Monday, May 11, 2015

The Madness & Fury of Communalism and Free Market; And the 'why and how' of our Cultural Revolt against it: Part I

Jayant Pawar

Jayant Pawar is a renowned story writer and dramatist in Marathi. His well known play 'Adhantar' is a tale about lives of textile workers in Mumbai in the backdrop of the failed textile strike of 1980s. He has been awarded with Sahitya Academy award in 2013 for his collection of stories 'Phoenixchya Rakhetun uthala Mor' (there arose a peacock from the ashes of Phoenix).Jayant Pawar, a journalist, currently works with Maharashtra Times. The speech was a Presidential address by him at Vidrohi Sahitya Sammelan at Buldhana, Maharashtra in January 2015. The original speech in Marathi is being translated by Rahul Vaidya and we are thankful that the speaker has kindly agreed to publish it in Vikalp.

Dear Friends,

I am grateful to Vidrohi cultural movement[1] for honoring me with presidential position of the 13th Vidrohi Sahitya Sammelan (Vidrohi, revolutionary Literary meet) and thereby providing me this platform to put forth my thoughts. I remember sitting as part of the audience in 1999 Sammelan held in Dharavi, Mumbai which was presided by the great rebel writer Baburao Bagul. The Akhil Bharatiya Marathi Sahitya Sammelan (All India Marathi Literary meet) was going on at Shivaji Park, Mumbai. A few days earlier, Sena supremo Bal Thackeray had caustically taunted the writers ‘bulls’ over the futility of their efforts. So the (mainstream) writers were furious. It was Sena-BJP rule in Maharashtra that time. In centre, it was NDA government headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee. There was anger in the air. Vasant Bapat, the president of the Akhil Bharatiya Marathi Sahitya Sammelan, had thundered ‘I spit on your money’ addressing Bal Thackeray in his presidential speech. This seemed quite a rebellious and revolutionary spirit and challenge for the sense and sensibilities of the petty-bourgeoisie writers of Marathi mainstream discourse. But the real sparks of rebellion flew in Vidrohi Sammelan at Dharavi. Because Dr. A.H. Salunkhe, during his the inauguration speech had asserted: ‘now it will be our own head over our body’. These words, which openly revolted against the establishment, gave a new identity, a new meaningful existence to the oppressed and their expressions.

Today, after 16 years, we have a BJP government in the Maharashtra state as well as in Centre. Today, the language is of development, good governance; but in fact, there is only religious, cultural fanaticism all around. The situation is grave. In these times, one really needs to question if the head over body is really one’s own. We are assembled here for the 13th Vidrohi Sammelan. A few days back, Charlie Hebdo, a magazine of satire, was attacked in Paris in which 12 people including 3 cartoonists were killed by terrorists. Before that, Islamic fundamentalists killed 132 schoolchildren in Peshawar. Religious fundamentalism is showcasing its presence and strength everywhere. Even we are witnessing our own home-grown manifestations of the same fundamentalism through movements like Ghar Vapasi, Love Jihad, Bahu Bachao Beti Bachao. The religious fanaticism has sprung like never before. Communal tensions have become worse. In these times, I have certain questions, certain confusions. While tracking them, I keep encountering several thoughts- but whether I will be able to lend a theoretical foundation to them, I am not sure. Of course, this task has to be done collectively by very many like-minded authors, intellectuals, leaders and workers of the movements. It is difficult task. The situation around is complex, confusing and full of doubt. One doesn’t know whom to trust. The meanings of the words are ever changing and slippery. However, even if this work is difficult, it is not impossible. Our intellectual lineage of Tukaram, Kabir, Basaveshwar, Phule, Dr. Ambedkar, Maharshi Shinde, and Comrade Sharad Patil is quite strong. Our heritage is that of Shivaji, the progressive visionary ruler. And it is a great relief for my confused mind, that I am speaking at a place where a woman, Tarabai Shinde raised a true revolt in 19th century Maharashtra. Leave aside women speaking to men, even looking up to men was considered an offence and a challenge to patriarchal power; in such times, Tarabai Shinde wrote ‘Stree- Purush Tulana’ (Woman-Man comparison) a comparative study showing faults of men and patriarchy citing examples from myths, history and present. Her courage, courage of a Bahujan woman, sustains me. I pay my respect to her and begin:

Violence in Pamuk’s Snow
I begin with a small portion of a Turkish novel. Nobel winner famed Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk’s novel ‘Snow’ has this incident. The protagonist, Ka, is a Turkish poet and journalist staying in Germany. He has come to a small city Kars in Turkey on journalistic assignment. The mayor of the city is murdered. Few women also have committed suicide. Ka wants to find out the reason behind these suicides. Turkey was a liberal, open and tolerant society when he left for Germany in his youth. Religion wasn’t dominant in public life. There was hardly any trace of the observance of Burqa custom in women. However, now the times have changed. It’s religious fundamentalism dominant now. There are barriers between people of different faith. Radical Islamists have been militantly carrying out propaganda that people have forgotten their roots, their religion under the spell of western influence and have been successful in securing dominance in public life.  These Islamists go to people’s homes, distribute alms and influence them. They sell dreams, influence women, youth and unemployed by grand schemes. They campaign to vote for their ‘Prosperity Party’. Middle class and traders are also under their spell because they seem really honest and modest.

The incident, then, takes place in such surroundings. The protagonist is sitting with his former fiancé in a pastry shop when the director of an educational institution is killed right behind his table. A short fellow sitting right in front of the director has fired bullets in his head and chest. He has come to Kars from a faraway village for this sole mission. The director begs, cries for mercy in the end. That time, the killer says: for past two days, I was searching you all around Kars. Finally I had given up. Disappointed, I had almost left. I came in here to have tea, and coincidentally, you also came in here. If the god only sent you to this pastry shop, if he only doesn’t want to pardon you, then why should I pardon you?

The conversation between them before this portion is quite interesting: this director is a secular. The killer, short youth accuses him that he declined entry to burqa clad girls in his school. He threw them out of the school. When the girls started fighting, he threatened to call the police. In the end, these poor girls, with shattered egos and thorough depression, committed suicide. The director says, we stay in a secular state, and this secular state has prohibited burqa clad girls’ entry in school. The youth asks him, if you believe ‘Holy Quran’ are Allah’s words, then what is said in 31st line of the chapter of ‘Divine Light’ of Quran? The director says, it says that girls and women should cover their heads and face. Then the youth asks, answer me- which law is eternal and more powerful, that of state or that of god?

The conversation begins like this: the youth says to the director, ‘I want to speak to you regarding the topic of progressives and regressives. He repeatedly says, Sir, I respect you. Don’t worry. He even kisses his hand. He says, I hate terrorism, I respect democracy, I respect human values, I believe in God and I don’t like anybody’s religious sentiments getting hurt. But, why did you behave inhumanly with those girls?’ According to him, one black American Muslim professor has published a statistic showing that the Muslim countries where women wear Burqa has lower percentage of violence against women. ‘Wearing Burqa is the wish of the women here, then by prohibiting them to do so, aren’t you denying them their right? Burqa protects women from violence; it gives a position of respect in society. They don’t have to live like a commodity. The gender revolution in Europe led to many sexual assaults on women. Do you want them to happen to our women as well? and if that happens, you would serve as a pimp. Do you have any idea, sir?’  the director tries to tell him that ‘out the girls who committed suicide, one was jilted in love with a fellow 25 years elder to her. She was depressed due to his refusal to marry her.’ But the killer is in no mood to listen. He grows impatient, angry. Islamic liberators have judged you and have sentenced you to death. Now no use begging and pleading; he says, and fires bullets.

Then, the people sitting in the pastry shop get up quietly and leave. Along with incessant snowfall, a shiver of fear runs through that mystical city of Kars.

And what is the situation here?
Let me take up our situation. There is news on front page in Indian Express of 23rd December 2015 titled- ‘The man whose job was fanning communal fire’. The police arrested a 35- year old fellow named Desh Raj in Parsauli village in Uttar Pradesh. The reason- he threw beef in the village temple and wrote derogatory messages against religion. The people grew furious. They were not allowing the police to dispose of the beef in the temple. A similar incident had taken place in another temple where Desh Raj had taken away the Nandi, the god Shankara’s bull, and he had also killed a dog and threw the dog meat in the village mosque. When mosque personnel came to know, they hurriedly disposed it and hushed matter since they didn’t want further troubles. Police kept a watch and arrested Desh Raj. His family members maintain that he is mentally disturbed and needs help. Police found several maps with him where he had made marks on temples and mosques around. This unemployed youth keeps praying throughout the day and studies astronomy. When police questioned him over his motive of these acts, he reasoned thus- ‘कोई मसिजद ना रहे, सिर्फ मंदिर रहे.’ (Let there be no mosque, let only temples remain)

Let us go a bit deeper here. Why does Desh Raj think like this? There is a village called Jhola near Parsauli. The population of Muslims suddenly went up in last one year. Parsauli has almost same share of Hindus and Muslims. But this proportion in Jhola became skewed suddenly. Why? Because the Muzaffarnagar riot victims were rehabilitated in Jhola. Hence Muslims increased in Jhola. And Desh Raj became enraged. It is this 2013 Muzaffarnagar riot where 9000 families had to migrate, 50000 were rendered homeless and began living in rehabilitation camps. It is the worst communal violence in UP’s history. The reason for this riot was murder of a Muslim youth by two Jat young men over offending modesty of their sister. In revenge, the Muslim group killed these two Jats. It was revealed later that the girl had never even seen the Muslim youth before who was killed under the pretext of offending her modesty. He had not even come to that village. She had only heard people discussing that Muslim youth from neighboring village come and do these kind of things and had mentioned it to someone. After the abovementioned killings, the local BJP MLA posted a video on YouTube showing the Muslim mob beating the Jat young men mercilessly and it sparked off the riots. Later it was revealed that the video clip was not even authentic and was shot at Sialkot in previous year. But the mission was accomplished by then. The venom of religious nationalism had spread everywhere. Desh Raj is a byproduct of these riots. Not just him, there are lakhs of young men who are ready to ‘teach’ Muslims a lesson or two. This is because the situation in India has changed dramatically after 26th May 2014. It is the claim of powers like RSS that ‘Hindu rule has now been established after 800 years of oppression. Now you better listen to them’. There are several young people under the spell of elements like Sri Ram Sene ready to beat, to pull the hair of girls and women going to pubs, following the western culture and values. Girls who have married Muslims, have been portrayed as the ‘wronged, helpless, poor things’ and victims of ‘Love Jihad’. Innumerable self-proclaimed saviors of religion are agitating to ‘bring them back to the fold’. When the leaders start ranting like ‘Short clothes of girls invite rapes and violence’; the followers need no further direction. An Indian girl kissing a Pakistani guy in the film ‘PK’ is portrayed as encouraging Love Jihad and hence these fanatics agitated for banning the movie. Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha vandalized one café in Kozhikode, Kerala since young men and women come together and dance. The Taliban in Afghanistan restricted the dress and behavior of women under the pretext of warding off the western/ American cultural influence. We also have our Sadhvis, Mahants, as well as religious- social political leaders, (including women) who are raving against American culture, which changed the dressing of girls and meant men getting astray leading to higher violence against women. There is simply  no difference now in the short fellow in Pamuk’s novel which I described, and several fanatic young men in our own country today. Tomorrow, anybody can kill anyone in broad daylight, in Open Square, in a café, or anywhere, under the charges of being the traitor of the religion. If you are putting forth liberal thoughts in public sphere, then anyone can silence you, can threaten you. These are the same times, when Dr. Narendra Dabholkar was murdered in broad daylight, in the middle of the Pune city and still there is no trace of murderers. One Muslim engineer was killed in Hadapsar, Pune and the accused person has been declared ‘Shaurya Puraskar’ (Bravery award) by guardians of faith. In Franz Kafka’s novel ‘The Trial’, the protagonist wakes up one morning to find that he is under surveillance. He is not in jail, he can roam around. He can work. But he constantly feels being observed, being kept under the eye. Now you are also under the surveillance. There is always an indirect watch over what are you speaking, thinking. Your phone calls are being tapped. The ministers of the country aren’t even spared from this. Who are you and me then?

Surveillance hills and parallel censorship
Some people may think it is an exaggeration; but if one glosses through the moves and movements in the cultural sphere in past two decades, one can easily understand how these surveillance hills are growing in number as well as stature. After 1996-97, Marathi theatre and plays were carefully kept under a close surveillance. Certain plays were targeted and their shows were attacked and theatres vandalized under the charges that these plays had derogatory content poking fun at Hindu gods and goddesses. Play writers and directors started getting threat calls. Writers, directors, producers were pressurized to omit the objected parts of the play. Censor board was bombarded with thousands of letters and faxes to reject permission to stage these plays. Several protestors started agitating with banners calling for ban wherever these plays were staged. The Marathi theatre never collectively and loudly protested against these tendencies and groups. This meekness emboldened the guardians of culture further. The gravity of danger was only recognized after the bomb blasts in theatres. But still, the protest never went beyond words. Deepa Mehta’s movies- ‘Water’ which portrayed the plight of widows of Vrindavan, and ‘Fire’ portraying lesbianism, ‘Fanaaa’ of Aamir Khan, who participated in Narmada Bachao Andolan, ‘Rang De Basanti’ which put light on reality of jingo nationalism, etc. several movies were targeted and protests were held demanding a ban on them. There was such a remarkable continuity in these protests that it affected common people’s thought processes.

This is the state of cultural field. In case of education, Deenanath Batra’s Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti is keeping a close watch on history syllabus and text books. This Samiti keeps sending notices to state boards, publishers, threatens them, sues them to make them delete the portion seemingly offensive to Hindu religion (offensive as per the wishes and fancies of this Samiti).   NCERT textbook of 7th standard mentions: ‘Mathura was established around 2500 years back. It had several Buddhist monasteries, Jain places of worship. Also it was a centre of Krishna worship’. Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti doesn’t approve of this. It says: why do you hide the truth that Krishna was born in Mathura 5200 years ago? 6th standard textbook mentions that ‘epics Ramayana, Mahabharata were written around 2000 years back. Women and shudras didn’t have right to study Vedas’. Batra says ‘this is twisting the truth and should be removed immediately. Ramayana-Mahabharata is our real history’. To mistake myths in Hindu religion for the historical truth, to not allow the reality of exploitation under the garb of religion, opposing the sex education in name of the same being offensive to religion; this is continuing mission of Batra and his likes. Now Gujarat government under Anandiben Patel has accepted Batra- suggested books as textbooks.

And there is no reason to believe that these ventures remain limited to school curriculum. It is doing the great job of banning the works of many scholars. In 2013, Batra’s Samiti compelled Manmohan Singh government to drop A.K. Ramanujan’s essay ‘three hundred Ramayanas’ from curriculum. Shiskha Bachao Samiti had filed a petition in court calling for ban on Renowned historian Shekhar Bandopadhyay’s book ‘Plassey to Partition: a history of Modern India’ since it defames RSS. However, even before judgment was passed, the publisher of the book, Orient Blackswan withdrew this book from circulation. It is instructive to understand the nature and power of cultural terror: the publisher didn’t just stop there. It appointed one committee to enlist the probable ‘sensitive’ books and ‘sensitive’ content therein. One of them was a book titled ‘Communalism and sexual violence: Ahmedabad since 1969’ by Dr. Megha Kumar from Oxford University. The said book which throws light upon the communal and sexual violence in Ahmedabad since 1969, was not even on the radar of Batra’s Samiti and it had not even demanded a ban for the same. However, Orient Blackswan banned the book of its own accord. Penguin India, another renowned publishing house, withdrew Wendy Doninger’s book ‘The Hindus: an alternative history’ after receiving court notice and burnt the remaining copies.

Rewriting history
After independence, our country adopted framework of a secular state and adopted a constitution prepared under Dr. Ambedkar which was assimilative of diverse traditions, faiths and cultures of this land, which respected everyone as equal and gave everyone freedom of choice, expression and faith. The constitution is the one solid thread which weaves together multiple faiths, sects, castes, language groups, traditions. But the forces challenging the constitution itself are growing stronger by the day. The clear indication is appointment of K. Sudarshan Rao (whose contribution to historical research is nil) as ICHR chairman to rewrite our history. RSS maintains that history of India so far has been written under European and Leftist historians’ influence. Now it should be written from ‘Indian perspective’. And by ‘Indian perspective’, RSS obviously implies ‘Hindutva perspective’. You can obviously write such history; but that also requires material proofs and concrete evidences which can survive scientific tests. But where scientists can’t find evidences dating 2500 years back; how can one expect to believe that Ramayana and Mahabharata as dating back 5000 years and part of history and not myth? How justified is it to celebrate and approve Bhagavadgeeta’s 5200th anniversary?

It is one thing to be proud of our history and another to paint unhistorical, mythical things as historical and take pride in them. History of course changes all the time; but the same has to be proven on hard tests. However, if one chooses to merely celebrate myths as history escaping the burden of proving their historical, scientific validity; it leads to false pride first, and then into superiority complex- ‘We are the best in the whole world, and it’s our responsibility to rule or direct the world’, as this feeling grows, it gives birth to cultural nationalism. It works like a contagious fever; it goes to one’s brains and then anybody who questions starts looking like an enemy. Vicious sentiments grow stronger- those who do not agree to such parochial definition of nationalism ought to be killed. This is because propaganda of hate and fear successfully demonstrates the several injustices done. An ‘other’ is created and language of harmonious co-existence gradually gives way to cultural homogenization. ‘If you want to live with us, live on our terms and conditions’ becomes the language of the day, a part of common sense.

‘Mare Jayenge’- they will be killed
The cultural nationalism in India today, speaks of cultural homogenization and challenges the Indian constitution. Even if it speaks of peace, such peace is a façade. Under the speeches of peace, it is a breeding ground for fear and hatred. It is going to shut voices of dissent. It is going to fit moulds of thoughts inside everyone. Poet Mehboob Shekh says-
जो इस पागलपन में शामिल नही होंगे
मारे जाएंगे
कठघरे में खडे कर दिए जायेंगे
जो विरोध में बोलेंगे
जो सच सच बोलेंगेमारे जायेंगे
(Those who don’t participate in this madness, they will be killed. Those who will speak against it, those who will speak the truth, will be killed.) 

Hence, this is the time when we should raise voice against this heinous and violent nationalism trampling dissent, its censorship, its regressive offensive against women’s liberation, its assault on freedom of expression of writers, poets, intellectuals. I condemn this cultural offensive from the platform of Vidrohi Sahitya Sammelan. And at the same time, I appeal to everyone who believes in egalitarian values, to join me from every possible forum, every possible corner; in condemning and resisting this attack.

This resistance, this protest should grow loud. And it should be regular. This is because the force of the cultural attack is severe. Its face is that of benign development. This catchword of ‘development’ has the middle class of the country so madly spellbound that it is ready to pay any price for the same. This madness has reached the absurdity of wishing away the poor of this country as with having them alive, the ‘development’ is not possible. Hence it has long ago given up on alliance with poor and working class. Further, fever of Cultural nationalism is most rampant in this middle class, as well as the strata on periphery of this middle class and lower classes. Therefore, everyone has lost the grip on reality. Russian novelist Tolstoy has said in his book ‘Confession’- ‘our society blindly believes in progress. People don’t try to understand the meaning of life and then they try and hide this scarcity behind the pursuit of the progress’. These words, spoken for Russian society in 19th century, hold true for Indian society in 21st century as well. We have lost the sense of common welfare, compassion for the toils of people through which the wealth is made, mutual respect etc. and we are trying to make up for it by market-centrism, rituals, religious fanaticism, mental peace bought through Babas- Bapus and satsangs. American capitalist culture which proclaims ‘The World is flat’ on one hand, and revivalist religious culture on the other, they both are growing simultaneously. Consumerist American culture preaches to become more selfish, more acquisitive, and turn back upon the troublesome things. On the other side, the religious fundamentalist culture is teaching to become more intolerant. This culture doesn’t approve the several facets of Ramayana and Ram. Hence, they oppose Ramanujan’s ‘three hundred Ramayanas’. For them, Valmiki Ramayan is the only one and worth following. If you think otherwise, it will be considered blasphemy. So in other sense, they also want a flat world- a cultural homogenization. Hence, ideology of free market and cultural nationalism are two sides of the same coin and they are complementary to each other.  At the outset, although it seems that Hindutva forces have waged a war against American consumerist culture, this war is conveniently posed in such terms that upper caste, upper class people will never have any material harm to their class interests. It is the majority working people, the bahujan samaj and also those who have no nuisance value; which will pay the price. It is their destiny. Hence  Mehboob Shekh writes further in his poem ‘Mare Jayenge’:
सबसे बडा अपराध है इस समय में
निहत्थे और निरपराध होना
जो अपराधी नही होंगेमारे जायेंगे (the biggest crime today is to be unarmed and innocent. Those who are innocent, will be killed)
(To be continued)

[1] Vidrohi Sahitya Sammelan is an annual conference organized Revolutionary literary cultural movement in Maharashtra, which is largely an amalgam of Dalit, Socialist, Communist and other progressive democratic forces.

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