Returning Sahitya Akademi Award is a PM-bashing snob story which must stop

There’s a small part of India where intellectual snobbery reigns. Books are considered the source of ultimate wisdom. But here’s the thing: great people get books written on them, book-readers don’t necessarily do great things. Amid the current wave of intellectual snobbery sweeping India, many would do well to think about this.

There are not many people in India today who would proudly assert unintellectual credentials or refuse to sing reverential hosannas to those who flaunt bookish haloes. But there exists a vast portion of India that is cocooned from the scorn of writers and their diehard readers.

Does the smarts to run a company or a country stem from the ability to tell a Tagore from a Turgenev, or even a Saraswatichandra from Saratchandra, as a writer sneeringly pondered about our current prime minister? Had that been so, West Bengal with its cache of ‘intellectuals’ would certainly not have been where it is today.

So everyone’s a critic

Sadly, this misplaced reverence for anyone who writes, wins awards — and occasionally returns them decades later — or merely reads, has led to many aberrations. Not the least of which is the continuation of moribund institutions like the Sahitya Akademi, whose internal corruption is masked by the glow of its ‘intellectual’ halo.

Since 1964, a little over a decade after they were set up by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, several high-powered investigating committees looked into the affairs of the Akademis. Yet, their foibles, including scores of questions over selection of annual awardees, invoke no opprobrium.

In 2012, a parliamentary standing committee — headed by no less a bluetickmarked ‘intellectual’ as the CPI (M)’s Sitaram Yechury — even pronounced that “Akademis…are always mired in one controversy or the other. Our founding fathers gave them autonomy to keep politics away from culture, but politics seems to have crept in from the back door.”

Malfeasance flourishing in the garb of ‘culture’ is obviously a tricky asura to vanquish. Especially when culture —’good’ literature, music, art, etc — is determined by who writes, performs, promotes, befriends or opposes it. But if this astonishingly subjective rule is hijacked by new cabals, it is derided by the older one.

Given their lemming-like solidarity now, this forbearance of writers and readers, and the non-return of awards earlier despite evidence of egregious excesses by the Akademis, is curious. The silence of the bona fide bookish, Oxford-educated previous prime minister is odder still. Or was that a case of (intellectual) unity in adversity?

The current prime minister ‘breaking his silence’ about the Dadri lynching and incidents of cultural intolerance targeting Pakistanis will not stop the return of more cobwebbed plaques — not until the media loses interest, that is. Nor will it quell the fulminations of some writers and their devoted readers, and Twitterverse shadowboxers.

With ‘Better the devil I know than the Hindutward devil I don’t’ as their motto, there will be no stopping this snooty cabal’s frenzied multimedia vituperation as long as the Orange Other stubbornly occupies Centre-stage. All this, of course, even as they paradoxically proclaim the demise of dissent under ‘fascist suit-boots’.

The future will determine whether reading books — or humbly seeking approval and endorsements from their writers and perusers — really matters. And, hopefully, the result of this bout of self-righteous resignations and returns will be a clean-up of the Akademis.


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