The Might of the Pen

Indian Writers Stand Up To Modi

A vendor arranges books by the roadside in the old quarters of Delhi, August 20, 2006. Adnan Abidi / Reuters

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

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