One of India&’s leading poets in English, Keki Nasserwanji Daruwalla, 78, joined the Indian Police Service (IPS) in 1958, becoming a Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on International Affairs in 1979. He was later in the Cabinet Secretariat until his retirement in 1995 and was awarded both the Police Medal for Meritorious Service (1975) and President&’s Police Medal for Distinguished Service (1985). He was awarded the Padma Shri in 2014. For his poetry collection “The Keeper of the Dead” he won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1984, which he returned recently in protest against the Akademi&’s failure “to speak out against ideological collectives that have used physical violence against authors”. In this interview with SAKET SUMAN, Daruwalla freely expands on these issues. Excerpts:

Why did you return your Sahitya Akademi award? And why, despite the Akademi&’s strong  – although belated – condemnation of the recent cycle of violence, killings and intolerance in the country, have you and other writers not taken them back?

I returned the Sahitya Akademi award mainly because the Akademi did not do enough for a writer and, in fact, a Sahitya Akademi awardee (M M Kalburgi), who was murdered. And he was murdered for being rational, for talking about so many things which fundamentalists of a kind did not like and I was also pained at the death of Dabholkar and Pansare…

We have not taken back our awards because we cannot flip-flop on these things – what you do, you do once and you can’t be seen as giving back an award and then taking it back. I mean, it is not a game of ping-pong. I did not take it back and I will not take it back and the institution I really blame is the Akademi…Kalburgi&’s family did not even get a condolence call for two months (from the Akademi) till the decision after its meeting on 23 October, when we held a silent protest march. So I thought it was a bit heartless and also a bit craven on the Akademi&’s part, and the president (Vishwanath Prasad Tiwari) should have taken much quicker action. I mean we have had presidents like Dr Gopi Chand Narang, Sunil Gangopadhyay and others, who would not have done nothing, but would have spoken out. 

What makes you feel that there is a threat to freedom of expression in our country? And why do you believe that a climate of intolerance is building up?

You see, I don’t know whether there is a threat to freedom of expression but these three cases that I just talked about (the killings of Kalburgi, Dabholkar and Pansare) are obviously evidence of the freedom of expression being throttled. We can speak freely – this is not a nation under the Emergency…. but at the same time other things happened. Dadri came about, (then) the murder of two Dalit children. A man was being murdered for his eating habits! But the (Union culture) minister, after Dadri, came out and said well, this was an accident. Very sad! And there were other statements by a number of people. For instance, Mr Amit Shah has said crackers will be burst in Pakistan if BJP loses in Bihar. I mean why are you doing this, what are you pointing to Pakistan for, that it is inhabited by Muslims? So the mindset also, somewhere has to change, and this is very difficult for the RSS, etc., because they have been brought up with a particular ideology. But now people are saying we are being intolerant and they are being tolerant, they are saying this protest was manufactured. Ghar Wapsi and Love Jihad were manufactured, not Award Wapsi.

You are among the most vocal authors to have spoken on the failures of Sahitya Akademi in representing the writers’ fraternity and protecting the cause of free speech.  But in its 23 October resolution, the Akademi strongly condemned violence against writers and rational thinkers. Have you changed your opinion about the Akademi now?

I told you that if the Akademi now takes the matter up, I mean it&’s not for me to suggest but if I were an office-bearer in the Akademi, the first thing I would do is to hold a meeting in Dharwad and let writers speak. I don’t think I should be changing any opinions. The Akademi has now acted well but that was under a lot of pressure…it should have come out a month-and-a-half earlier. And I want to make it clear that I have nothing against people who are ruling. Let me be very frank, I voted for Mr Modi – but all the time we are being charged with having a prejudice against the Prime Minister. It is not so.

The writers’ protests against “growing intolerance and hatred” have now been joined by artists, historians, academics, filmmakers, scientists and even a section of corporate India. What do you make of this emerging larger narrative?

There is an upsurge in the intelligentsia. For example: the Film and Television Institute in Pune – there was an outcry against the person (FTII chairman Gajendra Chauhan), who was being forced on them and his only credential was that he had acted as Yudhisthir!

Senior Cabinet minister Arun Jaitley has dismissed such “anti-intolerance” protests as “manufactured paper rebellion”. He has also accused the left-wing intelligentsia of always being themselves intolerant of the BJP as well as Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Your response?

I don’t think we are being intolerant – we are only stating what we feel. Writers, artists and film-makers have nothing to throw at the establishment or the Akademi except their own awards. So that&’s all we have done. It is not intolerance.

But, is it not true that many of the protesting writers, artists or scientists have long been anti-BJP and anti-RSS?

That may be true. I do not know about many of their histories and, therefore, I am in no position to comment on it.

What is your message to Prime Minister Modi today?

I am too small a person to get a message across to the Prime Minister but I would suggest, let&’s say to the finance minister (Mr Jaitley) that he should be a little responsive to what people are saying. It seems as if the party or the establishment has closed their ears and is not ready to listen to anything that people are saying. I hope people in power understand all these symbolisms and try to smoothen what has happened.