WHEN the distinguished writers and artists returned the awards to the academies some time ago, the question asked was not why they did not do it earlier, particularly at the testing time during the emergency. Writers and artistes are a sensitive lot. They react when they feel like and how they feel like. It is, in fact, the duty of the government to find out why they felt that the situation had come to such a pass that they had no alternative except to return their award. Nayantara Sehgal, Jawaharlal Nehru’s niece, who was the first to do so, said that the space in the BJP govt for dissent had shrunk. Many artistes followed suit.
But all the government awards, especially the Padma awards, have lost their sheen. It is more to do with the government of the day choosing its recipients. Though there is a set pattern about who should actually get these awards, there are always some undeserving candidates that are squeezed in because it is the prerogative of government of the day. Understandably, this year’s Padma awardee list had many BJP loyalists. So is the case with the sports awards that is bestowed on the country’s sportspersons—the Arjuna and Khel Ratna. No year passes without a controversy despite the fact that eminent sportspersons are entrusted with the job of picking the right candidates. Yet, after the names are announced the heart-broken ones always complain of bias.
I recall the debate that raged over the Padma awards. In fact, it started even before they were officially announced last year. Olympic bronze medal winner shuttler Saina Nehiwal threw a fit over not being considered with the sports ministry meekly caving in. Saina expressed her disappointment at her application not being considered for a Padma Bhushan, India’s third highest civilian award. It is another matter, she was ultimately bestowed with the honour following a media trail. “Indians have experienced to register protests. Several writers and artists have recently returned their awards and prizes in protest against the prevailing situation. I am also returning the award to the Haryana Sahitya Akademi,” the writer had said in a letter.
Indeed, an atmosphere of communal polarization, hate crime, insecurity and violence is getting denser in the country. Political leaders seem to be promoting or patronizing it. The government is only running down the artists and writers, sportspersons. Freedom of expression is the foundation on which the structure of democracy has been built. The entire building would come down crashing if it is tinkered with. Unfortunately, this is what is happening. This feeling of suffocation has emerged after the advent of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. There is fear to express a different point of view. One feels that the fanatic fringe in the Hindu community has become bold and has been indulging in acts, which are opposed to secularism which instill fear in the minds of minorities.
Whether one should or should not eat beef is a matter of personal choice. The Supreme Court of India has also endorsed this viewpoint. Not many among the minorities eat it because of the accommodative culture the country has developed. For the same reason, the Hindus too do not take pork out of respect for the Muslims’ belief. In fact, India has survived as a nation, despite its diversities, because it has respected the different sensitivities and identities. Otherwise, a vast country like India would have disintegrated long ago.
I recall in my brief stint as India’s High Commissioner in London, the admiration which then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had for the country. She told me once that India was an example for the world how the country had remained democratic and united despite the backwardness. She asked me once what reason I attributed to it. I told her that we in India did not think that things were either black or white but we saw a vast grey which we want expanding. This was our pluralism or secularism.
Unfortunately, the ideology of the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party is the antithesis of pluralism. The party believes in polarization. Haryana chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar’s reported remarks to a national newspaper that “Muslims can continue to live in this country, but they will have to give up eating beef because “cow is an article of faith here.”
No doubt, the remarks of Haryana chief minister had trigged an outrage with the Congress calling it a sad day for Indian democracy and slamming for his “unconstitutional” observations. Yet, as was to be expected, the BJP leader said his words had been twisted. “I never made such a statement. But if the sentiments of anyone have been hurt with my words, I am ready to express my regret,” said Khattar. Understandably, the BJP dissociated itself from the views of Khattar saying that this was not the party’s stand or view. Similarly, on the issue of writers’ protests or that of sportspersons and likeminded celebrities returning their awards a BJP minister said that it was a “systematic and malicious campaign against the govt to divert its focus from development and to derail Prime Minister Modi’s efforts of making India develop and progress further.”
But what hurts me the most is all these people, who are queuing up to return the awards or make a hue and cry when left out of the list of Padma awardees, had failed to react when the emergency was imposed in the country or when the anti-Sikh riots took place following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984. Over, 3,000 Sikhs were massacred in the aftermath of the incident in Delhi itself. However, I cannot understand the silence of Prime Minister Modi who, all the time talks of an inclusive government. I wish he had spoken on the raging issues. In a nation’s history, there come certain occasions when people must speak out. If they don’t, the nation is doomed to suffer.
—The writer is a veteran Indian journalist, syndicated columnist, human rights activist and author.