With Sahitya Akademi award controversy, Nayantara Sahgal exposes another case of selective outrage

She is a recipient of the Sinclair Prize for Fiction, the Sahitya Akademi Award and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. She is a prolific writer who has penned down nine novels and eight works of non-fiction. Her work – with mild shades of feminism – challenges the way Indian society treats its women. Recently, Nayantara Sahgal was seen making headlines for returning her Sahitya Akademi award. Most of the headlines read, “Nehru’s niece returns the Sahitya Akademi Award”. Discourses were quickly created to highlight “Nehru’s niece” as the keyword.

Well, Nayantara is an erudite writer with a strong sense of judgement; at least I believe this. She took her cousin Indira Gandhi head-on during the Emergency Era. Not only that, she even resigned from the Sahitya Akademi advisory board of English. Indira didn’t leave her; she reciprocated (as did many during Emergency) with an amplified ire. Indira cancelled Sahgal’s posting to Italy as India’s Ambassador.  It is another thing that when Nayantara revisited her famous 1982 book in 2012, she portrayed her cousin Indira with dignity.

Just two years before Sahgal got her Akademi award, the country’s soil was stained with the blood of Sikhs. 1984 genocide of Sikhs by Congress affiliated goons had left the country traumatised. However, unlike her recent decision, Nayantara didn’t refuse from accepting the Akademi award.

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Surprisingly, today she talks of justice. To quote her verbatim

Justice drags its feet. The Prime Minister remains silent about this reign of terror. We must assume he dare not alienate evil-doers who support his ideology. It is a matter of sorrow that the Sahitya Akademi remains silent.

The episode forced me to think about the hypocrisy of writers in different political setups. Why did she accept the honour when her nephew Rajiv Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of India roared, “When a big tree falls, the earth shakes”(when asked about the 1984 riots)? Didn’t it violate the ethics of the esteemed Mrs. Nayantara Sahgal to accept the award from the same government? (Rajiv Gandhi was the PM when she was conferred the Sahitya Akademi Award). Wasn’t Rajiv’s statement equivalent to State’s approval of the riots? If she calls Dadri Incident Modi’s silence of “reign of terror”, would she also call Rajiv’s statement “an approval of the Riots”?

Sahgal shares her roots with Kashmiri Pandits. In 90s, when Islamists forced Kashmiri Pandits to leave the valley. The Kashmiri Pandits were exposed to violent crimes like rapes, murders and other atrocities. I wonder, why didn’t that move Sahgal enough to protest or break her silence or return her Akademi Award? Was that bloodshed in Kashmir not an attack on the Idea of India? Sahgal could have stood in solidarity with the Kashmiri Pandits to take up their cause; She could have returned her award and sent out a loud message that the secular fabric of the country is under stress.

There has been enough attack on Freedom of Expression/Freedom of Speech in India. It was a good time for the writers to stand united and return their respective awards when Satanic Verses was banned in India. Can anything offend a writer more than a piece of literature being banned?

Sadly, when asked by a journalist, “Why didn’t you return the award during previous attacks/riots?”, she insensitively replied, “This is a different case, now we have a Hindutva Government”.

This makes me very very uncomfortable. Does she mean that she is fine when people are killed, literary works are banned, and rationalists are attacked under the rule of the Congress government, especially with her family members at the helm?

I know that a lot of liberals will accuse me of whataboutery (that’s their defence when someone points out to their double standards), but this isn’t whataboutery, this is stating the obvious.

This isn’t about principles; this is more about who is in power. And if this is what it is about, it is indeed a great fall from intellect to petty politics.

I would like to end this article with a quote by an unknown author:

Many of us believe that wrongs aren’t wrong if it’s done by nice people like ourselves.

(written by @wallflower_ish)


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