As intellectuals take a political stand against the Modi government, polarising the cultural establishment, the NDA refuses to rise to the bait.
Thinkers, writers, poets and artists are meant to be the conscience keepers of a nation. They hold lofty perches in the establishment, and their achievements are often feted by the government. These honours in the form of awards, government grants and fellowships empower cultural custodians to continue their work. What they espouse is freedom of expression—a fundamental right of any evolved society. Many Indian intellectuals with political affiliations have banded together against the Narendra Modi government, alleging suppression of free speech, and religious intolerance.
Over the last week, nearly 30 intellectuals have either returned their awards given by the Sahitya Akademi, state academies or resigned from premier cultural bodies, though funded by the Union government. At the time of going to press, noted Punjabi writer, 80-year-old Dalip Kaur Tiwana returned her Padma Shri to express “solidarity with writers who are protesting against increasing cultural intolerance in our society and politics”.
The Modi government is getting bad press for the jingoistic attacks and murders committed by fringe Hindutva elements in the name of beef or book releases in spite of the Prime Minister’s global and national pro-development image. Antipathy to Modi was rampant after the 2002 Gujarat riots. Social workers like Teesta Setalvad and former cops like Sanjeev Bhatt worked to implicate Modi. Over time, they got involved in scandals and were censured by the Supreme Court. A concerted coalition emerged to block the rise of a nationalist politician who questioned an established way of life.
The provocation for the first wave of resignations and return of awards was the murder of Kannada writer and scholar Dr M M Kalburgi in north Karnataka on August 30. Intellectuals were outraged by the lack of a response from the Sahitya Akademi of which he was a member and the silence of the Prime Minister and the Government. The anger escalated over the Dadri lynching. The protest acquired political overtones, turning into a secular stand against the NDA government and Narendra Modi personally. The first one to return her Sahitya Akademi Award was writer and Jawaharlal Nehru’s niece Nayantara Sahgal, alleging “India’s culture of diversity” was under “vicious assault”. Former Lalit Kala Akademi chairman, poet and essayist Ashok Vajpeyi followed suit, to protest the “assault on right to freedom of both life and expression”. Writer Sarah Joseph was next to return her Akademi award, protesting “some sort of curb on what one wants to write and speak. This does not augur well.”
Joseph is a member of the Aam Aadmi Party since 2014 and contested the Parliament elections from Thrissur in Kerala and lost. Kerala’s celebrity poet and vocal Marxist litterateur K Sachidanandan, too, quit the Kendra Sahitya Akademi. Kashmiri poet Ghulam Nabi Khayal returned his Akademi award, saying the minorities feel “unsafe and threatened”. Writer Shashi Deshpande, who left her Akademi post, told The Sunday Standard: “There is a sense of intolerance in the country and we are not used to it.”
The intention is to put pressure on the NDA and impact public opinion by portraying the Modi government as autocratic. The government came across as inarticulate and unrepresented in the debate. Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma blurted out, “If they say they are unable to write, let them first stop writing. We will then see.” Sahitya Akademi chairman Vishwanath Prasad Tiwari, asking writers not to politicise the issue, said: “The Akademi is not a government organisation but an autonomous body. The award is given to a writer for a chosen work and there is no logic to return the award because it is not like the Padma awards.”
The Fine Art of a Financial Mess
As culture is being used of late as a handle to beat Moditva, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) has stepped in to clean up the mess in one of the country’s premier cultural institutions, Lalit Kala Akademi, which was dominated for years by various lobbies favoured by the previous regime. An internal draft audit, launched by the Ministry of Culture (MoC) at the behest of the PMO, reveals blatant financial irregularities during the UPA regime, causing massive losses to the academy. Lalit Kala Akademi is an autonomous body and is fully funded by the MoC. The audit has found the following anomalies:
1. On October 29, 2013, a payment of over Rs.1 lakh was made to security services that were booked under the plan head of promotion and dissemination activities.
2. Vehicle hire charges of over Rs.1 lakh on January 16, 2014, were placed under promotion of national exhibition of art.
3. Compensatory allowance of Rs.73,715 to staff for attending office beyond office hours was booked under promotion and dissemination activities. (The report, which has noted that expenses should have been covered under other administrative expenses, has advised the Akademi to review cases of diversion of funds.)
4. Illegal allotment of the academy’s galleries to foreign missions and private parties has caused revenue losses. In 2012-2013, galleries were given to Sri Lankan and Austrian embassies, and other private parties free of cost, thus causing a loss of Rs.15 lakh. In 2013-14, the galleries were given to private parties causing a loss of Rs.5 lakh, and in 2014-15, the total loss due to violation of allotment rules was Rs.32 lakh. Allotting galleries to embassies and private organisations free of cost has been a practice naming them as collaborative shows despite explicit mention in the rules that “no exemption from payment of license fee shall be allowed to anyone whether the name of Lalit Kala Akademi is mentioned in applicant’s exhibition brochure or not.” The audit suggested that the licence fee due may be recovered from the organisation concerned.
5. Chitpur and Pooja projects, run by the Kolkata office, have come under the scanner for delay. Pooja project has already exceeded the approved budget of Rs.20 lakh but nothing concrete has been achieved towards its completion.
The audit has observed frequent instances of flouting of rules and procedures. It has categorically stated that being a fully funded body, the Akademi is bound to follow all government rules.
“Before seeking further grants, the Akademi should furnish details of recoveries effected on account of audit observations to the grant sanctioning authority, under intimation to audit,” the report said.
But politicisation it is. The animosity of these intellectuals against Modi was evident even before he came to power. On May 14, 2014, just two days before the counting of the votes in the General Elections, writer-activists issued a statement to all secular parties and leaders to combine and ensure the formation of a secular government to prevent Modi coming to the Centre. Among the eminent signatories was Maya Krishna Rao, the theatre artist who has returned her Sangeet Natak Akademi Award to protest the Dadri lynching. The Progressive Writers’ Association, of which Vajpeyi is a part, invited U R Ananthamurthy, Girish Karnad, Arundhati Roy, Amartya Sen, Gulzar, Mahesh Bhatt, Shabana Azmi and others to come to Varanasi and campaign against Modi. It organised a cultural programme on May 4 in the holy city, which equated fascism with Hindu nationalism. On March 19, 2015, intellectuals and political leaders organised a protest ‘Exposing 300 days’ of Modi Sarkar. The group was vociferously supported by the Congress party, JD(U) and CPI(M).
The Government and the Prime Minister have decided to ignore the outrage in literary circles. A senior official questioned the entire narrative: “Why did they not consider the Muzaffarnagar riots in 2013 in which 42 Muslims and 20 Hindus were killed as grounds enough to protest or return their awards? Why was there no such outrage then over Narendra Dabholkar’s murder under Congress-NCP rule in Maharashtra? Why this selective approach?” He said the Prime Minister’s Office is keeping a close watch on the development in literary and art circles but refuses to be drawn into verbal duel. Meanwhile, Hindu nationalists are hitting back. J Nandakumar, RSS’s Akhil Bharatiya Sah Prachar Pramukh, says, “There is a selective reaction and expression of emotion. So many incidents have taken place in the past. Nayantara Sahgal received the award from the Prime Minister who had previously said that when a big tree falls, the earth shakes. She was ready to receive the award from him. In the ’90s, lakhs of Kashmiri Pandits were forced to migrate and many were killed. Where were these people (protesting authors) then?”
Government sources indicated that it has no plan to tinker with the Akademi’s existing autonomous structure. Culture ministry officials wonder why none of them bemoaned the crackdown of freedom of expression when cartoonist-activist Aseem Trivedi was arrested for sedition and his website shut down by the government. In November 2012, two girls were arrested during the Congress-led government for their Facebook post questioning the shutdown of Mumbai over Bal Thackeray’s funeral. In 2011, UPA’s Telecom Minister Kapil Sibal asked Google and Facebook to screen user content before offensive material is posted online. In West Bengal, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had jailed academics for tweets against her.
As many as 823 communal incidents were reported in 2013 and 668 in 2012 when UPA was in power. Khayal, however, says the recent events are aimed at dividing communities on religious lines. Deshpande, when asked why she didn’t resign when communal incidents had hit the country, says, “Things are happening now and I decided to speak up and am not giving it up under any circumstances.” Novelist Manju Kapur agrees: “I would say, better late than never.” So does Anjum Hasan. “There were occasions earlier, but you can’t hold the fact that people are responding now against them.” Prize-winning novelist Anita Nair says that the protest should not remain an urban phenomenon.
However, a senior culture ministry official says members should raise the issue at the Sahitya Akademi meetings instead of resigning.
“When you are part of the system, do what you want to do. Raise voice, protest against an issue, but don’t pass the buck by quitting,” the official further adds. Many Akademi veterans say that while authors have taken a political call to express their views, none had resigned protesting worse crises like the Emergency and the 1984 riots.
The 61-year-old academy of letters is clueless on how to deal with the crisis. “There is no provision in its bylaws on what to do in case someone returns an award or resigns. This is the first time in the history of the organisation that such a situation has arisen,” a senior government official told The Sunday Standard. The last General Council of the Akademi was constituted in 2013 during the UPA regime, and its tenure ends in 2017. “There is no provision of filling up vacant posts midway,” sources adds.
The somnolent state of Akademi discourse can be gauged from the fact that the last General Council meeting in June attended by nearly 80 members got over in 18 minutes.
The Sahitya Akademi has its share of controversies. Its past president Gopi Chand Narang was accused of plagiarism, a charge he never responded to. The government suspended Akademi secretary Agrahara Krishnamurthy for alleged financial irregularities. UPA’s cultural czar Ashok Vajpeyi got a Sahitya Akademi Award while serving as a joint secretary in the culture ministry. Considered close to senior Congress leader Arjun Singh, he went to head several cultural bodies in Delhi and Bhopal. A senior government official denies that the government is putting pressure on the Akademi or has asked it to remain silent.
“We are, in fact, strengthening the institutions which had become the den of corruption and were rendered defunct by the previous regime. In another six months you will see the change. We are going for reform by taking one step at a time to ensure that mistakes like the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan in FTII are not repeated,” he says. After coming to power, NDA government has launched an audit of premier cultural institutions, including Lalit Kala Akademi, in a bid to clean up the corrupt system (see The Fine Art of a Financial Mess). “We plan to fill the vacant positions at the prestigious National Museum and the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts soon. There is no lack of talent and we are hoping to appoint eminent persons,” he adds.
Multiple government committees and parliamentary panels have hit out at the functioning of Indian cultural bodies. A Parliamentary panel, in its 2011 report, had said the selection process of books and awards must be made transparent.
When the Haksar Committee in its 1989 report suggested that the Sahitya Akademi president be appointed by the President, its General Council rejected the idea and wanted the appointment to be done by council members from among themselves.
In a severe indictment, a parliamentary panel headed by Sitaram Yechury in 2013, said, “These institutions, over the time, are alleged to have developed the vested interests—monopolised by a few persons or group who have earned titles of ‘Culture Vultures’ or ‘Culture Czars/Czarinas’. Their products are described as uninspiring, not showcasing the composite culture of India. India is not known even to Indians precisely because these agencies have not been able to live up to the expectations.”
The panel also said the quality of translations is not up to the mark. “There are allegations that the process of selection of grants, awards and other benefits is not transparent in cultural institutions and they were being given to favoured ones even in non-deserving cases,” it noted citing past instances.
The panel recommended that a council like the Press Council of India in the field of culture and arts be set up which would oversee the working of all the cultural bodies. The government has appointed a high-powered committee to repair the obsolete system of choosing books for awards as the process was mired in secrecy. It has recommended the international practice to receive works from publishers and make a shortlist out of a long list of the books submitted be followed.
Shovon Chowdhury, author of The Competent Authority, says, “We are living in a climate of anti-intellectualism. German poet Heinrich Heine had said, ‘In a country where they burn books, they would soon be burning people’.” With the intellectual class coming into political conflict with the government in the age of social media, freedom of expression is the one that is fast becoming a burning issue.