[The revolt now presents Mr. Modi with a critical test of his vaunted ability to shape the public narrative of his administration. Perhaps more than any crisis he has faced since becoming prime minister 17 months ago, this one is offering a kind of X-ray of Mr. Modi’s carefully cultivated persona both here and abroad.]
The novelist Nayantara Sahgal said she was returning India’s highest literary honor to express sympathy for “all dissenters who now live in fear and uncertainty.” G. S. Bhullar, a short-story author, said he was giving back the same award to protest the “violent retrogressive forces dictating terms in the field of literature and culture.” Mandakranta Sen, a Bengali poet, said she was sending her award back to protest “attacks on rationalists.”
In the last month, 35 leading Indian authors and poets have returned coveted awards from the National Academy of Letters in a collective revolt against what Salman Rushdie this week called the “thuggish violence” creeping into Indian life under the Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The writers’ revolt, which began in September after a 76-year-old critic of Hindu idolatry was gunned down in his home, rapidly gained strength this month when Mr. Modi failed to promptly condemn the killing of a Muslim man, Mohammed Ikhlaq, by a Hindu mob because they suspected he had killed a cow and eaten its meat.
The revolt now presents Mr. Modi with a critical test of his vaunted ability to shape the public narrative of his administration. Perhaps more than any crisis he has faced since becoming prime minister 17 months ago, this one is offering a kind of X-ray of Mr. Modi’s carefully cultivated persona both here and abroad.
Just last month, during a visit to the United States, Mr. Modi was warmly embraced by Mark Zuckerberg and other Silicon Valley titans, who praised him as the modernizing, progressive, open-minded leader of the world’s largest democracy. But the backlash from some of
’s most celebrated writers
underscores the extent of debate here about the ultimate goals and essential
nature of Mr. Modi’s administration. India
Is he a Twitter-savvy technocrat obsessed with boosting development for all
by slashing red tape, wooing
foreign investors and building a modern digital economy? Or is he a canny
ideologue intent on imposing a strict Hindu code of values on a nation that
prides itself on tolerance, diversity and pluralism? India
“Mr. Modi talks all these tall words abroad, on foreign soil,” said Mangalesh Dabral, a poet who is returning his award from 2000. “All the sermonizing, this talk of the great digital
and the dreams he shows to
people. All of it seems plain boasting because enactment of these tall words is
invisible in his behavior and words inside the country, on his homeland.” India
One of Mr. Modi’s favorite modes of communicating is Twitter, where he has 15 million followers and more than 9,500 posts. On Twitter, Mr. Modi presents himself as cheerleader in chief for all things
, celebrating achievements,
sending birthday greetings and offering condolences. Yet, as many commentators
have pointed out, not one of his Twitter posts has offered condolences to the
Ikhlaq family, which was brutally attacked by a Hindu mob last month in a
village 30 miles east of India . Delhi
With each passing day of silence from Mr. Modi, more writers stepped forward to say they, too, were returning their awards from the academy, also known as Sahitya Akademi. At least a dozen more writers have joined since Monday, when right-wing Hindu activists in Mumbai smeared black paint on the face of Sudheendra Kulkarni, a think tank leader, for agreeing to host an event for a book for a former Pakistani foreign minister.
“There are attacks on ordinary liberties, the ordinary right to assembly, the ordinary right to organize an event in which people can talk about books and ideas freely and without hostility,” Mr. Rushdie told India’s NDTV network on Tuesday. As if to prove his point, Mr. Rushdie described what happened when he posted on Twitter in support of Ms. Sahgal and the writers’ revolt, warning that these are “alarming times for free expression in
.” Within hours, he said, he
was besieged with thousands of outraged responses. India
Uday Prakash, a renowned Hindi writer, was the first author to renounce his award from the academy, in September. “I have never seen such hostility before,” he said.
In interviews this week, the writers returned to the same refrain: That Mr. Modi’s failure to confront intolerance by fellow Hindu nationalists is giving tacit permission for more intolerance. “The tide of violence against freedom of speech is rising every day,” Ms. Sahgal said.
On Tuesday, Mr. Modi for the first time directly addressed the Sept. 28attack that left Mr. Ikhlaq dead. During an interview with the Bengali language newspaper Anandabazar Patrika, Mr. Modi called Mr. Ikhlaq’s death “really sad,” and emphasized that his Bharatiya Janata Party, or B.J.P., “never supports such incidents.”
But he also accused political opponents of trying to exploit Mr. Ikhlaq’s death. “The B.J.P. has always opposed pseudosecularism,” he said. “Opposition regularly alleges B.J.P. of igniting communal flare. But isn’t the opposition doing polarization now?”
While Mr. Modi did not address the writers’ revolt, his allies have been merciless. Rakesh Sinha, an unofficial spokesman for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological parent of the B.J.P., said the writers were “frustrated communist cadres” who had long opposed the “cultural nationalism” embraced by Mr. Modi’s supporters.
He noted that at least two of the writers who returned awards signed an open letter warning that Mr. Modi’s election as prime minister in 2014 would give rise to bigotry and violence. “They are not in a position to accept someone like Mr. Modi,” he said in an interview.
In a lengthy post on Facebook, Mr. Modi’s finance minister, Arun Jaitley, ridiculed the protests as political sour grapes by leftist writers still reeling from “the shrinking fortunes” of their traditional government patrons, the Indian National Congress and the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.
“With the Congress showing no signs of revival and an insignificant Left lacking legislative relevance, the recipients of past patronage are now resorting to ‘politics by other means,’ ” Mr. Jaitley added. “The manufactured protest of the writers is one such case.”
Several writers scoffed at the idea that the protests have a hidden political motive. Some pointed out that several Indian writers were jailed during the state of emergency declared by Mrs. Gandhi in 1975. Mr. Rushdie, a British citizen who was born in
, wryly noted that it was the
Congress party that banned his novel “The Satanic Verses” in 1988. “I’m not a
fan of any political party,” he said. India
And yet G.N. Devy, a writer from Mr. Modi’s home state,
Gujarat, said a government official recently visited and politely
quizzed him for an hour about his decision to return his award. He said the
official asked about the political aims and organization of the writers’
protest. He said he told the official that there was no organization.
“My protest is not against any government, but to make the point that the Constitution of this country needs to be fully protected,” he said in an interview.
It is the kind of encounter that has become more common under Mr. Modi, in part because his ascendancy to prime minister has been accompanied by growing activism from conservative Hindu nationalists who seek to suppress forms of expression they view as offensive to their religion. They have pressured publishers to withdraw books, pushed universities to remove texts from syllabuses and filed criminal complaints against those they deem to have insulted Hinduism.
Few writers have drawn more criticism than M.M. Kalburgi, a noted rationalist scholar who enraged far-right Hindu nationalists through his criticism of idol worship and superstition. Mr. Kalburgi said he received multiple death threats, and on Aug. 30 was shot dead at point-blank range in his home in Karnataka, a state in southern
. No arrests have been made. India
Mr. Kalburgi’s death created a fierce debate among members of the National Academy of Letters. Mr. Kalburgi had been a member of the academy’s general council, and he received an award from the academy in 2006 for a collection of his academic research. Yet the academy issued no formal statements condemning Mr. Kalburgi’s murder.
Some members wondered whether the academy was keeping quiet because it gets government funding. Ms. Sahgal, for one, criticized the academy for acting as if it was “wise to be silent when writers are being killed.”
That silence is what led Uday Prakash to be the first to return his award. “Writers are a family, but they don’t seem to care,” he explained.
In addition to the 35 writers giving back their awards, at least five others have announced their resignations from the academy. But not all academy members support the protests.
“For so many years, you take advantage of the prestige of the academy and now you want to return the award?” said one member, Govind Mishra. “There is no sense to this. There are so many other pressing issues. Farmers are killing themselves. Nobody thought of giving their awards back for them.”
Vishwanath Prasad Tiwari, the academy’s president, said in an interview that the protesting writers had been misled into believing that the academy had been silent in the face of intolerance and violence.
He pointed out that the vice president of the academy presided over a tribute for Mr. Kalburgi last month. The tribute celebrated Mr. Kalburgi’s contributions as a writer and scholar, but also included forceful condemnations of his murder. “How can anyone say the academy did not react?” Mr. Tiwari asked. “The vice president himself is Kalburgi’s friend. Have they ever demanded like this for any other writer?”
Mr. Tiwari said he is convening an emergency meeting this month to discuss the protests and what can be done to stop writers from returning their awards. “The storm that has been set in motion by this protest needs to be dealt with,” he said.
In the meantime, the academy has issued a statement condemning all attacks on writers.