On people returning awards

So it seems to have become a fashion nowadays for writers to return any awards they’ve received from the government. It all started with Nayantara Sahgal, and it has set off a virtual procession. Maybe I don’t follow the right kind of people but one in twenty tweets or so on my timeline talks about someone who is rejecting some award or the other, all in protest against the “intolerance” of the government. There’s even a 16 year old who has returned some award.

I must admit I don’t read much fiction, but I must mention I haven’t heard of too many of the people who have returned an award. Maybe the first few returns in Sahgal’s wake were an attempt at cashing in on the free publicity this would get them, but now I think the marginal utility (in terms of publicity) of returning an award has fallen far enough to this to not be the primary reason for the return.

At a more fundamental level, I don’t know what gives these writers legitimacy in making a political statement. I mean everyone has the right to make any statement they want, but I don’t know why we should take these guys’ political views seriously only because they are writers.

While politics forms a significant portion of several novels (for example, my entire understanding of the Islamic Revolution in Iran comes from reading Marjané Satrapi’s Persepolis), that someone has written a political novel doesn’t make them an authority on politics.

As I mentioned on twitter the other day, the core competence of a writer is command over language and power of communication, and so whatever statements they might make they make powerfully. Yet, the fact that they communicate their stand well doesn’t necessarily mean that their stand is right, and give us any reason for trusting them more than we might trust a layperson with their political views.

And in this case, they are not even communicating in the means they have established competence in – what you might have expected from a writer when they are concerned about the social situation around them is to have written about it, and used their usual powers of verbal persuasion to make their case for spreading their agenda. Instead, what we have is a blatantly political message in terms of returning their awards.

I’m not saying they’re wrong to return their awards – they’re well within their rights to do so, and maybe they think it will have an impact. All I’m saying is that we shouldn’t read much into this, and not given them credit for their political views.

Putting it another way, understanding of politics is uncorrelated with literary ability, so the latter should not be conflated with the former. I’m not denying that there are authors who have excellent political insight – all I’m saying is that the probability of an author having excellent political insight is no different from the probability of a non-author having such insight.

So for the purpose of crafting government policy in response to these protests, they should be given no greater weight than similar protests by the same number of laypeople. And looking at Arun Jaitley’s response, it seems like the government has internalised this, and it is a good thing.

One thought on “On people returning awards”

  1. These gestures were spontaneous. They were not “manufactured”. There was no organised campaign. It was writers taking decisions as individuals. We are witnessing a changed political situation, where the state and Centre are mute spectators of all the fundamentalist forces. You want to see India become a tragic mirror image of Bangladesh, where several brave, independent-minded writers have been murdered by Islamic fundamentalists who had no political allegiance, else please stop putting blame on writers and introspect before you pen down another derogatory article.

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