This post was originally published in Public Books.
It is hard to remember a time when literature attracted so much front-page space, prime airtime, or mass attention in the Indian public sphere as it did in 2015. But not only was this importance accumulated through a particularly perverse chain of events, it was also a particularly toxic kind of importance. Writers, scholars, and journalists were sued, attacked, and murdered throughout last year; in protest, dozens of reputed authors, most of them working in the diverse vernacular languages of India, returned the Sahitya Akademi Award, conferred by India’s National Academy of Letters. At the heart of this ongoing crisis is an increasingly brutal conflict between, on the one hand, a vision of Indian cultural and ethnic purity imagined by Hindu revivalist politics, and, on the other, the freedom of thought and sensibility claimed by literature, historiography, and, most recently, by the social conscience of youth and student populations. The modern, post-Enlightenment conception of literature as “fiction” here runs up against narratives of religious revivalism that demand the status of absolute truth but actually have very little foundation in historical verisimilitude, sustainable ethics, or, for that matter, viable aesthetics. If anything, the spirit and practice of literature is more deeply grounded in reality—both immediate and historical—than the chauvinist utopia claimed by these “purifiers” of literature, history, and religion.
In Marxist terms, this is a superstructural conflict that has now started to irrevocably impact the base of material history. As I write these words, the most recent escalation of this conflict has amounted to an unprecedented attack on India’s leading institution of higher learning, Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. Central-government forces and Delhi police brutalised students participating in a peaceful protest against the execution of Afzal Guru, the Kashmiri activist accused of playing a role in the 2001 shooting attack on the Indian Parliament. What followed was an arrest that set the nation aflame in protest, that of Kanhaiya Kumar, the president of the JNU student union.