Award Wapsi — why and what are the limitations: a debate in Assamese print media

November 16, 2015

Dr. Nagen Saikia is a Sahitya Akademi awardee Assamese writer. Among the many hats that he wears are: he is a former professor of Dibrugarh University, former newspaper editor and former Rajya Sabha member. On 11 October he wrote an article titled “Dadri Kando aru Akademi Bnota” (The Dadri Incident and Akademi Awards) in the Assamese newspaper Dainik Janambhumi. The article delved into the return of Akademi awards by several Indian writers including Nayantara Sehgal, Ashok Vajpeyi. The award return or “award wapsi” was done in protest against lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri town near Delhi by a Hindu communal mob on the false accusation that Akhlaq kept beef in the fridge.

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The article received a sharp rebuttal in the form of articles by a group of young men and women in two newspapers Dainik Janambhumi and Amar Asom on 2 November. The group consists of Ankur Tamuli Phukan, Gaurab Rajkhowa, Nayanjyoti, Mayur Chetia, Mahesh Deka, Bidyut Sagar Baruah, Debabrata Das, Rashmirekha Bora, Kamal Kumar Tanti, Bipasha Bora, Prafulla Nath, Noni. While Saikia’s article contained platitudes such as all religions profess doing good to others, why this blind violence – the rebuttal put award wapsi in the political context of rising Hindu communalisation of public sphere. While Saikia wondered how returning Sahitya Akademi awards could be a protest against the government since Akademi is an autonomous body – the rebuttal pointed towards the connection between different institutions of the State and efforts to manufacture consent, or at least silence, through them. The rebuttal went beyond Saikia and Dadri and commented on the limitations of these protests. It put into focus “the idea of India” these writers may represent. This “idea” has been questioned by the Dalits, Adivasis or those living in Kashmir and Manipur or possibly by the working class. If rulers of India face mass dissent from the believers of idea of India, would the abovementioned marginalised groups take part in it? Would the protesting writers join in the protest by these groups? Does not framing the debate in terms of freedom of expression by mainstream media, which would even shower praises on courageous writers, distract us from the ongoing gritty fight of students, peasants, workers against the assault of neo-liberal economic policies?

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Saikia responded soon in Dainik Janambhumi. He claims he was unaware that killing of Kalburgi and others had anything to do with the award return, as this was not reported in the Assamese newspapers. He wondered if these writers would return the degrees that universities have honoured them with, given that universities are closer to the government than the Akademi. Or, if Ms. Sehgal would return her Padmashree too.

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On 9th November the group responded in Amar Asom (by now the group has expanded by two: Amrita Pritam Gogoi, Angshuman Gogoi). They reminded Saikia of the responsibility of an intellectual, who can influence public opinion, to know before writing. They commented on the space that a university provides to critically engage and express dissent. The response notes that efforts have being going on to ruthlessly squeeze this space. These are meeting with resistances, such as protests for expanding the “non-NET” fellowships, greater freedom in girls’ hostels. Truth be told, such anti-democratic machinations have begun since the Congress rule, which reminds us of Arundhati Roy’s observation: “It has gone way beyond the old Congress versus BJP debate”.

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We reproduce these four exchanges here for the issues this lively debate has thrown up. – Editors