Indian Writers under Siege: A Roundtable

Saikat Majumdar

<i>Students protesting outside the Delhi office of the Hindu-revivalist NGO Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh after Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula’s suicide on January 17, 2016</i>. Photograph by Rahul M.

March 1, 2016 — It is hard to remember a time when literature attracted so much front-page space, prime airtime, or mass attention in the Indian public sphere as it did in 2015. But not only was this importance accumulated through a particularly perverse chain of events, it was also a particularly toxic kind of importance. Writers, scholars, and journalists were sued, attacked, and murdered throughout last year; in protest, dozens of reputed authors, most of them working in the diverse vernacular languages of India, returned the Sahitya Akademi Award, conferred by India’s National Academy of Letters. At the heart of this ongoing crisis is an increasingly brutal conflict between, on the one hand, a vision of Indian cultural and ethnic purity imagined by Hindu revivalist politics, and, on the other, the freedom of thought and sensibility claimed by literature, historiography, and, most recently, by the social conscience of youth and student populations. The modern, post-Enlightenment conception of literature as “fiction” here runs up against narratives of religious revivalism that demand the status of absolute truth but actually have very little foundation in historical verisimilitude, sustainable ethics, or, for that matter, viable aesthetics. If anything, the spirit and practice of literature is more deeply grounded in reality—both immediate and historical—than the chauvinist utopia claimed by these “purifiers” of literature, history, and religion.

In Marxist terms, this is a superstructural conflict that has now started to irrevocably impact the base of material history. As I write these words, the most recent escalation of this conflict has amounted to an unprecedented attack on India’s leading institution of higher learning, Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. Central-government forces and Delhi police brutalized students participating in a peaceful protest against the execution of Afzal Guru, the Kashmiri activist accused of playing a role in the 2001 shooting attack on the Indian Parliament. What followed was an arrest that set the nation aflame in protest, that of Kanhaiya Kumar, the president of the JNU student union.

It is at the same time curious and perfectly understandable how literature and, more shockingly, the figures of writers themselves have repeatedly come under threat in India—precisely because their function and existence have been felt to be threatening to the new fabricators of history and culture. Americans might be familiar with how pressure from Hindu right-wing groups led Penguin India to recall Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus, which chronicled Hinduism with a historical verisimilitude that appalled those committed to a sanitized, culturally purified, and ethnically cleansed version of the religion. But they may not have heard of the Kannada scholar M. M. Kalburgi, whose groundbreaking research on religion and caste earned the wrath of Hindutva and caste purists and led to his murder last August, while several secularist bloggers were killed by Islamic extremists in Bangladesh between 2013 and 2015. In India, 2015 ended with the tribulations of a writer well known in the West, Arundhati Roy, who faced contempt of court over her article protesting the denial of bail to a disabled Delhi University professor, G. N. Saibaba, who had been arrested for alleged links to Maoists.

But these are only a few of the hundreds of acts of violence directed at writers in India in 2015. It was a sufficiently strange and violent year for the writer Nilanjana S. Roy to ask in a recent BBC article, “Will 2016 be a turning point for free speech in India?” So far, 2016 looks to be even darker, if the state-sponsored terrorism against the spoken word at JNU is any indication.

We began the following conversation in the middle of January 2016, when this question could perhaps be asked with the greater optimism of a fresh new year, not knowing what February would bring. The three participants are key figures in the literary public sphere in India today: Githa Hariharan, novelist, cultural commentator, activist, and founding member of the Indian Writers’ Forum; Arunava Sinha, translator and consulting editor for the independent news portal; and Anjum Hasan, poet, novelist, and books editor of Caravan magazine.


<i>Police observers at the Sarv Bhasha Samvad—vernacular literatures conference—in Dandi, Gujarat, January 30, 2016</i>. Image courtesy Sarv Bhasha Samvad and Indian Writers’ Forum

Saikat Majumdar (SM): We were beginning to get used to the idea that literature doesn’t really matter anymore, that it hardly has any space in the public sphere. Now suddenly it has emerged as threatening, capable of provoking bullets and bloodshed, beyond the good old days of banning and burning books. How does something inconsequential suddenly become so unsettling, even dangerous?


Arunava Sinha (AS): I suspect it’s less to do with the content of literature and more with the associations that writers have in the public perception in India: with freedom, empathy, a challenge to the orthodoxy, and the ability to communicate. More specifically, of course, the uncorking of the conservative—tending to bigotry—right-wing spirit among many Indians has led to literature being equated with a political position they both fear and loathe. Writers are a reviled tribe for this reason rather than for the specific content of their books.

I see the violence as a form of desperate muscle-flexing, aided by the complicity and support of the administration and of its apologists, who have painted themselves into an intellectual corner they cannot get out of anymore. It should, ideally, be resisted or ignored. The tragedy is the refusal of the publishing industry—there are exceptions, of course—to stand up to it. Instead, they’re quick to cite business interests and even threats to employees and just back down.

Of course, this is not entirely new. The threat of violence has made both governments and publishers back down earlier too. But for the first time it has become difficult to distinguish between the administration and the so-called offended. I only hope this will further strengthen the resolve of writers, who now have other media to get their words out in.


Githa Hariharan (GH): Except for an occasional gloomy moment, I have never felt that literature doesn’t matter anymore, that it has no presence in the public sphere. That has simply not been my experience in over three decades of writing, editing, teaching, and activism. Consider, for instance, two recent events where literature and ideas were discussed in a cynical city like Delhi: the standing-room-only crowd at the launch of the Indian Writers’ Forum, or the full house at a discussion on caste, religion, and lived culture at Ambedkar University Delhi.

But there’s a problem with talking of literature as some monolith, a holy of holies, and certainly in the Indian context. You would have to add qualifying factors—the specific languages or dialects, say, or the genre, the forum, or even the definition of the public sphere.

Let me take up that last point. If the public sphere is the television show—and sometimes it does appear that public opinion (especially middle-class opinion) is formed by television—then Indian literatures seem ghostlike, except when someone wins an award abroad, or fits in some way into India’s “triumphal song” of the moment; or, of course, gets into trouble with Hindu or Muslim or Christian self-appointed censors, all of whom feed each other’s stereotypes. But if you extend this public sphere to colleges, for instance, you get a different view. There is a palpable hunger among the young to find a way to connect with the messy goings-on around them. I think of a range of educational spaces, from JNU in Delhi to the University of Hyderabad to the head-covered girls in a small Muslim college in Calicut, Kerala. In the Calicut college, we talked about life choices through literary examples from writers such as Mahasweta Devi. Listening to these girls passionately describing ideas they had elicited from Mahasweta’s stories and applied to their own hemmed-in lives, you had a sense that public debate may live in more modest, less obvious places.

The more relevant point may be who is setting the terms of debate about living diversity in India. The Hindu nationalists (what we call Hindutva, as opposed to real Hinduism) have attacked diversity by getting [their feelings] “hurt”—by naked bodies, by sex, by a fraudulent Hindu priest in a play, by a rational or satirical take on religion, caste, and community. They set the terms of debate with the object of diminishing all the diverse strands of India, be it debate, literature, or ways of life, to one dominant “Hindu” narrative—upper-caste and male, preferably. But there is opposition to this. We saw this in the last several months. But the opposition (where the more rational writers are located) is a diverse one. The voices and approaches are so different, it seems difficult to build collective action. But this diversity is also our strength, because it mirrors the reality of India.

<i>Students form a human chain on the campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, in February 2016</i>. Photograph by Sujatro Ghosh / Indian Writers’ Forum

Anjum Hasan (AH): Writing and publishing, and talking about writing and publishing, over the past couple of decades, I’ve felt two things. Both are part of the current, what Virginia Woolf might have called the “murmur,” audible behind the everyday.

One is the murmur of the market, and that has amplified in this time as the big publishing corporations have set up house here, and as the English-speaking middle class, increasingly cut off from the languages of their parents and the kinds of progressive literature that generation might have read, acquaints itself with a younger, often more functional, definitely less discomfiting writing in which they might recognize themselves. The market has certainly created one model of literary relevance, a model new to this country, and yet one we’ve embraced as ineluctable.

The other murmur, building up softly for some time behind the louder effusions of the market, but much more strident since the right-wing government’s coming to power in 2014, is the expression of moral outrage. Enough books have been banned and writers attacked in the recent past for us to start asking ourselves, why are the values implicit in literary writing—ambiguity and open-endedness but also plain truth-telling—becoming so hard to take? Between the economic fanaticism of the last 25 years and the religious and ethnic fanaticism that has accompanied it, the idea of literature as a space one inhabits, a mode of feeling and being, seems to have gone out of the window. If the market created the idea of the book as just a product, then that product is now just an expression of an opinion. If I don’t agree with the opinion in question, I can file a criminal suit against its author—the law allows for this—physically attack, and, lately, even murder her.


SM: As a child, U. R. Ananthamurthy conducted the experiment of urinating on idols. An experiment that gave him sleepless nights. The noted Kannada scholar M. M. Kalburgi, assassinated in 2015, discussed Ananthamurthy’s so-called experiment extensively. Such experimentation with the conventions of Hinduism contributed to the reputations of both Ananthamurthy and Kalburgi as “rationalists,” an epithet that sits uneasily on them. Aesthetically speaking, though, polytheism is wonderful, no? Both Hellenism and Hinduism have inspired some of the finest poetry in human history; Wendy Doniger’s view of Hinduism would seem to support this view. So, do we really have a quarrel between religion and literature today, or is it something else?


GH: There’s no quarrel between religion and literature that I can see. The quarrel between religion and anything seems to come out of a conflation of religion with ritual, or convention, or the religious institution. Most of all, the conflict arises from the use of religion for exclusionary politics. But I am more interested in the first part of your question, about the “rationalist voice.” There are, of course, rationalists in India, as elsewhere, who see all religion—or, to be precise, rituals loosely called religious practice—as superstition. But there is another complex stream of rationalism.

Ultimately, a rich literary life—or a richly involved citizen’s life—has to be connected with the great churning that is going on in India.

Let’s move to real life and real people in India. Narendra Dabholkar, a doctor and social activist from Maharashtra State, led an organization to eradicate superstition. But his take was that ritual was fine if you want to practice it; your ritual should just be antidiscriminatory, and it should not harm anyone or anything. For example, pray to Ganesh if you like, but don’t immerse Ganesh idols in lakes, rivers, and the sea, because this harms the environment. To understand the “antidiscriminatory” ritual, we have to remember that Dabholkar was part of the movement against caste-based inequalities, and violence against Dalits (the former “untouchables”). Both causes earned him angry critics, especially from the right wing. He was killed on August 20, 2013, probably by some small right-wing group—these groups spring up, splinter, and work exactly like small terrorist groups anywhere. Four days after he was killed—his daughter lit the funeral pyre, a powerful gesture in a patriarchal society—the state government approved the Anti-Superstition and Black Magic Ordinance that Dabholkar had campaigned hard for. Then there was Govind Pansare, a communist, who was also involved in movements for social change. His “crime” was to debunk the myths built by Hindu chauvinists around historical figures they were using to build a canon, the warrior Shivaji, for instance. Pansare was also killed.

Both Dabholkar and Pansare were atheists, but still they complicate the black-and-white idea of a “rationalist.” Kalburgi and Ananthamurthy, strictly speaking, cannot be called rationalists; but they add dimensions to the critique of rules and conventions that Dabholkar and Pansare made. Neither Ananthamurthy nor Kalburgi ever suggested that it was fine to urinate on idols. Kalburgi, who referred to Ananthamurthy’s anecdote, was associated with at least two mattas (Hindu religious centers) in Karnataka State. But he was a scholar, and his work included study of the 12th-century reformer Basava, who was critical of caste division. Basava’s followers were, over time, absorbed as a separate caste called the Lingayats. Probing this irony, and stating that Lingayats are not Hindus, is what got Kalburgi into trouble with this caste group, which is now politically powerful and close to the Hindu right. Kalburgi was also shot.

As for Ananthamurthy: as a child, he conducted an experiment. He was a child learning the world, complete with its rules and conventions. Only experiment teaches which rules cannot be transgressed—such as touching fire; and which rules are merely conventions—such as not urinating on idols. Which of us has not conducted a childish little experiment of our own to find out which rules need not be taken seriously? This is actually science, not “rationalism”; it is the testing of a hypothesis.

All four men used intelligence and imagination to criticize the establishment; but they did it in a range of ways: activism on the ground, using science, or reason, or scholarly work, or literature. And all four posed a question that responds to yours, Saikat, with a counterquestion: can we live a rich literary life, practice customary ritual, conduct some fundamental experiments in the real world, without exclusionary ritual, but with rational discourse?

 <i>Huchangi Prasad speaking during a panel discussion at Ambedkar University Delhi on January 20, 2016</i>. Photograph courtesy Indian Writers’ Forum

AS: Religion is the identity around which aggressive mobs of the mind are constructing themselves. So, naturally, religion is their prism of “hurt feelings.” Obviously these mobs are not looking for nuanced readings or are even sensitive to the ways in which religious epics and philosophies have been mined.


AH: Hinduism, or the cultural traditions retrospectively gathered under that umbrella, has always been extraordinarily ecumenical. Think of the Charvak philosophers of ancient India, who could reject the Vedas without being considered heretics. Our religious epics and traditional tales are playful, multipronged, nonlinear—there’s a lot of elbow room in there for a literary imagination.

But I think what we have on our hands is an attrition of, in Githa’s phrase, the “rich literary life,” and of freethinking and irreverence. None of these qualities have required antipathy to spiritual feeling. Our medieval poets—Kabir, Basava, Mira—were literary artists and tireless social critics but also believers.

However, there’s another, related strain in our literary heritage, which is the one Ananthamurthy and Kalburgi represent. The first half of the 20th century belonged to writers across languages—from Premchand to Tagore—who start to ask, what does it mean to be a free person in this society? The social life of ordinary people starts to matter, individual feelings start to matter, and literature is tasked with taking up a modern consciousness.

These influences are still with us but thinning out. What’s growing is a terrible insecurity. Could it be caused by exposure to the globalized world, which has given us the chance to make more money than ever before but also divided us against ourselves? We seem to be wondering who we really are, culturally, and this uncertainty expresses itself as a hollow aggrandizement—a recourse to orthodoxy, and a silencing of the alternative view, enforced through violence.


SM: I want to bring up the counterquestion that Githa raises in her response: can we indeed live a rich literary life, practice customary ritual, conduct some fundamental experiments in the real world, without exclusionary ritual, but with rational discourse? Have these activities become mutually incompatible in the current reality of India? Can you discuss some philosophical measures—and some practical ones—that we might take in order to make this compatibility real and sustainable?


AH: Philosophically we’ve got to direct the debate away from others and towards ourselves—I’m with Yeats in believing that “We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but out of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.” We quarrel too little with ourselves. There’s a growing stridency and smugness in public discourse. We cleave to idealizations and either/or positions. Instead it would help to start seeing the national project, as much as ourselves, as a work in progress. In a country driven by so many competing interests and such a profusion of minority communities and practices, we have to drop this false political hope of perfection or primacy, and turn to the everyday adjustments and negotiations that have sustained us in the past. Practically, literature might yield a few insights. I do think Indian literature of the last one hundred years has something vital to offer us if we can move beyond nationalistic assertions about its worth. If we look hard enough, it might just offer us a way to live in this society—with irony, moderate hope, and tolerance of difference.


AS: It’s not only difficult but also unethical in the current climate not to take a definitive position in the various continuums linking the extremes—on freedom of expression, on freethinking, on nationalism and humanism, on the richness and anxieties of divergence and the comfort of uniformity. Silence is abetment in this situation. Taking and expressing a position will mean reexamining our own principles, which have often slipped into bed with what is referred to as pragmatism. This is as specifically true of the literary—or artistic—life as of life in general. I suspect that, done honestly, this will lead to an inner harmony within every individual, a coming out of the closet of ambiguity, one way or the other, and seeing oneself in the light of clarity. What we read, what we write, and how we engage with the world should then be better integrated with one another.


GH: The ideas I grapple with as a writer, a teacher, a mother, and a citizen all come together for me when I imagine the rich thinking life, a rich life of action. Our multiple identities are constantly in negotiation in India. This is a useful reality, because it teaches us a tactic to survive, maybe even flourish. Asserting this multiplicity in our day-to-day lives in the written text, or the classroom, or the court, or the streets: this is one logical strategy in the Indian context. Extending our own little “diverse Indias” is another. We have access today to other people’s stories in a way we have not had before. So if I talk to, or read, writers like Bama, Huchangi Prasad, or Perumal Murugan, who have faced either caste discrimination or intimidation, my literary life expands, becomes more inclusive of other Indian experiences. Ultimately, a rich literary life—or a richly involved citizen’s life—has to be connected with the great churning that is going on in this country: in our villages and small towns, on our university campuses; challenging caste, the suppression of dissent, the erosion of institutions built at considerable human cost. We don’t live meaningful lives, or thoughtful lives, or worthwhile lives in a vacuum. We live these lives someplace, a real place we love, criticize, want to change but never let go. We call this place home. I am only prepared to debate what this home—this India—is and should be. I refuse to be told what it is, how I should live in it, by people who want a “pure” India that leaves out most of its people.