Noted critic and commentator Prof Purushottam Agrawal is a Senior Visiting Fellow at csds. His writings can be accessed at his website- purushottamagrawal.com. He made the following observations while addressing a National Convention on Democracy and Secularism on 27 February 2014 in Delhi. This Convention was organized by Dilip Simeon, Harsh Kapoor, Battini Rao and other friends.
A meeting similar to this was organised ten years ago in the wake of the Gujarat pogrom, but the mood of that convention was one of fire and ‘josh’, unlike the present one characterised by udaasi. May be you are not that udaas or tired, but let me confess, regarding matters of secularism and rights, I feel tired in spirit.
I had had the opportunity of attending the preparatory meeting for that Convention. The chief organiser described me as a minion of Dilip Simeon in the course of discussion. I told the organiser that I was proud of being considered a minion of Simeon. I was there because of Dilip and I am here today because of him.
The organiser of that convention wanted me to address it “as a Hindu”, because of the name I carry. I told him, unlike many of my secular Hindu friends, I don’t disclaim my Hindu identity, but I don’t take political positions as a Hindu. Today, you want me to condemn the Gujarat pogrom, “as a Hindu”, tomorrow, I might, “as a Hindu” feel sympathetic to the idea of Hindusthan Hinduon ka, nahin kisi ke baap ka! I made it clear that I shall speak as a citizen concerned about democratic institutions and norms. Following this, the chief organizer said that in his opinion it is best if I do not address his Convention.
A secular friend has often castigated me on my ‘hindu-ness’, saying it is because of people like me that the RSS is gaining strength. I have had to remind him that it is precisely because of those Hindus who are religious, but don’t vote for RSS, that RSS has still not succeeded in its designs.
Friends, I find it rather amusing that many of us have no sense of the Hindu tradition, its agonies, its inner conflicts of hegemony and resistance. We have no desire of engaging with it in a serious way, but when the Babri Masjid is demolished, all of a sudden we want to turn to Vivekananda, even the Vedas to find arguments against communal fascism. Such efforts on our part carry no credibility amongst the people who we want to address.
Today, I have been asked to talk about ‘Freedom of thought and life of mind’. From this podium, Jairus has put the phenomenon of fascism in a theoretical perspective, and Rahul Pandita has done a great job of reminding us of the plight of Kashmiri Pandits. I claim no scholarship, not even great knowledge. I just want to share my concerns and ideas as a citizen and as a writer.
Let us face the facts. Over the last twenty years, communal forces have succeeded in changing the ‘mindscape’ of our society. Rahul just quoted a very senior communist leader telling Kashmiri Pandits, in the context of their forced exodus from the valley, ‘Aisi baaten hoti rehati hain…’ (“such things happen”). This statement is reflective of the changed mindscape. Even responsible people are falling prey to the ‘chalta hai’ syndrome. More importantly, it is reflective of a very narrow and short-sighted understanding of communal fascism. This reminds me of a related incident which shows the extent to which we have internalised the ideas rooted in the politics of identity. My friend the late Farooque Sheikh had once visited a refugee camp of Pandits in Delhi, and I had to face a hard time convincing a Kashmiri Pandit colleague of mine at JNU that Farooque was a Gujarati, not a Kashmiri. My colleague’s idea was simple- if not a Hindu, Fartuque must certainly be a Kashmiri Muslim, otherwise why would he visit the suffering Kashmiri Pandits? The prejudice that only Dalits can speak for Dalits, women for women and so on has been given huge respectability by our intellectuals. By this argument, someone like me who belongs to the privileged savarna male minority should speak for no oppressed community or individual. We must not forget that in the wake of the 1984 mass murder of Sikhs in Delhi, the only non-Sikh institution to close in mourning was Vidya -Jyoti— a Jesuit theological institute.
To what extent, has the mindscape of our society changed? Just look around. It is not a court of law that has passed an order against Wendy Doniger’s book. The publisher decided to pulp it on its own. There was no formal ban on Aamir Khan’s films in Gujarat, it is just that the exhibitors were “not willing” to release them. Similarly there was no formal ban on Salman Rushdie attending the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2012. But the police couldn’t “provide security”. Moreover on the last day of the festival a ‘celebratory’ mass Namaaz was offered at the venue. If next time around the Bajrang Dal feels like organising a Hanuman- Chalisa path at the same venue how will ‘secular’ politics and intelligentsia be in a position to react? It did not happen in a Christian majority country, but here in India, that the film ‘Da Vinci Code’ was allowed to be released only after the Information and Broadcasting Ministry had obtained approval of the Christina clergy by organising a pre-release screening. This was a case of officially sponsored religious censorship of art.
In my youth I had read a story by Harishankar Parsai. In this story, Rama appoints Hanuman as the tax inspector and crafty traders get away with tax-evasion by binding their account-books in a red piece of cloth, as Hanuman wears a red loin-cloth. In so doing, they “prove” their devotion to Hanuman. The story “informs” its readers that this is why traders bind their account books in red till date. This was forty years ago. Tell me honestly- will a writer write such a story today? Will any responsible editor publish it? That is the distance we have travelled. That is the change in mindscape we have undergone.
Only this morning, I came across a rather funny – and sad – bit of news. A truck carrying scrap paper met with a minor accident, with its cargo spilling on the road. In it, there were some copies of a holy book- Hindu or Muslim not known. Subsequently, the driver and cleaner were beaten to a pulp by an irate mob and the police have registered a case against the scrap-dealer who dared ‘hurt’ religious sentiments by treating holy books as scrap.
We have discussed the theoretical aspects of communal fascism in this session, and that is really important. The challenge however is that of acting fast and in a credible manner. Just like Jairus, Kamal and Anu, I studied at JNU, and also taught there. We were given to endless discussions and lengthy meetings – sometimes the general body meeting of the students ran for 36 hours straight! We were confident of revolution being around the corner, but the wretched corner has turned into a corridor and we are still waiting…taking rounds in the corridor…and things have changed beyond recognition. The mindscape of our society has changed fundamentally.
We have to realise that communal fascism is not merely a concern from the standpoint of security of minorities. It poses a threat to the very idea of a democratic and vibrant society. Frankly sometimes I pity the state that Indian Muslims have been reduced to. A political party assuring them of merely basic security against murder, arson and loot can claim itself as secular and can hope to take Muslims along. Should not the Left in Bengal feel ashamed at the plight of Muslims as reflected in the Sachhar Committee report? Do our secular parties realise that Narendra Modi is only speaking their language when he points out that in the last 12 years there have been no riots in Gujarat? The communal and secular parties almost seem to be in connivance for restraining Muslims from being equal citizens of a secular democracy.
People like Dilip and yours truly have been shouting hoarse about the importance of ensuring rule of law, autonomy of institutions and the constitutional rights of citizens qua citizens…but the politics of ‘anti- communalism’ listens, nods and goes on exactly as before.
We are going to have elections in less than two months, and these elections are going to be fraught with unprecedented significance. If Narendra Modi becomes PM, chances are that things in this country will change in a very basic way, and for the worse. Theoretical discussions and disagreements are as important as ever, but we have to think of concrete political choices as well. How do we face the very real danger of India turning into just a formal democracy, without the present churn and vibrancy? We must remind people and also remind ourselves, that democracy is not just about numbers – it is about democratic norms and institutions. It is about ensuring the free expression of even such views which one may find utterly nonsensical.
Let us never forget, Jesus was crucified as a heretic. ‘Heretics’ provide a society with the opportunity of self-reflection, and democracy is fundamentally about ensuring a non-violent and civilised interface between the orthodox and the heterodox in each and every sphere of life. Communal fascism is a threat to the very idea of such a vibrant and meaningful democracy and hence is a matter of concern not only for religious minorities, but for each and every citizen.
So, we have to look at concrete and credible political possibilities. Some friends refer to AAP as an alternative. I too appreciate its role but with reservations and criticism. Such disagreements are not only normal but also welcome. The point however is to arrive at a practical consensus on defeating communal fascism electorally. Perhaps, in the short term we can proceed with a constituency-wise assessment and in each constituency, help the secular candidate who is most likely to present a challenge to communal politics. In the long term however, there is no alternative to acting in a manner consistent with human rights, democratic norms, autonomy of institutions and upholding the rule of law. We cannot relax these standards no matter who claims to be ‘hurt’. Unless we act fast to recover our credibility, we will find ourselves even more marginalized and communal fascism will only grow stronger.