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.
It is at the same time curious and perfectly understandable how literature and, more shockingly, the figures of writers themselves have repeatedly come under threat in India—precisely because their function and existence have been felt to be threatening to the new fabricators of history and culture. Americans might be familiar with how pressure from Hindu right-wing groups led Penguin India to recall Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus, which chronicled Hinduism with a historical verisimilitude that appalled those committed to a sanitized, culturally purified, and ethnically cleansed version of the religion. But they may not have heard of the Kannada scholar M. M. Kalburgi, whose groundbreaking research on religion and caste earned the wrath of Hindutva and caste purists and led to his murder last August, while several secularist bloggers were killed by Islamic extremists in Bangladesh between 2013 and 2015. In India, 2015 ended with the tribulations of a writer well known in the West, Arundhati Roy, who faced contempt of court over her article protesting the denial of bail to a disabled Delhi University professor, GN Saibaba, who had been arrested for alleged links to Maoists.
But these are only a few of the hundreds of acts of violence directed at writers in India in 2015. It was a sufficiently strange and violent year for the writer Nilanjana S. Roy to ask in a recent BBC article, “Will 2016 be a turning point for free speech in India?” So far, 2016 looks to be even darker, if the state-sponsored terrorism against the spoken word at JNU is any indication.