Why India's celebrities and scholars are handing back their national awards

Some 86 people have been killed by religious violence since January. Bollywood film star Aamir Khan is among those protesting the government's response to rising intolerance. 

Evan Agostini/Invision/AP/File
Aamir Khan attends the Sixth Annual Women in the World Summit opening night at David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center in April, 2015, in New York.

A rise in violent attacks by Hindu extremists continues to be matched by pointed protests from an array of leading authors, scientists, historians, artists and other public figures here.

Since September at least five-dozen leading poets, filmmakers and scholars have returned government-bestowed awards after a series of beatings and lynchings carried out by Hindu mobs across the country. Many accuse the government of inaction, if not acquiescence. 

Some 86 persons have died as a result of religious violence this year, according to home ministry figures. This includes ordinary villagers accused of slaughtering cows (a Hindu taboo), as well as celebrated intellectuals like M.M. Kalburgi, who was shot dead at his home after criticizing Hindu fundamentalism.

Civic leaders say the social atmosphere in India is darkening under the silence of the Hindu nationalist government of Narendra Modi, himself a controversial figure for his tenure as the chief of Gujarat Province during widespread Hindu-Muslim violence in 2002.

Supporters of the prime minister characterize the protests as politically correct and manufactured, and accuse those who have returned their prizes of being themselves intolerant.

“First writers, then filmmakers, now biologists...do you see this as a chain reaction?” Finance Minister Arun Jaitley suggested to reporters last month. “I think the events as they are unfolding only indicate that that kind of manufacturing is growing at a faster speed."

Bollywood spouse ready to leave 

This week a beloved Bollywood film star, Aamir Khan, made national headlines when he said his wife no longer felt safe due to religious intolerance and had asked him if they should move abroad. Mr. Khan said "there is a sense of growing disquiet… growing sense of despondency."

An older Bollywood star, Shah Rukh Khan, also criticized the intolerance and lent support to the civic leaders' protest.

This Monday leading poet Jayanta Mahapatra returned a top award citing a growing “moral asymmetry” in India. Three weeks earlier, a chief aide for a former prime minister had his face smeared with black paint by extremists for hosting a book talk by a Pakistani diplomat.

A number of authors have returned the prestigious National Academy of Letters prize. One of the catalysts was the Aug. 30 killing of Mr. Kalburgi, the intellectual. Hindi writer Uday Prakash was the first to return his Academy award. “I have never witnessed such things in past,” said Mr. Prakash. “This time it is at the grass root level. It is a vicious campaign.”

Intellectuals charge that organizations like Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which runs Hindu schools and social and political groups, are taking over India's civic space. Such groups are sanctioning attacks over the sale and consumption of beef, the visits of Pakistani artists and sports figures, and promoting a narrow reading of Hindu ideas. 

In the past year bans on beef have been instituted in major cities like Mumbai, which has a renowned area devoted to halal butchers. 

The RSS, from whose ranks Mr. Modi emerged, is widely known as the braintrust of his party, the BJP, and is committed to turning multi-faith India into a Hindu state. On Tuesday, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat sought to give priority for the Hindi language at primary schools, a longstanding aim of the group. 

Problem more social than political? 

The row over eating beef has polarized the country to such an extent that last month a middle-aged Muslim, Mohammad Akhlaq, was beaten to death. The incident took place in North India’s Dadri area where Hindu attackers alleged the family stored and consumed beef. The forensic examination later proved the meat to be lamb.

Later, Hindu nationalists on the Srinagar-Jammu highway burned to death a Muslim trucker from  Kashmir over rumors of beef-eating there. The killing caused massive protests in the Kashmir Valley which is now ruled by a coalition of BJP and the local People’s Democratic Party.

Prakash, the writer, argues that not all incidents are taking place under local BJP governments. Kalburgi was murdered in Karnataka, a Congress-ruled state, and the lynching of Muslims in Uttar Pradesh are under the local Samajwadi Party. 

“I don’t take it as political problem. I consider it as social problem," says Prakash. "Such elements are active in almost all political groups. Now, creative people will be afraid of speaking out. I think Modi and all senior leaders should take some sort of action. Every minority has developed fear.” 

Reputed documentary filmmaker, Anand Patwardhan believes that religious and ethnic intolerance has been growing in India since independence in 1947. The ideology that killed Mahatma Gandhi is in power today, he says. RSS dictates rules in the country and is a growing organization, he adds.  

Patwardhan is one of a dozen filmmakers who returned their National Awards in support of students who protested at India's top film college over the appointment of a BJP member as chairman of its governing council. 

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