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Sunday, October 11, 2015

The flawed logic of the award-returnees

By Swapan Dasgupta

 

Let me state at the outset that I have a great deal of respect and admiration for writer Nayantara Sahgal who I have had the privilege of knowing for the past 37 years. I have also had very convivial conversations with Ashok Vajpeyi, poet and culture apparatchik, during various literary festivals over the years. I may not have shared all their political likes and dislikes—and Sahgal has occasionally teased me about my “wrong politics”—but there is more to life than common voting intentions, or so I hope. 

 

Therefore, when Sahgal takes it upon herself to publicly disavow her Sahitya Akademi award, a gesture that Vajpeyi and some others have emulated, the least I can do is to seriously examine the rationale of their protest. Regardless of whether they were right or were guilty of over-reaction bordering on grandstanding, it is unworthy to attach base motives to their symbolic assault on the Narendra Modi government. 

 

I will, therefore, desist from echoing the charge in the social media that Sahgal is guilty of selective indignation: she received her award barely two years after the massacre of Sikhs following Indira Gandhi’s assassination. As a public-spirited writer, Sahgal has been known to take stands. She had the courage to publicly oppose the Emergency imposed by her cousin at a time when other ‘liberals’ either willingly acquiesced or went into hibernation. Whatever else Sahgal may or may not be, she has a mind of her own. 

 

Nor will I insult Vajpeyi’s undeniable credentials as a Hindi poet by alluding to his close association with the late Arjun Singh or pointing to the fact that all the public offices he has held—Chairman of Bharat Bhavan (Bhopal), trustee Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, member ICCR and Chairman Lalit Kala Akademi—have been courtesy Congress governments. 

 

Frankly, the political inclinations of individuals are irrelevant—unless, of course, they choose to make it relevant. 

 

Returning a state award—to be distinguished from those who refuse the award in the first place—is not a casual gesture. Rabindranath Tagore returned his Knighthood after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919 and a further clutch of notables returned honours conferred on them during the Non Cooperation movement and Civil Disobedience movements launched by Mahatma Gandhi. In more recent times, the writer Khushwant Singh returned his Padma Bhushan in 1984, protesting against Operation Bluestar, but accepted a Padma Vibhushan in 2007. Apart from Singh’s understandable emotional outburst at the storming of the Golden Temple, the other protests, not even Tagore’s, weren’t necessarily centred on an event, although that may have been a trigger. In returning the honour conferred on them by the British Raj, they were questioning and challenging the legitimacy of the state that had honoured them. They were suggesting that British rule in India was illegitimate—a symbolic act of rebellion. 

 

SahgalVajpeyi and the others who returned their awards in the wake of the murder of two ‘rationalists’ and the beef lynching in Dadri were entirely right to be outraged. It is a sad day for India if individuals are targeted for their views, their faith or lifestyle. But the grim reality is that these things happens, and often despite the best efforts of the state. Last week, in an incident that was reminiscent of the Taliban attack on MalalaYusafzai Maoists in Chhattisgarh killed a teenage girl for daring to attend school; in Delhi, an extremely brutal rape brought forth street protests; and in West Bengal, political murders have become routine since the mid-1960s. These incidents can be multiplied and they bring no credit to the country. 

 

However, if we were to react to each ugly incident by questioning the legitimacy of the state, India would descend into a state of emotional civil war. To protest against wrong is legitimate; but to extend that outrage into challenging the legitimacy of a state is to carry things a bit too far. There is a fundamental difference between the Indian state and the government of the day. We can oppose a government and even campaign to ensure it is voted out in due course. Sadly, we can’t build and rebuild an entire state apparatus because of seasonal shifts in the mood. 

 

Sahgal and the others hate Narendra Modi, and in likelihood hated him ever since the day he entered public life. The reason may well be aesthetic. In the words of one of their intemperate advocates: “As our Prime Minister we have a man who can’t even be dignified by being called ‘uncultured’, but an ignorant egomaniac who has deliberately made a successful political career of being an enemy of culture wherever and whenever he suspects he may have found it.

 

In normal circumstances, such vitriol would never have passed editorial muster in a mainstream newspaper. But these are exceptional times. So intense is the hatred of ModiSahgal called him a ‘fascist’—that the government’s alleged sins of omission have been merged into a disavowal of the Union of India. 

 

In 1961, in protest against India’s takeover of Portugese-held Goa, a gifted poet by the name of Dom Moraes, then living in London, tore up his Indian passport before a TV camera. It was an act of puerile bravado characteristic of a man with an inflated sense of self-importance. But India forgave him and he flourished as a pickled socialite in Mumbai for the rest of his life. 

 

I think, maybe quite unwittingly and in a fit of rage that comes naturally to writers and poets, there is a tendency to emulate MoraesModi may not be everyone’s cup of tea but he is an elected Prime Minister. Under him, there has been no institutional shift in democratic function—as Sahgal must have realised when she denounced Modi quite spiritedly at a function in Teen Murti House last August. Had India become ‘fascist’ under Modi, Sahgal would have met the fate that Nehru’s daughter reserved for her political opponents during the Emergency. 

 

It is known that some people believe that protest is the dharma of the writer and poet. They may be right but that also makes these rarefied protests seem a matter of habit, cloaked in intemperate language. 


Sunday Pioneer, October 11, 2015

21 comments:

नितीन निमकर said...

Swapanda...I have heard a similar hate statement from none other than Jyoti Basu, the god of secularists when Vajpeyeeji became PM. The hate filled CM of West Bengal publicly said that he can not accept Vajpayee as PM of India. The shameless Indian Media never questioned him about this hate speech. In India Secular people are most communal, similarly Neharu family is the most undemocratic when it is regarding Hindus.

Mukul said...

Sometime I think that its a planned propaganda to show the world that democracy is under danger where as they don't have anything else to whine about with Modi's leadership.

Anonymous said...

You hv rightly pointed out their over-hurrid and overboard menifestations of indignation. But you should hv also included one more thing that where these eminent writers were when muzaffernagar riot happened under congress and sp regime?

Anonymous said...

A large section of Indian "intelligentsia", perhaps most of it, prefers to view themselves from the eye of the westerner: Indian nationalists are those that are recognized so by the western press or during western rule. For example, MK Gandhi, Nehru, Tagore, etc. Anyone else, especially speaking in the vernacular -- Patel, and now Modi would not have gotten along well with the western leaders/opinion makers since their lifestyles were rooted in Indian traditions. So any invocation of their names or their leaderships are a matter of deep embarrassment for them. But why should that embarrassment be turned into hate? perhaps a psychoanalyst has a better explanation but I venture to offer one: it a disgust at their own self, a proclamation of their inferiority complex.

Paramasivam said...

Sir, wonderful article. Narration slowly building in article. and finally concludes with JothiBasu and Emergency. With the returning of awards, the great writers who I revered as Icons, fell down in my view. Now I understand them as Leftists writers, funded by USSR, till their break up. Regarding Nehru family, the less we discuss the better. These people insult us, Indians, by calling an elected PM by different names. Let all the people return the awards and money and land, they received from Congress. It was public money.

ajayhr said...

"Had India become ‘fascist’ under Modi, Sahgal would have met the fate that Nehru’s daughter reserved for her political opponents during the Emergency." - Well put sir, well put :)

Priya Pandit said...

Thank you for showing the distinction between the actions of writers who returned their awards and Rabindranath Tagore. It's disappointing to think that highly evolved, sensitive and educated writers cannot see the difference. They have said that it is in protest against the murders of rationalists like Kalburgi and that their freedom of speech was curtailed. Nowhere  do they cite evidence of how their freedom has been impacted. It isn't as if the murders were commited by the state or agencies of the state. Their protest smacks of prejudice. The fact that this govt is a legitimate one and voted into power by a huge majority is unarguable. And then, there are the next elections when they can show their displeasure. Words like fascist and genocide which should be used with extreme caution are bandied about by anyone who wants to create a sound byte. There seems to be a loss of balance and tolerance by those who oppose the government and they are doing exactly what they accuse the ruling party of being guilty of.

FreshThoughts said...

When law and order is a state subject(Not under purview of Central Government), why didnt these so called liberals question the UP and Karnataka governments?

Anonymous said...

Honestly Swapan, would you have approved it if these same writers had applauded the murder of Kalburgi and murder of a man suspected of eating beef?

Anonymous said...

These "intellectuals" seem to be using any pretext to show to the world (the western world) what an abominable man Narendra Modi and his Hindutva party is. It is as though they are trampling over each other to prove that they do not like BJP/Modi. What they are doing now is awaiting the opinion/verdict of those people/entities in the west that they have sought to appease. If no word is forthcoming from them, their sacrifices will have gone down in vain! At least Sonia, being a proxy of these "entities" should say something to save the faces of the award-returnees. Is Sonia or Rahul listening?

Anonymous said...

You hit the nail on the head...perfectly articulated..Out of box analysis... I think it's you who should be honored with all the awards that they have returned... ;)

dev said...

You hit the nail on the head...perfectly articulated..Out of box analysis... I think it's you who should be honored with all the awards that they have returned... ;)

Pradeep said...

so called Elites making nuisance ...

Vijay Kumar Jitta said...

Rightly said, People who occupied the positions are not able to take new shift in paradigm.

Keeping lot of things constant I can see no difference between the people who committed the isolated acts (which are highly condemn-able) vs the people who pull in PM into everything.

Their hatred on PM is so high the their morality and common sense is lost in their misguided protests.

Unknown said...

Brilliant article as always Swapan-da. You have caught this pseudo-intellectuals and fake-liberals by the scruff of their neck and have shaken them. Their act of returning the award - which started with Nayantara - is nothing but a lame exercise to make them relevant in the new world order which is being created. They are feeling left out and are getting trampled in the rush created by youngsters and nationalist forces, who are now getting a whiff of fresh air due to the efforts of a truly patriotic head of state. They cannot digest that someone who is not the part of a "club" was able to ascend to such heights and is loved by masses not just in India but outside India as well.

I was also riveted by your arguments on Barkha's show "The Buck Stops Here" on NDTV yesterday evening. You ripped apart the fake and hollow arguments of Nayantara - who by the way has almost lost her mind and sees ghosts - and she had nothing else to say than pretending that she was not able to hear you! She was reeking of hatred towards Narendra Modi without any valid reason and was trying to hold on to her inflated ego and irrelevant existence by making stupid comments in a fake accent.

Anonymous said...

Sir, If we talk about Modi's credentials what stpos us from demading Sonia's?

Vidyut said...

Let me confess that I detest Modi and the zealotry that thrives under his benevolent silent umbrella (to refute me, simply note when he asked any of the bloodlust specialists to shut up).

And I agree that Modi isn't exactly popular with the "intellectuals" a word that has assumed the proportions of profanity in his able leadership.

Therefore it cannot be ruled out that the Sahitya Acadmi Award winners detested him to begin with. That said, it is a bit magnanimous, no, to assume that anyone would return their awards - that I presume they take pride in - over someone they don't like to begin with? It is hardly as though Modi has caved in to condemnation or that public criticism has resulted in any accountability or stratight answers. There is no conceivable "motive" that could be achieved by so serious a sacrifice.

And I am no fan of anyone. All people have a capacity to serve their own ends and I am honest enough in my dislike of Modi to say candidly that if my sacrificing an award would contribute to bringing him down, I would, in a flash. I genuinely believe him to be harmful for the country. Would I do it if he was almost certainly guaranteed to ignore the whole thing and jet off to some country to take pot shots at intellectuals? Nope.

I would most certainly not give up an honor I believed I deserved over someone I did not like to begin with.

Therefore, the Occam's razor stands, in my view - the stated motive of appears to be the clearest explanation - disgust.

There have been ugly events in India's history. There have been crimes and criminal politicians and levels of brazen that reduced humanity to a joke. And they have come from across the political spectrum ranging right from the banned zealots of SIMI or Abhinav Bharat to the Sanatan Sanstha to the VHP/RSS/BJP/assorted fronts to the Shiv Sena to the Congress to the communists to the Maoists. What makes a relatively minor incident so revolting is that the accused are related to the ruling party and there seems to be absolutely no sense of ownership of responsibility for the well being of the country by even condemning the act without evasions, let alone reining in a polarizing narrative gone rogue - and let us not even pretend that this was not the whole idea behind the cow frenzy - it is the new Babri Masjid. And that still would be your garden variety inhumanity that you see in say the SP or Congress - evasions, excuses, counter accusations.

What truly disqualifies this government from recognition as any kind of entity worth acknowledging is when MPs brazenly perpetuate the hate speech. When arms are openly offered to the murderers as "self defense" - against what? People assaulting their lathis with their heads?

What provoked the Prime Minister to open his mouth finally was the President speaking up. And then, his reply is so ambiguous that it isn't clear who exactly he is saying what to. For all we know he could be warning the President to not make a fuss when things go to plan!

Dude, you gotta admit, this is flat out disgusting and frankly indicates a government that is interested in crime - which basically is a perversion on such a vast scale that heck random people quitting govt jobs and returning their ration cards on principle would be understandable. And I hope it doesn't come to that. There is really no telling how far this government will fall in their absolute refusal to reject hatred.

Vijay Kumar Jitta said...

@viduat, Not sure in your detest you understood the whole point the author tried to convey. you prove his point again.

Anonymous said...

Great and perceptive article. I just watched Swapan on "The Buck Stops Here". It was a masterly, and deft performance by Swapan that would give the best lawyers a run for their money. I don't mean in a legalistic way, but in speed and precision with which the arguments of the writers Sahgal and Devy were demolished. Given the mute, shoddy and emotional responses of the writers it is clear that the Award Vapsee movement has these impulses:

1. A counter to the Ghar wapsee of the RSS
2. hurt of being disdained by a technocratic government
3. a club dispute blown out of proportion

I can fully appreciate the third point as Nayantara Sahgal does come across as someone who has just lost an audience at the center -- club going, scotch sipping, golf playing anglophiles and Europeans now replaced by an earthy, effective and unpretentious desi log. The Sun that is still setting on the British empire in India makes some fearful of the night to follow. But the coming full moon light will be gentle and glowing and pave way for the bright Indian sun in the morning! To them, I'd say in American "hang in there"

Anonymous said...

Why do we have such awards in the first place? What a waste of taxpayer's money on keeping alive such parasites of society.

parth said...

excellent.they waited for a year. the steps and action taken bu Modiji is frightening.the trio-Cong,Journo,Babu felt agreat op. High time Modiji creates public debate as said by Chetan Bagat- Several Islamic states around the world are examples. Such countries have less individual freedom, do not allow as much rational thought, and religion can't be questioned. To many Indians, this would be a huge setback to one's quality of life. Freedom is precious to us. It's who we are. AND We could discuss abolishing the law that protects cows. But there is a caveat. If we only remove this law and let all the Islam-specific laws remain, it will be grossly unfair. Let political parties and religious heads decide to remove all religion-specific laws from our law books. Let us educate people why it is important to do so. What we see instead is cacophony, posturing and a lot of finger pointing as political parties cater to their respective vote banks. courtesy Times of India article on 18/10/15