Jayanta Mahapatra, a notable figure in Odisha’s literary community, is once again in the spotlight following his recent passing. His decision to return the Padma Shri award in 2015 as a form of protest against growing intolerance in India has resurfaced as a testament to his unwavering principles.
In a heartfelt letter addressed to President Pranab Mukherjee, Mahapatra expressed his concerns about the increasing societal divisions within the country. He explained, “Mine is a small, insignificant step. But it is my personal way of showing protest to the growing asymmetry that is evident in the country. I express my desire to return the award…My act should not be considered as any kind of dishonor to the country.”
Mahapatra, a distinguished contemporary poet of India, was renowned for his unique poetic style and was considered one of the founders of Indian English Poetry.
His literary legacy encompasses an impressive collection of 27 books, including seven written in Odia and the remainder in English.
Reflecting on his decision to return the award, Mahapatra shared, “It is a personal decision. I thought for a long time but some incident hurt me so much and I decided to return the award. Every day something is coming out in the paper. You cannot eat this or you cannot eat that. This hurt me.”
He emphasized that his protest was not against any particular political party but was a response to a series of events and incidents that deeply troubled him. “My protest is not against a particular party. I am as much hurt by the Dadri issue, Jayalalithaa’s police arresting Kovan, as well as the utterances of the Assam Governor on Hindustan (being) for Hindus. I believe there is a genuine curtailment of freedom,” he asserted.
A year prior to this poignant act, Mahapatra had donated not only his Padma Shri award but also his Sahitya Akademi award and several state literary awards, along with a substantial collection of over 4,000 books.
These contributions found their home in the heritage library of Fakir Mohan University in Balasore district, where he had previously served as a professor of physics.
Reflecting on this gesture, Mahapatra noted, “I may not be able to return the citation and the plaque as they are with the library. I wanted to lodge a symbolic protest.” His actions, both in returning awards and making significant donations, highlight his unwavering commitment to his principles and his deep concern for the state of affairs in the country.