Pradnya Daya Pawar, daughter of well-known Dalit writer and Padma Shri recipient Daya Pawar, is the first writer from Maharashtra to return all state awards — she had five — in protest against growing religious intolerance, killing of rationalists and restrictions on personal freedom. Following her decision, more than 10 writers from the state have decided to return the awards.

In an interview with Firstpost, Pawar speaks on the reasons behind her move, on the threat to writers and artiste from fringe elements and the questions being raised on the writers’ honesty for their act.

What is the reason behind returning the state government awards?

We are going through a phase of undeclared Emergency today. This Emergency is much harsher than the one of 1975. It was only the government machinery that was keeping surveillance on common citizens then but now the ruling party and its myriad supporters are keeping a close eye on all our everyday activities such as where we live, work and move around. There is increasing hooliganism in all cultural fields like education, history, science, art and literature. The public space for discourse and discussion has become totally hateful and odious.

YouTube screen grab of Pradnya

YouTube screen grab of Pradnya Daya Pawar

Developments such as the Dadri killing, banning of Muslim youths from garba in Gujarat, killing of Dalits in Maharashtra, love jihad, beef ban and Ghar Wapsi are on the rise. The situation has worsened to such an extent that rationalists are being killed. There is no scope for a fight with them in a rational way. The killings of (Narendra) Dabholkar, (Govind) Pansare and (MM) Kalburgi clearly show that they won’t tolerate any other ideology. The issue is not just about the freedom of speech of writers or providing protection to them. It is about the common people who are living in the shadow of fear.

People around me are living under the constant fear over what to eat, what to drink, whom to love, what to wear and how to express themselves. While underlining the issue of fundamental rights of writers and actors, the government machinery is encroaching upon the rights of the common man. There’s an attempt to infringe on the core values of the Indian Constitution from all sides. To condemn these things, I have returned all the government awards with the cash prize.

Do you think has India changed in terms of intolerance?

Since the past one-and-a-half year, the situation has become worse and any sensitive person will be worried about it. The extreme elements are trying to crush the fundamental rights given to us by the Constitution. The earlier Congress-NCP government never did this. They never told us what to write or never interfered in our private spaces.

Are the intellectuals and liberals under threat from the extreme elements?

Yes, if we look at the incidents of the recent past. Still, we must continue to work without succumbing to the pressure from these. These elements do not tolerate the criticism of the Hindu religion and they have created their own definition of Hinduism, which is unacceptable.

Are the writers soft targets?

Yes. They cannot hire people for their security. No writer from Maharashtra can afford that. We feel that it is the responsibility of the state government to protect not only writers, but artists, activists and journalists as well.

Do you think that all of a sudden these fringe elements have become strong?

Rather than saying suddenly, I would say that it all started with the Babri Masjid demolition. The ‘rath yatra’ completely polarised our society. And now that they are in power with full majority, people at high positions are making provocative statements. Fringe elements are trying to outdo them or trying to give effect to these statements. As is its wont, RSS is using bahujan youth for its own ends.

Is the law and order breaking down and whether the state is becoming weak?

As I have said earlier, with the active support from higher up, party workers and workers of a number of fraternal organisations, for example, VHP, Bajrang Dal, Hindu Rashtra Samiti and Sanatan Sanstha are taking the law in their own hands. They issue fatwas and demand unconditional acceptance. ‘If you don’t follow our orders, we will punish you,’ this is their stance. The recent Shiv Sena attack on (Sudheendra) Kulkarni is one such example. It appears that there are various parallel governments. These elements are getting strength from the state machinery. It is because of the help of such elements that the governments came to power in the first place.

The writers are being criticised for returning the awards and questions are being raised on their honesty…

I openly challenge them (critics) to scrutinise my work and those of writers who have returned their awards. I have a question for them. Why are they so bothered about our returning the awards? They could have just simply ignored it. It shows that they are on the defensive now. Ideally, they should address the original issues but they are trying to divert attention by speaking on our action. They should keep in mind that the common man can throw them out of power. I don’t consider myself different from common people. Through my writing also, I have raised the voice of common man and that is what I am doing now. I am not a pessimistic. We are fighting and shall keep fighting to keep India democratic.

So, what is your next move?

Returning the award is just a small step. Many writers from Maharashtra have returned the awards after I did. We will come together and try to create a pressure group. I feel that in such an emergency situation we need to take a stand. Our protest is not against one or the other political party. It is against the system which is currently being run by the BJP. If the Congress comes back to power and tries to strike at the root of our Constitution, as this government is doing, then also we will protest.

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Public space for discourse has become totally hateful, odious: Pradnya Daya Pawar