The revolt confronts Prime Minister Narendra Modi with a critical test of his vaunted ability to shape the public narrative of his administration.
NEW DELHI — The novelist Nayantara Sahgal said she was returning India’s highest literary honor to express sympathy for “all dissenters who now live in fear and uncertainty.”
G.S. Bhullar, a short-story author, said he was giving back the same award to protest the “violent retrogressive forces dictating terms in the field of literature and culture.” Mandakranta Sen, a Bengali poet, said she was sending her award back to protest “attacks on rationalists.”
In the past month, 35 leading Indian authors and poets have returned coveted awards from the National Academy of Letters in a collective revolt against what the writer Salman Rushdie last week called the “thuggish violence” creeping into Indian life under the Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who took office 17 months ago.
The writers’ revolt, which began in September after a 76-year-old critic of Hindu idolatry was gunned down in his home, gained strength this month after Modi failed to promptly condemn the killing of a Muslim man, Mohammed Ikhlaq, by a Hindu mob because the crowd members suspected he had killed a cow and eaten its meat.
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Last month, during a visit to the U.S., Modi was warmly embraced by Mark Zuckerberg and other Silicon Valley titans, who praised him as the modernizing, progressive, open-minded leader of the world’s largest democracy. The backlash from some of India’s most celebrated writers highlights the extent of debate about the goals and essential nature of Modi’s administration.
Is he a Twitter-savvy technocrat obsessed with increasing development for India by slashing red tape, wooing foreign investors and building a modern digital economy? Or is he a canny ideologue intent on imposing a strict Hindu code of values on a nation that prides itself on tolerance, diversity and pluralism?
One of Modi’s favorite modes of communicating is Twitter, where he has 15 million followers and more than 9,500 posts. On Twitter, he presents himself as cheerleader in chief for all things India, celebrating achievements, sending birthday greetings and offering condolences.
Yet, as many commentators have pointed out, not one of his Twitter posts has offered condolences to the Ikhlaq family, which was attacked by a Hindu mob last month in a village 30 miles east of Delhi.
With each passing day of silence from Modi, more writers have stepped forward to say that they, too, were returning their awards from the academy, also known as Sahitya Akademi. At least a dozen more writers have joined since Monday, when right-wing Hindu activists in Mumbai smeared black paint on the face of Sudheendra Kulkarni, a think-tank leader, for agreeing to host a book launching for a former Pakistani official.
“There are attacks on ordinary liberties, the ordinary right to assembly, the ordinary right to organize an event in which people can talk about books and ideas freely and without hostility,” Rushdie told India’s NDTV network Tuesday.
Uday Prakash, a renowned Hindi writer, was the first to renounce his award, in September. “I have never seen such hostility before,” he said.
In interviews last week, the writers returned to the same refrain: That Modi’s failure to confront intolerance by fellow Hindu nationalists is giving tacit permission for more intolerance. “The tide of violence against freedom of speech is rising every day,” Sahgal said.
Modi on Tuesday for the first time directly addressed the Sept. 28 attack that left Ikhlaq dead. In an interview with the Bengali language newspaper Anandabazar Patrika, Modi called Ikhlaq’s death “really sad,” and emphasized that his Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, “never supports such incidents.”
But he also accused opponents of trying to exploit Ikhlaq’s death. “Opposition regularly alleges BJP of igniting communal flares,” he said. “But isn’t the opposition doing polarization now?”
G.N. Devy, a writer from Modi’s home state, Gujarat, said a government official recently visited and politely quizzed him for an hour about returning his award. He said the official asked about the political aims and organization of the protest. He said he told the official there was no organization.
“My protest is not against any government, but to make the point that the constitution of this country needs to be fully protected,” he said.
It is the kind of encounter that has become more common, in part because Modi’s ascendancy to prime minister has been accompanied by growing activism from conservative Hindu nationalists who seek to suppress forms of expression they view as offensive to their religion. They have pressed publishers to withdraw books, pushed universities to remove texts from syllabuses and filed criminal complaints against those they deem to have insulted Hinduism.
Few have drawn more criticism than M.M. Kalburgi, a rationalist scholar who enraged far-right Hindu nationalists through his criticism of idol worship and superstition. Kalburgi said he received death threats, and Aug. 30 he was shot dead in his home in Karnataka, in southern India. No arrests have been made.
A fierce debate rose among members of the National Academy of Letters after Kalburgi’s slaying. He had been a member of the academy’s general council, and he received an award from the academy in 2006. Yet it issued no formal statements condemning his killing.
Some members wondered whether the academy was quiet because it gets government funding. Sahgal criticized the academy for acting as if it was “wise to be silent when writers are being killed.” That silence is what led Uday Prakash to return his award. “Writers are a family, but they don’t seem to care,” he said.
Vishwanath Prasad Tiwari, the academy’s president, said the writers had been misled into believing the academy had been silent.
He pointed out that the vice president of the academy presided over a tribute for Kalburgi last month. The tribute celebrated Kalburgi’s contributions as a writer and scholar, but also included forceful condemnations of his slaying.