Dozens of Indian writers have returned top national awards in a protest against what they call a “climate of intolerance” in the emerging economic power.
The campaign, described as an “unprecedented rebellion by the cream of India’s literary talent” in the local Indian Express newspaper, follows a series of incidents of communal violence and attacks on intellectuals since the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won power in a landslide election victory in India last year.
More than 40 novelists, essayists, playwrights and poets have now given back awards from the country’s most prestigious literary institution, the Sahitya Akademi.
One of the most prominent is the niece of Nehru, journalist and author Nayantara Sahgal, who claimed that “India’s culture of diversity and debate is now under vicious assault”.
The row took on an international dimension earlier this week when Salman Rushdie weighed in, telling a local television network that the failure of prime minister Narendra Modi and others to act was allowing a new “degree of thuggish violence” in India.
On Tuesday, 80-year-old novelist Dalip Kaur Tiwana said she was returning her Padma Shri, one of the most important national decorations, which she won in 2004.
Sign up to our Bookmarks newsletter
Tiwana, from the northwestern state of Punjab, said she was acting out of solidarity with those “protesting against the increasing communalisation of our society”.
The two incidents that have most angered the writers are the lynching of a Muslim labourer last month, and the murder of a rationalist thinker in August.
In the first, a mob in the village of Bisara on the outskirts of Delhi, the capital, believed their victim had eaten beef and beat him to death outside his home. Cows are sacred in Hinduism.
In the second incident, Malleshappa Kalburgi, an award-winning scholar whose frequent criticism of what he saw as superstition and false beliefs had angered Hindu extremists, was gunned down in the southern state of Karnataka.
“To kill those who stand for truth and justice puts us to shame in the eyes of the world and God,” Tiwana said.
The authors, who write in English as well as regional languages, have called on the Sahitya Akademi, which was established nearly 60 years ago by India’s independence leader and prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, to publicly condemn the murder of Kalburgi.
The upsurges of sectarian tension in recent years have often coincided with elections. Currently, voting is underway in a key state-level election in the east of India.
Some analysts say rightwing groups allied to the BJP are pushing to see how far they can go under the Modi government.
Samir Saran, of the Observer Research Foundation, said that “louder and more rabid rightwing groups” in India felt emboldened by the mandate won by Narendra Modi, leader of the BJP, in last year’s poll and believed they now had more freedom of action.
Rushdie said: “What has crept into Indian life now is a degree of thuggish violence which is new. And it seems to be given permission by the silence of official bodies, the silence of the Sahitya Akademi … by the silence of the prime minister’s office.”
However, Saran said said the greater scrutiny and reporting of such incidents following Modi’s victory obscured how such incidents had happened under previous governments led by the centre-left Congress party too.
“It is definitely getting greater prominence now,” he said.
On Wednesday Modi spoke about the lynching last month, as well as the cancellation of a Pakistani Muslim musician’s concert in the commercial capital of Mumbai following threats from a rightwing group. The prime minister called the incidents “unfortunate” but said his government was not to blame.
Senior BJP officials have dismissed the writers’ protests, accusing them of being politically motivated.
“If they say they are unable to write, let them stop writing,” Mahesh Sharma, India’s minister for culture, told reporters.
However, he also condemned the murders of Kalburgi and Mohammed Akhlaq, the labourer lynched by the mob last month.
The sectarian violence has had a significant impact on India’s image overseas and could undermine Modi’s drive to attract investors.
In one case earlier this year, a critically acclaimed Indian novelist announced his “death” as a creative artist following threats and protests by rightwing Hindu and caste groups prompted by his book about a woman’s efforts to get pregnant with a stranger through a religious ritual.
Perumal Murugan said he planned to stop writing and asked his publishers to withdraw all his works of fiction from sale.
In February last year, religious conservatives forced the removal from sale of a book on Hinduism by the US academic Wendy Doniger, claiming it was insulting to the faith.
An editorial in the Times of India newspaper at the time condemned “the growing power of bullying self-appointed censors” displaying “a Victorian hangover with a Taliban temperament”.
There is a long history of clashes over culture and effective censorship by parties and leaders from across the political spectrum in India.
The sale of Rushdie’s 1988 novel The Satanic Verses remains proscribed in India and its author was unable to appear at the Jaipur literary festival in 2012 after Muslim organisations protested.
Politicians have repeatedly sought to ban or restrict the sale or production of specific books. In 2010, MPs loyal to Sonia Gandhi threatened legal action to stop the sale of a “fictionalised biography” of the Congress party leader.
“It’s become a question of an individual’s right to speak, to think, to write, to eat, to dress, to debate,” said Maya Krishna Rao, a playwright and actor, who returned her award to the academy this week.