Returning of Awards: Political Ploy or Deep Cries Out?

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The ongoing spate of academicians, writers and scientists returning their badges of honour in their respective careers, that has reached a significant high of more than 40 people lately, has sparked a new form of collective protest in the Indian political landscape. Writers and other rationalists have come out to peacefully register their protest against the growing “intolerance” in the country, owing to a sporadic turn of events like cold-blooded murder of rationalist writer M.M. Kalburgi, mob lynching of a man in Dadri over beef-consumption row, smearing of Kulkarni’s face ahead of a book-launch in Mumbai, etc. Ever since Bhartiya Janata Party took to power in May 2014, there has been a degree of discomfort amidst a mass of people; particularly religious minorities. This, and the subsequent turn of events insinuating communal hatred led to this form of protest that is “unprecedented, and does not have a historical parallel,” to quote writer and activist Arundhati Roy who is also one of those who have returned their awards.

There has been an immense debate on the subject. How effective is this mode of protest? Is this a “political ploy” by the left-wingers to slam the PM, whom they allegedly despise? Who is the protest directed against: the State or the autonomous body of writers viz. Sahitya Akademi that is supposed to be the guardian of literature, art and culture but has maintained a deafening silence over the assault on free speech? Why are they standing up as late as now? I think we need to take a step back and re-configure our questions. Could we be asking ourselves categorically; as to why are we even discussing the credibility of a protest as peaceful as this one? I find it ridiculous that we “debate” rationalists’ concerns that have got no fault line or questionable agenda whatsoever. It’s simply a collective demonstration of their courage and an enforcement of our right to dissent as a society. Writers like Nayantara Sehgal have maintained that Sahitya Akademi has failed its duty as a guardian of free speech and hence they give away their awards as a means of registering protest. Principally, this would not of course curb “intolerance” or communal tension all at once. However, the shift of focus that is being demanded by these rationalists, from non-issues to the reality on ground, is fundamental to this subject. The incidents that reflect a deep-seated contempt for dissent in our evolving idea of India have, more often than not, insulted the intelligence of “We, the people”, Arundhati Roy rightly termed it as “a kind of ideological viciousness and an assault on our collective IQ that will tear us apart and bury us very deep if we do not stand up to it now.” Disagreeing with a fellow human being over an issue is one thing which is completely humane and constitutionally justified. However, snuffing out a person’s life over difference of opinion is absolutely beyond human tendencies. And the controversy hits the tipping point when people go ahead and slam the very peaceful protests as “selective outrage,” “biased”, “politically motivated” and what not. Ah! The forefathers of our Constitution who stressed so much on the importance of developing scientific temper must have been turning in their graves.

So what if a person, in his or her right mind, does not go along the lines of the ruling party? So what if he/she decides to register protest by disavowing prestigious awards, in a democratic fashion? Doesn’t that make them better practitioners of the democratic values enshrined in our constitution than the most of us, who either continue to stare blankly into the abyss or sit behind a computer screen chewing chips; writing a paragraph or two about how saddened we are by the current state of affairs? The means of protest can always vary from person to person and it may be that the method employed by them is not befitting to our circumstances. At the same time, that does not imply A’s way of dissent is better than B’s or vice-versa. As long as we are in a position to take the communal forces head on in a democratic and peaceful manner, even in the middle of all the negative energy that pulls us back, I think we have an edge over those that try to silence the voices within us.

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