By Sidharth Bhatia
On October 31, when Narendra Modi inaugurated the massive ‘Statue of Unity’, he was fulfilling at least one promise of his government. On many other fronts, this government has floundered and failed – neither has black money come back into the country (or in anyone’s account) nor have jobs increased. Crony capitalism, poor governance, and a rank failure to bring fugitive businessmen to justice have marked the Modi government’s tenure. Add to that an inability or unwillingness to control Hindutva mobs that is going berserk and the picture is complete.
But he did say he would build this monumental statue of SardarVallabhbhai Patel and he has. The finances involved are controversial, local farmers are said to be unhappy and the Make in India slogan sounds hollow given the external panels of the statue were made in China and the CAG has raised questions about CSR money being used for the purpose, but here we are, with a structure that is the ‘tallest statue in the world’; there is nothing that we Indians love more than making it to the Guinness Book of Records and this one certainly will.
By one of those coincidences that work well for this dispensation, Patel’s birth anniversary falls on October 31, also the date on which Indira Gandhi was assassinated and which can now be totally ignored. From now onwards, all official focus on this day every year will be on Patel rather than Indira Gandhi, just like December 25 was converted into Good Governance Day and Modi had suggested that Gandhi Jayanti be celebrated as ‘Swacch October 2’; already there are demands to shift children’s day from November 14. This way, all the reviled Nehru-Gandhis and the barely tolerated Mahatma Gandhi can be sidelined.
Patel has been appropriated by Modi and his parivar, not the least because he can be portrayed as the anti-Nehru, despite all the historical evidence against that assumption. The ‘he should have been prime minister’ narrative is an old one and has got a boost in recent years. That he had banned the RSS doesn’t get a mention. Patel has his uses and by promoting the ‘Iron Man’ assiduously, Modi hopes that some of the stardust will settle on him.
But what will the same Sardar who worked hard to knit the Indian union during those critical years and brought in more than 500 rulers, some of them reluctant, under one administrative unit, see when he surveys today’s India from his perch up there? How will he perceive the country 70 years after Independence, when the nation, despite all its problems, had looked with hope towards the future as a unified entity, where people of all faiths, communities, ethnic backgrounds, would live together in peace and harmony? Will he think that those dreams have been realised? Or will he see a land increasingly fractured?
In Kerala, he will see an aggressive attempt to defy a Supreme Court verdict that allows women between the ages of 10 and 50 to enter the Sabarimala temple and a warning by the boss of the ruling party that it would ‘uproot’ the Kerala government if it arrests those protesting against the Court’s order.
In Kashmir, he will see the Indian security forces shooting pellets into the crowd, blinding young children. Maharashtra, which, along with Gujarat, was part of the old Bombay state, was where Dalits were beaten up for attending a commemoration of a big event in their history. In neighbouring Rajasthan, and many other places, the Sardar will see families in mourning after a member was lynched.
And of course, he will definitely notice the rising communal temperature as once again, the Sanghparivar and its affiliates rake up the issue of the Ayodhya temple, long dormant but pulled out on strategic occasions to consolidate the Hindus against the ‘enemy’, the Muslim citizens of India. This formula may or may not work this time round and the electorate may not respond in the same way as in the 1990s, but it has the potential to create great havoc.
Across India, there is ferment, caused by forces who want to impose their agenda of creating a nation of one people, one religion, one language and one thought. Others are welcome to join if they agree to submit themselves to the majority, to agree that to being second class citizens. This is not the India Sardar Patel, along with Gandhi and Nehru and so many others, fought for and went to jail for. Modi and friends have tried to hitch their wagon to Patel but no one is fooled; the RSS was nowhere in the freedom struggle and the attempt to distort history will not work.
What is the message of this statue, apart from the sheer vanity of erecting a tall edifice and boasting about its height? The symbolism is obvious – it allows Modi to assert in this election year, that India needs a strongman at the Centre to ensure the country does not slide into chaos. This is going to be a theme in the run up to the elections-the need for a decisive leader who should be given not just five but many more years to steady the nation’s ship and steer it towards its manifest destiny. Already those in the government have begun to say that. But it is Patel’s image they want, not his message – of coming down on communal forces and lawless elements who provoke violence in the name of religion, or his ability to work with other tall leaders despite his differences with them, or indeed how the Sardar banned the RSS. Modi will not hail the great diversity of India, which is at the foundation of our unity. That is certainly not the unity he had in mind when he commissioned this statue.
The reason for renaming places
We fail to see in the excitement generated by the incessant renaming of towns and railway stations in India that the past, which these new old names allude to, is an imagined land that we are being invited to inhabit. We are not exactly recovering lost ground, because as the Hindi poet Bodhisattva wrote, there never was a Prayag that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) claim to be restoring now. What is being sold in the defence of capturing the glory of the past is an ideological construct.
This was clear when a nativist and “vulgar” name like Gurgaon was elevated to Gurugram. The defence used for the change was the myth of Gurugram having been the abode of Dronacharya. Gurgaon has been flaunted as a futuristic city. However, there was no protest from the citizens of this postmodern city to the name change. No question was raised about why the tradition of Dronacharya, who had tried to disable his student, Ekalavya, by cutting his thumb needed to be celebrated.
Why is the BJP getting away with this? Simply because, for a long time, we have been fed with nostalgia about an India that was “taken away” from us 1,200 years ago.
We have been told — and we believe — that Bharat was once a “Sone Ki Chidiya (a golden bird)”. The era of the Guptas is referred to as “Swarna Yug (golden period)”.
This historical imagination leads us to believe that the golden age ended with the coming of the Muslims and all we have to do now is go back to that period. When I heard an old, seasoned socialist lament the cowardice of the Indian people which kept them under different forms of slavery for more than 1,000 years, I realised that this is so deeply ingrained in us that it has almost become a part of our subconscious. This can also be the reason for Prime Minister Narendra Modi not facing censure in Parliament when he said, while speaking after the debate on the motion of thanks to the President for his address that the slave mentality of 1,200 years continues to trouble us.
The subconscious feeling is that nothing new was created in this period, especially during the time of Muslim rule. It is that everything new was created before these rulers came here, and what they did was break what was created, distort them, or simply defile them by giving them new names, their names. So, the Babri Masjid could not be a new monument; it had to necessarily be built on the ruins of an earlier existing structure. Nor was the Taj Mahal; it was built on a Hindu temple. This feeling is of ownership as well as authorship. It feeds on a deep-seated inferiority complex among Hindus that the symbols representing India largely bear a Muslim identity, thereby making India look like a Muslim country. We take comfort in the so-called fact that nearly 95% of Muslims in India were originally Hindus who were later converted, and it is therefore possible to restore them to their Hinduness. It is the same belief that plays out in the quest to rename places and monuments — they don’t need to go, they only need to be renamed and rehabilitated.
It has been argued that even after centuries of “Muslim rule”, neither Prayag nor Ayodhya vanished. Ayodhya coexisted with Faizabad, and Allahabad kept Prayag alive in it. But the “originalists” will rest only after erasing Muslim or “alien” names which have covered the original Hindu names. But Indian culture presents a unique challenge for them. For example, how should Patna be rechristened? As Pataliputra, Bankipur or Patna Sahib? How do you deal with Sheikhpura? It has Sheikh, a Muslim-sounding name, plus Pura, which comes from a Sanskrit ‘pur’ or ‘puri’. What do we do with mohallas?
This brings us to the real intent, which is something else. In some villages in Haryana, Muslims live disguised under Hindu-sounding names. This is seen as their willingness to assimilate into “Indian culture”. Culture is manifested in names, clothing, food habits, etc. Muslims are constantly asked to adopt so-called Indian ways, which means accepting Hindu norms in all aspects of their life. It is now being argued that even mosques are not essential for their religious identity.
The renaming of places and “reclaiming” of monuments are part of a large and long process of cultural genocide. The term might be extreme for some people, but for Raphael Lemkin, the man who coined the term genocide in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, the cultural destruction of a group is as important as the physical annihilation of its members. According to Lemkin: “The world represents only so much culture and intellectual vigour as are created by its component national groups.
Essentially the idea of a nation signifies constructive cooperation and original contributions, based upon genuine traditions, genuine culture, and well-developed national psychology. The destruction of a nation, therefore, results in the loss of its future contribution to the world… Among the basic features which have marked progress in civilization are the respect for and appreciation of the national characteristics and qualities contributed to world culture by different nations — characteristics and qualities which… are not to be measured in terms of national power or wealth.”
We need to stress on original contributions, on the genuine traditions that Lemkin mentions. A community feels diminished if it is made to think that it has not made any genuine, original contribution to the life of a nation of which it is a part. The drive to free India of Muslim influences is a clear message to the Muslims that this nation is not the result of cooperation between them and other religious communities. It is a message that they have made no contribution to India’s cultural life.
In The Discovery of India, Jawaharlal Nehru describes India as an ancient palimpsest on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie have been inscribed, and yet no succeeding layer has completely hidden or erased what had been written previously. Nehru understood the way cultures grow. They are not ordered from above. He does not propose that we go back to our origins to feel authentically Indian because there is no original point as such in the life of a nation. In the same vein, Kwame Anthony Appiah, in The Lies That Bind, says a nation is a “fabric to be woven, not a mineral to be mined.”
We must be clear that the present regime is not interested in culture. It is interested in capturing the nation by making Hindus feel that they have conquered this land and taken it back from “aliens”. A drug is being generated and it is putting people on a high. It is the drug of victory.
The nationalist project of the present ruling party is based on the idea of making invisible and subjugating an entire population to keep the majority in a permanent state of dominance. This renaming is part of a cultural genocidal project.
Gandhi’s Satyagraha for Press Freedom
By S.N. Sahu
It was on November 12, 1947 that Mahatma Gandhi was requested to broadcast on All India Radio an address to refugees from Pakistan facing trauma and suffering caused by the partition of India and were housed in a camp in Kurukshetra. It was his second live broadcast over the radio and the first and only live broadcast on All India Radio.
Since 2000 the date has been observed as Public Service Broadcasting Day, for which Suhas Borker deserves commendation for taking the initiative.
Gandhiji first delivered a live broadcast from London through Columbia Radio, addressing Americans in the 1930s. When he went inside the studios and faced the microphone and was asked to speak he innocently asked, “Shall I speak to it?”
Seventeen years later when he used the microphone in the studios of the AIR to address refugees he narrated his experience to newspaper correspondents, describing microphone broadcasting in his speech as “a wondrous thing”, a manifestation of Shakti and of “the miraculous power of God.” This description underlined the enormous impact and significance of the print and electronic media in shaping our destiny.
The live broadcast was a landmark event in the history of broadcasting in the world. An extraordinarily brilliant communicator, editor and writer, Gandhiji wanted to visit the refugees personally, mingle with them and feel their pain and suffering. But due to the pressure of work he could not go there, and was therefore persuaded to address them through the radio.
We all know that as a communicator his impact on masses surpassed the impact of great writers and the radio and print media journalists of that era. Today, when media power is manifested in many shapes and forms, we realise the Shakti which Gandhiji could see in a simple microphone in 1947. The restraint and discipline Gandhiji exercised as a communicator, journalist, editor, correspondent and writer is now needed to use the print, electronic and social media for the public good.
It is less well known that Gandhiji’s first individual satyagraha, which he began before launching the Quit India Movement in 1942, was the only satyagraha launched by him for defending press freedom, which was suppressed by the British with all their might because of the Second World War, in which India had been dragged to participate without regard to its willingness to do so.
Gandhiji wrote extensively about non-violence during that period, writings the British Government censored on the grounds that he did not have the freedom to write and reflect on non-violence when war had begun and India had ‘joined’ the war. Gandhiji protested against the decision and refused to submit to censorship. Therefore, just before starting the individual satyagraha he described press freedom as the foundation of Swaraj, and asked people to suffer and sacrifice for defending this foundation.
As early as 1927 Gandhi wrote, ‘Is it necessary to conduct newspapers at any cost? Is the good that they do so great as to outweigh the evil that mischievous advertisements cause? We have a journalists’ association. Is it not possible through it to cultivate a uniform code of morals among them and to create a public opinion that would make it impossible for a respectable journal to violate the prescribed code?’ Profound thoughts for the twenty-first century media to reflect upon.
It is ironic that as the nation commemorates Public Service Broadcasting Day we witness a severe assault on press freedom, which is the foundation of Swaraj. With rare exceptions the media as an institution is increasingly controlled by the powers that be, and the corporates, and we are confronted with a sinister phenomenon, shaped by fake news, paid news, the ’embedded media’, alternative facts and screaming and shouting substituting for reasoned discussion.
The satyagraha Gandhiji launched in 1941 to defend press freedom assumes critical relevance today, at a time when India occupies the 138th position in a well regarded freedom of press index, on a descending scale of 180 countries. India is also one of the 14 countries worldwide where impunity for violence against the press is considered to be ‘entrenched’, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
The exemplary role played by Mahatma Gandhi as a brilliant communicator and the high benchmark he set for constructive use of the media for awakening people’s consciousness for the cause of non-violence, freedom, liberation, empowerment, and above all for positive social change, is of abiding relevance for our troubled times.
A few days after the government decided to commemorate November 12 as Public Service Broadcasting Day, then President K.R. Narayanan admiringly referred to the move in his speech on the role of the media in preparing people to cope with natural disasters. He very thoughtfully invoked Mahatma Gandhi’s first live radio broadcast in 1947, saying, “In the 21st century in a well wired and connected world, Gandhiji would have expected us to render better service to people by using the miraculous powers of space technology, information technology, electronic media and many other channels for faster communication”.
Today the publicness of the media is diminishing because of increasing control by large corporations. It is important to restore and defend press freedom by learning lessons from Gandhi’s life and work, and to use the media for public causes and in the public interest.
Prejudice by any name
By Jawed Naqvi
A shirt essay ascribed to legendary Khwaja Ahmed Abbas ribs India’s atavistic urge to change names of cities and towns from their extant versions to something old if vague. When Benares was renamed Varanasi to comply with an identity rooted in mythology, Abbas wrote: “I landed at the railway station. The freshly painted signboard celebrated Varanasi. Outside the station, the sweetshop announced itself as Varanasi Mishthaan Bhandaar. At the post office, the clerk was stamping letters and parcels with his new official seal. Varanasi, Varanasi, Varanasi, it went. I asked the man the name of the city we were both in. He said Benares.”
It’s still Banarasi sari, Banarasi thumri and Banarasi paan, however, just as Mumbai continues to have its Bombay High Court or Bombay Stock Exchange and Bombay Duck, which is actually the name of a delicious fish.
Curiously, the politically inspired name-changing spree has ignored a rather obvious foreign influence from its ambit — the keenly sought and embraced identity called Hindu. It is uniformly acknowledged that the name originated in West Asia, apparently as a description of India’s dark-tanned inhabitants.
There’s reference in a Persian verse by Hafiz Shirazi to a black mole on the beloved’s cheek, for which the poet, to his ruler’s chagrin, was willing to surrender the fabled cities of Samarkand and Bukhara. (Agar aa’n Turk-i-Shirazi bidast aarad dil-i-maara’h / Bi khaal-i-hindu yash bakhsham Samarkand-o-Bukhara ra.)
It is also agreed that there was no reference to Hindu in Vedic texts. What passes for Hindu revivalism is essentially a new construct, a work in progress. That’s why well-regarded historians believe that Hindus can be anything but fundamentalists, for unlike Semitic religions and some others such as Sikhism, there is no all-embracing fundamental to define a community.
Respected historian Irfan Habib stirred up the pot for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party the other day, slamming its apparent resolve to erase Muslim references in India’s past. Habib cocked a snook at the ruling party by pointing out how the surname of Amit Shah, the BJP’s president handpicked by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is of Persian origin. In the pre-election melee of changing names of towns and cities from their Muslim references to a real or imagined ancient origin — Allahabad as Prayaag and Faizabad as Ayodhya, for example — Shah too must drop his name, says Habib.
His surname ‘Shah’ is of Persian origin and not of Gujarati, the professor told the Times of India. That insight should ideally give heart to the BJP’s opponents ahead of next year’s electoral showdown. Sadly, some self-serving ideologues of the main opposition Congress party seem to be searching for a Hindutva-like identity themselves, and have announced in poll-bound Madhya Pradesh that cow urine would be commercially packaged as an elixir.
“Even the term Gujarat itself is of Persian origin. It was called Gurjaratra earlier. They should also change it,” the 87-year-old professor emeritus says. When recently the Modi establishment renamed Delhi’s Aurangzeb Road, Habib challenged the government to erase the name of Todarmal from a road named after Emperor Akbar’s Hindu aide.
The BJP government’s renaming spree is very much in line with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS) Hindutva policy, says Habib, recalling that in Pakistan too ill-advised changes were made to comply with the country’s regressive Muslim ideologues. “The BJP and its right-wing supporters want to change things which are non-Hindu, particularly of Islamic origin.”
Habib’s comment on Shah came when a BJP deputy suggested that the city of Agra be renamed after a trading community that has a presence in the city. He claimed his Agrawal community were followers of Maharaja Agrasen who allegedly ruled Agra.
Habib trashed the suggestion, saying the entire history of Maharaja Agrasen was mythical. “It’s nothing but fiction. Secondly, the Agrawal community claims its origin from Agroha in Haryana, and not Agra. So, both the arguments for renaming the city do not hold water.”
How did Agra then come about? Habib, a widely respected academic, believes the first time one heard of ‘Agra’ was in the reign of Sikandar Lodhi in the 15th century. Before that the area was more prominently known as Doab — land between Ganga and Yamuna.
Disowning Muslim influence in India with spite could recoil on the RSS, which has been traditionally headed by Maharashtrian Brahmins. Their handpicked Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis too is a Brahmin whose surname was a Mughal title, as zamindar and munim elsewhere have a Muslim imprint. Most pivotal in the region’s history was the peshwa, a Persian gift. There would be gastronomical issues with gulab jamun, jalebi, halwa and kulfi, which could be discarded for their Muslim affinity. The expansion of Islam sent many foreign communities scurrying to India, and they all brought their food with them. Each wave brought a culinary habit and with the passage of time all of these got absorbed in the local cuisine of India.
When the Marathi-speaking RSS chief next holds a public meeting he may want to refrain from calling it a ‘jahir sabha’, a Marathi blend of Persian (zaahir) and Sanskrit (sabha).
Marathi poems of Eknath in the 17th century were presented as arjadast (arza-dast). Mocking the chauvinist RSS, Marathi retains Arabic-Persian idioms and expressions in their original forms, such as adab “culture, literature, good manners”. Good manners, however, elude the RSS, given its gargantuan appetite for hate. For this and more, it cultivates a perverse sense of history. The Urdu poet Firaq Gorakhpuri, a Hindu, it has to be said in these times of polarising identities, described the making of his India as a confluence of foreign caravans. “Sarzameen-i-Hind par aqwaam-i-aalam ke Firaq, qaafiley bastey gai, Hindostan banta gaya.” There is no scope for any mob to un-ring the bell of history even by whitewashing the names of a few roads and cities.
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