Friday, July 13, 2012

Why am I so apologetic about being a Hindu?

By Rana Nayar

I do not know whether I’m an insider or an outsider in India. Much will depend on what historians may have to say about my origins or my beginnings, which in any case, shall remain shrouded in endlessly inconclusive controversies. Some people will insist on treating me as a descendant of the Hindus, tracing my links with Indus Valley Civilization (emphasizing the homology between ‘Indus’ and ‘Hindus’), while others may look upon me as a leftover of the Aryan race that came from the West and overran the Nagas and/or Dravidians (read the original inhabitants of this land), seeking to establish my hegemony over this land, its peoples, its languages and its native cultures, too. I do not know whether I’m a naturalized citizen of this land or an aggressor, an invader and/or a colonizer. Historians would probably never let me have the satisfaction of knowing this, one way or the other. What I do know is that I have lived on this land for close to three, four thousand years; that I’m among one of its oldest, if not the oldest, inhabitants; and that I have participated in its social, political, religious and cultural life for as long as I can remember.

Of course, I know that despite having lived in this land for close to four thousand years, and despite having made all the contribution towards shaping, and not controlling, its cultural forces; and despite all my protestations about being truly, genuinely non-violent, secular and democratic in my convictions, today, I’m extremely apologetic about being a Hindu or made to feel so. Do I have a right to ask, why, for God’s sake, am I being pushed into such defensive postures, today? You perhaps don’t know that I was very much part of the crowd of non-decrepit soldiers who were led into the First War of Independence by Mangal Pandey, and the moment I witnessed the birth of the Congress Party out of the womb of history, I had simply stood by and cheered loudly. I was there when the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre happened, or when the non-cooperation movement was started by Gandhi. I was there when Lala Lajpat Rai was mercilessly beaten to death or Bhagat Singh was hanged with his companions following a farcical trial. I was among the crowds in 1942 when they booed and jeered at Englishmen, saying, “Quit India”, before plunging headlong into the unprecedented communal conflagration of 1947. Yes, I was killed among those who died during the Partition and was born, yet again, with the birth of a new nation.      

And let me assure you, since 1947 I have never participated in any of those loony linguistic movements that you witnessed in the late 1950s for the reorganization of Indian states on the basis of language or regional aspirations. To be honest, I wasn’t the one who raised the bogey of ‘official language,’ or the one who shed the blood of those who didn’t want ‘Hindi’ to be installed as an the sovereign, national, and/or official language. Now as I look back, I feel, it’d have been much better had Tamil been made the official language, as it‘d have probably brought the never ending colonial march of English to a sudden, necessary halt. It worries me to think now that we have missed out on a real opportunity to decolonize ourselves by making one of our own languages as the national/official language. Do you really think that I was the one who torched the government buildings or damaged the public property when the communal fires engulfed our sanity? Certainly not! Why to hide from you, friends, at that point of time, I was only too busy managing the petty affairs of my inconsequential life, running from pillar to post, clutching on to a bottle of milk or a can of kerosene, or waiting endlessly in the long queues either outside an employment bureau, a post-office, a bank, or a polling booth or just about too busy keeping the wolves at bay.

Believe me, when I say that I never participated even once in all those crazy, misdirected Rath Yatras (on Toyota convertibles) that some power hungry, political opportunists organized from time to time in the name of Hindutva. Do you know that I was not at all opposed to the political churning or mobilization that Mandalization caused in this country, nor did I ever support those who pulled down the Babri Masjid or engineered the Godhra Riots or burnt the train carrying Muslims across to Pakistan? Instead, I have been a strong votary of the affirmative action, as I sincerely believe that weak must always be protected by the strong, whatever the cost; and also whatever is pushed down by history must ultimately come up the hard way, and that it is not at all possible without social engineering of some kind. You do not know me enough to know that when this bandwagon of Hindutva was rolling out in the Indian streets, I was among those who were silently crying over the death of a shared dream, and grieving over the possibility of communalization of Indian politics. Much before that, I had already shed enough tears, or even spent many sleepless nights worrying over the criminalization of politics in our country, when it hit in the late 1970s.

Each time, a Kashmiri Muslim is killed either by the militants or the State, each time an innocent Sikh is burnt alive in a politically sponsored carnage, each time a Christian missionary is slain by some lunatic Hindu, and each time a Parsi is forced to migrate owing to the bullying tactics of Shiv Sainiks, I go through, no, not just the spasms, but genuine convulsions of conscience, and agonize endlessly over how the dream of secularism is fast turning into a nightmare, how the specter of communalism is forever hanging over our heads, threatening to unleash forces we can’t contain; how the ever growing decline of governance and moral imperatives of our politicians is pushing us deeper into a chaos and anarchy from which we may never be able to recover. And yet, you continue to doubt my secular credentials, suspect my political convictions or affiliations, interrogate my religious beliefs, and much before I realize what you are doing, you quietly dump all this guilt and pain of those whom I do not even know or recognize at my rickety door, leaving me with no choice but to cower in shame or run for a cover. And yet, you condemn me each time a fringe group of lunatics, who know no religion except the religion of violence or hatred and who know no language except the language of terror and crime, inflict all kinds of horrible wounds on your skin. You perhaps do not even know how the wounds in your skin have cut permanent holes in my body, and how your pain keeps searing my conscience, even my soul, in the silent hours of night.

When I’m alone with myself, I often wonder when did I ever give legitimacy to Manuvaad or the abominable caste-system. Did I ever want its continuation or perpetuation in our society? Did I ever want to live down the guilt of asking some people to serve me or my class interest perpetually? Did I ever want that Manu should codify Hindu laws in a certain way? Wasn’t Manu, after all, doing this codification for a society that was essentially moving from the tribal to the feudal, agrarian stage? And pray, when did Manu ever claim that his codification was sacrosanct and should not ever be subjected to a process of re-examination or revisionism? If some of my ancestors just didn’t get into the exercise of revisionism and Manuvaad or Brahmanism colluded to create conditions for the continuation of caste-system, why must I be made to bear the cross, especially, when I’m genuinely modern, moderately secular and materially egalitarian, and also when I celebrate the cultural synthesis of Bhakti movement? Am I supposed to feel guilty if a certain class of people (read Brahmins) chose to hegemonize others, as all classes, often driven by the egregious self-interest, almost always tend to do, in the best or the worst of times?

I also wonder why most of the people who condemn me for being a Hindu often forget that if the ancient Hinduism legitimized Manuvaad, it also gave Ved Vyas and Valmiki, both outcastes (one, the son of a fisherwoman, and the other, a reformed dacoit), the responsibility of disseminating two of their most significant narrative texts among its adherents. Why do they forget that the principle behind the caste-system was one of mutual interdependence of different sections (read castes) of society and of their integration and oneness at socio-religious level? And further, if the priestly class of Brahmins had not turned self-serving (as all ruling classes invariably do), probably caste-system would not have become an unchanging, ossified fact of Indian social and religious life? If I’m to be held accountable for crimes the priestly class committed through history, then I should also be held accountable for all the acts of omission and commission the ruling class of today is committing with much the same impunity. Don’t you think so? After all, logic is the same, isn’t it? So how many of us are actually prepared to bear the burden of other’s sins, pray? How many of us would want to do penance on behalf A. Rajas or Kalmadis of our times? Please don’t tell me now that my logic is fallacious, or my argument, untenable or specious.

Now whether or not I was a natural inhabitant of this land, I did make this land my home and you certainly can’t grudge me that or, will you? And then I slowly began to give birth to an entire civilization, mythological, Indus and then Vedic. Do you think it was a mean achievement on my part to seek to build secure edifices of civilization at a time when the rest of the world was still steeped in the dark ages, and was struggling hopelessly to preserve the Mayan or Mesopotamian civilizations, Abyssinian or Egyptian civilizations? Do I need to say that all those civilizations have quietly slipped into oblivion and disappeared into the haze of time, but my ancient wisdom, like the ageless Ganges, continues to flow, not merely through the veins of my own children, but those of rest of the humanity, too? Over the centuries, I did create a diverse wealth of art, literature, philosophy and/or culture, whose worth and estimation is today easily recognized, the world over. I may have believed in the fatalism of the Karmic theory, but I also gave the spirited message of activism through the philosophy of Karma Yoga in Sri Bhagwatgita. If I talked of the three stages in the life of a householder, to be achieved by following the three-fold path of arth, kama and moksha, I also gave the over-enveloping concept of dharma as an enabling principle. If I taught you the difference between the Purusha and Prakrati and the process of their interanimation, I also helped you understand that there is nothing outside the Braham, the eternal, transcendental, and perhaps the only all-subsuming reality. Perhaps, that’s why, I could throw the doors of my house open to people who came to visit this land first, and then decided to make it their own.

Do you think, if I hadn’t the catholicity of spirit that my religion (read Hinduism, not Hindutva) ingrained in me, right from the very beginning, I’d have been able to accommodate all the Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians and Muslims, who came calling? You know pretty well how some of them came looking for refuge, and others, simply with a specific aim of reducing me into a refugee in my own land. But I made no discrimination; as I not only threw open my doors to one and all, but also allowed each one of them the freedom to pitch their own tents, of whatever size and wherever they wished, simply following the dictum that this universe constitutes a single brotherhood. Do you think, it would have happened so easily, if I, too, had followed the policy of discrimination on the basis of caste, colour, creed, race or religion? I know, what you are thinking of, now. You’re possibly thinking that I was too weak religiously and too easily divided and fragmented politically to have taken care of my social/cultural space or what I sometimes call my home, if not my territory. Just remember, only the Muslims forced their way into my home (and yet I embraced their thought and philosophy of Sufism, even Islam) with open arms; others came as peacefully as they could, and apparently there was no question of my raising objections either to their presence here or their desire to make this land their home. Even when I didn’t possess the political sagacity of Ashoka or Akbar, the openness of my heart and the generosity of my spirit were never found wanting.

The only difference between you and me is that I’m looking at the vast panorama of history spread over four thousand years or more, and you have your eyes focused exclusively on the contemporary reality. In the recent times, you have found one too many reasons to put me on the dock; starting with, of course, the emergence of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh and Hindu Mahasabha in the early 1930s and its dubious role in the freedom struggle, to the assassination of the Mahatma in which again, you claim, RSS had some shady role to play; from the machinations of Vajpayee and Advani in the 1980s, who created an entirely new political outfit called the Bharatiya Janata Party out of its erstwhile avatar Jan Sangh, to the militantly aggressive postures of rabid Ashok Singhal and Vinay Katyar of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, you have found enough reasons to pick holes in my defenses, and now you constantly keep nagging me about my Hindutva affiliations. If you were to stop at this, I wouldn’t really mind, but you don’t, and actually go much further than that. You accuse me of being anti-Muslim, and of harbouring hatred against all Muslims, sometimes going so far as to claim that I’d like to see all the Muslims transported to their sacred land of Pakistan. I don’t deny that it troubles me when Pakistan refuses to respect our territorial integrity and strikes aggressive postures, or surreptitiously pushes ISI-trained terrorists or militants into our soil for senseless murder and mayhem. It troubles me when the centuries-old communal ties snap all of a sudden, and communal hatred begins to stalk the land. In my moments of moral weakness, sometimes, I do begin to doubt the nationalist spirit of my Muslim neighbours or start blaming them for their extra-territorial loyalties, but even in my weakest moments, not even once do I wish them away.

My occasional sense of insecurity or moral lapse is only a passing fancy; certainly not the defining moment of our centuries-old mutual co-existence, in which we continue to share our myths and fables, our folklores and festivals, our languages and cultures, all differences notwithstanding. Besides, who told you that I’m a die-hard Hindutva fan, just because I happen to be a Hindu? My sense of politics, if seen historically, has been extremely weak. Had it not been so, I would not have been pushed around so much by the invaders or the aggressors. It’s because of my poor sense of political judgment that I sometimes ended up colluding with my own enemies, thus working against my own best political interests. Whatever my failures or lapses, the fact is that I have paid much too heavy a price for it, as well. Having said so, let me go on to explain the basic differences between Hindutva and Hinduism, as you often use them interchangeably, thus not only confusing the issues, but also damning me for no fault of mine. Hinduism teaches me openness of heart and magnanimity of spirit, which also goes hand in hand with my total or partial lack of political wisdom. My problem is that I’m too easily swayed by the political slogans and quickly succumb to the hate-mongering of our special breed of fire-spewing politicians. Hindutva, with which I have never had any affiliation, and which I have always suspected as much as you have, if not more, is only a subversive way of twisting, distorting and manipulating the actual teachings of Hinduism for political ends. In other words, Hinduism is a way of life that teaches catholicity, whereas Hindutva is a way of controlling or manipulating Hindu votes, by whipping up narrow, parochial jingoism or fanaticism among them.

You would perhaps complain that in such moments of existential crisis, why don’t I invoke the teachings of Patanjali, who had once warned me against losing my viveka ever, and always keeping my body, mind and soul together? My problem is that in this long march over so many centuries, I have moved so far away from his teachings and many more things besides, that I don’t hear Patanjali’s words any longer. Though I have heard Krishna tell me repeatedly that I must do all I can to become a sthithapragyana, I’m too much into the world to achieve that and continue to wallow in the dance of the three gunas -- sattva, rajas and tamas -- thus nullifying all possibility of attaining inner poise and equilibrium. But that only makes me human, doesn’t it?

Do you think, it is right on your part to make me feel less about myself, just because I’m only too human, like you and everyone else? Don’t forget that I always showed immense tolerance for the difference, great patience for dissent and always supreme respect for an alternative viewpoint. Had it not been so, do you think, Buddhism, Jainism or Sikhism could have possibly emerged out of our soil? Each time, as a Hindu, I saw the prospect of my own decadence and decay; I re-incarnated myself as a Buddha, a Mahavira or a Guru Nanak. I never had any problems with re-inventing myself, or any issues with initiating a dialogue with myself or my neighbours. I never tried to create monoliths out of my beliefs, as I always gave myself, even others, the freedom to follow any one of the “thirty three crore Gods” I had created for possibly as many followers.

I always had immense faith in the philosophy of cultural pluralism, never deviated from it and shall perhaps never do. And yet, you call me a staunch Hindu, a violent oppressor or aggressor, a power-hungry Hegemon, perpetually trying to swallow the minorities, their right to life and survival, a perpetual threat to their social and cultural space. For God’s sake, don’t extend the logic of US imperialism to understand my position (in their case, the Big Brother is not only watching but also breathing down everyone’s neck all the time, and in our case, he’s happily living with the younger ones), or judge me in the light of the theories you may have borrowed from the West, or impose them on me, unthinkingly.

Please don’t treat me as a colonizer, just because the British told you that I was one. And finally, don’t let them divide us now that we think we are free, for we have, are and will continue to live with each other, peacefully, joyously and harmoniously. And the next time, you are tempted to blame me just because I’m a Hindu, or catch me by the collars because I let you share my home, do think again!

I only hope, you do or else, I’ll continue to be apologetic for no other reason, but for being what I’m, yes, just another Hindu.





Electoral Reforms in India: Who will bell the cat, anyway?

For a long time now, there has been a talk of electoral reforms in India, but unfortunately, very little has been done on the ground to ensure their effective implementation. Over the years, several commissions have been set up and a plethora of changes recommended, but often the successive governments, and even the opposition parties, drag their feet over these changes. No wonder, we have moved ever so slowly over the process of electoral reforms and consequently, our political culture has slipped into one logjam after another, virtually bringing the process of policy making and governance to a screeching halt.

Today, we find ourselves in an unenviable situation as far as our political culture is concerned. In the name of political debate, often charges are traded and abuses exchanged on the national television. In the Parliament, the most hallowed forum for public debate, business is rarely ever conducted with the kind of seriousness it often demands. Either the party in power bulldozes its way to manufacture consent it so desperately needs, or the opposition simply digs in its heels, regardless of the merits of the specific case and/or the supervening national interest. No wonder, our legislative assemblies and the parliament only demonstrate the proverbial ‘death’ of the public debate in our political culture.  

Of course, there are other serious questions about the style of functioning of our political masters, both in and outside power. For almost three and a half decades, West Bengal was ruled and governed by the CPM led front. After a great deal of hesitation and reluctance, the people of West Bengal voted for a change. The way in which Mamta-led TMC government in West Bengal is now tearing all pretence to democratic norms to shreds is already making the people wonder if they have made a grave mistake in doing what they have done. Ironically, only the political parties are voted in and out of power in our country, as our tenacious political culture, impervious to all changes, continues to stink, more than ever before.   

With the increasing trend towards criminalization of politics, it has now become almost a compulsion for most of the political parties, national as well as regional, to field candidates with dubious background, even criminal record. In the recent elections in UP, though Akhilesh Yadav came into power riding on the promise of development, performance and of ushering in a radically new political culture, he has miserably failed to resist the pressure of inducting legislators with known criminal background into his Cabinet. Despite all the efforts of the Election Commission to ensure free and fair elections, at all possible levels of people’s participation, from the village panchayats to the municipal corporations, from the State Assemblies to the National Parliament, the vital questions about the fairness of elections remain hopelessly unanswered. With the introduction of the electronic voting machines, booth-capturing and rigging may have been reduced substantively, but the use of money and muscle power is still so flagrant and widespread that even the Election Commission, with all its paraphernalia, finds itself completely helpless in containing it.   

Governance and policy making in India have increasingly become an insulated process, in which public participation, at best, remains notionally minimal. During the recent Anna Hazare movement for the Jan Lokpal Bill, the manner in which the role of the civil society was repeatedly questioned by the political parties of all shades and hues is a case in point. Never in the history of the parliamentary democracy in Independent India have the political parties across the ideological spectrum shown as much solidarity and unanimity as they did over the question of how the right of the parliament to legislate laws was being usurped by the ‘so-called’ civil society. The only time, the political parties wake up to the existence of the ‘civil society’ or that of the people is during the election season, and then, too, people are seen less as people, and more as members of different castes or communities, in short, the much desirable and sought after ‘vote banks.’

To put it another way, it appears to be really a hopeless situation. One wonders if there is some way out of this morass, some way of protecting our democracy, some way of arresting this precipitous decline in our polity. Often, when we talk of the electoral reforms, we interpret them in a very narrow sense. We think of them in the sense of ameliorative measures that could streamline the election process, improve the functioning, not of our democratic institutions, but of the elections, and thus help in containing, to some extent, the widespread and ever growing systemic rot. By thus focussing our attention on the electoral process, we often miss the woods for the trees. We forget that the electoral process is only a very small component of our political culture, and unless efforts are made to change this diseased and defunct culture, electoral reforms, of whatever nature, substance or content, shall fail to make the necessary difference on the ground.

First of all, we must look into the way the political parties function in our country. There was a time when ideology was considered to be the main bulwark of a political party and often the ideological constrains impacted not only the public policy making but also the governance. Nehru-Lohia debate is a case in point. Now, it is no longer so. Today, it is difficult to identify even a single political party in our country that would be prepared to sacrifice power for the sake of ideology. In relentless pursuit of naked power, often ideology is the most common casualty. Party positions depend not so much upon the ideological grounds as on the contingent factors that govern the rough and tumble of everyday politics. It might be argued that politics is, in the best or the worst of times, an art of managing contradictions and so why must we expect the impossible from it?

My point is that if the ideology can guide the work-a-day politics in the developed countries, why can’t it do so in the developing nations? In the absence of clearly defined ideological positions, most of the political parties, at least, in terms of their practices and functioning, seem to have lost their distinctive character and are beginning to look more and more like each other. In our context, ring-wing, left-wing and centrist positions keep shifting, depending upon the individual whims/convenience and/or political expediency, thus making utter mockery of the ideology or its role in the public affairs. Moreover, in the era of globalization and economic liberalization, all that the political parties can do is to hitch their band wagon to the economic reforms, with the ‘pace of the reforms’ being the only barometer of their political positioning.  

Corruption may be as much a part of political culture in the developed nations as it is in the developing ones, but in the developed world it is mostly restricted to the highest echelons of power. It certainly doesn’t take on the form of horse-trading, floor-crossing or shifting gears mid-stream by way of changing party affiliations, the way it happens out here? Out there in the West, a candidate may not be born into an ideology, but s/he certainly is initiated into one, and having been initiated once, prefers to go along with the party ideology, refusing to swerve from the chosen path every now and then. Besides, candidates are not hand-picked to join a particular political outfit or represent a particular constituency, as it often happens in our country, but are invariably men of proven public service record, who have already worked at the grassroots level for a number of years, before being inducted into the party or given a party ticket to contest the elections. True democracy demands that the individuals who wish to be the people’s representatives must have prior consent of the people and also a particular brand of political culture of a party whose ideology has nurtured them. Intra-party democracy, which is virtually unknown in our country, is almost a norm in most of the Western democracies.

So long as the money and muscle power continue to play an all-important role both in the selection and the election of the candidates, all talk of electoral reforms shall only be a form of empty rhetoric. In order to contain the role of money in the elections, apart from imposing an embargo on poll expenses (as the other initiative about the declaration of personal assets has been a non-starter of sorts), it is necessary to strengthen the institutions that help in the restoration of grassroots democracy. If a candidate has no known record of public service of minimum ten years, s/he should not be considered eligible for the party ticket of any political party. And if s/he is given a ticket in violation of this principle, the Election Commission should have the right to reject her/his candidature.

This would certainly be much better than prescribing minimum educational qualifications for our legislators, where the illiteracy rates are still very high among our politicians and the majority of those who enter politics are not necessarily university graduates. This would also discourage the perpetuation of dynastic rule in democracy, and compel people to undertake social service prior to taking a plunge into politics. No candidate should be given a party ticket unless he has won the confidence of the people in his/her constituency. Once we manage to do away with the practice of doling out party tickets, the highest bidders for the party tickets shall be discouraged, and prior acceptability of the candidates among the people shall further restrict the buying and selling of votes or voters at the time of elections.
This would also ensure that only candidates with a clean record enter the public life and criminals are not able to hold the entire electoral system to ransom, as they often tend to do in our context. As in this case, the responsibility of selecting the candidates shall rest with the people and not with the party, should they choose an individual with a criminal background, they would only have themselves to blame, not the party or the political culture. Besides, this would also inject into our political culture, the system of direct accountability of the leader towards his/her constituents and that of the people towards their leader. It is absence of this principle of direct accountability that has resulted in the virtual breakdown of dialogue between the political elite and the ruled public, and has also created a situation where the principle of accountability has surreptitiously been replaced by a more pernicious system of patronage and mai-baap culture.

There is an urgent need to bridge the gap between the rulers and the ruled and also put the rulers in a tight spot where they are left with no choice but to follow the principle of accountability. Restoration of accountability would further act as a deterrent to the unbridled and unabashed misuse of power, position and authority by those who wield it. The real question is: are our politicians ready for this principle of accountability? Are they prepared to bring in the legislations that will ultimately curb their illegal and unlawful manipulation of the levers of power? Or to put it differently, is anyone ready to bell the cat or conversely, is the cat ready to bell itself?   

Professor Rana Nayar is Professor of English at Department of English & Cultural Studies, Panjab University, Chandigarh