Outrageous Acts, Courageous Acts
On 30 August 2015, M M Kalburgi, a renowned Kannada writer, an ex-Vice Chancellor of Hampi University and winner of a Sahitya Akademi award for literature, was shot dead, at point blank, in broad daylight, on the steps of his own house, at age 77.
Kalburgi’s death is the third such murder of an elder in the last two years: Gobind Pansare, aged 83, was murdered in similar fashion in February this year, and Narendra Dabholkar, aged 68, in August 2013. All three were rationalists and had spoken out against caste-based religious fundamentalism all their lives. In each case, the killers are yet to be apprehended and brought to account.
The dastardly murder of such eminent public intellectuals is an index of the growing intolerance for plurality and the sustained attack on the freedom of expression (social, political, religious and individual) in India today. In the last decade, the forces of resurgent fundamentalism and divisive communalism have increasingly made it difficult for artists, activists and academics to do their job, namely to comment on and contemplate upon our contemporary society. Reformulating the oft-quoted maxim about ‘killing the writers first,’ Alexander Chee wrote recently:
Historically, despots kill the artists, writers, journalists and professors when they seize power, as what they teach is critical thinking, and what comes with that is the ability to resist tyrannies of various kinds.
In a show of solidarity to combat those who seek to stifle literary voices in India, a series of sporadic protests have marked the last month, coming to a head last week. These protests have been centred around the Sahitya Akademy , the National Academy of Letters set up by the Government of India in 1954. In the last 60 years, the Sahitya Akademi has functioned as an autonomous body to foster and promote Indian literature in its 24 recognized languages, including English. Today, members of this august body, and recipients of its prestigious awards, find it impossible to either be a part of it or to support its silence on the repeated assault on the freedom of expression of thinkers and scholars.
Last week, on Friday 9 October, Shashi Deshpande, feminist writer and office bearer of the Sahitya Akademi, resigned and called upon Prime Minister Narendra Modi to openly condemn the murders, noting that ‘silence is a form of abetment’. On Saturday 10 October, K Satchidanandan, eminent Malayalam poet and writer, member of the General Council, Executive Board and Financial Committee of the Sahitya Akademi, quit, saying, ‘annihilation should never be allowed to replace argument that is the very essence of democracy’. Earlier in the week, Ashok Vajpeyi, Hindi writer, and Nayantara Sahgal, English writer, also returned their Sahitya Akademi awards.
The first to raise his voice and return his Sahitya Akademi award on 9 September, immediately after the murder of Professor Kalburgi, was Uday Prakash, the Hindi writer who came to the Australia India Literatures International Forum in Sydney in 2012, and whose volume of stories, The Walls of Delhi, was published in translation by UWA Press. Six Kannada scholars followed suit on 3 October: Veerana Madiwalar, T Satish Javare Gowda, Sangamesh Menasinakai, Hanumanth Haligeri, Sridevi V Aloor and Chidananda Sali. These writers all expressed distress that in the reigning atmosphere of fear and censorship, the Sahitya Akademi has not issued any statement regretting or condemning the murder of one of their own award winners.
But the assault is not only on the freedom of expression of writers. At the heart of this atmosphere of fear and censorship is the systemic and sustained attack on almost all forms of expression that do not conform to an imagined construction of what constitutes ‘Indian’ culture. India today is being configured as a Hindu nation. What was erstwhile celebrated as the land of myriad languages, religions, cultures and faiths is now being narrowed down to a homogenous idea of what constitutes Hinduism itself. Among other things, Hinduism is being presented as a religion which worships cows – and therefore cow-slaughter has become the pivot on which current politics turn.
On 28 September 2015, a Muslim man in Dadri was lynched to death by his neighbours on the basis of a rumour that he had slaughtered and skinned a cow. In protest against numerous such incidences of violence against non-Hindus and minorities, Rahman Abbas, Urdu writer, returned his Sahitya Akademi award.
As I wrote this essay, news came in that as ‘a sign of the deepening crisis’ two more writers, Hindi writer, Krishna Sobti, and Malayalam novelist, Sarah Joseph, have also returned their awards to the Sahitya Akademi, bringing the total number to a dozen writers, six scholars from Kannada, four from the other regional languages of India and two from Indian writers writing in English. At publication, the number continues to rise: this week seven more writers have returned their Sahitya Akademi awards, garnering support from the likes of Gopalkrishna Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson and the former governor of Bengal. This group includes Mangalesh Dabral from Hindi, Ganesh Devy from Gujarat, and five from the Punjab: Ajmer Singh Aulakh, Atamjit Singh, Gurbachan Singh Bhullar, Waryam Sandhu and Megh Raj Mitter.
There is something remarkable going on here. If you have not noted it till now, allow me to draw your attention to the writers. Barring two, all the writers who have returned their awards so far are from the regional languages of India. Apart from wondering why contemporary Indian writers writing in English, who enjoy a powerful position in the Indian as well as international literary community, have not yet come forward to express their dissent with the state on the matter of freedom of expression, one must also note the remarkable power and courage of the writers from the regional languages. Barely known outside of India and rarely invited to the many literary festivals that glitter on the firmament of global publishing regimes, it is time to note the significance and solidarity of the writers who speak and express themselves in the multiple languages of India.
Indian writing in the 24 recognized regional languages or bhashas commands tremendous following and popularity in their respective constituencies. Some of these languages boast of thousand-year old, continuous and unbroken histories, while others are modern Indian languages. In either case, bhasha literatures tell the story of an India that is remarkably different from that of their writing-in-English cousins, whose work draws different kinds of pictures. While I don’t want to play wedge politics between Indian writers writing in English and Indian writers writing in the other 23 recognized languages, I do want to assert that there is a world of difference in their reception and political economies.
Furthermore, bhasha writers are forging quiet revolutions, which are seen to be threatening to the ruling order. For example, in September 2015, Malayalam writer, M M Basheer was forced to stop a series of scholarly commentaries on the Hindu epic, Ramayana, on the grounds that he is a Muslim and therefore unfit to author such works. While this is a blatant attack based purely on spurious religious grounds, the attempt to construct a singular view of the epic created a furore in 2011, when the University of Delhi was forced to withdraw A K Ramanujan’s essay, ‘Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation,’ from its history curriculum. The objection to this remarkable essay was that it contained ‘abusive and libelous language used for Divine Hindu deities’.
Not only is there an attempt to make a single version of the Ramayana a central text of Hindusim (which is not a text-based religion to begin with), but any narrative that deviates from the reigning powers’ version is seen as a threat to the idea of a Hindu nation. For example, in 2014, Tamil writer, Perumal Murugan, quit writing and announced his own death in a dramatic ‘suicide note’ under similar threats by local Hindu and caste-based groups. The 2014 publication of the English translation, One Part Woman, of Murugan’s 2010 novel, Madhorubhagan, was seen as a deviant description of Hindu practices, leading to his announcement.
It is not just individual writers who are under increasing scrutiny in this atmosphere of fearmongering and threat, but publishing houses too are being forced to censoring their outputs. In 2009, Penguin Books India declared that it would destroy all copies of Indologist Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History, which explores, among other things, the outcastes at the bottom of Hindu hierarchy: the women and Dalits.
While the continuing persecution of voices in India will indubitably lead to more protests in the days to come, and perhaps forge the path to a universe where, as the first Asian Nobel Laureate of Literature, Rabindranath Tagore, put it, ‘the mind is without fear and the head is held high,’ I want to use the space here to also protest against another kind of silencing. Indian English writing, as we know, has enjoyed spectacular success all around the world. The felicity and ease with which Indian writers have made the language of their erstwhile coloniser their own, and transformed it into a thing of beauty in itself, is worthy of celebration indeed. But the continuing neglect of the other 23 languages of India gives us pause for concern.
Indian writing in the regional languages, bhasha literatures, narrate an India that is multiple, multifarious, multilingual and multihued. Bhasha literatures forge their own paths, innovatively making and creatively un-making forms, genres and styles. They do not conform to a metropolitan view of what constitutes literature. The translation revolution that began in the Indian publishing industry in the 1980s saw the publication of these numerous literatures in English translation as well as translation into other languages. If the Sahitya Akademi had set the example of such translational transactions from the 1960s, the India of the 1980s saw the flowering of a thousand such multilingual flowers. However, outside of India, bhasha writers are seldom published in translation or given their due presence at literary festivals.
In the light of these events, I urge everyone to read these crucial examples of Indian writing in translation and provide critical support to the writers whose voices are being stifled in India. I urge you to speak vociferously in favour of Indian writing in the regional languages and lobby with your literary comrades to invite these courageous writers to your literary festivals who are the canaries in the mines warning us of what is happening to literary voice and expression in India.
The Nobel Committee last week sent a powerful message to the world to celebrate pluralism and promote democracy by awarding the 2015 prize to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet. It is time to reinvent what we understand by true democracy and provide a forum and a platform to all those voices that are seeking to uphold freedom of expression the world over.