Novelist Arundhati Roy has become the latest literary figure to return a top Indian national award in protest against the growing violence and “horrific murders” by rightwing groups in India.
Roy and two dozen Bollywood figures have added their voices to those of artists, scientists and historians in expressing alarm at a series of violent incidents and attacks on intellectuals, following the landslide election victory of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) in India last year.
The writer, famous for her Booker prize-winning novel, The God of Small Things,said she was returning her 1989 National Award for Best Screenplay in protest against the growing culture of fear and censorship fostered by the government, who encouraged the “lynching, shooting, burning and mass murder of fellow human beings”.
In a sharply worded editorial in the Indian Express, Roy wrote that millions of people from minorities – including Muslims, Christians and members of low-caste or tribal communities – were “being forced to live in terror, unsure of when and from where the assault will come”.
Over the past two months, more than 40 novelists, essayists, playwrights and poets have now given back awards from the country’s most prestigious literary institution, the Sahitya Akademi. In particular, they have criticised the institution for not condemning the killings of secular activists.
The two incidents that have most angered India’s intellectuals and creatives were the murder of Malleshappa Kalburgi, an award-winning scholar whose frequent criticism of what he saw as superstition and false beliefs had angered Hindu extremists, and the lynching of a Muslim labourer in September, who was believed to have eaten beef. Among India’s majority Hindu population, cows are considered to be sacred.
The film-maker Sanjay Kak, who was among 24 industry figures and film-makers returning National Film Awards in Mumbai on Thursday, said those protesting had “deployed their visibility – and credibility – to articulate the growing anxiety of a vast number of Indians, those who may remain less visible but are no less perturbed at what is going on around them”.
Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan has also spoken out against “extreme intolerance” in India.
Roy said she was “so ashamed of what is going on in this country”, and was pleased to return her 1989 screenplay award and “be a part of the political movement”.
“I believe what artists and intellectuals are doing right now is unprecedented, and does not have a historical parallel. It is politics by other means,” said Roy, who in recent years has become a civil rights activist.
Many of those protesting have also criticised the prime minister,Narendra Modi, and the BJP for not speaking out against religious attacks, saying their silence has encouraged Hindu hardliners to justify the attacks and assert Hindu superiority.
Salman Rushdie was also among the authors who recently weighed into the debate, telling a local television network: “What has crept into Indian life now is a degree of thuggish violence which is new. And it seems to be given permission by the silence of official bodies, the silence of the Sahitya Akademi … by the silence of the prime minister’s office.”
Communal violence and prejudice are nothing new for India. Hindu-Muslim violence claimed an estimated 1 million lives in the runup to partition in 1947. Since then, deadly riots and clashes have erupted at intervals, mostly between Hindus and Muslims, with upsurges of sectarian tension in recent years often coinciding with elections.
Some people voiced concern over Modi’s meteoric rise and landslide election victory last year, warning that his support was grounded in the BJP’s Hindu majority and noting that he had risen to prominence through the militant Hindu organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which translates as the National Volunteers Association.
Modi insisted during his election campaign that he would be prime minister for all of India and guaranteed protection for minorities. He has said little on the subject since taking office.
His administration has dismissed the growing protest as a political ploy to tear down the governing party.
“The entire purpose of these protests is to derail the development agenda of the Narendra Modi government,” the urban development minister, Venkaiah Naidu, said on Thursday. “The country is being subjected to damage and unnecessarily wrong information is being given about political intolerance.”
On Thursday, a separate group of writers, academics and artists came out in support of that stance and accused their protesting colleagues of political vengeance after Modi’s BJP election victory last year.
“A section of the nation’s intelligentsia has expressed outrage at a perceived mounting intolerance in society,” said a statement signed by 36 Modi supporters, including the head of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations. “Failure in the elections is now sought to be avenged by other means.”