Over the past month, Indian writers have been returning awards from India’s National Academy of Letters, the Sahitya Akademi. They have issued individual statements, signed written petitions, and staged vigils, marches, and sit-ins. Their acts of dissent have received an enormous amount of attention in India’s print, broadcast, electronic, and social media. Officially, the writers are protesting the recent assassinations of three intellectuals—Govind Pansare, Narendra Dabholkar, and M. M. Kalburgi—and the failure of the academy to react forcefully enough to these murders, especially to that of Kalburgi, a 78-year-old historian who was also a Sahitya Akademi awardee himself.

But the assassinations can’t be the only reason that more than 60 authors have returned their prizes and criticized the academy, which has been doing its work for several decades without controversy. The prize money itself is modest, and although the award carries a kind of official prestige, other literary awards have begun to challenge its preeminence in the prolific and multilingual world of Indian literature.

The Sahitya Akademi controversy can best be understood as part of a larger battle: a culture war between India's literary establishment, dominated by left-leaning, secular writers, and India’s right-wing government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. The BJP came to power in New Delhi in May 2014, securing a majority of seats in the Indian Parliament despite winning just 31 percent of the votes cast in the national election (an anomaly made possible by India's “first past the post” electoral system). Since then, the Indian intelligentsia and media have watched with alarm as government officials have intimidated minorities, sectarian violence has risen, cultural institutions have purged their liberal incumbents, and public debate has become ever more polarized.

Demonstrators protest the killing of Mohammed Akhlaq.
Demonstrators protest the killing of Mohammed Akhlaq, in Mumbai, India, October 2015.
Shailesh Andrade / Reuters
India’s writers are not alone in their dissent. Eminent artists, actors, filmmakers, scientists, and even armed forces personnel have begun to return their various state-given awards. Such gestures send a clear message: the Modi government has not done enough to protect minorities and respect citizens' rights.


This summer, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a far-right Indian “cultural organization,” came out of the shadows to publicly rebuke the secularism that has ruled India since its independence in 1947. Modi entered politics as a cadre of the RSS when he was still a teenager, eventually rising through the ranks to be anointed its supreme leader. When he became India's prime minister, many observers worried that the RSS—which has no standing as a representative body, since it is not a political party and does not contest elections—would begin to play a role in the government's decision-making, a fear that has turned out to be on the mark. 

The current controversy can best be understood as part of a larger battle: a culture war between India's literary establishment, dominated by left-leaning, secular writers, and India’s right-wing government.

During Modi's election campaign in 2013 and 2014, he promised that the BJP would rule pragmatically, not ideologically. After all, his party shared an aspiration for robust economic growth with the previous ruling party, the centrist Indian National Congress. In the time since, however, the Sangh Parivar, the far-right element within the BJP that includes the RSS, has revealed Modi's real agenda: to make India a “Hindu Rashtra,” a majoritarian Hindu nationalist state.

The basic values that have defined India according to its liberal constitution of 1950—the protection of religious minorities, notably Muslims and Christians; freedom of expression; civil liberties; gender equality—appear to be anathema to the current administration. With a parliamentary majority firmly in place for the BJP, and with the Congress and other left-leaning parties in shambles, the gloves are off.

The RSS, including its leader, Mohan Bhagwat, has been announcing more and more volubly that Muslims are second-class citizens who may continue to live in India only if they change their habits of belief, faith, worship, diet, dress, and so on, in order to conform to what are allegedly Hindu ideals. Assimilate, in other words, or face the old threat, not heard since the late 1940s and the bloody summer of Partition: Off with you to Pakistan! Muslims are now being lynched on the suspicion of eating beef. This despite the fact that most Hindus not only eat meat but many communities also consume cow or buffalo.

A Muslim man was killed for allegedly slaughtering a cow.
Relatives and family members of Akhalaq Saifi, who was killed by a Hindu mob, mourn his death in Uttar Pradesh, India, October 2015. He was killed for allegedly slaughtering a cow.
Anindito Mukherjee / Reuters
At the same time, the Ministry of Culture has tried to change the name of the Nehru Memorial Museum & Library, India's premier research library in the social sciences, to the Museum of Governance, to purge it of its connection to Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister and a staunch secularist. India’s Culture Ministry has forced out the museum’s director, a respected and energetic historian who also happens to be a secular liberal. The Fulbright-Nehru Fellowships, which allow Indian students and scholars to study abroad in the United States under the aegis of the United States–India Educational Foundation in India, have quietly lost the “Nehru” in their hyphenated name. The Ford Foundation, which came to India in the 1950s at Nehru’s behest, has been all but delicensed and shut down, with its Indian leader, a passionate advocate of feminist and secular causes, returned unceremoniously to New York long before her term expired.


All the while, Modi has remained silent. Unlike U.S. President Barack Obama, who never hesitates to speak out after a school shooting or incidence of police brutality, whether the violence occurs in a Republican or a Democratic state, Modi has failed to explain, apologize, or chastise anybody in connection with these episodes. He simply resorts, belatedly and after much public haranguing, to banal generalities about India's pluralist ethos, without ever pinning the blame where it belongs: on the Sangh Parivar and the BJP, the vehicles of his own rise to power.

The basic values that have defined India—the protection of religious minorities, notably Muslims and Christians; freedom of expression; civil liberties; gender equality—appear to be anathema to the current administration.

It is in this context that we can understand the Sahitya Akademi controversy. India has struggled with freedom of expression under non-BJP governments, with writers, artists, filmmakers, and journalists confronting threats, trolling, bans, and censorship. But now the situation has escalated. Communists, rationalists, atheists, and secularists are routinely targeted in India's own version of McCarthyism.

M. M. Kalburgi was killed—shot point-blank as he went to answer his doorbell—because in his decades of historical scholarship, he had argued that his community, the Lingayats of the southern Indian state of Karnataka, constituted a separate radical religion as followers of the medieval saint-poet Basavanna and were not a sect of Hinduism. The Tamil novelist Perumal Murugan released a “suicide note,” in which he wrote that he would no longer pen fiction, that the writer in him was killing himself, because he had been so reviled and harassed for his nonconformist views on caste identities and intercaste social relations. M. M. Basheer, a Muslim critic from Kerala who had been writing about the ancient epic the Ramayana for a southern Indian newspaper, abruptly canceled his column after he found himself relentlessly abused for daring to portray Rama, a Hindu god and the hero of the epic.

A volunteer of the Hindu nationalist organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
A volunteer of the Hindu nationalist organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) holds a prayer book during a training session in West Bengal, India, May 2015.
Rupak De Chowdhuri / Reuters

Pushed to the wall, Indian writers are standing up as the conscience of their nation. This should come as no surprise: thinkers and scholars led India's foundational political struggle against colonialism and imperialism. Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, B. R. Ambedkar, and countless other founding figures were as much public intellectuals as they were the makers of modern India. Their ideas and writings animated the freedom struggle as much as their leadership created the independence movement.

Nehru, who ruled until his death in 1964, invited scientists, mathematicians, sociologists, linguists, novelists, musicians, painters, and architects to set up new institutions of research and higher learning, lead universities and libraries, establish the state's academies for the arts and letters, and make the newly independent country as strong and self-reliant in the spheres of knowledge and creative expression as it was trying to be in economy and polity. During the infamous “Emergency” imposed by Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in the mid-1970s, the only suspension of the democracy India has seen in all of its postcolonial history, intellectuals and journalists went underground as the government banned newspapers, magazines, and journals.

Indian Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma has indicated that he does not take the writers’ protest seriously. But the Modi government, which has failed to deliver its vaunted economic reforms, would do well to spend its time governing rather than ripping apart India's composite and complex social fabric.

A handful of intellectuals expressed their support for Modi during the 2014 general election, volunteering to overlook his poor record on human rights in exchange for what they hoped would be his miraculous rescue of the Indian economy from slow growth, endemic corruption, and institutional gridlock. But even these isolated voices now seem to be worried that far-right groups have hijacked the Modi government with little pushback.

For now, if the administration continues to pursue its divide-and-rule policies—antagonizing rivals, persecuting minorities, and curbing dissent—it should expect to go the way of India’s British colonial rulers, forced out by a vanguard of intellectuals who were in no doubt about the moral force of their demand for, and their right to, liberty, equality, and justice for all Indians.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • Ananya Vajpeyi is a historian at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi, and the author of Righteous Republic: The Political Foundations of Modern India
  • More By Ananya Vajpeyi