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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 47 New Delhi, November 14, 2015

Why I am Returning the National Awards

Monday 16 November 2015, by Tapan Bose

Fundamental freedoms, freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, freedom of movement are under serious threat in our country. Never in the history of independent India, we were told what kind of food we may eat and what we cannot eat, what kind of music we may hear and what we cannot, which books we may read or not read. Groups of self-appointed cultural and religious police aligned to the ruling party are roaming the streets intimidating, threatening and killing people with impunity. This murde-rous spree has been continuing unabated the last 18 months as the government has done virtually nothing to rein in these fanatics. An even more frightening aspect is that several Ministers of the Central Government and State governments have been clearly encouraging these street gangs. And now, the chief of the RSS, the chief mentor of our Prime Minister, has asked the government to formulate a population policy to check the growth of the population of people belonging to “non-Bharatiya” religions—meaning Muslims and Christians. Our country has become a dangerous place for Muslims, Christians and all those who believe in freedom and democracy.

Writers, artists, filmmakers, musicians, scientists and business people have been protesting against this violence, the killings and attacks on our freedom. A large number of them have returned the awards that the nation had bestowed on them in the past in recognition of their work. They had done so in the hope that the government would be motivated to take action against the murderers. The ruling party completely failed to recognise the anguish of these people. Instead of taking steps to stop the fanatics, and restore the confidence of the people, the leaders of the government turned against the writers, filmmakers, scientists and artists, blaming them for raising the bogey of intolerance when there was none. Ministers of the govern-ment abused the protesting writers, filmmakers, scientists and artists calling them agents of foreign agencies which want to denigrate India. In the latest incident, responding to Shah Rukh Khan’s comment that intolerance was a crime against patriotism, a BJP leader suggested Shah Rukh’s “soul lives in Pakistan”. I am most amazed by Arun Jaitly’s assertion that it is the writers, filmmakers, scientists and artists who were intolerant and there was no intolerance in India. Self-righteousness is a serious disease. It afflicts the victim’s vision, hearing and his mental faculties. I hope that he would soon recover from the ailment.

I have decided to join my peers who have been anguished by the spreading culture of intolerance and return the two National Awards that I received for my films during the 1980s. The films are: “An Indian Story”, a documentary on the blinding of the undertrial prisoners by the police in Bhagalpur during 1979-80, and “Bhopal: Beyond Genocide”, a documentary on the world’s biggest industrial disaster which killed nearly 2500 people in 1984 and the victims’ struggle for justice. Both these films were virtually banned by the governments of the day. We got the censor certificates through a lengthy process of litigation. The fact that these two films received the National Awards for “Best Non-Fiction Film” shows that the members of the National Award jury in those days were free to exercise their judgement and were not afraid of incurring the displeasure of the government. Clearly such freedom does not exist today. I am sure that the jury who awarded these films will appreciate my decision to return these awards as a protest against the failure of the government to end this atmosphere of fear and intolerance. I sincerely hope that the government will take steps to protect the life and liberty of all citizens. A government’s failure to protect the life and liberty of citizens raises questions about its legitimacy, and we may soon descend into chaos.

The author, an award-winning film-maker, is a noted crusader for civil liberties and has been in the forefront of the movement to foster friendship among the peoples of India and Pakistan.