Indian theater artiste returns award in protest against “violence in the name of God and religion”

S. Raghunandana has refused to accept the Sangeet Natak Akademi award, citing rampant mob lynchings and the hounding of dissenters, intellectuals and activists

July 22, 2019 by Indian Writers' Forum
Indian theater artiste returns award in protest against "violence in the name of God and religion"
S. Raghunandana is an acclaimed Kannada theater artiste.

Acclaimed Indian theater artist, playwright and poet S. Raghunandana has refused to accept the Sangeet Natak Akademi award conferred on him. The awards are bestowed on eminent theater artistes and musicians, and the recipients for 2018 were announced on July 17. In a statement released after the announcement of the awards, Raghunandana, a Kannada artiste, cited the rampant mob lynchings and “violence in the name of God and religion” and held the “powers-that-be” directly or indirectly responsible.

His statement cited the hounding, persecution and charges of sedition against people like Kanhaiya Kumar (a leftist student activist who has been targeted by far-right Narendra Modi-led government). “Others – intellectuals and social activists – are facing trial under Unlawful Activities Prevention Act [a draconian law that has been used to target dissenters]. Most of them have not even got bail and are spending time in prison. These are people who have always stood up for the most exploited and downtrodden of our country and everywhere else. They have argued on behalf of the exploited in the courts, have written books and articles about their suffering, have guided them to fight non-violently, have always followed the tenets prescribed by the Constitution of India, and have upheld its spirit and values. They have waged their righteous struggle with not a thought for themselves. Yet they are in prison.”

He holds the “rulers” responsible and says that they have throttled “the voices of these conscientious intellectuals and activists” who speak up for the poor and the powerless. “I cannot, as a theater artist, poet and playwright, accept this award when such injustice is being done to these dharmamargis [those who follow the path of righteousness] in my country, in the name of my country.”

In 2015, writers and intellectuals from across the country returned their awards in protest against the growing intolerance in the country, after the murder of rationalist M.M. Kalburgi and the lynching of Mohammed Akhlaq. Writer Nayantara Sahgal was one of the first to return her Sahitya Akademi Award. Speaking to the Indian Cultural Forum, Sahgal said, “Every Indian of conscience will salute Raghunandana and support his powerful statement refusing the Sangeet Natak Akademi award in circumstances where hatred is being spread over India, horrors such as mob lynching are being freely enacted before our eyes, and dedicated activists who have spent lifetimes serving the poor and powerless are being criminalized.”

Hindi poet Mangalesh Dabral, who also returned his Akademi award in 2015, said: “I thank and greet Raghunandana for joining the group — ‘gang’, according to the Sangh Parivaar [the term used to refer to India’s far-right wing organizations] — of writers, filmmakers and theatre persons who had returned their State awards in protest against the fast increasing intolerance, violence and utter disdain for intellectuals in our society, tacitly supported or even engineered by the ruling dispensations in various states and at the centre. The most recent instance of this is the filing of FIR against ten young poets from Assam who have expressed their anguish over the arbitrary implementation of National Register of Citizenship. I can very well understand the pain Raghunandana might have felt and stand in solidarity with him.”

Writers K Satchidanandan, Keki Daruwalla, Ganesh Devy, Ashok Vajpeyi, Nayantara Sahgal and Githa Hariharan, issued a statement on behalf of the Indian Writers Forum:

Since 2015, writers and artists have protested against the culture of intolerance and hatred promoted by the present rulers of India. This tide of protest continues. In the most recent act of protest, theatre artist Raghunandana has refused to accept the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award. His open letter to the Akademi describes the acts of violence, abuse and vengeance that he is protesting against: lynchings by gaurakshaks [cow vigilantes]; the abuse of Dalits, Muslims and women; the vicious propaganda against intellectuals and the hounding of activists; and the further erosion of educational and public institutions since the general elections of 2019.

We salute theatre artist Raghunandana and express our solidarity with his decision. We also call on more writers and artists to protest against the hate politics ruining our democratic polity and challenging our constitutional rights.

Indian Writers Forum

11  cases of mob lynching have been recorded this year itself while the total number of such incidents since the Modi-led BJP came to power in 2014 has increased to a staggering 266.