In his incomplete work Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Ancient India, Dr BR Ambedkar credits Buddha and his teachings for laying the foundation of a revolution more than two millenniums ago. Buddha (died 486 BCE) repudiated the authority of the Vedas, harped on good conduct for salvation, and denounced the caste system as well as the ghastly, expensive ritual of animal sacrifice.
Under the Buddhist revolution, knowledge was not deemed the monopoly of the twice-born. Into the sangha, the monastic order Buddha founded, the Shudras were admitted – they could become bhikku, the Buddhist equivalent of Brahmins. Salvation was not ruled out for women, who had their own order, the bhikkhunisangha.
Not only was the hegemony of Brahmins challenged, they also experienced a loss of status under the Mauryan dynasty (321 BCE-187 BCE). This was because “Ashoka made it [Buddhism] the religion of the state”, Ambedkar writes in Revolution and Counter-Revolution. That delivered the “greatest blow to Brahmanism. The Brahmins lost all state patronage and were neglected to a secondary and subsidiary position”.
Ambedkar writes that the withdrawal of state patronage affected the earnings of Brahmins, as Ashoka banned animal sacrifice, over which only they could preside in return for lavish gifts. “The Brahmins therefore lived as the suppressed and depressed classes for nearly 140 years during which the Mauryan Empire lasted,” he notes.
The only escape for the Brahmins from their ignominy was to usher in a counter-revolution. The man who led the charge against Buddhism was Pushyamitra, commander of the Mauryan army. He assassinated King Brihadratha, usurped the throne and inaugurated the Shunga dynasty. Pushyamitra was a Brahmin. His aim was to “destroy Buddhism as a state religion” and deploy the state power to facilitate Brahmanism’s triumph over Buddhism.
Ambedkar provides evidence to bolster his theory of counter-revolution. For one, Pushyamitra performed the Ashvamedha or horse sacrifice on his accession, as if heralding the restoration of Brahmanism’s preeminent status.
For the other, Ambedkar writes, “Pushyamitra… launched a violent and virulent campaign of persecution against Buddhists and Buddhism.” Ambedkar refers to Pushyamitra’s proclamation that set a price of 100 gold pieces on the head of every Buddhist monk.
Pushyamitra is indeed depicted in Buddhist texts as the community’s principal tormentor. In Political Violence in Ancient India, Upinder Singh writes of a Buddhist legend that says that “on the advice of a wicked Brahmana, Pushyamitra decided to rival Ashoka’s fame by destroying the 84,000 stupas that the latter had built”. Singh notes that archaeologist John Marshall linked the “great damage” that was “wantonly inflicted” on the famous SanchiStupa to Pushyamitra.
Ambedkar also mentions two later rulers, Mihirakula (520 CE) and Shashanka (7th century CE), who killed Buddhists to try to root out Buddhism. “The whole history of India is made to appear as though the only important thing in it is a catalogue of Muslim invasion,” he writes. “If Hindu India was invaded by the Muslim invaders so was Buddhist India invaded by Brahmanic India.”
There are many similarities between the two invasions, but also one crucial difference – Islam did not supplant Hinduism, but Brahmanism drove out Buddhism and occupied its place. Whatever remained of Buddhism in India disappeared because of the iconoclasm of Muslim rulers. Ambedkar then delves into the mechanism through which Brahmanism struck such deep roots that Muslim rulers could not uproot it.
He says it was because of the promulgation of Manu’s code of law or the Manu Smriti. Unlike many contemporary historians who date the Manu Smriti anywhere between 200 BCE and 200 CE, Ambedkar painstakingly cites sources to show it was compiled between 170 BC and 150 BCE. That places the Manu Smriti in Pushyamitra’s reign.
According to Ambedkar, Manu’s code established the right of Brahmins to rule, turned them into a privileged class by a margin, converted the Varna into caste, degraded the status of Shudras and women, introduced the idea of “graded inequality”, and created “conflict and anti-social” feelings among castes. Manu bestowed on Brahmins monopoly over the teaching of the Vedas, apart from re-introducing the ritual of sacrifice.
Undoubtedly, Revolution and Counter-Revolution creates a neat binary of Brahmins and Buddhists without the greyness implicit in any reading of the past. Perhaps Ambedkar’s own experience of the inequality perpetuated by caste permeated into his aborted work. His insights did indeed influence the framing of the Indian Constitution, which signified a revolution of the democratic kind. It abolished untouchability, recognised the equality of all citizens before the law, and provided for positive discrimination or reservation for depressed groups.
On this day of Ambedkar’s birth anniversary, a question therefore: is India in 2018 witnessing a counter-revolution of the kind Pushyamitra ushered in so violently in 187 BCE? This question needs to be asked not just because of the spurt in atrocities committed on Dalits and the denial of their rights. It should be raised because the legal basis for establishing equality seems threatened.
For instance, the Supreme Court has decreed that the college, not the department, should be taken as a unit for calculating reserved posts, the number of which is consequently expected to dwindle. Then on March 20, the court infamously diluted the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, by giving the accused a degree of protection from arrest, with an aim to curb misuse of the law. This goaded Dalits to call a Bharat Bandh on April 2. It saw the upper castes mobilise and attack Dalits. In a throwback to the 1990 protest against the VP Singh government’s decision to provide job quotas for Other Backward Classes, the upper castes organised a bandh of their own against reservations on April 10.
It is the SanghParivar that has sustained upper caste hopes on rolling back reservation. For instance, before the 2015 Bihar elections, RashtriyaSwayamsevakSangh chief Mohan Bhagwat spoke of reviewing the policy of affirmative action.
Or take the position the NarendraModi government took on K Mahajan versus State of Maharashtra, the case that led to the March 20 Supreme Court order. AmarendraSharan, amicus curiae (adviser to the court) in the case, accused the government of agreeing that “anticipatory bail could be given in case there is no prima facie case being made out under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act”. He also said it was the additional solicitor general who had supplied data on misuse of the Act.
The luminaries of the BharatiyaJanata Party – Union minister Anant Kumar Hegde, for instance – have repeatedly spoken of framing a new Constitution. To achieve such a goal, the BJP needs to win majority in the 2019 LokSabha elections. This mission the government’s position on K Mahajan services – it polarised the upper castes and sections of Shudras against Dalits.
It may seem bewildering that the Sangh, undeniably the principal sponsor of 21st-century Brahmanic thought, should repeatedly win the support of non-upper castes. Ambedkar’s “graded inequality” explains the phenomenon well:
“… Inequality is not half so dangerous as graded inequality. Inequality does not last long. Under pure and simple inequality two things happen. It creates general discontent which forms the seed of revolution. It makes the sufferers combine against a common foe on a common grievance.”
By contrast, graded inequality, of which the caste system is an example, prevents the rise of general discontent that can become the “storm centre of revolution”. Ambedkar explains: “[With] the sufferers… becoming unequal both in terms of the benefit and the burden there is no possibility of a general combination of all classes to overthrow the inequity.”
This possibility is further reduced because the ruler adopts the divide and rule policy, of which the Modi government’s position on K Mahajan is an instance. It will soon sub-categorise the Other Backward Classes into three groups and slice and distribute the 27% reservation unequally among them. The government is also keen on passing the National Commission for Backward Classes Bill, which will vest in Parliament the power to exclude and include a social group from the reservation pool. This may just become the route to squeeze in Jats, Marathas and Kapus into the Other Backward Classes for reservation. The phenomenon of graded inequality will prompt the Shudras to fight among themselves; the beneficiaries will likely swing behind the BJP.
The other method of ushering in counter-revolution is through co-option of radical forces. A resurgent Brahmanism co-opted Buddha as the ninth avatar of Vishnu, blunting whatever edge Buddhism retained after attacks from Pushyamitra, Mihirakula, and Shashanka. Likewise, Prime Minister NarendraModi has concertedly sought to appropriate Ambedkar.
Another favoured method of counter-revolution is to fan communal tension to spawn affinity among castes. In his Annihilation of Caste, Ambedkar notes, “A caste has no feeling that it is affiliated to other castes, except when there is a Hindu-Moslem riot. On all other occasions each caste endeavours to segregate itself and distinguish itself from other castes.” It is to forge a bond among castes that Sanghfootsoldiers target Muslims in the hope the BJP will benefit from it electorally.
Commentators have often spoken of the “Muslim question”, the “Dalit question” and such like. It is strange that they have never thought of discussing the “upper caste question”. It is to the reactionary elements among the upper castes that commentators should turn to preach, for it is their conduct that imperils the ideas of liberty, equality, and fraternity enshrined in our Constitution. The very ideas, however rudimentary, that Pushyamitra’s counter-revolution of 187 BCE undermined.
INDESCRIBABLE JOHN ELI
By Shabbir Aariz
This indeed is proverbially a herculean task to describe or define John Elia in any particular frame. Whosoever while mentioning him, is either trapped in contradictions of one’s own opinion or is able to confine to a few verses of John Elia to judge him. But the more one tries to understand John, the more confused one is and I believe that you need another John Elia to explain him. He is a phenomenon, a thing like a live fish to hold in your hand or an elephant amongst blinds to be described. Wusatullah Khan, a noted broadcaster, holds that knowing John is as good as dating with a liberated lady. And it is quite obvious that a man who in him is a philosopher, a scholar, a biographer, a linguist with command over Urdu, Arabic, English, Persian, Sanskrit and Hebrew and needless to say that the Ismaili sect of the subcontinent could not find anyone other than John to translate Ismaili treatises from Hebrew, it becomes a tedious affair to be conclusive about John. Common perception though with an element of truth is that John is a progressive Marxist, an unconventional poet and always in denial of everything including himself while himself saying in three line verse,
“KISKO FUSAT K MUJSAY BAHAS KARAY…..
OOR SABIT KARAY K MERA WAJOOD….
ZINDZGI K LIYAY ZARORI HAY
(Anyone prepared to argue and prove that my existence is imperative for life). His poetry is admittedly very close to life and his verses in the words of a legendry poet, Majrooh Sultanpuri, are like a dialogue which no other poet has the distinction to be capable of. John has an extra-ordinary craft of connecting with his audience that has created an unprecedented fan following which no other contemporary poet can claim to have. So magical is his poetry and its rendition that it has created a cult of his admirers with such an obsession and longing for the life of melancholy lead by John Elia himself. It is no secret that he was never a happy man with defiance and protest against everything and anything around. Loudly a nonconformist when he says
“unjaman main mayri khamooshi…..
burdabari nahin hay wehshat hay”.
His style made him famous and popular. He appears to be disgusted even with creation when he says … “HASILE KUN HAY YEH JAHANE KHARAAB….
YAHI MUMKIN THA AYSI UJLAT MAIN”.
His admirers strangely wish to pass through the same pain and despair that is hallmark of John’s poetry besides satire and the disdain for the system which contributed to his sadness in life. He has so glorified and romanticized the pain and sadness that it leaves his audience in frenzied ecstasy.
John Elia was born in the year 1931 and died in 2002. He originally belonged to Amroha in the state of Uttar Pradesh, younger brother of Rayees Amrohi, a known journalist and writer. John migrated to Pakistan in the year 1957 and settled in Karachi where he is buried now. But Amroha never left his heart and mind. He never felt comfortable after leaving Amroha partly because his stay in Karachi brought him in conflict with the system too. Many other things have also contributed to his sadness in life. He was married to a well-known writer of Pakistan, Zahida Hina but in mid-80’s , the relation between the two became bumpy and ended up in divorce which left John devastated and for ten long years thereafter went in depression without writing a word.
As is true about many in the history of literature, John earned his name and fame more after his death than in his life time while he was not received well and felt a strange type of suffocation when he says,
“AAP APNAY SAY HUMSUKHAN REHNA…..
HUMNISHEEN SAANS PHOOL JATI HAY”.
Thanks to the electronic boom and You Tube that brought him to the lime light and enabled audience to reach him and his works. As if this was not enough that his first poetic collection only came to be published when he reached the age of 60. It is worthwhile mention that he has as many as seven poetic collections to his credit namely SHAYAD, YANI, LEKIN, GUMAAN, GOYA, FARMOD and RAMOOZ. Except one, all other are published posthumously. This is besides his scholarly works in prose which may require greater insight to go into.
John all his life remained honest, direct and straightforward in expressing his views on matters of public interest. He also never demonstrated any pretentions or reservations while expressing the truth of his personal life. He never made any secret of his fantasies, love affairs or drinking habits. Yet he was never at peace either with the times or with himself. John Elia, in my humble opinion lived ahead of times and even the desire of dying young without being bed ridden was not granted to him except that he strangely enough wanted to die of tuberculosis and which he did.
(The author, a senior lawyers, is a well known poet and writer. Feedback at: [email protected])
Manto: Why I wanted to read a ‘lewd’ writer
By Naveed Hussain
I first read Saadat Hasan Manto as a teenager and the spirit of what I’m writing now was etched on my memory in those years.
I was too young to understand the intricacies of his stories but I enjoyed what I read and craved for more. Back then, Manto wasn’t available in the small town of Haripur where I lived. A friend introduced me to a schoolteacher, a bibliophile who had a modest collection of Manto in his personal library.
“Why do you want to read Manto, he’s a ribald, lewd writer,” he quipped. “This is exactly why I want to read him,” I replied, almost impulsively. He smiled and agreed to lend me Manto’s books. Thus began my journey to explore Manto. The more I read, the deeper my love for him became.
Manto was a nonconformist, an unorthodox and ruthlessly bold writer. He didn’t believe in the so-called literary norms of ‘decency’ and ‘civility’ set by didactic writers of his time. For him, truth is truth. No matter how bitter and despicable the reality, Manto never dilutes the truth. Like a muckraker, he pokes his nose into the muck, rakes it, and then holds it up to the reader – in all its profound ugliness and twisted beauty. “If you don’t know your society, read my stories. If you find a defect, it’s the defect of your society, not my stories,” he says.
Manto wrote on socially taboo topics like sex, incest and prostitution, which earned him the wrath of contemporary traditionalists, conservatives and even progressives. For some of his ‘lewd’ and ‘obscene’ stories he had to face lawsuits – among them were great stories such as Thanda Gosht, Bu, Khol Do, Dhuan and Kali Shalwar.
But it is to miss the point to simply say that Manto wrote about sex. He wrote about the sexual debauchery of men and the sexual exploitation of women; about our patriarchal society where women are often treated as a ‘sex toy’, not a human being. Unlike many, I don’t compare Manto with DH Lawrence, because Manto is not lustful, even though he explicitly writes about the female anatomy. He’s more like Guy de Maupassant, who sees the throbbing heart, not the sensuous body, of the prostitute.
Manto blames the ‘diseased mind’ for reading ‘ribaldry’ into his stories. If a sex maniac derives morbid gratification from Venus De Milo, should we blame Alexandros of Antioch for chiselling such a ‘graphic’ sculpture? No, certainly not.
For contemporary literary pundits, Manto was also unacceptable because he wrote ‘indecent’ language. “They [the critics] criticise me when my characters verbally abuse one another – but why don’t they criticise their society instead where hundreds of thousands of profanities are hurled on the streets, every day,” he wonders.
I also love Manto because he was honest. He was an unflinchingly true writer who believed in calling a spade a spade. Sketch-writing was introduced as a genre in Urdu literature much earlier, but Manto created his own peculiar tell-all style. He didn’t write only the good qualities of his characters. “In my bathroom, everyone is naked. I don’t clothe them because it’s the tailor’s job,” he writes.
Manto’s sketches, which he initially wrote for the Lahore-based Daily Afaq newspaper, were later collected and published as Ganjay Farishtay. Manto wasn’t a hypocrite. He minced no words while writing about his dead friends. “I curse a thousand times a so-called civilised society where a man’s character is cleansed of all its ills and tagged as ‘May-God-Bless Him’,” Manto wrote in Ganjay Farishtay. Manto wrote sketches of filmstars Ashok Kumar, Shyam, Noor Jahan, literary figures such as Meera Ji, Agha Hashar and Ismat Chughtai and some politicians. “I have no camera that could have washed smallpox marks off the face of Agha Hashar or change obscenities uttered by him in his flowery style.”
Before embarking on his literary career, Manto had read Russian, French and English masters like Chekhov, Gorky, Victor Hugo, de Maupassant and Oscar Wilde and translated some of their works into Urdu. Surprisingly enough, despite his love for revolutionaries, Manto was not a Marxist ideologue. He was a humanist who was pained to see social injustices, economic disparities and exploitation of the underprivileged. He hated the obscurantist clergy and parasitic elites alike.
Although Manto had migrated to Pakistan after 1947, he couldn’t understand the rationale of partitioning a land along religious lines. His stories of bloodshed and cross-border migration, such as Teetwaal Ka Kutta and Toba Tek Singh, made him unpopular with ‘patriotic’ Pakistanis. To this day he remains a shadowy figure on the official literary lists of Pakistan: our school curricula, our national awards, our drawing room conversations.
Manto was acknowledged as a creative genius even by his detractors. And he knew this, which is perhaps why he wanted these words to mark his grave: “Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto and with him lie all the secrets and mysteries of the art of short story writing. Under tons of earth he lies, still wondering who among the two is the greater short story writer: he or God.”
Manto’s family feared his self-written epitaph would attract the unwanted attention of the ignorantly religious, so on his grave one finds a Ghalib couplet. He faced censorship all his life and even now has chunks of his stories taken out by the authorities. But as we mark his centenary year, I can say this with the instant certainty I felt as a young man in Haripur: the words and stories of Saadat Hasan Manto will outlive us all.
Gauhar Raza: Giving Poetry the Power to Protest
By Asheesh Mamgain
If things were different his poems would have been different, or maybe he would not have been a poet at all. But things are what they are. And that is why Gauhar Raza, the poet is writing, and it is why he writes his poetry of protest.
“Maybe I would have written about love, the beauty of nature and science. But as things stand my poetry is predominantly about resistance and protest,” said Raza, who is faithful to the tradition of resistance poetry to the extent that he has throttled, without much difficulty, the romantic and the scientist in him. “The need to write poetry always arose when something happened around me which affected me, to the core. I have never written and will never write poetry just for the sake of it.”
“The murder of Safdar Hashmi, the breaking up of the Soviet Union, the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the killing of an activist in Afghanistan, the death of Rohith Vemula are some of those things,” he said.
Raza’s second published collection of ghazals and nazms (71 in all) came out in November 2017 and is titled Khamoshi, or Silence.
Is there a lot of anger in his poems? Yes, there is definitely a lot of anger. But then there is also hope. That is where Raza becomes special.
“For me, a poem that merely complains or rants about the injustice, violence and persecution happening all around is not enough. A poet has to go beyond this; he has to give a vision. The vision of an alternative world, of a better world. Only then will his poetry be successful and meaningful. A poet has to show the consciousness he wants to bring into society.”
So how does he define good poetry? “Well, a good poem should be able to raise the level of the reader at least one notch higher, and also give him a fresh perspective about the aspect being dealt in the poem. Something new to dwell upon,” said Raza.
The influences that shaped his poetic thought came pretty early, at home and at the Aligarh Muslim University where he studied. Raza’s father, Wizarat Hussain, worked in the education department there and was a second-generation Leftist.
“The question about the existence of God came up very early in my life and soon I became an atheist for life,” said Raza. Literature was read with passion at home and by the time he was 15 he had read all the Urdu literature available at the AMU library as well as a solid portion of Russian literature.
“During my growing years, Leftist thought had a major presence in the university. On the other hand, the fundamental forces were also steadily getting stronger. I was smitten by the leftist idea. I was part of a literary study circle, we served tea at the secret meetings of leftist groups and listened to discussions at home between my father and other intellectuals such as Irfan Habib and Iqtidar Alam Khan.”
There was a lot of churning in his mind and soon he started pouring the remnants of all that into his poems. When it comes to poetry some of Raza’s major influences have been Ghalib, Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Sahir Ludhianvi. He is often seen reciting their work at length during his various lectures, with Sahir Ludhianvi’s long poem ‘Parchhaiyan’ or Shadows one of his favourites.
“Writing the kind of poetry I do is not easy. Each time a write a poem I must relive all the pain and emotion I went through when the particular incident happened that forced me to write. All those disturbing images come rushing back to me. It is a difficult thing to undergo.”
Nor is poetry Raza’s only means of reaching the people. He recently retired as chief scientist from the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research. He is also into documentary filmmaking, his documentaries on Bhagat Singh and the 2002 Gujarat genocide being very well known.
Where does poetry stand today, as a means of communication with the reader? According to Raza, “for one, social media has helped. It has helped poets reach a wider audience. Also, the tradition of musharias and kavi sammelans (poetry meets) is still very strong in India. So even if a poet is competing with the multimedia world, it is easy to reach one’s audience with one’s poetry, provided you have something pertinent to say.”
More broadly speaking, however, “I have to say that things have progressed in a disturbing direction. A poem I wrote 20 years ago, I could rededicate it to Rohith Vemula and then to Gauri Lankesh. This disturbing trend is seen all over the world. I believe that the fall of the USSR has been a major turning point in the way our World has evolved.”
A few lines from one of his poems brings out his concern and struggle.
Mein phool khilata hoon jab bhi,
Woh baad e khizan le aate hain,
Mein geet sunata hoon jab bhi,
Yeh aag se ji bahlate hain.
Whenever I make a flower blossom
They bring the autumn wind
Whenever I sing a song
They give the soul succour with flame.
But Raza is still hopeful. “There has been a resurgence of resistance poetry in Urdu in the recent past. The trend of religious poetry in Urdu has also reduced in recent times. The youth today has become more involved in this attempt to bring a positive change. I have seen young people reading protest poetry and reacting to it. Once again universities have become a place of resistance and struggle for change.”