The title for my talk — “Writing the Age” — was suggested to me and I thought it was appropriate because my writing seems to have been about the making of modern India. This was not a decision I made. As you know, writers don’t choose their material. They use the material they have been given. My writing became politically oriented because I grew up in a family that was involved in the fight for freedom led by Mahatma Gandhi. Under a great and good leadership, a leadership that led by example, we achieved a first in human history — a non-violent fight for freedom. My last novel Lesser Breeds was a recollection of that remarkable time. The high ideals that inspired that fight, and how those ideals declined and decayed became the stuff of my writing. And some of the stories in my recent book of short stories are about what is happening in the country today. I suppose I should be thankful for the corruption that crept into national life because it gave me the material for my novels, and also for my non-fiction — because I also wrote political commentary for the Indian Express and other papers for many years. But all writing is in a sense politically oriented. What we choose to write about, how we say it, what we choose not to say, are all political decisions. All writers are creatures of their times and we cannot but reflect the times we live in. Engaging with one’s times has made for a wide variety of unforgettable fiction. To name just a few that come to mind, we have the works of Brecht, of Pablo Neruda and other Latin American writers, of Chinua Achebe, Salman Rushdie, and Faiz Ahmed Faiz. In India, writers such as Mahashweta Devi and Kiran Nagarkar, among others, have given us powerful political fiction. There is no getting away from from politics since it is what makes for the atmosphere and conditions we live in.
Being as deeply involved as I have been in writing a politically inspired literature, it is hard for me to separate the two at a time when today’s political atmosphere has launched an attack on literature and on all the creative arts. In this connection, since I am in Chandigarh, let me pay my respectful tribute to all the writers from Punjab and Haryana who have returned their Sahitya Akademi Awards in protest against the Akademi’s long silence when the Kannada writer, Professor Kalburgi, was murdered, and before him, two Maharashtrian writers, Dabholkar and Pansare, both distinguished rationalists like Kalburgi who refused to kowtow to superstition. Now we are about a hundred writers who have returned our Awards, and we have been supported by writers from 150 countries, showing that human rights are universal, and nationality is not a barrier wherever freedom of speech and thought are in danger. Let me also pay tribute to the professors of this university who have written against the destruction of our freedoms.
Our battle, as Indian writers, began as a demand for freedom of expression, but it became a much larger battle when the blacksmith, Mohammed Aklaq was dragged out of his house in Dadri village, and brutally lynched on the excuse that he was a beef eater. The whole country was shocked and repelled by this incident. It raised the question of the very meaning of India, and of the rights guaranteed to us by our Constitution, which gives Indians the right to live as equals, to worship as they choose, and to eat what they like. Indian citizenship means a celebration of our diversity and differences, and its very meaning was undone by that hideous lynching of a poor man who had done no one any harm. By that time our premier institutions, starting with the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, which attracts scholars from all over India and abroad, had already been under assault when their qualified heads were dismissed one by one, and replaced by obedient servants of the RSS, making it clear that disagreement with the ruling ideology or any questioning of it would not be tolerated. Going further, we see that dissent is now being treated as “anti-national”. We have seen this happen in America when the notorious Senator McCarthy labelled Americans “un-American” if they did not fall in line with his anti-Communist fanaticism. Many distinguished men and women were persecuted and many careers were destroyed by McCarthy’s hysteria against those whom he called “un-American”.
Now we are watching this happen here – we who have a robust tradition of debate and dissent, we whose intellectual life as well as the aam admi’s life have been enriched for centuries by our different ways of life and our different points of view, we who have kept the fresh air of different ideas flowing through our open society. And so, expectedly, there has been an outcry from scholars and thinkers from different disciplines, against this campaign to shrink us into conformity. Historians and scientists, actors, film-makers, students and academics have vigorously condemned the iron curtain coming down on freedom of thought. And obviously, assassinations, and other forms of criminal violence on those who refuse to fall in line with the ruling ideology, must revolt the conscience of every Indian. Historians and academics are rejecting the substitution of myths and superstition for historical research. Scientists are alarmed at the destruction of the scientific temper and the spirit of enquiry, without which no nation can all itself modern. A renowned scientist has returned his Padma Bhushan to the President, saying that “the direction in which today’s government is driving my beloved country…will make the country a Hindu religious autocracy.” Dr, Bhargava is, of course, a Hindu himself. He says in his letter to the President that he has found the Hindutva ideology “divisive, unreasonable and unscientific.” Another passionate protest has come from a retired Admiral of the Indian Navy, also a Hindu, who rejects the policy of turning India into a Hindu rashtra, and asserts his faith in a diverse and plural India. The actor, Saif Ali Khan, has said in a public statement: “We are a blend, this great country of ours. It is our differences that make us who we are. I have prayed in church and attended Mass with my wife, Kareena, while she has bowed her head at darghas and prayed in mosques. When we purified our home we had a havan and a Koran reading and a priest sprinkling holy water. The fabric of India is woven from many threads.”
These are just three famous examples of a rebellion across the board, of Indians known and unknown who reject the falsehood of one religion, one ideology, one point of view; who refuse to identify religion with nation; and refuse to be divided into an India belonging exclusively to Hindus, with all other Indians treated as second class citizens. Hindutva is a perversion and distortion of Hinduism. In January in my ten-minute inaugural talk to the Hyderabad Literary Festival, I suggested we reject Hindutva and embrace Hindustaniat and insaniyat instead. What is happening is that the doors to independent thinking, and our traditional openness to knowledge and research are being shut down. This is ironic when Hinduism’s most powerful prayer, the Gayatri Mantra, is a prayer for enlightenment. It is also ironic that Hindutva, which is raising a hue and cry against so-called “anti-nationals”, is itself “anti-national” in its betrayal of our Constitution which created independent India as a secular democratic republic.
And now Hindutva has made a battleground of education, and it is for you — parents, teachers and students — to consider what this is doing to school textbooks, to the profession of teaching, and to the autonomy of universities, though the future of education is a matter of utmost concern to the entire country. What young people are going to be taught is a frightening thought, if the famous remark that Ganesh’s nose was grafted on him by Vedic surgery and airplanes flew in Vedic times is any indication. Great teachers through the ages have opened up their students’ minds to the world of ideas and have left their lasting and illuminating influence on them. Will teachers now be told what to teach? Last month it was reported that there has to be a “Bharatiya approach” to research and education, whatever that means. We might well ask, are we living in the 21st century or some fantasy-land that has no basis in fact or reason? Already many of our universities, starting with Hyderabad and JNU are in ferment against this dangerous trend, with the RSS taking over all educational and cultural institutions and declaring that they must be purged of what they call “anti-national” elements. In this respect let me pay tribute to the courageous young men and women in universities across the land who have refused to be bullied and browbeaten by the ruling ideology, and for whom Kanhaiya Kumar has set a shining example. The young are now in the forefront of the fight, not only for the freedom of thought, but for the idea of India as conceived by our Constitution, and for all that still remains to be achieved in the way of justice and equality.
The print and electronic media have been talking about a climate of “intolerance”. But is “intolerance” the word to describe the disappearing space for disagreement and dissent? It is certainly not the word to describe murder, or the violent attacks that are being made by thugs on whatever they disagree with – on books and book launches, movies, music concerts, exhibitions of paintings and the like. A gang of thugs turned up and hounded the Tamil writer, Perumal Murugan, out of his home and made him stop writing on pain of death. He has been forced to declare himself dead as a writer. Recently he was invited to Delhi to accept an Award and he said he could not come because he was dead. In his place, I, too, would be terrified to be visible again, for fear of the harm that might come to me and my family. Another writer has been told his fingers will be broken if he goes on writing. Armed with threats, or sticks and stones, or black paint, or guns – but above all, with the knowledge that they have the protection of those in power – thugs are able to force the closure of whatever they disagree with. To date no one responsible for these crimes has been brought to justice, and the ruling power stays silent on these outrages. It has also targeted citizens like Teesta Setalvad and her husband who are working for the rights of the victims of the 2002 massacre in Gujerat. Arundhati Roy has been charged with contempt of court because she has written an article condemning the inhuman treatment of Professor Saibaba in jail. He is a man who is paralysed from the waist down and is in a wheelchair, and he has been confined to solitary imprisonment with no help of any kind. Arundhati herself faces the possibility of a jail sentence. I have not even touched on Rohith Vemula’s suicide because this tragedy compounds so many other tragedies concerning the caste factor in universities; and also in Rohith’s case, the role that Union Ministers played in driving him to his death.
But now let me share with you my experience on the opening day of the Hyderabad Literary Festival. As I said earlier, I was invited to give a brief inaugural talk, and I spoke much the same as I am speaking now about matters of national concern, and the dangers we face in the climate we are now living in. The Governor of Telengana (and also of Andhra), was the Chief Guest on the occasion and he got up to speak after me. My speech had obviously upset and angered him because he set aside his own prepared address and angrily refuted all that I had said. Referring to me, he told the audience, “At the end of this festival she will realize that in THIS state we all live in harmony.” A few days later came the news of Rohith Vemula’s suicide at Hyderabad University. It made public his arbitrary suspension, along with four other Dalit students. It revealed the whole grim and ugly political interference that had caused a brilliant young man who aspired to be a science writer like Carl Sagan, to end his own life. The suicide letter he has left us is one of the most haunting and moving pieces of writing I have ever read, and the least we can do is to preserve it as a piece of literature. His death must remain a reminder to us all of the inhuman and unbearable discrimination that Dalits face in our society. No, this was certainly no example of harmony in the state. But these are the platitudes we hear, and which we must separate from the realities we cannot ignore.
There is no question, then, that citizens must speak. Writers are doing so in every possible forum. And we have set up online an Indian Writers’ Cultural Forum where events and speeches connected with the onslaught on our Constitutional and human rights are being highlighted, and the values of our secular republic are being defended. Other organizations are active, too, in this regard. A dharna was held at Jantar Mantar in Delhi on February 12th demanding a rapid investigation into the murders of Kalburgi, Dabholkar and Pansare. From abroad, more than a hundred historians, social scientists and academics from universities all over the world have in an open letter announced their solidarity with their counterparts in India, and have expressed their shock and anxiety at the crackdown on the freedom of expression, and on historical and scientific enquiry, and the ongoing move by government to control universities. They regard it as un-Indian that distinguished Indian scholars have been killed for the opinions they held, and that millions of unknown Indians now live in fear and uncertainty. And they have demanded that the government uphold our freedoms. All this gives us much-needed support, but in the end it is Indians, and I mean Indians who live and work and write in India, who alone can turn the tide. As far as writing goes, I have often made the point that migrant Indian writing is an entirely different genre from the work of those who write from home. There is an irreplaceable bond between soil and story. It is we, here, who experience India through all our many languages, who daily experience the pride, the shame, the anguish, the sights and sounds and all the nitty gritty of being Indian, as no migrant can. And it is we who are affected by all that happens here. It is up to us – especially writers, performers, publishers, teachers, and film makers and all those who are in a special position to influence public opinion, to make our voices heard. But ultimately it is up to every Indian to make it known that he or she will not be party to the un-making of all that India stands for. Change can only begin at home.
What the authorities have called a “manufactured” protest on the part of writers has, in fact, been nothing of the kind. It was neither planned nor organized. We writers live in different far-flung parts of this country. We don’t speak each others’ languages. We haven’t read each other. We haven’t met each other. We made individual decisions about returning or not returning our Awards. That is the most remarkable fact about this protest. It has been a spontaneous upsurge and a matter of individual conscience. Nothing like it has happened in any other country. I was on an NDTV program where the usual accusation of a “manufactured” protest was made, saying that writers had protested because they were seeking importance. I had to correct my accuser and tell him that writers are not looking for importance, they are looking for publishers. The other remarkable fact is the way that the writers’ protest has expanded – again spontaneously – into what we now see, where other voices from other disciplines have come into it – all of them for reasons directly affecting their own professions and institutions and their own rigorous standards of scholarship or artistic performance. We are under siege on many fronts and we are fighting back.
Religious fundamentalism is not religion. It is a disease, and it is women who suffer most from its dictates. We know what it is doing to women in countries around us, and now we see signs of this archaic mentality here in statements made by leading lights of Hindutva, statements that tell women they must be home before dark, that they must be housewives and must not take work outside the home, that they must bear a certain number of children, to increase the Hindu population, and other such uncivilized orders. It is for Indian women to reject such ideas as totally unacceptable, and for Indian men to support women in the continuing struggle against male domination, which is now getting a boost from the disease of religious fundamentalism.
I have said citizens must speak. At a time when we lack the leadership we need, the moral responsibility for making a stand rests on us, and that can be done in so many different, and always non-violent, ways. A story I like to tell is about a Canadian friend of mine who visited South Africa during the rule of apartheid. She got into a bus and sat down in the nearest available seat. The conductor came up to her and said, “Lady, these seats are for the blacks. The seats for Europeans are up front.” My friend replied, “Oh, that’s all right, I’m not European, I’m a Canadian”, and she stayed where she was. And then, of course, there was the famous Rosa Parkes who started a civil rights’ movement in the USA by sitting in the white section of the bus and refusing to vacate it. Protest takes many forms, and one of these is by the words one puts on a page, what one writes about, and the way one writes. Pablo Neruda explained his transition from love poetry to political awareness in a poem called “Let Me Explain a Few Things”: “You will ask: and where are the lilacs / and the metaphysics petalled with poppies / and the rain repeatedly spattering its words… / Come and see the blood in the streets / Come and see the blood in the streets…”. But becoming politically aware did not prevent him from writing odes to red wine, or lyrics to the body of his beloved. His personal life and his politics were one and his writing reflected all of him.
I am here at your kind invitation because being here, too, during these troubled times is also part of my role as a writer and all that I have written. Like other writers who have stepped into controversy, what I say, what I write, what I stand for, are a mixture of personal and political. To end on a personal note, I am a child of Gandhi’s India. I was a young girl when Nathuram Godse killed him. I was in the room in Birla House when Gandhiji breathed his last. Through my tears I remember promising myself, “I will never let him die.” I hope I have kept that promise.
Text of a talk delivered at Panjab University, Chandigarh, on March 17.