Last Wednesday, Ashok Vajpeyi, an award-winning Indian author, spoke about what motivated him and other writers to return their awards as a form of protest against the recent murders of writers in India and the Indian prime minister’s silence on the tragedy.
From 2008 to 2011, Vajpeyi was chairperson of India’s National Academy of Arts. He has published over 23 books of poetry, criticism, and art. His work has been translated into many languages, including English, French, and Polish. In 1994, India’s National Academy of Letters awarded him the Sahitya Akademi Award for his poetry collection Kahin Nahin Wahin.
Earlier this month, Vajpeyi returned the award, causing a great deal of controversy.
Shafique Virani, professor at UTM and director of the Centre for South Asian Culture, introduced the events Vajpeyi and other writers were protesting at “Shattering the Silence” in IB.
Vajpeyi spoke about his motivation behind returning his award.
“Writers are lonely people, in the sense that they sit there in rooms and write and hope that others will have the occasion to react, to respond, [and] to feel the sense of reality in the paper put forth,” Vajpeyi said. “And you never know when this happens or not. But there are occasions when writers have to become the voice of countries.”
Vajpeyi said that the movement started with 43 writers who renounced the Sahitya Akademi awards and that the numbers have grown each day. The intellectual community of India is not protesting “just a murder here or an act of violence there” said Vajpeyi, but “a very well designed pattern that is emerging”.
Vajpeyi explained that many of the national institutions are being marginalized. In fact, many of the people appointed to higher positions at such institutions are not being appointed on the basis of merit at all. For example, the National Book Trust has appointed a chairman who claims that he was a journalist in Vajpeyi’s state. Vajpeyi says that he has never heard of him and doesn’t think that the man has ever written a book.
Vajpeyi then listed the members of the Sahitya Akademi who were murdered in broad daylight and whose murderers have not been found. For example, Malleshappa Kalburgi, an award-winning Kannada-language writer, was shot in August for his writings against superstition and false beliefs.
On September 28, in a village near Delhi, an angry mob murdered 52-year-old Mohammad Aklaq. The mob killing was carried out based on the rumour that Aklaq had eaten beef. Cows are sacred in the Hindu religion and thus are not killed by them.
However, Vajpeyi said that the rumoured beef had turned out to be goat meat. The tragedy does not end there—Aklaq’s 22-year-old son remains in critical condition.
“The idea that you belong to a minority, whether it is of faith and religion, whether it is of opinion and beliefs, whether it is a minority opinion of anything, you are an issue under doubt, under suspicion,” said Vajpeyi. “Writers themselves are of a minority, everywhere in the world, in all countries. But they exist because they are a minority who have a right to exist. Now you are being told you should say this; you should not say this. You should eat this; you should not eat this. It is the state that is exceeding its limits.”
Vajpeyi said that India’s civilization has sustained itself through plurality. “I’m fond of saying that nothing in India is allowed to be singular for a long while,” he said. “Everything singular turns into plural, whether [it is] god, religion, language, costume, food, cuisine, custom. [In] all of these, there is plurality.”
Vajpeyi said the writers decided to give back the awards on two grounds. The first was that all the awards given by the Sahitya Akademi have nothing to do with the government. It is a harmless national organization, though funded by the government. But at the same time, the Sahitya Akademi did not do anything to condemn the murder of one of its own award-winning members.
“This kind of institution, that is a national forum for writers paid to represent writers, decides to represent the state,” said Vajpeyi.
Vajpeyi says the writers who have returned the awards belong to different political parties, making them pluralistical politically, too. By returning the awards, the writers are trying to make the point that they do not like the politics governing their country.
“We don’t like the politics of murder and violence,” said Vajpeyi. “It is unacceptable that Muslim families feel they need to move so that they have the support of numbers to feel safe.”
Vajpeyi spoke about how religious violence has become an ominous presence across the world today. However, he concluded his talk on a positive note, saying he had faith that India would ultimately triumph.