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Opinion || Of Awards and Premonitions

In lands of government by the people, the sort of award given out on the consensus of a band of juries hand-picked by elected representatives of the nationals is considered to the highest honours in their respective crafts. The idea to be remembered even centuries from the present with hopes that democracies would survive and recognise them in lieu of these official honours conferred on the country’s greatest practitioners in their respective fields of excellence, whatever be that may.

Rabindranath Tagore

The reason why the citizens have high opinion of these felicitations is their deep regard for the constitutional process itself. Although activisms and protests have never been scarce in these nations, a Grand Croix French Legion of Honour or a Padma Bhushan, a Knighthood or any exceptional service award by a country is generally revered in a nation which has respect for itself, if not for its present government.

Sometimes, as has happened in India during the past month and more, the awards are returned to the ‘government’ as a show of protest, expressing symbolic solidarity with a view shared by a large number of the populace.

‘Growing Intolerance’ being the magic words on this occasion, the usual compound ripostes were inflicted one after the other from each side. A slew of writers felicitated or belonging to the Sahitya Akademi being the first to strike, it was soon followed by a man of science, P M Bhargava, returning his Padma Bhushan. As the usual delegates of the government began retorting strongly, the members of the so-called ‘intelligentsia’ hit back with filmmakers joining the fray and returning their national awards. The Nayantara Sehgals and Mandakranta Sens were joined by the likes of Dibakar Banerjee and Anand Patwardhan.

It is hard to argue with the fact that the reasons cited for these returns, from the killing of rationalist MM Kalburgi to the rampant use of partisan and inflammatory comments by elected representatives and those close to the government. This month, it even ended up involving the biggest showbiz icon in the Indian subcontinent, the mighty Shah Rukh Khan. While backing those returning these awards, his acceptance of the fact that intolerance was a reality, prompted an MP and general secretary of the ruling party to directly attack King Khan’s religious identity, ironically strengthening the ‘intolerance’ point in no small terms.

It is natural enough for opinions to be varied in a multifarious nation such as ourselves and logically enough, it does not come off as much of a surprise that there are voices, blatantly advertising for the government or wondering out loud quite naturally, that question the actual value these acts of renunciation may have in terms of tangible result.

These acts have prompted belittling statements from their peers as well, with avid party loyalist and esteemed actor Anupam Kher vehemently deriding the statement (even as he protested the verbal missiles directed at Shah Rukh Khan) and superstar Kamal Haasan invoking the separation of culture and state, arguing that awards were given by eminent juries and had nothing to do with the government.

Dibakar BanerjeeThe most alarming fact among this assemblage of arguments and counter arguments is the vilification of the act of sacrifice itself.

As India is systematically reminded of the vague glory of a distant cultural past, it has chosen to overlook a history more recent, at a time when our nation was yet to achieve its right to choose a ‘ruler’ every five years. The Jallianwala Bagh Massacre by the British in 1919, which left nearly a thousand dead, compelled the nation’s first Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore to return the Knighthood he had received from the Empire in 1915.

If one is inclined to argue that a symbol of achievement as a Nobel is required to do something the laureate dared to, one must realise that the person is questioning the national set-up itself by devaluing the recognitions of the constitutional process that has also brought the present government in power.

Shashi Deshpande, who quit Sahitya Akademi

If the base accusation of craving for the quarter hour of fame is seen in an unflinching light, it is, at best, a sound excuse to bring to national attention the cancelled concerts of eminent musicians due to their ‘uncomfortable’ nationality, or the lynching of a man for his (alleged) eating habits, or attacking those with ink who dare use the letters as a means of voicing one’s opinion. It is to revisit the reasons why students and scholars are voicing concerns over anomalies at reputed national bodies such as the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) or University Grants Commission (UGC).

The ball, as they say, must be kept rolling.

The warriors of thought, whether scientific or of the abstruse, have a premonition of darker, stifling times ahead, recognising what it is that disturbs the free train of thoughts at present.

It is we, our elected governments, who have felicitated their acumen of deliberation. Thus, should we not give their points a second reading before swearing blindly by the favourites? []

First Published: CultureCult Magazine, Issue Two: November 2015 (As a part of our column “The BAN Culture”