Tolerating Award Wapsi
by Ritu Mathur on 09 Aug 2017 2 Comments

Some time back, a set of intellectuals, returned awards they had won in the field of literature. This prompted a friend to cook up a limerick inspired by a couplet by the poet Ghalib and a song in a Hindi movie:

Sometimes a thought rises in my heart

If there was no ‘Award Wapsi’ what would happen?

Were awards ever won, we would not know

Then what would happen?


These lines capture the essence of what may possibly be the real reason for the high voltage drama. For drama it was; after some time, the awards (certificates) were quietly taken back, and the cash award was always retained anyway!


But my scientific mind couldn’t help but wonder at the variety of reasons ostensibly offered. Someone said the award was being returned because ‘the space for freedom of expression was vanishing’, another pronounced that ‘minorities were no longer safe’, someone else complained that the ‘Prime Minister was silent’, while all another could muster was ‘solidarity’.


Could these really be valid, honest reasons for the supposed protest? And, if the reasons were justified in the eyes of the returnees, could this even be a logical, genuine way to protest.


Let’s talk about the purported reasons.


Can there be a greater affront to the march of technology than to say that the space to express views and thoughts has diminished. On the contrary, social media, the digital space and advances in telecommunications have all ensured such space is ever-increasing. Each one of us is free to air our views about or against certain ideas, beliefs or propaganda, and promote them.


The ‘shrinking space’ reason is not tenable. Perhaps that is what is so galling to some intellectuals - that they no longer remain the sole, self-proclaimed guardians of thought and expression. That writing and sharing views and opinions is no longer a closed world guarded by publishing boundaries. That anyone can write and talk and share.


Where the reasons are not tenable, they appear hypocritical. An award winner from Kashmir, in 1975, returns the award on the ground that minorities are not safe. Where was this indignation in 1984 when a minority was systematically targeted in Delhi to avenge a political assassination? Or when up to 4,00,000 (some put the figure much higher) members of a minority community from the same state were hounded out from their homes in 1989-90?.


Where not hypocritical, the reason is farcical - to return an award because India’s current Prime Minister is ‘silent’, when some would opine he is garrulous! Didn’t the self-righteous returnees think of returning awards to condemn a prime minister’s silence when Rs two lakh crore were allegedly siphoned off in a coal scam, or when our exchequer was reportedly cheated of Rs one lakh crore in a telecom spectrum scam, or when Rs seventy thousand crore were apparently looted in the CWG ghotala. All this money could have been used to build roads, hospitals, schools, irrigation projects and the like, whose absence is indirectly the cause of several deaths in our country.


The less said about the intellectual vacuousness of those who take actions out of solidarity, the better. The irrationality of the reasons for ‘Award Wapsi’ only highlights the one-sided, biased and prejudiced world view of its proponents. 


Should reasons that carry a semblance of rationality find their way into this discourse, we must ask ourselves: is this form of protest genuine? For it is certainly illogical. The awards are not given by the present government, but by an autonomous body that is supported by the State.


Even if this is mistakenly construed as a government award, the government in a democracy means the people. So, we have an absurd situation where supposedly actions are taken for the people, by returning a recognition from the people. Isn’t it downright insulting to the people?


Surely writers of such gravitas, some of whom have written against the Emergency or about our agrarian crises, can find better and more meaningful ways to protest through their pens, typewriters, and laptops.


But if they can’t, we will view them as aging and aged prima donnas whose days in the limelight are over, and tolerate their tantrums.


The author is an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry, Zakir Husain Delhi College, University of Delhi

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