Indian Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma
'It has nothing to do with the government. It is their personal choice to return it... we accept it,' said culture minister Mahesh Sharma Reuters

India's top writers are returning their awards in protest at a growing climate of intolerance under prime minister Narendra Modi. So far 41 writer have returned awards, including Sahitya Akademi Awards – the highest literary prize in India – after the government's lacklustre response to the murder of an atheist scholar.

MM Kalburgi, himself a winner of the Sahitya Akademi Award, was shot on his doorstep in August. Kalburgi was well known as a rationalist scholar and spoke out against superstition and idol-worship in his home state of Karnataka – where Hindu right-wing groups are strong.

Renowned writer Nayantara Sahgal was one of the first to return her award, won in 1986 for her book Rich Like Us, writing in an open letter that "justice drags its feet" in the case of Kalburgi's murder and "the prime minister remains silent about this reign of terror".

The writers have also received support from outside the country, with Salman Rushdie tweeting about "alarming times for free expression in India".

Speaking to the Indian Express on 13 October, Indian culture minister Mahesh Sharma said: "This is an award given by writers to writers. It has nothing to do with the government. It is their personal choice to return it... we accept it." Though autonomous, the Sahitya Akademi is government funded.

The writers are angry that the Sahitya Akademi has yet to speak out against the government's reaction to the shooting – the Akademi is set to meet on 23 October to discuss its response.

Some writers also cited the recent lynching of a Muslim man in a majority-Hindu village outside New Delhi for rumours that he had eaten beef as another case of the country's rising intolerance.