Oddly, many in India seem to suffer from dissent envy. The minute a Nayantara Sahgal protests, some people wish to dismiss it as a tantrum, a rich person’s tantrum. The tactics are interesting. Some call it “selective outrage”. Such dismissals imply that you have to be a professional protester, without an understanding that even in the field of injustice you have to pick and choose what you fight for. Many feel she was a beneficiary of the Nehru era. She was but, unlike many of those belonging to the Nehruvian generation, she has achievements to her own name. She brought an aesthetics and courage to her own life which deserves its own reading.

Ms. Sahgal’s protest is not an outburst. It is a reasoned act of dissent and, yes, a cry of grief uttered in pain for something she feels deeply about. She insisted that fellow writers and academics cannot be shot to death. This protest comes when silence has become the only accepted form of political correctness in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Stance during Emergency
However, in the past, Ms. Sahgal has chosen to speak out at many such moments. Her protest during the Emergency made her legendary. Ms. Sahgal, along with Arun Shourie, Kuldip Nayar, George Fernandes and Rajni Kothari, created a normative framework for protests. One has to, in the same spirit, look at the care with which she has crafted her protest letter now.

She begins by citing Hamid Ansari’s letter about the guarantees in the Constitution. The ‘right to dissent’ is part of the ‘right to life’ for a writer. The life of an intellectual is not just a life of ideas but a normative frame of values and an idea of what a decent society is. Ms. Sahgal is right. India’s culture and diversity are being emasculated and distorted.

We have to remember that Ms. Sahgal’s act of dissent is not the result of an individual event but that of a calculated assault by an umbrella of groups which seek to emasculate the culture and destroy the vitality of intellectual life. She is pointing to a trend, a whole cascade of activities and events — the poor policing at Manipal; the rewriting of syllabus at national and at State levels where academic policing accompanies moral policing; the callous murders of rationalists like M.M. Kalburgi. Each event by itself is bad enough but a cumulative accounting makes one worry about society. Yet, the ultimate straw was the murder of a blacksmith, lynched on the suspicion of having cooked beef at home.

If literature does not sense the evil in the plot, who will? The author always owns up to the society, especially the one she is criticising. When intellectual censorship is accompanied by cultural censorship, and book bans and film bans are accompanied by food bans, one realises that a forced policing, a bullying of our society has begun.

A writer not only seeks to reform a particular injustice in the society. She is a tuning fork, a warning signal about the spirit of a civilisation, a trustee of the times. It is irrelevant whether she is 38 or 88 though some seem to feel that one cannot feel anger or clarity in the eighties. When the establishment is going senile, it feels everyone else has Alzheimer’s.

Anyway, the BJP keeps two registers. When Nayantara Sahgal objected to the Emergency, she was a star witness. When she objects to Narendra Modi, she is maligned and her intentions are suspected. The chairman of the academy produces a literal faux paus claiming that she has already milked the benefits of her book. It is his attitude that is revealing. First, he does not understand the symbolic value of an award and second, he thinks it is a piece of real estate to be rented out. But it only reveals the state of mind under the BJP regime. Substitute ‘chairperson’ with ‘commissar’ and the situation becomes clearer.

For Ms. Sahgal, the recent events of brutality are not simple or singular events. They constitute a trend. She further sees violence being met with silence, worsening the situation. The ‘akademis’ remain silent and, as guardians of creativity and the imagination, they seem inept. Her final statement is clear and dignified. “In memory of the Indians who have been murdered, in support of all Indians who uphold the right to dissent, and of all dissenters who now live in fear and uncertainty, I am returning my Sahitya Akademi Award.”

Cowardice of literary institutions

Ashok Vajpeyi, who followed Ms. Sahgal in returning his award, gave the act the right sense of frame. He reminded people that Ms. Sahgal’s act was not one coming from a select club of English authors, a ritual of navel-gazing, but an effort to locate such incidents within a larger framework of concern. Their angst is two-pronged — directed at their own community of writers, both Hindi and English, for maintaining a stiff upper lip; and at the literary institutions for their cowardice and complicity. They are not merely returning an award, they are fighting the crime of silence with a dignity that is moving and impressive.

The letter is also an attempt to confront the Prime Minister, who waxes loquacious when speaking to the Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) while writers and ordinary citizens are murdered back home. It asks him to respond. It is a reminder of two social contracts that the Prime Minister is ignoring. The first is a contract between the state and the citizen to uphold the right to life. The second is a reminder that when a writer accepts an Akademi award, the state recognises her spirit of creativity and freedom.

When dissenters are murdered and innocent citizens killed on the mere suspicion of cooking beef, the state is indifferent to both contracts. Ms. Sahgal and Mr. Vajpeyi are reminding the government of its malign neglect of both responsibilities.

The Prime Minister’s silence at such a moment becomes problematic. Does it signal approval, complicity, indifference, neglect, connivance, confusion or delay? One does not know except that such a silence casts a giant shadow of doubt over democracy.

Goebbelsian slapstick

What adds to the obscenity of silence is the antics of his Ministers justifying the ongoing acts of murder and bullying, making an audience wonder whether these are nukkad (street) bullies or responsible politicians. As the usually suave Vajpeyi puts it bluntly: “Why doesn’t the Prime Minister ask them to shut up?” This chorus of BJP politicians enacting a Goebbelsian slapstick is worrying. It appears like a follow up to the violence, adding insult to injury in an almost premeditated way.

Accompanying the silence of Mr. Modi and the crude antics of his Ministers is the Akademis’ behaviour. When an academy burrows its head like an ostrich, it becomes part of the new commissars of culture, accommodating the government at every step. This three-piece act of silence, connivance and complicity adds doubt and fear to the climate of intolerance. This state of unacceptability is what Ms. Sahgal and Mr. Vajpeyi are talking about. They are asserting a writer’s responsibility to a culture and his autonomy as part of his/her creativity.

Ms. Sahgal understands both the commitment and creativity of a writer’s politics. She is not merely saying that she is not spoilt by privilege. That is too banal. One can understand that even elites realise the preciousness of democracy as much as any vulnerable citizen. In her collection of essays The Political Imagination, Ms. Sahgal writes that a political stand is unavoidable. Even in the life of the most reclusive of artists, there comes a time when one must take a stand. She observes that, “When artistic freedom is forbidden, the compulsions of life and literature become the same.” Nayantara Sahgal has recognised this covenant with truth as part of the craft of writing.

In fact, in an almost obvious act of continuity, she is echoing what U.R. Ananthamurthy wrote about a few weeks before he died. He wrote, in a hurried and poetic book, that he would not like to live in an Modi-sque India. In a few hundred pages — which could be considered an amalgam of a manifesto, a pamphlet and reflections — he traced the brutalisation of the nation state project from Savarkar to Modi. It was a powerful indictment written in Kannada and is yet to be translated into English.

Mr. Modi’s follower, Giriraj Singh, immediately exclaimed that those who did not want to stay in Mr. Modi’s India should take the train to Pakistan. The crude intolerance was obvious and today, it is clear that one is enacting that same encounter in a thousand similar variants. Ms. Sahgal is stating what is politically obvious. India has reached a state where one can no longer take India’s democracy, its cultural pluralism, and its secularism for granted. At such moments, the silence of a writer would be unforgivable.

(Shiv Visvanathan is a professor at the Jindal School of Government and Public Policy.)