President Pranab Mukherjee expressed agreement with a three-member delegation that met him on Wednesday that the recent spate of return of state honours by writers, artistes and scientists is a legitimate form of protest, and that it is spontaneous.

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“Of course it is, and I know it was spontaneous,” were President Mukherjee’s exact words when Jansatta editor Om Thanvi told him that ‘award wapsi’ was a legitimate form of protest.

The comment is in contrast to the government view, articulated by finance minister Arun Jaitley, that the return of awards was an organised political effort to discredit the NDA government ahead of the Bihar elections. He also later said that intolerance was not growing in the country. The President’s departure from this line, made to a delegation representing many of the award returnees, is bound to increase the rift between him and the government on the matter. President Mukherjee has made a number of public remarks in recent weeks about tolerance and mutual acceptance being at the core of Indian civilisation.

“We do not comment on the President’s conversation during such meetings,” a spokesperson for Rashtrapati Bhavan told HuffPost India.

Along with litterateur Ashok Vajpeyi and artist Vivan Sundaram, Thanvi was meeting the President to hand over to him a memorandum thanking him for repeatedly speaking against growing intolerance in the country.

The memorandum was made as part of a resolution passed in a meeting of many eminent intellectuals on 1 November at the Mavalankar Hall in Delhi. A note put out by Ashok Vajpeyi on behalf of the delegation said they urged the President “as the head of the nation to do all that is possible to advise and persuade Governments, both of the States and the Centre, political parties and all others to act decisively so that the ethos of tolerance, mutual cooperation, respect for plurality and difference, scope for dissent and dialogue, freedom of expression are all ensured and given full and free expression both in deeds and words”.

They also submitted to the President a statement that was openly and unanimously adapted at the convention ‘Pratirodh’ on 1st November 2015, which calls upon “the political parties, the Central and State Governments that they all actively discourage such trends; desist from overly or coverty supporting or encouraging such trends of intolerance by deed or silence, institutions, groups etc which are in fact undermining the cardinal republican values and which are working to spread an atmosphere of hatred, revenge violence without fear of law in the utter disregard of constitutional spirit of India. We wish to remind them that they draw their legitimacy from the Constitution and, therefore, it is incumbent upon them not to bypass or subvert the basic principles and vision of the Constitution.”

The return of awards by a number of artists over what they see as growing intolerance in the country has sharply polarized opinion in recent months.