About three dozen Sahitya Akademi (Academy for Literature) awardees reportedly returned their awards to the Government of India. They did not say whether they returned the accompanying cash amount of award given to them.
Evidently, they had received award for contribution to Indian sahitya (literature), not politics. Yet it was literature when they received the award, and politics when they returned it. A question arises: Was it then a mock contribution? We do not comment on their literary acumen; we talk of their sincerity to the profession.
If they felt they had serious reasons to return the award, they could have given tongue to their inner feelings through literary channels, which faculty the nation acknowledged in them by giving them the award. Was it right and necessary to give big media hype to returning the award?
In 1954, the then government of India incepted Sahitya Akademi with the intention of promoting and recognizing the contribution of writers, poets, critics, and intellectuals, and to fund India’s creative literature. The award was meant to honor outstanding littérateurs. By returning the award, they have indirectly conveyed a message to the nation that they do not want or deserve to be honored. What can the nation do about it?
Historically speaking, the Akademi began its inning with myopia of sorts. Under hegemonic idealism of those days, it could not resist trivializing its autonomous status; it was neither morally strong nor pragmatically visionary to wriggle out of its official orientation.
In its domestic policy, the government at that time pandered to half-baked socialism, which it tried to induct into the rootless literati and the short-listed sections of intellectual community in the country. In its foreign policy, that government went with the Soviet syndicate. At the end of the day, the Indian state tiptoed into the coffee house of the non-aligned movement only to make a full-fledged laughing stock of itself.
A number of channels worked for promoting pseudo-socialist thinking. Sahitya Akademi, like other sister organizations such as ICCHR, ICSSR etc. also volunteered to carry the cross. Functionaries at the helm of affairs at the Akademi liberally distributed favor (awards) among “progressive” writers and littérateurs, and consequently succeeded in winning the favor of the government of the day. The writers felt happy in playing the game of musical chairs.
This atmosphere prevailed in the Akademi during the long rule of Congress party. With the onset of emergency, Congress lost its democratic temper. Sahitya Akademi, along with other sister-institutions, met with complete polarization. Anybody aspiring for Sahitya Akademi award had to become “progressive” without understanding what “progressive-ism” meant for 60 percent illiterate and equal percentage of below poverty line people in this country.
Thus every Tom, Dick and Harry, able to mutter a few Marxist clichés, became a super class “progressive” intellectual, and aspirant-in-waiting for country’s prestigious literary award. This is how award distribution exercise of the Akademi became almost a mockery. Of cause, some of them were genuinely in the category of literary figures.
However, with Akademi’s circumspection eroding progressively, political upstarts, favor-seekers, sycophants, flatterers, pseudo-secularists and fake nationalists, flocked to become its beneficiaries. The Akademi echelons even made suo moto offers of award to please the icons. Sheikh Abdullah, a politician, became an academic to receive the Sahitya Akademi award for his biography Atesh-e-Chinar, which is a massive compendium of charge sheets against the Indian state. Sahitya Akademi went knee-deep into the morass of isms, except, of course, pristine literary intellectualism. Regionalism, sub-regionalism, communalism, parochialism, favoritism et al were legitimized in a very subtle manner. Politically oriented writers on the payroll of agencies meandered their way to become the recipients of the largesse of Akademi.
This culture, also defined by the pseudo-leftists as “ideological entrenchment” did make a deep dent into the Indian polity because it received fullest patronage of the government of the day. The Sahitya Akademi lost the memory of where its goalposts stood.
When the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, and the card of “progressive-ism” lost its credibility and intensive care unit, the Akademi lost no time in abandoning its old admirers and beneficiaries, and it went out to find new recruits that would run the show as the post-Soviet era regime dictated.
The post-Soviet era in our contemporary history is something like the flow of a rudderless ship. It massively bestirred the hitherto dormant communal propensity among vulnerable sections coupled with the fundamentalist agenda of belief in the power of religious commune.
The undercurrent of the movement for partition of India began to find reverberations not in a strict local setting but on the geo-political plane. Egypt, one time mascot of the Non-Aligned Movement was the first to initiate Arab Spring in its real shape. Yugoslavia, after its break up and rebirth of the Balkan States relapsed into the ethno-religious cauldron of the days of ‘Eastern Question.’ India, the ideologue of Non-Aligned Movement, saw a host of identities surfacing with astonishing rapidity and bidding for their pound of flesh. Sahitya Akademi, which until the middle of the 1960s pandered to the “progressive” cacophony, now began drifting aimlessly to new ideological waves like the Arab Spring or ethnic reality or civilizational revivalism, etc. It was during this period that the value of the awards declined to nadir. Most of the winners who returned their award are the product of this era, an era that lost is moorings with the demise of the erstwhile Soviet Union. They began feeling like the scattered and isolated beads of a broken necklace.
With the rise of new dispensation in New Delhi with far-reaching and deep- penetrating affects country-wide, this breed of awardees feels bereft of a support structure in the new emerging polity the next decade or so. In this social and mental conundrum, they are unable to assuage their troubled and disturbed self-image. However, what one can say with fair amount of certainty is that their returning the award makes their self-image perilously more disturbed and uneasy. They have made “intolerance” as the common cause of their return of award. However, the question that will haunt their conscience for the rest of their lives is whether they have been tolerant with their self-image at all.
*Dr. Kashi N. Pandita is the former Director of the Centre of Central Asian Studies Kashmir University