The shameful double standards of India’s intelligentsia on secularism and free speech – Vivek V. Gumaste

Sahitya Akademi Awardees

Vivek V. Gumaste“By their silence these writers have abetted the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom, the barbaric incineration of 59 Hindus at Godhra and the systematic cleansing of Kashmiri Pandits from Kashmir. With such deliberate differential treatment these writers forfeit all moral authority; in addition, this discrimination directly provokes and fuels Hindu radicalism. They must share the blame for the rise of Hindu extremism which is still minuscule in the large picture.” – Vivek V. Gumaste

Sahitya Akademi AwardThe growing chorus of high-decibel protest from Sahitya Akademi awardees against the perceived rise of intolerance and a threat to free speech in the country serves to underline the crass hypocrisy, blatant double standards and jaundiced perspective that define a certain section of our intellectual community; theirs is a false patois that has corrupted Indian secularism and reduced it to a term of abuse. Scrutinised objectively, this ostensible act of moral activism is a Machiavellian shenanigan; a crafty ploy that hypes unfortunate incidents to assert ideological supremacy and derail a progressive government intent on development.

The warped secularism touted by these worthies does not conform to universal ethical standards nor does it incorporate the basic tenets of fair play, equality and justice. It is a partisan ideological inquisition characterised by selective moral indignation, biased criticism and targeted unsubstantiated allegations—in effect an orchestrated witch-hunt sans morals, logic or legality.

The murder of noted Kannada scholar M. M. Kalburgi, allegedly for expressing a variant opinion (cited as one of the reasons) is a reprehensible act that is anathema to a democracy and warrants outright condemnation; needless to say that the perpetrators must be hunted down and brought to book. Unfortunately, to date a criminal investigation has been inconclusive with no definite pointers. Nevertheless, our eminent writers have rushed to convict extremist Hindu elements via a media trial with the perverse injunction that these outfits are guilty unless proven innocent; an immoral stance that turns the basic premise of innocent until proven guilty on its head.

Efforts to pin these crimes on the BJP by invoking the dubious and rationally challenged concept of guilt by association must be refuted categorically. These lumpen groups are not representative of the broader nationalist narrative and any attempt to club them together is rank skullduggery. If one were to use the same logic, then these Left-leaning writers would find themselves in the dock for the innumerable gruesome murders committed by Maoists with whom they concur ideologically.

It is ironical that this Left Liberal secular lobby which effectively suppressed the nationalist voice by shutting it out of the English language media for over 50 years should raise a hue and cry about freedom of speech. This writer who has been writing for over 30 years has personal experience in this regard.

Malini ParthasarathyEditorial prerogative has been used as an excuse to deny nationalist advocates a space. Recently Rajiv Malhotra, a scholarly nationalist champion—not a rabid hate-monger—was denied a right to respond when concocted and exaggerated charges of plagiarism against him were freely circulated in Indian English language publications.

Malini Parthasarathy, editor, The Hindu, wrote this in reply to Rajiv Malhotra’s request: “The newspaper’s right to exercise its own judgement on the need to give space to a self-proclaimed impugned party, must be protected especially in a climate where frenzy is building up on social media virtually dictating an agenda of political and cultural priorities to the media, demanding compliance. We must be careful not to feed into this frenzy or to legitimise it in any way….”

In her book, this dictum however is only applicable to the “other side”.

Nonetheless the concern about free speech raised by Sahitya Akademi awardees needs to be addressed in the larger interest of our democracy.

The Kalburgi, Dabholkar and Pansare murders are aberrations. By and large there is no establishment-sanctioned threat to free speech. A review of the opinion and editorial columns of the English language media even today indicates that it is unfairly and suffocatingly slanted in favour of the Left Liberal lobby; of the hundreds of columns churned out every day hardly one or two project a different view. In reality, this brouhaha is not a valid complaint at all but a peeve of an arrogant cabal that has become suddenly irrelevant in the narrative of modern India as a consequence of its own antics of hyperbole, half-truths and blatant lies which have been unequivocally rejected by the people of India; in other words the tantrums of a spoiled brat who is no Akhilesh Yadavlonger the centre of attention.

Strictly speaking, law and order is primarily a state matter and not a direct central responsibility. By that corollary it is the Congress government in Karnataka and the Samajwadi Party in UP which stand culpable for the Kalburgi murder and the Dadri lynching respectively—not the BJP government at the Centre. And in the Kalburgi case the Congress government stands doubly implicated by its withdrawal of Kalburgi’s security cover in the face of a continuing threat even though it may have been done at Prof Kalburgi’s insistence. Here again these writers are barking up the wrong tree.

Nayantara SehgalAdditionally, a perusal of the track records of these famous personalities throws up a shocking picture of opportunistic inconsistency instead of an unwavering commitment to human values. For example, Nayantara Sahgal had no qualms about accepting the Sahitya Akademi Award from a government that had directly overseen the only true pogrom of modern India: the 1984 massacre of 3000 Sikhs in the nation’s capital.

During the dark days of 1990 when Kashmiri Hindu Pandits were forced to flee their homes, Shashi Deshpande gladly accepted the Sahitya Akademi Award from an impotent government that stood as a mute spectator on the sidelines; she on her part failed to even acknowledge the grim tragedy of brutal ethnic cleansing that was being played out in Kashmir—so much for upholding human rights and combating intolerance.

Likewise, Sarah Joseph, the Malayalam writer willingly accepted her award from the BJP government in 2003 barely a few months after the Godhra-Gujarat riots; her Shashi Deshpandepersonal aggrandisement, the glory of the award seems to have pushed her principles to the back burner at that time.

“Silence is a form of abetment,” the writer Shashi Deshpande averred while resigning from the Sahitya Akademi governing council. I do agree. By their silence these writers have abetted the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom, the barbaric incineration of 59 Hindus at Godhra and the systematic cleansing of Kashmiri Pandits from Kashmir. With such deliberate differential treatment these writers forfeit all moral authority; in addition, this discrimination directly provokes and fuels Hindu radicalism. They must share the blame for the rise of Hindu extremism which is still minuscule in the large picture.

Until I see these celebrities defend the rights of all victims, Hindus and Sikhs included, with the same vigour and passion that they exhibit now, I am forced to take their words, not with a pinch of salt but a ton of salt; their motive will always remain suspect and their protestations a sham.

Rather than indulge in deceptive name calling that paints all nationalists with same extremist brush or flamboyant resignations loaded with the diktat “it is my way or the highway”, these writers would further secularism if they climb down from their ivory towers, shed their arrogance, introspect and engage in a civil debate with mainstream nationalists to effect a positive outcome in the interest of the nation.

“My right to free speech is indispensable while your right to free speech is dispensable” attitude will not do. We need to have uniform standards applicable and acceptable by one and all: a sense of fair play that provides a platform for everyone to freely express their opinions within traditional norms that eschew violence. We need to have the courage and intellectual honesty to rise above our own prejudices and condemn every killing or atrocity regardless of the religion of the victim or his/her ideology—only then will we be able to usher in a truly egalitarian society devoid of a Dadri lynching or a Kalburgi murder. – HuffPost, 14 October 2015

» Vivek V. Gumaste is a US-based academic and political commentator.



4 Responses

  1. During the many years of khangress rule the country was sold to an army of anti hindu but pro christian and pro muslim khangress agents. It will take time to clean it up. By their actions they are exposing themselves. These great writers of India should also be asked on national tv what was the logic in giving the names of nehru, indira and rajiv and sanjay to all the institutions of India whether it be an airport or a medical college or a university.Did they think they owned the country?

  2. Taslima Nasreen

    Indian writers guilty of double standards when it comes to dissent: Taslima Nasrin – TOI – TNN – Oct 17, 2015

    The number of writers who have returned their Sahitya Akademi awards is now almost 30. The government has called their protest a manufactured protest. Now noted Bangladeshi writer and exile Taslima Nasrin has also entered the fray. In an interview to TOI’s Sagarika Ghose she asks why writers were silent when she was being persecuted.

    ~ What is your response to the fact that so many writers in India have returned their Sahitya Akademi awards?

    Writers have decided to protest against injustices by returning their awards. There is nothing wrong with it. Sometimes somebody gets an idea, others like it.

    ~ Do you agree with the government that this is a manufactured protest with a political agenda?

    I do not think so. Writers are politically and socially conscious people.

    ~ Do you feel the writers were silent when you were targeted?

    Most writers were silent when my book was banned in West Bengal, when 5 fatwas were issued against me in India, when I was thrown out of West Bengal, when I was kept under house arrest in Delhi for months and was forced to leave India, when my mega serial for TV was banned. I have been struggling alone for the right to live here and for my freedom of expression. Not only they were silent, famous writers like Sunil Ganguly and Shankha Ghosh appealed to Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, the then CM of West Bengal, to ban my book.

    ~ Are writers guilty of double standards when it comes to dissent?

    Yes, I agree. Many writers are guilty of double standards when it comes to dissent.

    ~ Is intolerance rising in India —Dadri lynching for example?

    Yes, I am afraid so.

    ~ You recently tweeted that there’s a problem with the way secularism has been practised in India …

    Yes. Most secular people are pro-Muslims and anti-Hindu. They protest against the acts of Hindu fundamentalists and defend the heinous acts of Muslim fundamentalists.\

    ~ Should writers return awards when they want to protest?

    Come on, they are grown-up people. They should return awards if they want to. We cannot advise them.

    ~ Do you feel the Indian PM should speak more empathetically when it comes to Muslims and violence against minorities in India?

    Politicians appease Muslims for votes in India. Muslims get so much favour that angers many Hindus. It is true that sometimes Muslims get tortured only because they are Muslims. But it happens to other religious community too. In Canning, a Hindu village in West Bengal, was burnt down by Muslim fanatics in 2013. If Muslims were brutally persecuted in India, they would have left India for neighbouring Muslim countries like Hindu minorities have been leaving Bangladesh and Pakistan since Partition.

  3. Rajeev Srinivasan

    The Prize-Return Tamasha – Rajeev Srinivasan

    I have been intrigued by the god-awful fuss about Nayantara Sahgal’s drama in returning her Sahitya Akademi Award. She was harking back to Rabindranath Tagore returning some British honour in protest after Jallianwalla Bagh, and the marketing idea behind it was quite good—to insinuate that the Modi government is as bad as the imperialist barbarians.

    However, poor Nayantara forgot that she is no Tagore. Take away the Nehru dynasty tag, and she is left with nothing, just like poor Rahul, and pretty much all other members of the dynasty.

    Furthermore, she forgot that she got her Sahitya Akademi Award only because she is a Nehru dynast, and only because there was a leftie, Nehruvian-Stalinist cabal that dominated literary circles for 60 years, doing a cozy ‘I scratch-your-back-and-you-scratch-my-back’ routine.

    This incenses me because this clique, just like the self-proclaimed ’eminent historian’ clique, ensured that there was absolutely no freedom of thought. There was no room for dissent, or for anything other than toeing the party line, which, like the vidushakas of old, the ’eminent litterateurs’ realised, was meant only to glorify the king-emperor, viz the dynast-du-jour. Merit? Freedom of Expression? Pah!

    As a result, some of the best literary talents in India were not only not nurtured, they were actively suppressed by these vidushakas. It is these same court jesters who, today, claim to be Freedom of Expression stalwarts. On my Twitter timeline, I encounter some of them, smug, self-satisfied toads: And according to them, ‘dissent’ is defined as anything that helps Deep State agendas.

    These poseurs and social climbers are merely echoing the antics of one of their own—the late lamented U R Ananthamurthy. This man, a modest talent but a world-class schmoozer, was reigning king of the literary establishment, making and unmaking people based on ideology alone. He was shown up as a liar: He proclaimed loudly that he couldn’t live in an India that Modi ruled.

    When Modi won in 2014, someone with a long memory sent him a paid one-way ticket to Karachi. The clever URA then weasel-worded, mumbled, pretended he was misunderstood. He expired shortly thereafter, but undoubtedly, if he were alive, he would have been part of the prize-return tamasha: Too much of a circus for him to miss.

    There has been an epidemic of other writers returning their prizes, resigning, or otherwise expressing their displeasure. Extra-‘secular’ Malayalis have been in the forefront of this. K Satchidanandan resigned his position at the Sahitya Akademi. Sarah Joseph, incidentally an Aam Aadmi Party honcho, who apparently is not disturbed by the antics of her bosses, also returned her prize. But others, such as P Vatsala (who said ‘Some prizes are given, others are bought; only the bought ones are returned”!) spoke up against this charade.

    In fact, what should bother people is the stranglehold ideologically ossified individuals have had over the literary establishment for all these Nehruvian-Stalinist years. They perfected reverse-McCarthyism (referring to the American senator who went on a witch-hunt against ‘reds,’ getting many blackballed in Hollywood, for example), intolerance, and bigotry. They have been indulging in a McCarthy-style witch-hunt against ‘saffron’ for years.

    I take this personally, because they made a non-person out of one of my heroes: The fabulist O V Vijayan, who, I would argue forcefully and logically, was the greatest Indian novelist of the last one hundred years. Yes, even considering the Bengali stalwarts, and certainly greater than the much-puffed-up writers in English: Of their work, I expect just one to stand the test of time—the magnificent The Shadow Lines.

    It really bothers me, because O V Vijayan, I have come to realise over time, was an absolute genius. He invented magical realism with his debut novel, The Legends of Khasak, a decade or so earlier than Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the celebrated Latin American author. But unlike Marquez, Vijayan did not stick to that genre: He branched out into, for example, Brechtian satire in Saga of Dharmapuri, a coprophagic and truly bhibatsa work about a dictator. Later, he wrote transcendentalist short stories, and The Infinity of Grace, about the search for a guru.

    In between, there were The Foetus, The Wart and other stunning stories of Evil about the Emergency, and the small masterpiece The Path of the Prophet, about the Sikh experience in 1984. His final work was the sprawling and autobiographical Generations, about his land-owning family wrecked by carpetbaggers, a sweeping panorama that could easily have become a trilogy, except Parkinson’s disease made him hurry up lest he died before he could complete it. Here’s my review from 1998.

    O V Vijayan absolutely deserved a Jnanpith, and quite possibly also a Nobel Prize, and many people recognized this. I had a correspondence with a Rhodes Scholar who was the then US secretary of the navy—he wrote in response to my review above, saying he was a Vijayan fan. He had only read the few books Vijayan had translated into impeccable English himself, but he also felt that Vijayan’s work deserved the highest recognition, and that he was unfortunate in not having sponsors.

    But far from sponsoring Vijayan and putting forward his case, the McCarthyite leftists blacklisted him, for two very good reasons, as far as they were concerned. First, Vijayan, a ‘card-carrying, coffee-house intellectual’, as he told me in a wide-ranging interview in 1998, he made the grave mistake of leaving the party after he got disillusioned following the Prague Spring. That was apostasy, and the comrades would never forgive him for that. Solution: Simply blackball him.

    Second, Vijayan made the ultimate Career-Limiting Move: He dared to mock the Nehru dynasty. In Dharmapuri, he portrayed an unnamed emperor who sat on a toilet-throne. His courtiers literally competed to eat his turds. It is about as accurate a portrayal as there is, of Nehruvian Stalinism. Thereafter, he wrote a series of startlingly original stories, metaphors for the Emergency, that portrayed Indira Nehru and Sanjay Nehru (‘the foetus’) as they were: Tyrants.

    All this meant Vijayan would never be allowed to rise; when I interviewed him, he was philosophical about it, but still hopeful that the establishment would give him due credit. They never did; and today, I am furious that all these frauds, especially the lefties in the Malayalam literary circuit, who knew full well that they were doing tejovadham to a genius writing in their own language, are now indulging in theatrics and righteous indignation.

    A pox on your houses, I say! You, none of you who could hold a candle to Vijayan, destroyed his career. You stood by and let that happen, and now you are morally indignant? This is exactly the way Stalinists killed off most of the best talents in the Soviet Union: it took the samizdat underground press and brave dissidents to smuggle out the manuscripts of, for instance, The Gulag Archipelago and Dr Zhivago.

    So now, when you wax all moral, I shall respond with a phrase (hat-tip to Ernest Hemingway) translated from Spanish: ‘I spit in the milk of your non-existent literary talent!’.

    If all of you return your prizes, and in fact, if all of you, like Ananthamurthy threatened to, just leave the country, nobody would notice for months: It would make no difference to our lives.

    Most of you have toiled in well-deserved obscurity, to which you will return after your 15 minutes of dubious fame. You have mouthed the Niemoller meme of ‘and then when they came for me’ but it is you who never spoke up for others, and now your edifice of sham literature has collapsed.

    And we all know—let’s not beat about the bush—this has absolutely nothing to do with Kalburgi or anybody else, it only has to do with two words: Bihar elections. It’s electioneering by other means, let’s save the fig leaf of morality. –, 16 October 2015

  4. Writers are attacking Modi via protest: Joshi – TOI – TNN – Oct 16, 2015

    BENGALURU: The BJP on Thursday attacked the writers who have returned their awards to protest the inaction in the Dadri and Kalaburgi killings. The party has alleged the litterateurs are using the protest as a means to attack Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

    “The writers are talking without any evidence. Having cited the Dadri killing and the Kalburgi murder as the reason for their decision to return the awards, the writers are attacking Modi. It is deplorable that they do not respect the mandate of the people who gave Modi their vote in the Lok Sabha elections,” said BJP state president Pralhad Joshi.

    Speaking to the media after the BJP core committee meeting, Joshi asked how many writers had returned their awards on account of the Sikh killings during the Emergency or when the Taslima Nasreen controversy erupted. “The Kalburgi murder happened in Karnataka so why haven’t the writers questioned chief minister Siddaramaiah or home minister K J George for failing to apprehend the culprits. Since th e writers cannot oppose Modi on a political platform, they are choosing this mode as an excuse to attack him,” he said.

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