Why I am returning my Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar

In 2012, I was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar, an award given by the Akademi for writers under the age of 35. At the time, I was conflicted about accepting the award as I wondered if I should accept an award conferred by the state.

I chose to accept the award as I believed the Akademi’s official charter that states that the institution is an autonomous, publicly funded body registered as a society under the Societies Registration Act of 1980. Thus, the Akademi, to use an analogy, is an autonomous institution much the same way that public universities are autonomous – they are state-funded, i.e. they are run on public money, but are not government run. The Akademi award is thus a state honour, not a “government” honour – and this is an important distinction.

We, as citizens, have as much a claim on the Sahitya Akademi as any government of the day. Accepting the award, I thought at the time, would be a way of asserting our claim on this space of collective articulation, and acknowledging the efforts of the Akademi’s members in carving out an autonomous space for arts and letters in India.

Today, I would like to return my award and have sent an email to the institution, informing them of my decision. While I believe the arguments I have listed above are still valid, recent events suggest that the Akademi is neither interested in supporting writers in their fight to push the boundaries of expression and thought, nor in asserting its autonomy at a time when the spirit of critical inquiry is clearly under threat.

I am shocked by the Akademi’s refusal to take a firm stance on the assassination of scholar, rationalist and Sahitya Akademi Award winner M.M. Kalburgi (a condolence meeting is not the same as a statement of solidarity) and its silence in the face of attacks on writers like U.R. Ananthamurthy, and Perumal Murugan in the past. This appears to be in line with what Akademi President Vishwanath Prasad Tiwari calls the institution’s “tradition” of staying silent on “political controversies”.

The Akademi cannot simultaneously draw its legitimacy of purpose and existence by celebrating writers like Kaliburgi, while shying clear of standing in solidarity when they are targeted. Here, the idea of a workers union offers a useful analogy in that a union is relevant only for as along it is autonomous and serves its members. When a union becomes a tool for management – as many unions eventually become – workers break away and form their own associations that may, or may not, choose the union form.

In this instance, I think, a number of writers (some of whom have written books I admire) feel that the Akademi has failed in its primary purpose of supporting authors. While I may or may not agree with all the views and politics of all those who have returned their awards, I stand with them on this specific issue.

Institutions like the Sahitya Akademi need writers, authors, and journalists much more than we need them. We are fortunate that our primary loyalties reside with our readers. It is to our readers that we are answerable, not to institutions of state.

For the reasons above, I am returning my award.

Aman Sethi

New Delhi

October 11 2015

9 thoughts on “Why I am returning my Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar”

  1. Asking this question, as many on Twitter have asked this and there is no clear answer, would you also be returning the cash prize received and also surrendering any privileges that go with the award?

  2. A welcome step… Let more and more follow suit… Why not think of celebrating one of these martyrs birthday as ‘free expression day’… Also, why not celebrate the day when Dr. Ramanafham , a civil rights actvist , was brutally murdered by the police, as ‘civil Rights Day’? And why not celebrate the day on which Gadar, atelugu revolutionary singer was shot and still sings with bullets in his body, as State repression day? Let every blot in history be celebrated for reminding again and again that liberation struggle is not yet over…W.H. Auden emphasises:
    ‘…. . . To-day, the struggle….’

  3. Dear Suresh,

    I too notice that this question has been raised several times on Twitter.

    Yes, I will be returning the cash prize as well and I have said so in my communication with the Sahitya Akademi and in person at the Akademi office today. There are no other privileges that come with this award.

    I hate to disappoint the trolls on Twitter, but I have not received any “privileges” or “government monies” or plots of land, or bungalows on account of this award or in any other circumstances.

    I am, however, bemused that India’s Twitterati thinks that a Yuva Puruskar entitles one to land, bungalows and similar fish and loaves of office. Clearly they must hold writers in much higher regard, and feel them worthy of much much more, than the Akademi does.

    Finally, I would urge commenters to read the statement and respond to its arguments, rather than taking off on their own private tangents. I think each writer who has returned his or her award has done so for his/her specific reasons, so I would urge readers to note this.

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