In only 18 months Narendra Modi has become the first prime minister to receive four Padma Bhushans, 12 National Awards and 40 Sahitya Academy Awards. This is the joke doing the rounds. While we are laughing at it, this is not a joke.
Our writers, filmmakers, historians, scientists, cultural theorists and even musicians are upset with the government. They are upset because the ink splashed on the former BJP ideologue Sudheendra Kulkarni in Mumbai for organising the launch of Pakistan's former foreign minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri's book was not just a stray incident. It was a well-thought-out campaign designed to intimidate and polarise Muslims. A repeat performance occurred when hooligans splashed ink on the face of the MLA from Jammu and Kashmir, Sheikh Abdul Rashid.
They are upset with the constant policing of cultural expression, the shutting down of exhibitions, like Balbir Krishan's solo show at the Lalit Kala Akademi where the latter, a double amputee, was attacked by a masked goon and the show shut down.
They are upset by the banning of books, as was the case with Wendy Doniger's The Hindus: An Alternative History, for according to the Right-wing there can be no alternative history.
They are upset with the banning of films like India's Daughter, a British documentary on the December 16, 2012, gang-rape, an attack so brutal that it sent shockwaves across the nation. They are upset with the flogging and incarceration of unarmed students as they protested for four months against the government's attempt to foist unqualified saffron administrators on the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII).
They are upset that students were brutally attacked on streets of Delhi for their peaceful protest against the UGC's decision to scrap non-NET fellowship. In fact, police brutality under the Modi regime has been scaled up to the point where students are now hospitalised and the government is not even batting an eyelid at this blatant disregard for our democratic rights.
According to Anand Patwardhan, returning the award for his film, Bombay My City, was the only way to shame an intolerant government. Patwardhan returned the award as a gesture of support to the students of FTII.
According to CPI(M) politburo member Mohammed Salim, what could one have expected from a party that remains unaware of scientific advancements or intellectual matters and is simplistic in its approach to the budget?
The prevailing concern is that the present government is moving away from democracy and moving towards a path that would lead the country towards a Hindu religious autocracy. Under that, anyone with a dissenting view is seen as un-Indian and unpatriotic.
There are, however, a few technicalities. For example, one must always remember that the National Awards are not given by the government but by the nation and the state. There is also the issue that announcing the return of the award is one thing and actually returning it quite another.
Kashinath Singh, for instance, is still in possession of the award and the prize money long after his announcement that he was about to return them. He reportedly said something about being unable to travel. Meanwhile, author Nayantara Sahgal, who was one of the first to announce that she was returning her Sahitya Akademi award, said she had sent a cheque of Rs 1 lakh to the Akademi but the plaque may still be in her cabinet at home.
It's not that I doubt the intentions of the writers, filmmakers or scientists. For, like them, I am also against cheap tactics such as face-blackening of writers and the killing of rationalists or the harassment of their supporters. What really upsets me is that the government is yet to even seriously acknowledge these protests. The strategy is to ignore them and hope that the issue will slowly lose its steam.
There have been discreet phone calls, like the one made to Urdu poet Munawwar Rana by the PMO to come and meet Modi and reconsider his public announcement to return his award. That, however, is not enough. There has been no public statement on the matter and the Akademi is yet to respond to these protests.
Perhaps it is time to move from just protesting to creating a window of dialogue. Speaking to the Akademi might be a way to resolving the issue. Also, we need to hold the Akademi responsible for upholding the rights of the thinkers, rather than shutting them out. The only way this can happen is through dialogue, once the intellectuals/artists have made their point. Perhaps it's time to hear from our prime minister.