A series of prominent writers in various Indian languages, including English, have said they are returning the awards that they had received from the Sahitya Akademi, in protest against a climate of growing intolerance in the country. Many of them have also decided to return the prize money, some with interest. One of the first, the novelist Nayantara Sahgal, said that she was returning her award in sympathy with "all dissenters who now live in fear and uncertainty". The immediate provocation was that the Sahitya Akademi did not commemorate or even mark the passing of writer and rationalist M M Kalburgi, a former member of its general council, who was murdered on August 30 in his home. This was the third such murder of a rationalist writer, and prompted several Kannada-language writers to initiate a protest that has now spread to writers nation-wide. The protest was given an additional spur by the lynching of Mohammed Akhlaq in Dadri recently by a mob that accused him of eating beef. By most accounts, 34 Sahitya Akademi awardees have chosen to return their awards. Many of the authors are well-known in their native languages - the first to send back an award was the renowned Hindi writer Uday Prakash. The government has not ignored the protest; Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, in a strongly-worded note on his Facebook page, has called it a "manufactured protest" and declared that the true reason for the writers' anger was that they were Congress sympathisers infuriated by the "shrinking fortunes" of that party, and as evidence asked how many had raised their voices against the Emergency.
Some writers, however, have held back. Amitav Ghosh, in an interview with The Indian Express, drew a distinction between the proud history of the Sahitya Akademi and its position under the current dispensation, and asked by implication if returning an award from the past would not amount to a repudiation of that proud history as much as it would protest against the present government. This point is well taken, and difficult to answer. In fact, this fuzzy border between the overall institution and an ephemeral administration is a central problem with state-given awards. They are all too open to manipulation one way or the other. It is thanks to this essential flaw in the idea of state-granted awards that Mr Jaitley can imply that many of those who received awards before 2014 were entirely too comfortable with the Congress party. If an award is handed out by the state, it is all too easy to identify it with administrations, past or present.
The larger question is: Should the government be involved in handing out awards at all? The Sahitya Akademi at least has long had a reputation of honouring excellence from the margins, and empowering vernacular voices the English-speaking elite might otherwise not notice. But the other awards are problematic. The Arjuna award, to sportspeople, has of late been the venue for undignified manoeuvring as well-loved players demand the award, and ask why others have received it instead of them. And the Padma awards list frequently has some inexplicable names on it, leading to perpetual accusations of cronyism or corruption in how it is drawn up, though no such claims have ever been properly substantiated. The Padma awards have no place in a liberal democracy. And as for the literary awards - in time more and more private-sector awards will emerge to take the place of those that have been tainted by association with the state.