the bewilderment of the saffronites could be seen in the union Minister of State for Culture Mahesh Sharma’s strange advice to writers to stop writing. “We will then see”, he had said while calling for a look at their background.
It is perhaps this intention of checking the suspected motivations which made a couple of police investigators visit Ganesh Devy, a Vadodara-based writer who had returned his award, to ask whether his action was intended to spread “disaffection” – shades of the “midnight knock” of totalitarian countries.
The BJP’s mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), has further muddied the waters by describing the refuseniks as “self-proclaimed contractors of intellect”, a phrase whose meaning is not immediately clear.
Normally, the saffron camp tends to describe any dissenter as either “anti-Hindu”, as it labelled the protesting film institute students, or as left-liberals.
This time, it wasn’t until Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, who is more savvy and erudite than most others in his side, described the dissenters as “Nehruvian” and “Leftists” that these favourite pejoratives of the saffronities were used.
However, the fact that almost none of the writers has a pronounced Leftist or Nehruvian – which means pro-Congress – background is a disadvantage for the saffron brotherhood.
Jaitley has tried to bypass this difficulty by describing the revolt as a “manufactured paper rebellion”. The meaning of this clumsy phrase is however as unclear as the comment of the RSS about the “contractors of intellect” unless the finance minister distinguishes a “paper rebellion” from a street protest. He is also silent about the manufacturers.
How long will the BJP be able to pretend that it is all a storm in a tea cup remains to be seen. But the seriousness of the basic contention of the writers that their acts of rejection are related to the atmosphere of intolerance in the country cannot be easily brushed aside.
What is more, their status as thinkers as well as avowed neutrality make their reading of the present state of affairs more damaging to the government than the routine declamations of opposition politicians. The customary ploy, therefore, of dismissing the complaints as the ranting of opportunists will not do. An additional difficulty for the saffron camp is that there are no writers or academics of an equal stature in its ranks to counter the accusers.
While historians and social scientists can be easily identified as being Left or Right – as the saffron lobby has been regularly doing – it is less easy to label a novelist or a playwright or a poet – not to mention painters and sculptors.
There are those, of course, who believe that the dissenters have overstepped the mark. While Congress MP Shashi Tharoor says that they have dishonoured the recognition of their talents, film star Anupam Kher wants to know why they didn’t act earlier – for instance, during the Emergency or the Muzaffarnagar riots.
As a “Modi bhakt”, as Kher says he has been called, it is understandable that he couldn’t have mentioned the far more serious Gujarat riots.
But these objections are not foolproof. To Tharoor, for instance, it can be said that returning the medals is the only recourse available to a group of reclusive persons to draw attention to their complaints since they are not the types to organize a demonstration.
As for Kher’s observations, it is patent enough that the Emergency or the riots in Muzaffarnagar were one-time affairs whose impacts were limited to a certain time and space. Nor does it stand to reason that if someone misses an opportunity, so to say, to protest once, then he forfeits the right to do so for all time to come.
What the writers are voicing is their disquiet about the atmosphere of violence along with the subversion of institutions. These are evident from the killings of rationalists, the rise in communal incidents of which the Dadri lynching was one, the manhandling of the sponsor of the launch of a book by a former Pakistani foreign minister, the ministerial comments hinting at a second-class, conditional-status for Muslims, the planting of saffron gadflies on reputed institutions, and, above all, the inexplicable reticence of an otherwise “talkative” prime minister, as Salman Rushdie has said.
As is known, Prime Minister Narendra Modi referred to the Dadri tragedy 10 days after the event, but his homilies were described as fit for a seminar by the Mahatma’s grandson, Gopal Krishna Gandhi, because of their tepid nature.
The prime minister’s oratorical skills are now widely acknowledged. A silent rejection of medals can be equally effective.