The recent killing of MM Kalburgi, a 78-year-old renowned Kannada writer, rationalist and scholar, is just another addition to the growing list of murders committed by fundamentalist right-wing individuals and groups.
There is a pattern emerging not just in India, but also in the neighbouring Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Amid slogans of change, development and ‘Achhe Din’, which have captured the public imagination, the social and cultural space is facing a crisis.
Writer, poet and filmmaker, Uday Prakash, is one of the foremost Hindi litterateurs of our times. He had even won the prestigious Sahitya Akademi Award for his work.
Prakash, however, says he was lately feeling pained by the constant attacks on artists, writers and historians. The murder of Kalburgi was merely the tipping point for him to decide to return the award to the academy.
Catch spoke to Prakash about his decision, and what troubles him in today’s times. Here are excerpts from the interview.
PA: Why have you decided to return the Sahitya Akademi Award?
UP: I have no political affiliations. But we were concerned about the situation for long. It was disturbing to see AK Ramanujan’s book getting banned and Wendy Doniger’s book being literally reduced to pulp.
Then, Govind Pansare and others were attacked. We had never thought the situation would come to physical assault and murders. They harassed UR Ananthamurthy; he was handed over a ticket to Pakistan. We were undoubtedly afraid.
This recent attack on Kalburgi was very shocking. I never saw him making public statements. He was doing his work. But they didn’t allow him to live. They killed him. This was too much.
Ironically, the Hindi literature world has seldom taken any initiative for social change. It has always lacked a towering personality to take the lead. I am an ordinary person, but I wanted to get my message through.
PA: There seems to be a pattern to the attacks on intellectual freedom. Is this a particularly difficult time for the Indian literary fraternity?
UP: Yes, it is a difficult time. Such incidents have gradually intensified. Writers and free thinkers who express dissent against the establishment are targeted. But it’s not as though only they are targets.
Social activists and some other sections have also been at the receiving end. Many sections of society are facing this crisis. But writers, academicians, artists and journalists are more vulnerable. They have no defence or protection…
PA: Has it always been a challenge to speak out or do what one wants to do? The writers, artists etc are not a very organised bunch…
UP: I agree, and the few organisations that do exist are marred by several conflicts. They are self-obsessed and mostly end up serving their own purposes. A writer or an artist often finds himself helpless and singled out.
It started with AK Ramanujan, then James W Laine found himself in trouble for his biography of Shivaji. The situation continued to deteriorate. Arudhanti Roy had to withdraw her book. Wendy’s book met with a similar fate. My book, The Girl With the Golden Parasol, was also pulped.
Now, they have stooped to physical violence, as happened in the case of Ananthamurthy. You are well aware what happened to Ashis Nandy in Jaipur.
The fear was always there in my mind, but the frequency of thes attacks has increased now. There were three sensational murders in succession. We know what has been happening in Bangladesh. Sabeen Mehmud in Pakistan was also killed.
A friend suggested that I should return the award. We were just discussing that Kalburgi was also awarded by the Sahitya Akademi, as was UR Ananthamurthy. How surprising is it that the institution which gives this prestigious award to the writers disowns them soon after the ceremony?
The Sahitya Akademi has no role or responsibility for the life and works of the writers they honour. I realised that this was true – not even a two-line statement was issued. There were no condolences, no tributes.
Why only the Sahitya Akademi, the ministry of culture, which provides budget to the Akademy, as well the Department of Education should also have condemned the killing. After all, Kalburgi was a former Vice-Chancellor of Hampi University.
The Sahitya Akademi didn’t even issue a two-line statement in tribute when Kalburgi was killed
Every minister, including Smriti Irani, should have spoken out against it. They could have gained political mileage out of it, even the Congress which I s ruling Karnataka did not speal out.
Nobody is safe amidst the increasing criminalisation of our society. Be it me, you or anyone who wants to speak out.
PA: Are you suggesting that this is the toughest phase for Indian literature since independence?
UP: It is not only the literary world. Social activists were never so vulnerable. You are aware how many RTI activists have been killed. Whistleblowers are been attacked. It is happening to everybody who seeks truth but does not have power.
PA: Some reports claim that you returned the award as you were afraid?
UP: I am not impervious to fear. And I remember the old Russian film, Ballad of a Soldier; fear can become your strength too.
PA: Do you agree that regional language writers have been targeted more than Hindi writers?
UP: Hindi writers? There have been very few incidents. They worship the likes of Asaram Bapu and Radhe Maa, who fool the conscience of the people. But anyone who raises a voice against superstition is hounded.
Don’t expect anything from the sphere of Hindi literature. No luminary from the Hindi belt has ever been the cause of any positive change in the Indian sub-continent. Ambedkar came from West India, Gandhi was from Gujarat and Vivekananda came from Bengal.
The Hindi-speaking region has always yielded to subjugation. The same is true about its literature. The Dalit movement originated in the south, as did the Bhakti movement.
Give me one name, barring a few exceptions like JP (Jayaprakash Narayan) and (Ram Manohar) Lohia, who have come from the Hindi belt and made an impact.
Don’t expect anything from Hindi writers. They worship the likes of Asaram Bapu and Radhe Maa
PA: Wouldn’t this be the ideal time for all literary personalities to come together and send a strong message, that they will not accept government awards, nor participate in government functions and events till their freedom and right to expression is restored?
UP: Had they got the message from the establishment, they would have resigned en masse. But not every writer thinks in the same manner.
This capitalist system has two types of political forces; ruling and opposition. They keep on changing hats but the divisions along caste, communal, racial and class lines remain the same among them. These forces rarely stand behind a writer who raises his voice. For instance, Vishnu Khare has criticised my stand. There are a few more.
PA: Vishnu Khare is saying that he does not understand the reason behind your decision…
UP: He said that by returning the award, Kalburgi has been murdered twice. This is why it is very difficult to raise your voice in the Hindi literary world. If you say that a fanatic killed Gandhi, Vishnu Khare would accuse you of murdering Gandhi again. And then they call themselves leftists.
PA: Many people argue that if liberals cede their space, fanatics would take over…
UP: No system can sustain without the power of the elite. Elite society always yearns for political power.
Don’t you agree that the BJP lacks intellectual power? A non-deserving person is made the HRD minister. Another non-deserving person is heading National Book Trust. Most of the intellectuals are either in the Left, or moderate Left fold. So, they [BJP] always want to accommodate intellectuals, as they did with Bhupen Hazarika. They also managed to lure Lata Mangeshkar.
Many Leftist intellectuals have switched sides. Several others are benefitting from the system.
In the next few days, you will see that many more change their positions and stands. This is opportunism. They either maintain a silence when somebody takes a stand, or they create controversy. This is happening at a time when, if you speak the truth, the whole world watches.
PA: How do you respond to the insinuation that you had accepted an award from Yogi Adityanath?
UP: Fascist forces are very good at lying. Any award involves some amount of money, a citation and a memento. It was the first death anniversary of a cousin of mine, with whom I had had no contact for 32 years. I was told they wanted to felicitate me in my cousin’s memory.
I had no idea Yogi Adityanath would be present in that meeting. I am still very bad at mundane affairs. I later came to know that Adityanath is the chairman of the governing body of the college where my cousin was the principal.
I never imagined that this death anniversary would be given a political colour. Neither the Left, nor the Right should think that India’s demography is completely polarised along political lines. It would be foolish to judge a person on the basis of family functions he attends.
Even now, Brahminical fanatics tend to presume the same. They have a problem with your every move. If you eat a perticular vegetable, they would declare you socialist. For another vegetable on your plate, they will call you capitalist, and so on.
PA: What must those who are fond of literature do now?
UP: They must protest. We have a tradition of peaceful protest as well. Gandhi founded the tradition of peaceful protest. Even the Left followed it and it impacted the whole world. But they are themselves divided along various lines. This is why there is no furore over such a big incident.
Two more people have got threats. It is possible they will meet the same fate as Kalburgi. You can see how I am being abused on my Facebook page.
Those who have trolled me either belong to the Congress or the BJP. Most of them are body-builder like figures who ride a bike, and have gods and goddesses on their walls. I don’t consider this section as religious or ‘Hindu’. They are just fanatical, misguided, lumpen and criminal elements. Rightist forces exploit these people to attack persons like Kalburgi and Ananthamurthy.
You see the same thing happening in Germany and Spain. The corporate mafia is in cahoots with some segments of the literary world. The loot is on, the attacks are on. Where and how will the writers survive?