Amalendu Upadhyaya
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A Parliamentary Standing Committee on Transport, Tourism and Culture has recommended making Sahitya Akademi award winners sign an undertaking that they would not return their awards at any stage to protest any political incident. It believes that political issues are outside the ambit of cultural realms and that returning an award is disgraceful for the country. There was a voice of dissent that said that India is a democratic country and our Constitution has provided to every citizen the freedom of speech and expression and also the freedom to protest in any form. Returning awards is only a form of protest.

It is to be recalled that 39 litterateurs returned their Sahitya Akademi awards after the killing of Professor M.M. Kalburgi in Karnataka. It is interesting to note that the panel comprising of 31 Lok Sabha and 10 Rajya Sabha MPs didn’t consider the killing of Prof. Kalburgi as ‘disgraceful’ to the country. For them, it is more important to save the prestige of the award than the lives of innocent who are made victims of hate crimes. And how do they propose to put RSS, a supposedly cultural organisation and BJP, quite openly its political wing, in watertight compartments? Nobody has used the culture for political gains more than right-wing organisations.

When the next day after receiving the Magsaysay award on 31 August 2002, I was going to participate in a protest outside U.S. Embassy in Manila against an imminent U.S. attack on Iraq, I was asked by the chairperson of the Magsaysay Foundation to desist from participating in the protest as it’ll harm the reputation of the award. I argued that my citation for the Magsaysay award mentions that I organised a peace march for nuclear disarmament from Pokaran to Sarnath after the Indian nuclear tests in 1998 and that my anti-war position was well known. I was advised not to protest against the U.S. in Manila and do whatever I wanted against my government in India. After consulting my friends I decided to go ahead and participate in the protest.

Next day a Phillippine newspaper published an editorial, the box item of which said, ‘If Pandey is the principled man that he would like us to believe then he should return the Magsaysay award to the U.S. Embassy before he goes back to India.’ The $50,000 award money came from Ford Foundation for the category in which I was chosen.

This challenge thrown at me made my task easier as I was in a dilemma. Magsaysay award has gone to people like Jayaprakash Narayan, Vinoba Bhava and Baba Amte, who are my ideals and it would have looked presumptuous if I were to return the award itself. As the money came from the U.S. I decided to return that part. I wrote a letter to the Chairperson of the Foundation from the airport before boarding my flight back. I told her that I didn’t want to disrespect either the spirit of late President Ramon Magsaysay or the esteemed people in my country who had received this award earlier hence I was not returning the medal and the citation but, accepting the challenge posed to me through a newspaper, I am returning the award money which came from the U.S. I had, however, also mentioned that if the Magsaysay Foundation thought that I was hurting the reputation of the award too much I would be happy to return the entire award as well.

To my pleasant surprise, my decision went down well with people in India and often at events I would be extended double congratulations – one for the award and the other for returning the money.

There are times in one’s life when one has to respond to one’s conscience. For independent-minded intellectuals of the country murders in quick succession of Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and M.M. Kalburgi by the right-wing fundamentalist organisations were something about which they could not have kept quiet. Gauri Lankesh also got killed in the same manner for the same reason – their opposition to religious fundamentalism. For the writers, returning their awards was the strongest means of protest that they could conceive. It should have been appreciated. If the government had taken note of the reason for the return of awards and intervened immediately may be Gauri Lankesh could have been saved. But the government and its supporters were busy ridiculing the dissenters.

A self-respecting intellectual would never accept an award if it came with the condition that their power to protest against any political issue by returning the award was to be taken away. When the BJP-supported Mayawati government wanted to recommend my name to the Union government for a Padma Shri, after my Magsaysay, I clearly told the official who visited my home that I would not accept the award from a government that had 2002 Gujarat violence blood on their hands.

If the government thinks that by giving awards to individuals it can chain their conscience it is mistaken. Or, maybe the present government wants only people who are tuned to their ideology to receive the awards so that there is no danger of anybody returning the award.

By Sandeep Pandey

Sandeep Pandey is the General Secretary of the Socialist Party (India).

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