For many Indians today, the youth demographic that Narendra Modi talks about all the time, the name Nayantara Sahgal will not ring a bell.
At best they will know her as a niece of Jawaharlal Nehru and they will shrug when they hear she has returned her Sahitya Akademi award. They will dismiss it as the pique of the Nehru dynasty, smarting from its fall from grace and power. They will not know or care that she wrote pamphlets against Indira Gandhi’s Emergency. And most of all they will scratch their heads about why she would return an award she got in 1986 to snub a man who did not give it to her anyway.
Chances are the PM will not care. It is not as if he looks for legitimacy from the heirs of Nehru. By returning the award, Sahgal signals the end of an era where someone like her had unquestioned influence and commanded unquestioned respect. But that era had ended already with the election of Narendra Modi. This act is more akin to shutting the door behind her on the way out.
But is it pointless?
Though poet Ashok Vajpeyi has followed suit, Sahgal, 88, is not Lady Liberty trying to start a movement of ghar-wapasi for Sahitya Akademi Awards. She is, in fact, following in the footsteps of the Hindi writer Uday Prakash who returned his award (to much less notice) after the murder of the rationalist MM Kalburgi and of six Kannada writers who returned their honours to the Kannada Sahitya Parisat. Sahgal acknowledges these writers and spells out her dismay about a culture of diversity and debate under vicious assault, about the endangered right to dissent, the distortion of Hinduism. This is not to say these did not happen under previous regimes. In 1984, her own kith and kin were in charge presiding over the carnage that followed Indira Gandhi’s assassination. But two years after that, she did accept the award anyway.
Selective outrage? Possibly. But which of us does not make those choices about when to speak up and when to stay mum?
While giving an award is the Akademi’s decision, returning it is a personal one. And everyone has their own personal trigger-point. Sahgal is entitled to hers. An award is returned not just to shame the state but also because the awardee feels shamed by it. As Rabindranath Tagore said while asking the Viceroy to relieve him of his knighthood after Jallianwalla Bagh, “the time had come when badges of honour make our shame glaring” and he wanted to stand “shorn of all special distinction” by the side of his countrymen.
The irony here is that Sahgal’s countrymen have chosen the man she is castigating by a thumping democratic majority. And according to polls, he still enjoys an enviable 87 percent popularity rating. That makes her act a much lonelier one than Tagore’s. Tagore was protesting against an imperial power, Sahgal is protesting a democratically elected one. And she is inevitably compromised by her famous bloodline.
But to dismiss her act as hypocritical outrage, too little too late, willfully misses the larger point. Sahgal, one of the more privileged citizens of India, is standing up for the right to dissent. It’s not a fashionable stance in India today. And a rare one because it seems we like the idea of a strong leader who brooks no dissent and feels no compunction to rein in the so-called fringe elements, some of them MPs like Sakshi Maharaj who say “Gau mata ki raksha ke liye maarenge ya marenge(We will kill or be killed in trying to save our mother, the cow)?” When the fringe is an elected MP, and can say this with impunity, can we still call it the fringe? If Dadri while “condemnable” is a “stray incident” according to Finance minister Arun Jaitley, then does that make Sakshi Maharaj a “stray” BJP MP?
In her statement Sahgal says, “The Prime Minister remains silent about this reign of terror. We must assume he dare not alienate evil-doers who support his ideology.” That has become a recurring refrain lately. Why does Modi not speak up? We hear that every time a Sakshi Maharaj or a Giriraj Singh or a Niranjan Jyoti shoots off their mouth. It speaks to an illusion we cling to — that Governance Modi will eventually assert himself over Sangh Modi.
It should be clear to all of us by now that both must be the same. The man, who unlike his predecessor is not reticent about public speaking, chooses not to do so. Deliberately. And he does not care what is read into his silence. As Pratap Bhanu Mehta writes in the The Indian Express “Modi should have no doubt that he bears responsibility for the poison that is being spread by the likes of Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma and (Tarun) Vijay — whether through powerlessness or design is irrelevant.” But Modi plans to fill Wembley Stadium with 70,000 people in November. He will be called yet again, a “rockstar” as he speaks to them and gets a standing ovation. Why should he speak because a Pratap Bhanu Mehta or a Nayantara Sahgal thinks he should?
It is in the face of this juggernaut that Sahgal raises a lonely and unpopular flag. To now hold 1984 over her head feeds into a most perverse logic where one terrible crime becomes justification for everything else. The great sin of 1984 was not just that it happened but that the victims never received any semblance of justice either under the Congress or the BJP regimes that followed.
The greater tragedy of the 1984 riots is how we have put its memory to such tawdry use. The lesson we ought to have derived from the horror should have been “Never again”. Instead it has become “Shut up, it’s our turn now.” Don’t dare pipe up about Gujarat 2002, or Muzaffarnagar 2013 or Dadri 2015, because where were you in 1984? We are now at the grotesque point in our public debate where the massacre of one group of innocents is used to justify or mitigate the killings of others.
The issues change but the right to dissent should be an absolute right under all regimes of all ideological stripes. We have turned it into a relative one, always compared against another date, measured against another atrocity. If not Sikhs in 1984, then the exile of the Kashmiri Pandits. We are well down a slippery slope where as Santosh Desai asks, “When does it become possible to be so repelled by something that one is able to condemn it unequivocally, without qualification or sly justification, avoiding the usual, ‘but what about such-and-such done by the other side in the past’, and refraining from keeping a cunning and calculative silence.”
We can ignore Nayantara Sahgal’s gesture, argue why she deserved the award in the first place, accuse her of selective outrage. But none of that actually challenges the veracity of what she said in her statement.
But it is always easier to shoot the messenger than to pay heed to the message, more so when it speaks to a discomfiting truth.