After many years, ‘protest’ has found its voice and a new legitimacy. In the last two weeks, about 25 writers have returned their Sahitya Akademi awards and some have resigned from the Akademi.

Most of these writers practise their craft in regional languages. They are quiet private citizens wrestling with the human condition using the written word. Protesting against the State is not their usual business. Their dignified statements showed how deeply disturbed they are by the general rise of intolerance in the country, the murders of scholars and rationalists, the threats to writers and academics, and the lynching of a poor man by a mob that concluded that he had kept beef in his home. They are appalled – as millions are – by the apathy or connivance of those in authority.

Returning an award is a symbolic act. Rabindranath Tagore, Shivaram Karanth and Khushwant Singh had done so. It does not diminish the work of the author for which the award was given. However, these writers are taking a huge personal risk by publicly taking a stand against the forces of intolerance and their mentors. The writers are also allowing their private spaces to be invaded by persons whose only skill is heaping abuse. They have been accused of opportunism and partisanship. They are asked why they did not protest in the past during times of riots or suppression of rights. One does not lose the right to protest just because one did not express equal outrage over each reprehensible incident. Besides, the accusation is simply not true. Mrs Nayantara Sahgal, for instance, resigned from her position at the Sahitya Akademi when the Emergency was proclaimed.

The Collective Conscience

Ordinary citizens are deeply moved by the call of the writers to the conscience of the country. There is a collective conscience, however tattered it might be due to prejudices triggered by religion, caste and language. That conscience can be stirred by an individual’s act of defiance or protest.

In 1930, a frail man, wearing no more than a single unstitched piece of cloth around his waist, bent down and scooped a handful of salt from the ocean.

In 1955, a poor black woman defiantly refused to give up a seat reserved for black people in a public bus.

In 1962, a tall, sturdy man walked into prison with a smile on his lips and remained there for 27 years, resolute and undefeated.

Each of these acts of protest signaled the beginning of a revolution that changed history. India threw out the colonial masters who had ruled for over 200 years and became an independent republic. The United States embarked on a long march to end racial discrimination. South Africa put an end to apartheid and regained its soul as well as civil liberties for its people.

Pressure to Conform

We continue to witness solitary acts of defiance, but are we inspired by such acts to ring in the changes that are the goal of the protests? Sadly, the answer is no. Ms Irom Sharmila has refused food for 15 years in support of her demand to repeal the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, but both she and her struggle have been largely forgotten. We are not sufficiently moved to bring even minimal amendments to an inhumane law that is a blot on democracy.

The duties of a citizen do not begin and end at the polling booth. Our obligation is not only to vote to office a government. We have a daily obligation to ensure that government fulfils, every day, its raj dharma. There is no instrument more powerful than dissent to keep the rulers in check. In fact, a wise ruler will welcome his critics. As the sage, Tiruvalluvar, said, “A ruler who has no critics will meet his downfall even if he does not have enemies” (Kural 448).

Our social organizations will pressure us to conform, to think in a particular way, to abide by the wishes of the majority. Many of us, unthinkingly, succumb to the myth that a ‘strong’ (read: dominating) leader is better for the country than a ‘soft’ (read: consensus-building) leader. Another myth is that rapid economic development can be achieved only by accepting a simple set of ideas around which there should be no debate or dissent (the so-called Singapore model). Yet another myth is that the hallmarks of a great nation are large armed forces, nuclear weapons and meek neighbours. The history of the world tells us that none of these myths is true. On the contrary, open, plural and tolerant societies that were governed by modest and self-effacing leaders have achieved unprecedented prosperity and excellence in many fields.

The writers are protesting against events that have not only political overtones but have profound social consequences. Are all Indians obliged to conform to one notion of religion or food or language or dress? And are all those who do not conform to be “excluded” from public life, public institutions, public discourse and even public spaces?

A different view – dissent – is the essence of a free society. Suppose Voltaire had said “I disapprove of what you say and I shall put you to death for having said it.” Would the leader feel just “saddened”? What the writers are saying is the leader should feel outraged and should quell the dark forces of intolerance and violence.

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