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India's Literary Stars Wage Intellectual Revolt Against Government


Award-winning writers in India have been returning their prizes. Dozens of writers have done this. They've been honored by India's National Academy of Letters. They say they're returning the prizes to protest violence and intolerance on India's streets as well as what they see as the government's failure to do anything about it. NPR's Julie McCarthy is covering this story from New Delhi. Hi, Julie.


INSKEEP: What's going on in the streets?

MCCARTHY: Well, there have been this series of incidents of hate crimes in the name of defending Hindu beliefs. And bans on beef are among those. Hindus consider cows sacred, and you've had several cases where these beef bans have aroused so much passion, they've ended up in murder. A young Kashmiri driver, a Muslim, was doused with gasoline and set on fire this past weekend on the suspicion that he was transporting dead cows discovered in the Kashmir Valley. And one of the big, high-profile cases was the murder of a Muslim man on the suspicion that he had consumed or stored beef in his house.

INSKEEP: So you're reminding us that Hinduism is the largest single religion in India, but there's also a huge Muslim minority. There's been a lot of religious tension. Where do the writers fit into all of this?

MCCARTHY: Well, you know, the writers were quite upset over the killing, this year, of two rationalists, as they call them, writers who take on the orthodoxy of things. They take on the suspicions and superstitions that undergird so much of Indian life. And they were targeted. And they were killed. And this really chilled the writers, who didn't see anybody talking about it. And along comes this series of bubbling violent incidences in the name of Hindu beliefs. And no one, they saw, was firmly denouncing it. And they began to turn back their awards in protest to that.

INSKEEP: Well, what does the government say about all this?

MCCARTHY: The government has condemned the violence and called for civility. But, you know, Steve, the writers are saying, look, that fringe is blurring into the mainstream. And what's really gnawing at them was that they didn't hear a forceful condemnation in the early days of these attacks. And they say without that, what you're risking is India's unity. You're risking religious harmony here. This was a country founded on pluralism and secularism, and they feel that is now in jeopardy because of an atmosphere of creeping intolerance.

INSKEEP: Are they thinking particularly of Narendra Modi, the Hindu nationalist prime minister?

MCCARTHY: They are, and they end up blaming him for this atmosphere of rising tension. And what they see is - is Hindu chauvinism. They have never been fans of Modi. Many of them have never been fans of Modi from the beginning. And for some people, this sort of atmosphere, this sort of environment that's taking hold, is a kind of a worst-fear-scenario for them. And what's at stake for these people is space to disagree with one another. They feel that's narrowing. And if that narrows, you're narrowing the definition of what it means to be an Indian.

INSKEEP: Julie, thanks very much, as always.

MCCARTHY: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Julie McCarthy in New Delhi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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