Renowned South Asian writer Arundhati Roy on Thursday issued a statement explaining her decision to return the 1989 National Award she received for Best Screenplay, saying, “I want to make it clear that I am not returning this award because I am ‘shocked’ by what is being called the ‘growing intolerance’ being fostered by the present government.”
She goes on to clarify her statement: “‘Intolerance’ is the wrong word to use for the lynching, shooting, burning and mass murder of fellow human beings.
“I cannot claim to be shocked by what has happened after this government was enthusiastically voted into office with an overwhelming majority,” she says.
“These horrific murders are only a symptom of a deeper malaise. Life is hell for the living too. Whole populations ─ millions of Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims and Christians are being forced to live in terror, unsure of when and from where the assault will come,” Roy says.
The writer says, “When the thugs and apparatchiks of the New Order talk of ‘illegal slaughter’ they mean the imaginary cow that was killed ─ not the real man that was murdered. When they talk of taking ‘evidence for forensic examination’ from the scene of the crime, they mean the food in the fridge, not the body of the lynched man,” ─ an apparent reference to the recent Dadri lynching incident where a Muslim man was killed and his son injured after a mob beat them for keeping ‘beef’ in their fridge.
Roy also touches upon a recent incident of caste-motivated violence: “When Dalits are butchered and their children burned alive, which writer today can freely say, like Babasaheb Ambedkar once did that ‘To the Untouchables, Hinduism is a veritable chamber of horrors,’ (Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches, Volume 9 pg 296) without getting attacked, lynched, shot or jailed?”
She laments the loss of the right to speak freely: “It doesn’t matter whether we agree or disagree with what is being said. If we do not have the right to speak freely we will turn into a society that suffers from intellectual malnutrition, a nation of fools.”
Roy says New India has “enthusiastically joined” the race to the bottom prevalent across the subcontinent.
“I am very pleased to have found (from somewhere way back in my past) a National Award that I can return, because it allows me to be a part of a political movement initiated by writers, filmmakers and academics in this country who have risen up against a kind of ideological viciousness and an assault on our collective IQ that will tear us apart and bury us very deep if we do not stand up to it now. I believe what artists and intellectuals are doing right now is unprecedented and does not have a historical parallel. It is politics by other means. I am so proud to be part of it. And so ashamed of what is going on in this country today.”
She also points out her refusal to accept the 2005 Sahitya Akademi Award “when the Congress was in power”, and asks to be spared the “old Congress vs BJP debate”.
Read: Intolerance in India
The author’s decision to return her award comes as a series of Indian intellectuals and artists do the same in an effort to protest against “intolerance” in India.
The uproar among intellectuals began in late September, when a village mob beat a Muslim man to death and put his son in critical condition over rumours that their family was eating cow meat. In fact, it had been a goat. Ten people have been arrested in connection with the attack.
There have been other incidents in recent years, including the killings of three atheist scholars who had campaigned against religious superstition, and more mob killings over rumours of cow slaughter or smuggling.
Many Hindus, who make up more than 80 per cent of India’s population of 1.25 billion, consider cows to be sacred, and many states ban the slaughtering of the animals.
Worries over India’s secular identity began rumbling before Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was elected last year.
Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won the election in a landslide, largely on promises of lifting the economy.
But some cautioned that his support was grounded in the party’s Hindu base, and noted that Modi himself had come up through the militant Hindu fundamentalist organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which translates as the National Volunteers Association.
For years, the group has been accused of stoking anti-Muslim prejudice, including among teenagers attending youth camps.
Modi, having dodged allegations of responsibility for deadly 2002 riots in Gujarat, insisted during his election campaign that he would be prime minister for all of India and guaranteed protection for minorities.
Since taking office, however, Modi has said very little on the subject of tolerance and diversity, even questioning why his government should be called on to comment on local matters.
His reluctance to wade into the religious debate is particularly jarring, given his almost-celebrity status and apparent eagerness for publicity that has him snapping selfies with world leaders and posting regular comments and updates on Twitter and his official website.
Yet his government has also clearly promoted Hindu pride and practices, such as calling for a nationwide ban on cow slaughter and leading an international day of yoga.
Scientists as well as historians have said they are increasingly alarmed by government attempts to rewrite Indian history by distorting facts about a glorious Hindu past.
This year’s national science conference, an annual gathering of the country’s top brains, devoted an entire session to discussing ancient Indian technology with claims that jumbo airplanes and organ transplants were common in India thousands of years ago.
Some said that the Hindu elephant diety Ganesh proved that ancients had mastered plastic surgery.
“I fear that we are losing our democracy and replacing it with a Hindu religious autocracy,” said molecular biologist P.M. Bhargava, adding that he would be returning a national award in protest. “I would not like to live in a country that has lost its democracy and has become a theocratic state.”
Modi’s government and party colleagues have largely remained nonplussed. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley called the protests a “manufactured paper revolt” that aims to disparage the governing party.
“If you see the people who are a part of this activism to give up their awards, and if you follow their past statements and their tweets, and their stances on various social and political issues, you will find a lot of rabid anti-BJP elements,” Jaitley earlier told reporters.
Indian intellectuals are often liberals and political leftists, and many disliked the Hindu nationalist Modi long before he became prime minister.
“Maybe they are imagining the worst of a party that they instinctively don’t like,” said the analyst Malik, noting that tensions have been whipped up amid ongoing elections in the second-largest state of Bihar.
Indian Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma suggested that unhappy writers could stop writing if they found the country’s cultural climate not conducive to their work.
“This is as good as saying that intellectuals will be silenced if they protest,” Romila Thapar, a scholar of ancient India, said in a joint statement along with 50 other historians.
Earlier, more than 100 artists ─ painters, sculptors, photographers, art historians and critics ─ also criticised the government for dismissing writers’ and scholars’ concerns and said the government had a responsibility to acknowledge public dissatisfaction.
Artists who signed the statement include London-based sculptor Anish Kapoor and world-renowned painters Krishen Khanna, Anjolie Ela Menon and Atul Dodiya. Another famed painter, K.G. Subramanyan, said many of the protesters believe the government’s silence “makes it a party to this intolerance”.