Former Bengal governor and Mahatma Gandhi‘s grandson Gopalkrishna Gandhi has hailed writers for returning their Sahitya Akademi awards as a landmark moment. In an interview to Sagarika Ghose, he also indicated that if more writers gave up their awards it would be a powerful protest against the murders of rationalists and threats to free speech.

Writers returning Sahitya Akademi awards is a landmark moment...more should do so: Gopal Gandhi
Former Bengal governor and Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson Gopalkrishna Gandhi.

Your take on writers giving up Sahitya Akademi Award?

I don’t remember an earlier occasion when without a formal conference resolution, writers have returned their Sahitya Akademi awards.This seems to be a new awakening of their powers beyond the writing of their works.They have spoken not just for the power of protest but also for the power of dissent.When conformism is the preferred value of the political establishment, when duty and discipline are stressed as signs of patriotism, the essential element of the free mind, the dissenter’s right to be himself, has come under danger. This has been protected by the writers. If more do it, it’d be very powerful.

Is it a turning point?

I don’t think there has been a time when three rationalists have been murdered, and the way they were, suggests a resemblance in the crimes. If writers and dissenters don’t protest, who will? They have suddenly found their voice. Writers have now established themselves as actors on the republic’s stage, and this is a huge change. I applaud Nayantara Sehgal for starting the process; Shashi Deshpande, by resigning, has given the protest a new dimension. This is a landmark moment that will be remembered in association with the murders of rationalists and the murder of Akhlaq.

What’s the common strand in Akhlaq’s murder and that of the rationalists?

Akhaq was killed for being different, for being the ‘other’.Writers and academics and isolated members of a minority community are thus the same. The same individuality applies to the writer and the ironsmith, they were killed for being different.

Did the PM’s speech on the need for tolerance not go far enough?

The PM’s words were appropriate for a seminar, not for a life and death situation. We didn’t need a homily . The PM would have lost nothing if he had said something that healed the wounds of the families who have suffered.By family I don’t mean just the biological family , but the larger intellectual family. The PM has missed a chance.

What do you think the Mahatma would have done?

It would be presumptuous of me to guess. He would have written on the rationalists’ murder as part of a tradition of martyrdom for truth. But it’s not that important what Gandhi would have done.What’s important is what does our common sense, our sharafat, tell us to do? Writers are not asking for examples, they have acted according to their conscience. Conscience doesn’t go by example, it goes by its own ignition.

But didn’t Gandhi oppose cow slaughter?

Gandhi’s personal views were conditioned by his own Vaishnavite, almost Jain, tradition and beliefs. He believed in banning cow slaughter but never said what’s right in his personal beliefs can be imposed on others. He always said his belief cannot become a prescription for anyone.That’s why the cow slaughter restriction is in the Directive Principles, it is not a law. When his colleagues Mohammad Ali and Shaukat Ali rescued cows, he praised them, because he approved of a kind of voluntarism. Gandhi never stood for coercion. Today, bans on cow slaughter are being demanded not for non-violent reasons, but for violent ones, because you want to perpetrate violence against one community . You can’t be nonviolent towards an animal because you want to be violent towards Muslims.

Has secularism lost its moral authority because it’s become about selective outrage?

This is where Gandhi was ahead of other secularists. He did not use the word secular for himself. His approach was to build trust between communities. The liberal Indian and secular Indian has underplayed the inflammatory statements made within the minority community which have been as provocative and harmful to the cause of secularism. Gandhi went to Noakhali where Muslims were butchering Hindus and to Bihar where Hindus were butchering Muslims and said the same thing in both places.

That’s how he reacted to riots?

For example in Gujarat 2002.He would not have asked the CM why did you not supervise relief; he would have said, in his own way, which was almost Christ-like without imitating Christ, why did you not die with them?

You see a growing chasm between communities?

On both sides, the hotheads are mutually protective mafias. Yet I am confident about the vein of active common sense among Indians, which does not have time for political opportunism and will not oblige the two sides.

There are no bridge-builders?

The great modern poet Agyeya said: Maare jayenge Ravan, jayee honge Ram, par jo pul banyenge woh itihaas mein bandar kehlayenge! Bridge-builders get no glory, they simply build the bridge.Bridge-building does not empower the bridge-builder. Today leaders on both sides are only empowering themselves.

Is the Sangh Parivar challenging the fundamental idea of India?

The Sangh has many elders but few thinkers. We tend to over-estimate the power of the Sangh Parivar. They have political power at the moment, but we shouldn’t overestimate their lasting influence. They are playing a dangerous game, but I don’t think they will have a lasting impact on the political imagination of India.The lasting impact will come from Nanak and Kabir.