When distinguished writers and artists return to the Academies the awards which had been conferred on them, the question to ask is not why they did not do it earlier, say, at the worst times like the emergency. Writers and artists are a sensitive lot. They react when they feel and how they feel.

It is, in fact, the duty of the government to find out why they have felt that the situation has come to such a pass that they have no alternative except to return their award. Nayantara Sehgal, Jawaharlal Nehru’s niece, who was the first to return the award, said that the space for dissent had shrunk. Many artists have followed suit.

In a letter to the Akademi authorities Hindi poet Manmohan, while returning the award, has maintained that the current trend of “curbing the voices of dissent and freedom of expression, which was evident in the recent murders of intellectual writers Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and M.M. Kalburgi” was disturbing.

“Indians have experienced to register protests. Several writers and artists have recently returned their Academi awards and prizes in protest against the prevailing situation. I am also returning the award to the Haryana Sahitya Akademi,” the writer states in the letter.

Indeed, an atmosphere of communal polarization, hate crimes, insecurity and violence is getting denser in the country. Political leaders seem to be promoting or patronizing it. The government is only running down the artists and writers. Freedom of expression is the foundation on which the structure of democracy has been built. The entire structure will come down crashing if it is harmed. Unfortunately, this is what is happening.

This feeling of suffocation has emerged after the advent of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. There is fear to express a different point of view. One feels that the fanatic fringe in the Hindu community has become bold and has been indulging in acts which are opposed to secularism and which instill fear in the minds of minorities.

The Dadri incident is too shameful to be even recalled. A Muslim youth was lynched because they had kept beef in their refrigerator. This was on the basis of rumours which were found to be factually incorrect.

Whether or not one should eat beef is a matter of personal choice. The Supreme Court of India has also endorsed this viewpoint. Not many among the minorities eat it because of the accommodative culture the country has developed. For the same reason, the Hindus too do not take pork out of respect for the Muslims’ belief. In fact, India has survived as a nation, despite its diversities, because it has respected the different sensitivities and identities. Otherwise, a vast country like India would have disintegrated long ago.

I recall in my brief stint as India’s High Commissioner in London, the admiration which then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had for the country. She told me once that India was an example for the world how the country had remained democratic and united despite the backwardness. She asked me once what reason I attributed to it. I told her that we in India did not think that things were either black or white but saw a vast grey which we want expanding. This was our pluralism or secularism.

Unfortunately, the ideology of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is the anti-thesis of pluralism. The party believes in polarization. Take the case of Haryana chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar’s recent comments. His reported remarks to a national newspaper were that “Muslims can continue to live in this country, but they will have to give up eating beef” because “cow is an article of faith here.”

No doubt, the remarks of Haryana chief minister had trigged an outrage with the Congress calling it a sad day for Indian democracy and slamming for his “unconstitutional” observations. Yet, as was to be expected, the BJP leader said his words had been twisted. “I never made such a statement. But if the sentiments of anyone have been hurt with my words, I am ready to express my regret,” said Khattar.

Understandably, the BJP dissociated itself from the views of Khattar saying that this was not the party’s stand or view. Soon after the indignation, Parliamentary Affairs Minister M. Venkaiah Naidu said that the views expressed by Khattar are not that of the party. “I will talk to him and will advise him. It is not correct to link anyone’s eating habits to religion. People have to keep in mind the sentiments of others and eating is a personal choice of people,” he said.

But what surprised me the most was how Naidu disposed of the Dadri incident by passing on the buck to the state. He said that it was a law and order issue concerning Uttar Pradesh and chief minister Akhilesh Yadav and the Samajwadi Party should be questioned on it instead of putting the blame on the BJP-led government at the centre.

Similarly, on the issue of writers’ protests over growing intolerance and returning their awards he said that it was a “systematic and malicious campaign against the government to divert its focus from development and to derail Prime Minister Modi’s efforts of making India develop and progress further.”

I do agree with Naidu on one point. The very lot of writers, who are queuing up to return the awards, failed to react when the emergency was imposed in the country or when the anti-Sikh riots took place following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984. Over, 3,000 Sikhs were massacred in the aftermath of the incident in Delhi itself.

However, I cannot understand the silence of Prime Minister Modi who, all the time talks of an inclusive government. I wish he had spoken on the raging issues. Likewise, I also cannot fathom why the Sahitya Akademi has kept mum on the issue. In a nation’s history, there come certain occasions when people must speak out. If they don’t, the nation is doomed to suffer.