Saving the Sahitya Akademi

The Constitution is being violated by those whose understanding of Hinduism needs a rethink, says former Culture Secretary in an open letter to the Prime Minister.

Updated - March 25, 2016 11:56 pm IST

Published - October 14, 2015 01:11 am IST

Illustration by Satwik Gade

Illustration by Satwik Gade

Dear Mr. Prime Minister ,

This letter is to you and not to the Minister of State for Culture, Dr. Mahesh Sharma. It seeks to draw your attention to certain aspects of our culture, and not merely to happenings at a particular cultural institution, though one such institution is today in turmoil. I believe that it is you, and you alone, who can resolve the issues that I wish to raise about the Sahitya Akademi, which today is a symbol of the tumult that has engulfed our country.

Abhijit Sengupta

Sir, >the Sahitya Akademi , as you would be aware, was set up in 1952 by a Resolution of the Government of India, and formally inaugurated on March 12, 1954. Its first Council, nominated by the Government, included a galaxy of eminent thinkers and litterateurs — Jawaharlal Nehru, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, C. Rajagopalachari, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, K.M. Munshi, K.M. Panikkar, D.V. Gundappa, Humayun Kabir, Suniti Kumar Chatterji, Vallathol Narayana Menon, Masti Venkatesha Iyengar, Mahadevi Varma, Zakir Hussain, Ramdhari Singh Dinakar, Nilmani Phukan, and Rajsekhar Bose, among others. These, by any yardstick, were great men and women.

Freedom enshrined The first president of the Sahitya Akademi was the then Prime Minister himself, who proclaimed the independent position of the Akademi: “As President of the Akademi, I may tell you quite frankly I would not like the Prime Minister to interfere with my work”. The independence sought for by the Akademi, I had thought, existed even today. I find I was totally wrong.

I must not dwell on details of matters that have been talked about in the media and written about in the press and social media repeatedly over the past few weeks. But the fact is that those who have protested the spinelessness of the Sahitya Akademi, are significant writers and intellectuals — Nayantara Sehgal, Ashok Vajpeyi, Shashi Deshpande, Sarah Joseph, Uday Prakash and, perhaps the most significant of them all in the present context, Shri K. Satchidanandan, who nurtured the Sahitya Akademi as its secretary for many long years. It is that same Akademi that is today unable to protest the stifling of voices or join those who protest a lumpenisation of our culture.

I am thankful, Mr. Prime Minister, that in Bihar you spoke, albeit in an oblique way, about the need for unity and harmony in our land. You asked your listeners to follow the guiding principles laid down by the President himself who, in a speech the previous day, had expressed his anguish at the divisiveness that seems to engulf us. But, Sir, did we hear the Prime Minister himself from an appropriate forum, or did we listen to the leader of a political party in pitched political battle seeking votes?

Now fringe elements have come centre stage, with their narrowminded interpretation of our great religion. And they have brought with them a sense of fear.

In recent months, we have had fringe elements who have made provocative, appalling comments against the pluralism of India. I will not dwell on the views of the likes of Dinanath Batra and the Sanatan Sanstha. But what of those who are supposed to represent all constituents of their constituencies? Members of Parliament like Swami Adityanath and Sakshi Maharaj, and Ministers like Giriraj Singh and Niranjan Jyoti. Perhaps these are “rural” folk, not expected to be adroit with their choice of words.

But we must draw the line when our Minister of Culture himself steps in. There is a series of controversial comments he has made in recent weeks. One of them is this: “We will cleanse every area of public discourse that has been westernised and where Indian culture and civilisation need to be restored — be it the history we read, our cultural heritage or our institutes that have been polluted over years”.

What then is this cultural heritage that Mr. Sharma speaks of? The Minister’s latest comment is that the Dadri murder was a matter of a misunderstanding. A misunderstanding of what? Of Hinduism? The greatness of Hinduism lies in the fact that, in essence, it does not believe in dogma. Ramakrishna Paramahamsa said that God was like the water in a pond; different people draw water from that pond and call it by different names. Hinduism is not a religion of rituals alone, it is a way of life, it is what dharma is. No other religion can take away the strength of Hinduism; why should we ourselves be afraid that our great religion is in peril? Why is Hinduism alive after so many millennia? Because it absorbs, it allows multiplicity of thought, of argument, of debate. But now, fringe elements have come centre stage, with their narrow-minded interpretation of our great religion. And they have brought with them a sense of fear, of unease, of trepidation. It is this fringe that takes law into its own hands, that threatens, that creates a great divide, in the pursuit of its idea of Hinduism. And perhaps it is this fear that keeps the Sahitya Akademi from speaking out.

The President has actually said that he could not call an emergency meeting of the Akademi as that would cost some Rs.15 lakh. Is that too much to spend in supporting academic and intellectual freedom? Is this the freedom that Nehru, as the first President of the Akademi, envisaged this great institution to claim as its right?

Philosophy of plurality Sir, some of the great minds that began the journey of the Sahitya Akademi are also the greatest scholars of Hinduism, of our history and culture. I will mention only five of them here, out of the galaxy I listed earlier — Dr. Radhakrishnan, Rajaji, K.M. Munshi, K.M. Panikkar and Suniti Chatterji. Please ask the fringe elements, who are propounding a divisive agenda, to read their work, to understand the philosophy of plurality that is our land. Theirs was a scholarship that was dignified, cultured and proud under a fluttering Indian flag.

Today a view has been expressed that the flag should be of a single colour. Contrary to a wrong interpretation being given by some luminaries, our flag, Mr. Prime Minister, does not represent religions through its colours, and certainly not green. I will quote the Government’s own explanation, as would be seen at — “The top saffron colour indicates the strength and courage of the country. The white middle band indicates peace and truth with Dharma Chakra. The green shows the fertility, growth and auspiciousness of the land.” Sujalam, suphalam, malayaja sheetalam, shashya shyamalam mataram….

My Hinduism has taught me to respect all, to love all. My country is far too large and varied to be of a single hue. The multiculturalism, the plurality of India needs to be reinforced again and again. Sarve Bhavantu Sukhinah — May all mankind be happy. Not just one part of it. Not just the third of India that your party won the approval of in 2014.

I write to you, Sir, in an appeal that you listen to the voices that represent a fairly large segment of our society. It will not be enough for all our leaders to mouth platitudes in the quest for votes or even to prepare a face of reason. It is in action that we see effort and intention. The Constitution is being violated with impunity, Mr. Prime Minister, by the lawless, by those whose understanding of Hinduism needs a reconsideration. Only you can truly act in these present times.

As for the Akademi, I hear now that its president has deigned to prepare a response. But Sir, the damage to its reputation is perhaps irreversible.

(Abhijit Sengupta is Former Secretary, Ministry of Culture, Government of India)

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