The host of major Indian writers from diverse languages breaking their silence and returning their Sahitya Akademi awards is a fascinating spectacle. The Germans have a name for what their protest represents: they call it the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the times. The writers have drawn blood. Minister for Culture Mahesh Sharma was predictably the first major name to lambast the protesters and ask them to quit writing if they feel as suffocated as they say they are. Home Minister Rajnath Singh followed with a slightly politer negation of this protest. The latest biggy to join the bandwagon of writer-bashers is the Honourable Finance Minister Arun Jaitley. He has dubbed the writers’ act of defiance a "manufactured protest".
This unforeseen defiance from writers followed by even more unusual disapprobation by the state is understandably a rare treat for all television anchors who favor the prizefighter school of journalism two punches for the pros, two for the antis. For once, the spokespersons of the largest parties, the Congress, the Samjvadi Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party are on the sidelines. As the bout gets rolling, the anchor fixes a baleful eye upon the writers: Why were the awards not returned during other regimes when riots and killings were just as common? Why this selective protest, why now? Ah, isn’t one of you related to the Nehru family, and aren’t some of you ex-civil servants who served under the Congress-led coalition? Hold on, the anchor nods genially at the party spokesperson bristling with unspent passions. Let the writer reply quickly to my queries first and then I will come back to you for yours.
Writers, unlike politicians and party spokespersons, are incapable of rolling with the punches to deflect the blows and still enjoy their humiliation. They either fly off the handle, leading to louder baiting, or start from the beginning, trying to cover a complex middle ground before they reach the end that will contain an honest answer. Their baiters will, however, treat each exposition of reasons for dissent as something with several hidden connections. Ah, says the Union Minister for Culture, let the dissenters abandon the act of writing if it has indeed turned so difficult, we’ll then see. And while we are at it, he sneers, let us also do a thorough background check on all these men and women handing back their awards and check their political affiliations.
The strategy: Since everything these days is being based on principles of asymmetrical verification, one feels tempted to ask the good Doctor, who is the proud owner of the fabled Kailash Hospital in Delhi, if this what he can tell a patient complaining of breathlessness: “If breathing is becoming so laboured, dear fellow, stop breathing. We will then see.” And then ask the nurse on duty to carry out a thorough background check on the cheeky patient.
This is how they first destroy values and then set out to belittle those that guard them. Barbarism can be let loose after no one can judge any longer or say what is barbaric or uncouth and what is patriotic and fair. Terror such as they seek to drive within the ranks of free thinkers and writers today can create nothing. Hence the lack of creative minds among their ranks and an utter lack of sensitivity to the suffering of those who are politically unimportant to them. When they dislike someone as much as they currently do these Akademi award-returning writers, they simply label them dubious citizens with hidden and seditious political agendas. In the Manichean vision prevalent at the top these days, nuance is for dunces. An intellectual must either unhesitatingly and always side with them or be counted as an enemy of the state.
The stark confrontation between the writers and the Indian state today mirrors the reality of war when everything is reduced to a merciless struggle between Good and Evil, White and Black. Evil is whatever opposes this Manichean vision. The words Cultural Revolution today must not mean multiple flowers blooming simultaneously. To the Sadhvis and Mahants, the Good Doctor and the Hon Minister for Finance, protests by artists are either rooted in hysteria and ignorance or in a dastardly political plot hatched by Communists. They are unwilling to accept that one by one, moved by the suffering and misery they see all around, our writers have stopped being afraid of authority.
The end game: Given the rampant rise in prices and lowering of public safety and well-being, ordinary men and women are beginning to wonder why, if the writers are such a stupid bunch of nerds, must the Ministers for Home and Finance spend so much time and breath in denouncing them and not try to control prices and murderous mobs?
It is wrong to assume that writers in nations such as ours live with the constant desire for revolt against the state. Writers more than anyone else seek calm and they seek approbation. They know that political revolutions by their very nature are short-lived, gory dramas and they instinctively flinch from confrontational situations. If they resort to an act of defiance and return a cherished reward given them by the state, it is because they see no other solution in sight. For them, all other attempts, all other means to draw the state’s attention to the plight of the marginalised have failed.
The increasing oppressiveness has them in the grip that the rest of the nation may also come to experience soon, since prices mount daily and street violence as well. Scandal after scandal, illegality after illegality goes unpunished by a government that rode into power by denouncing the same vices of the last government. Writers, in speaking of the wronged and the humiliated, act as the conscience keepers of a nation. A state that not only remains contemptuously dismissive of their pain, but also threatens to subject the dissenters to scrutiny by its secret services, is violating the limit of people’s patience and passing a sentence on itself.