Spare me Congress vs BJP debate:
Arundhati Roy on why she’s returning her National Award
Looks like the heat that the Centre is facing over the intolerant attitude of right-wing groups will not ebb anytime soon. Author, director, journalist Arundhati Roy has become the latest to join the bandwagon of eminent personalities to return their awards.
But Roy did it in style.
In her letter to The Indian Express, Roy said that she feels extremely proud to return her award as part of the political movement by academicians, writers and filmmakers who have risen up against “ideological viciousness”. Making it clear at the start of her letter that she was hardly shocked by “what is being called the growing intolerance”.
Roy added that the condition in India has gone beyond political debate and it is no more a tug-of-war between the Congress and the BJP. The author pointed out that she had returned her Sahitya Akademi award in 2005, and said “please spare me that old Congress-versus-BJP debate. It has gone way beyond all that.”
Social media picked up the column soon after its release and hailed the author’s decision of returning the award, the way she wrote the letter. But what got the most attention was the “post script.”
Why I am returning my award
The Sahitya Akademi is India’s premier institution of letters, with a stated commitment to “promoting Indian literature throughout the world”.
Although I do not believe that awards are a measure of the work we do, I would like to add the National Award for Best Screenplay that I won in 1989 to the growing pile of returned awards. Also, I want to make it clear that I am not returning this award because I am “shocked” by what is being called the “growing intolerance” being fostered by the present government. First of all, “intolerance” is the wrong word to use for the lynching, shooting, burning and mass murder of fellow human beings. Second, we had plenty of advance notice of what lay in store for us — so I cannot claim to be shocked by what has happened after this government was enthusiastically voted into office with an overwhelming majority. Third, these horrific murders are only a symptom of a deeper malaise. Life is hell for the living too. Whole populations — millions of Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims and Christians — are being forced to live in terror, unsure of when and from where the assault will come.
Today, we live in a country in which, when the thugs and apparatchiks of the New Order talk of “illegal slaughter”, they mean the imaginary cow that was killed — not the real man who was murdered. When they talk of taking “evidence for forensic examination” from the scene of the crime, they mean the food in the fridge, not the body of the lynched man. We say we have “progressed”, but when Dalits are butchered and their children burned alive, which writer today can freely say, like Babasaheb Ambedkar once did, that “to the untouchables, Hinduism is a veritable chamber of horrors”, without getting attacked, lynched, shot or jailed? Which writer can write what Saadat Hasan Manto wrote in his “Letters to Uncle Sam”? It doesn’t matter whether we agree or disagree with what is being said. If we do not have the right to speak freely, we will turn into a society that suffers from intellectual malnutrition, a nation of fools. Across the subcontinent it has become a race to the bottom — one that the New India has enthusiastically joined. Here too now, censorship has been outsourced to the mob.
I am very pleased to have found (from somewhere way back in my past) a National Award that I can return, because it allows me to be a part of a political movement initiated by writers, filmmakers and academics in this country who have risen up against a kind of ideological viciousness and an assault on our collective IQ that will tear us apart and bury us very deep if we do not stand up to it now. I believe what artists and intellectuals are doing right now is unprecedented, and does not have a historical parallel. It is politics by other means. I am so proud to be part of it. And so ashamed of what is going on in this country today.
Postscript: For the record, I turned down the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2005 when the Congress was in power. So please spare me that old Congress-versus-BJP debate. It has gone way beyond all that. Thanks.