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Mitali Saran: Bringing India to book

We have to decide whether we're going to nurture freedom and art, or ban them bit by bit

Mitali Saran  |  New Delhi 

Mitali Saran

It’s gratifying to wake up to a newspaper featuring writers on page one. Yes, those awkward people who hide out at home a lot, being quiet and weird by themselves. Front page. They’ve gone rogue. A growing number are chucking Sahitya Akademi and other national awards back in the government’s face to protest India’s growing climate of intolerance, and getting slammed for it.

You’d think that writing a letter, submitting it, and getting rejected is just time-honoured literary tradition, but no, it’s a showdown. Off the page, writers are fairly peaceable folk until you poke them in the eye. The Prime Minister’s shoddy failure to speak out against the murder of writers and people trying to have dinner constitutes a poke in the eye, so they are, to use the technical literary term, pissed.

The RSS called these writers “self-proclaimed contractors of intellect”, which makes it sound as if you’re supposed to float tenders for the job of thinking, and also as if the RSS would not qualify to bid. The Finance Minister called the protest “politics by other means” even though it is straight-up politics. Arnab accused the writers of having a bias, possibly because he mistrusts the process of reaching a considered conclusion with no screaming at all. The BJP said it was all politically motivated; they’ve already been screwed over by the RSS turning out to be a political wolf in social work fleece, so maybe mole-like writers turning out to be grizzlies feels like déjà vu all over again.

Lots of people said, “Why didn’t these writers return their awards to protest the issue of the Muzzafarpur riots/Babri Masjid/Kashmiri Pundits/Emergency/Jallianwalla Bagh/Mughal invasion/hominids leaving Africa?” I imagine these people are also angrily asking how come our independence movement didn’t bother becoming our independence movement until it became our independence movement. Whataboutery has a new playmate in wherewereyouery.

But if writers are such irrelevant, marginal opportunists, why are so many knickers in a twist? You would think that the government would just ignore the national awards piling up in the garbage and get on with the task of developing India into one giant app, right? Maybe they’ve suddenly realised there’s some inconvenient competition on their turf.

Making art is a progressive political act that expands freedom of thought and action. If you see a comfortable, pretty space, you’re either ignoring the 800-pound gorilla in the middle of it, or looking at very forgettable art. The civilised world values art for just this reason — a smart country picks the best of its self-expression, holds it up high, and encourages more. There is a reason why the enduring image of barbarism is a smashed sculpture and a burning library. The GoI tends to make news more for banning than for nurturing art. Now confronting itself in the pages of The Guardian, The New York Times, BBC, and Washington Post, it is stung less by the indictment of our writers than by the disapproving stares from the world stage. Now it has to pick a direction.

We publicly overvalue the books that cause people to try to pluck each other’s eyes out, i.e. the religious ones. But there are millions of books and artworks that express India. Their multiplicity is kryptonite to thought control, and they will keep coming. Artists who find their voices can be very loud, and very inconvenient. It is their job.

Perhaps the stupidest response to the protest, so far, came from the BJP’s Vijay Goel, who said: “Writers should be concerned with their pen only, otherwise giving awards would be stopped.” It’s so dim that it’s kind of sweet, like threatening the ocean with a hairdryer.

Mitali Saran is a Delhi-based writer

First Published: Sat, October 17 2015. 00:09 IST