Thursday, December 01, 2016
One of the regular readers, and commentators, on this blog, complained to me recently that I have not posted anything for several months. My apologies. The writing drought has now ended. Here is something that has not been published, except here.-->
The last month of 2016 began with this headline in Indian Express: "Individual rights don't matter in this case: Two-judge bench. All cinema halls SHALL play national anthem before film...doors SHOULD remain shut: Supreme Court". What is happening? Where is this country heading?
You don't have to be paranoid or unnecessarily alarmist to conclude that we are hurtling towards a future where National and Hindu are merging and Freedom and Secular are disappearing.
The Supreme Court has ordered the playing of the national anthem in all cinema halls across India in order to instil "committed patriotism and nationalism" and doing so would be part of their "sacred obligation". Why would patriotism or nationalism need to be "committed" and where does "sacred" come into all this?
The judgment also spoke of "constitutional patriotism and inherent national quality", once again something that only the judges can explain.
To me, this kind of judgment comes as no surprise as one has watched with concern the creeping but determined Hinduisation of Indian society, especially since May 2014 when the Bharatiya Janata Party and Narendra Modi were voted in to power.
Earlier this week, I was at an occasion that should have been, in all respects, a "secular" space as it was celebrating the reading and writing of books. All kinds of books. Fiction, non-fiction, children's books, translations from Indian languages, biographies, management, even fitness and health. The function was held to mark a set of awards judged by a jury and another set of "popular" awards that were decided on the basis of votes from readers.
Alarm bells rang in my head even before the function began as we were informed that one of the important guests present was a functionary of the BJP and a minister in the state government. Why was someone from the government invited to an occasion about books?
The first few minutes made it clear why. The evening began with an audio-visual devotional tribute -- representing exclusively Hindu gods. Lamp lighting, also essentially a Hindu custom, is virtually a norm at many functions in India. But never before have I seen an outright Hindu devotional opening, almost like going to a temple, at a function that has nothing at all to do with any religion.
The next item was equally unexpected, and shocking to quite a few of us. A woman instrumentalist and singer belted out Vande Mataram even as a well-known Kathak dancer pranced around draped in the tri-colours of the Indian flag. What was this about? Why Vande Mataram? If the organisers wanted to establish their "nationalist" credentials, then they could have had "Jana Gana Mana". The Supreme Court would have approved, given its judgment. But the combination of Vande Mataram and the national flag mean only one thing, celebrating the notion of "nationalism" as propagated by those at the helm of affairs today.
After this dramatic and "patriotic" beginning, it was indeed ironical that the jury choice for the best non-fiction book went to Akshaya Mukul's excellent work, Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India. In the citation, the jury members did not just commend the research that went into the making of the book but also noted:
"We are made aware of the remarkable energy and tenacity with which Hindu ideologues have pushed the social project of making an India of their imagination. It is also a sobering reminder to many ‘secular’ activists who, probably mistakenly, believe that having a secular constitution is in itself a guarantee of our future as a secular Republic.
In an era of growing majoritarian intolerance, Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India is an important book, a reminder to all of us that making a new society and people is a continuing work in progress."
However, once this award was presented, the rest of the evening veered back towards the direction where it began. The recipient of one of the popular fiction awards ended his speech with "Jai Sri Ram", the recipient of the popular choice for the best work for children, which was on the Gita, waxed eloquent about the holy book, and a special section at the end was the release of a book of Shivaji. To lustful cheers from the back of the hall, the first time writer held forth on how wonderful was "Shivaji Maharaj" and how she wanted the whole world to know about him.
The question that comes to my mind is: what is making people bend over backwards to show their commitment to religion and nation? It is not yet a diktat, although the Supreme Court judgment is precisely that. Yet clearly there has been enough said, and done, in the last two years to make it evident to people, especially those in business, that it is better to bend over backwards to show your loyalty and patriotism than to be suspected even remotely of being "anti-national". When writers, who by virtue of their chosen profession ought to disrupt, to instigate debate and disturb the status quo, are instead asked to stand up for one anthem, and sit down and listen to another, we can guess fairly accurately where we are heading. Or should I say, "Bharat Mata ki Jai!".