The literary community in India is facing a lot of hostility from the extremist outfits within the system. During the month of October, several well-known writers have returned their awards to literary institutions because of the growing tensions within the country, especially the increasing disregard towards freedom of speech under the Modi administration.

On October 12, 23 writers from across India returned their awards to Sahitya Akademi, or the National Academy of Letters. Several have also resigned from the posts that they held within literary bodies working with government funds.  

Hindi writer Uday Prakash was the first to return his Sahitya Akademi Award and this step was soon followed by a score of academics, including former Lalit Kala Akademi chairman and poet Ashok Vajpeyi, Malayalam author Sarah Joseph, Ghulam Nabi Khayal and Mandakranta Sen.

Khosla Ka Ghosla director Dibakar Banerjee and 11 other filmmakers returned national awards not only in protest against the growing intolerance, but also to offer support to the FTII students who had been protesting after the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan as the institute's chief.

The reason behind this movement was primarily the murder of a prominent atheist scholar in late August and also recently, the lynching of a Muslim man by an angry Hindu mob for supposedly consuming beef.

The writers believe that incidents like these are promoting intolerance within the region and put the secular title of India under question.

“India’s culture of diversity and debate is now under vicious assault,” Nayantara Sahgal, a recipient of the Sahitya Akademi award in 1986, said in an open letter to the government. 

“Rationalists who question superstition, anyone who questions any aspect of the ugly and dangerous distortion of Hinduism … are being marginalized, persecuted, or murdered,” added Sahgal, who also happens to be the niece of India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.

"The future of democracy is at stake. I am very concerned about it," Bhargava, who was awarded the country's third highest civilian award - Padma Bhushan - in 1986, told a newspaper.

The sectarian violence has had a significant impact on India’s image overseas and could undermine Modi’s drive to attract investors.

In one case earlier this year, a critically acclaimed Indian novelist announced his “death” as a creative artist following threats and protests by rightwing Hindu and caste groups prompted by his book about a woman’s efforts to get pregnant with a stranger through a religious ritual.

However, India’s Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma was dismissive of the writers’ actions, saying the award has “nothing to do with the government” and that it was a “personal choice” to return it.

“If they say they are unable to write, let them first stop writing,” he told the Express. “We will then see.”

 

Several people within the community approve this campaign and appreciate that artists are speaking up against this intolerance. They do not want the country to become rigid and conservative to the extent that differing opinions and thoughts become a matter of life and death. They want the state to protect their right of freedom of speech and create inter-faith harmony so that mob mentality can be curbed. They want India to be a place where expression of various ideas and thoughts is appreciated and this right is just not limited to the Hindu majority.