When the first few writers started to return their awards, it didn’t even strike me that I too have one (not from the Sahitya Akademi, but the Sangeet Natak Akademi). I thought maybe I am too inconsequential and insignificant to make a dent. Then it occurred to me that perhaps this is how most of us think – we choose to remain silent and relinquish the public space, and allow the loudest and harshest voices to usurp it.
By returning this award, I am stating that I am not going to relinquish the public space. I am reclaiming my voice in the public debate.
I am thankful to Uday Prakash and scores of other writers and artists that chose to not remain silent. I can’t recall any movement in my lifetime where so many writers, poets, thinkers, artists have returned their recognition en masse. And if this government thinks this is not significant, then they have no idea what they’re heading for.
I can only illustrate this by saying that Shyam was a superstar, and Saadat Hasan Manto merely his struggling writer friend in the early 1940s’ Bombay film industry. Today we remember Shyam only because he survives threadbare in Manto’s voluminous writings. Ignore writers at your own peril.
There’s also been a concerted attempt at belittling the writers’ act of returning their awards. Well, all I can say is that one doesn’t earn these awards overnight. They come after years and years of labour, engagement with one’s art form, and the world around us. I can tell you I am immensely sad right now for returning this award. I don’t think most of us work for awards but when it does come our way, it tastes sweet. And to give it up is not a happy feeling. Those with commitment to their work will empathise with what I am saying.
There has been a steady and a rapidly deteriorating erosion of the constitutional values that this country was founded on.
You may say worse was seen during the 1975 Emergency. Good. So you are, after all, inadvertently drawing a parallel between today and then. Sorry, I was too young then and if you lived through that age and are still willing to repeat it, I am not.
As a performing artist, I feel acute disappointment and despair. At the Centre and in the states, irrespective of which party rules where, governments have failed to protect civil liberties, and have allowed intolerant and bigoted elements to threaten and intimidate contrarian voices – in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kerala, Manipur, Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, you name it.
This protest did not begin in a television studio debate or on the street. It began after the brazen murders of three prominent writers and intellectuals and the acute helplessness that artists felt thereafter. Forget about justice, the central and respective state governments haven’t even shown any semblance of seriousness in bringing the murderers to book.
We cannot watch our public discourse be hijacked by hateful bigotry. We all have a collective responsibility in protesting this trend.
Writers who are returning awards have been lampooned in the last two weeks, they have been called opportunists and hypocrites. It is better than being called a murderer, or an accomplice, or an apologist.