Taking back Hinduism

Shashi Tharoor’s Why I am a Hindu is a book that goes much beyond answering the question its title asks. This is not just one person contemplating about his faith; it also describes Hinduism’s glorious tradition of acceptance and spirit of enquiry and how Hindutvawadis, followers of the political ideology (Hindutva) that pretends to be derived from Hinduism but is actually quite foreign to it, are bastardising it to gain votes and power.

This is a very readable book, but I feel all the arguments that Tharoor puts forward could have been summarised in a long-form piece. There is a lot of repetition and paraphrasing, especially in regards to Hinduism’s assertion that all religions are merely different pathways to the same God, embodied by Gita’s “Whosoever comes to Me, through whatsoever form, I reach him; all men are struggling through paths which in the end lead to me.”

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I clicked this photo during the closing debate of JLF 2017.

Be that as it may, this is an important book. We have often read and heard of how Hindutva is not Hinduism from liberal Hindus, but the how and why has never been explained in a comprehensive way. This book fills this gap fairly eloquently. It is also written in remarkably simple English and you would not be able to tell that writer is the same person who is not able to tweet without his farragos and his rodomontades (you will come across ‘farrago’ a couple of times in the book). Clearly, Tharoor’s books are easier to read than his tweets.

Why I am a Hindu taught me little I did not know already about Hinduism (or Sanatana Dharma) or Hindutva, but it did put many things in perspective. It should serve as a crucial reminder to people that the BJP-RSS, the current ruling dispensation at the centre, has roots in people like ‘Veer’ Savarkar and M.S. Golwalkar, complete bigots who were more inspired by Nazi Germany and Benito Mussolini’s fascistic policies in Italy than anything from Hinduism with its inherent openness and diversity. The Hindutva ideology is more Abrahamic than Dharmic.

In the latter part of the book, Tharoor exhorts liberal Hindus to take their faith back from those who seek to monopolise it. By this, he, of course, means the proponents of Hindutva and this is where the books may seem a little political because of obvious reasons (one being that Tharoor belongs to the opposition party). To be fair, though, he says nothing in the book that a liberal Hindu would in good conscience disagree with at all. I, for one, do not think Rahul Gandhi is the answer to the Hindtuva (the Congress party has its own set of problems) of BJP-RSS, but this ideology, whose ultimate aim is to make India monocultural, with its propaganda and state machinery may have a lasting or even permanent impact on Indian politics and society. It need not be said that the said impact would not be the good kind.

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The Ocean of Churn

A couple of years ago, I read an article by historian Ramachandra Guha wherein he decried the lack of right-wing intellectuals in India. Only intellectual he found worthy on the right side of the spectrum, if I remember correctly, was Arun Shourie. While I agreed with him partly, I think he should have found space for many others like Sanjeev Sanyal. For somebody who is not a historian, Sanyal writes brilliant history books. I can say that because after reading (and adoring) Land of the Seven Rivers, his geographical history of the Indian subcontinent, I finished The Ocean of Churn last night. I loved it, and I wanted to write down a few thoughts about the book – and revive my moribund blog simultaneously!

The Ocean of Churn is about the Indian Ocean and how it shaped the history of the countries situated on its rim. Sanyal’s writing is fluid and for merely a dabbler (he is mainly an economist), the book is extraordinarily insightful and peppered with flashes of genuine humour and tidbits that help make it accessible to even laymen (to maritime histories) like me. As Nathaniel Hawthorne said, “Easy reading is damn hard writing.”

Sanyal, over the course of the narrative, dismantles traditional schools of thought according to which the history of erstwhile European colonies began with their becoming colonies. Before that, apparently, there were only ‘beastly people with a beastly religion’ to quote Churchill. In The Ocean of Churn, history begins millions of years ago when the first Homo sapiens evolved in East Africa.

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The colonial schools of thought that Sanyal rightly condemns also fit with the worldview that validated subjugation of native peoples. The justification was that the white man ventured to distant lands to bring ‘civilisation’ to those hitherto bereft of it. This does sound a lot like how the United States wants to bring ‘democracy’ to ‘despotic’ countries… whether they want it or not.

For a maritime history, The Ocean of Churn includes a lot of text related to things that happened on the land. But without it, this book would arguably have been incomplete, as pivotal mainland events directly affected coastal areas and islands on the Indian Ocean. Butterfly Effect, if you will.

The Ocean of Churn is a quick, breezy read that remains engrossing thanks to simple, unadorned writing. This is not a dry recounting of events, but a gripping tale of how entire civilisations on Indian Ocean Rim were moulded into their current form by various factors. History has rarely been this interesting.

Democrats and Dissenters

Having finished Ramachandra Guha’s latest book ‘Democrats and Dissenters’, I wanted to pen down a few thoughts. Unlike the other Guha book that I’ve read – the magnificently detailed and painstakingly researched ‘India After Gandhi’ – this one was a little vague. It is basically a bunch of seemingly unrelated essays cobbled together and divided in two categories: Politics and Society and Ideologies and Intellectuals. But essays even within a category often do not have a clear link, so I decided to read it not as a book but a collection of essays – which is not really a bad thing since the essays themselves are very readable.

As I read, I could discern a faint connection. Each essay in the book had something to do with difficulties, concepts, ideologies and individuals that have contributed to India’s ‘tryst’ with democracy. That was expected. While Guha is a true polymath, what he really excels is in the history of Indian democracy, in terms of its politics, sociology and economics.

The second part (Ideologies and Intellectuals) of the book is more focused, and except the very last essay, the entire part involves primarily little known (at least for me) but fantastic individuals who have shaped Guha’s thinking over the years and his understanding of modern India. Since I owe a lot of what I know about Indian democracy to Guha, it was interesting to read about the people he himself has been inspired from, and who have had a role to play in his outlook towards the world.

The book is informative and insightful, and Guha’s skillful writing ensures everything is simple enough for a layman like me. For those who are into Guha’s writing, and are interested in reading about India’s fraught and uneasy relationship with democracy, get rid of those second thoughts and get this book.

The Kashmir Conundrum

Look at the photo I have uploaded with this post and compare the idyllic beauty of the scene to the image the word “Kashmir” conjures up in your mind. In all likelihood, both would be substantially different. Maybe even polar opposite, such as in my case.

Ever since I have gained consciousness, I have barely heard anything good from Kashmir. For all of its beauty, everything about the place that comes in the press or even from what people talk about is downright depressing. Whatever good that does come out – like the “heart-warming” stories of Muslims helping perform the last rites of a Kashmiri Pandit-  is played up so much in the media that it appears that they are clinging to that nugget in order to forget – and make the people forget – everything else that happens there.

I knew little about what was happening in Kashmir for most of my life myself, and all I saw of the place was Bollywood stars dancing around in the gorgeous meadows and mountains of the Valley and frequent news reports of violence, riots, protests, human rights violations (those primarily in the international media), and so on – you know what I am talking about if you follow news regularly. Both images are in stark contrast to each other and epitomise how different the two Kashmirs are, and it is the latter, darker image that has stuck in my mind. But I think neither of these images quite explains Kashmir completely.

The point is simple: While Kashmir has been on the boil for most of its history after Indian Independence, the insurgency and following military crackdown started in late 1980s to early 1990s, and has continued almost unceasingly ever since.

Even the intervals which were – are – cynically termed as periods of “normalcy” by the state involve an occupation by a gargantuan contingent of the Indian Army. Living under armed forces cannot be nice. Soldiers are trained to fight in wars and against gun-toting militants. They know only one language, that of the bullet. They are not meant to be used in keeping civilians in check or quelling protests and riots. They just don’t have the patience for that. I used “contingent” fairly loosely in the first sentence of this paragraph, as a contingent is supposedly temporary, but withdrawal of the Indian Army from Kashmir does not look likely anywhere in the near future. By some estimates, there are a staggering seven lakh soldiers and paramilitary forces in Kashmir. And that number apparently excludes the police.kashmir-06

It is clear that the army calls the shots in Kashmir. The civilian government has little, if any, credibility in the eyes of most Kashmiris anyway. Whoever rules from Srinagar, they will always be seen as puppets of the centre. The 1987 Legislative Assembly Elections (which were shamelessly rigged by the state) are partly to blame, but that was just one time when the Indian government failed Kashmiris.

Kashmiris have been failed by the Indian government far too many times.

When I say “Kashmiris” here, I also mean Kashmiri Pandits, the ancient inhabitants of the valley who were killed, threatened, raped, and driven from their ancestral homeland as the Indian state with all its might watched helplessly. The perpetrators were never punished, and the promised rehabilitation did not happen – it has been a quarter of a century. All the tall promises made by the successive governments in their manifestos have stayed unfulfilled. Even the self-styled saviours of Hindu culture and civilisation – BJP and RSS – did absolutely nothing. A fraction of the Pandit population remains in the Valley, living an uneasy existence with Kashmiri Muslims, while the rest of them are scattered across India and the world, desperately clutching at their identities.

The recent killing of the terrorist Burhan Wani and the subsequent worsening (how much can it really worsen?) of violence is another wake-up call for the state. Do not treat it as something that will fizzle out to become “normalcy.” Chances are it would, but such incidents will happen again and again. For every terrorist eliminated by the security forces, Kashmiris would have a martyr to mourn. People – soldiers and civilians alike – will keep dying. The violence will never stop, not unless a solid solution is found. Kashmir, instead of being an “integral part of the country” we always wanted it to be, would remain a suppurating wound, guzzling money, resources and lives.

He Who Must Not Be Named

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru, the first prime minister of India, continues to inspire revulsion in Hindu right-wingers even after more than half a century of his death. He’s been blamed him for almost everything bad India is going through today – terrorism, poverty, corruption, sluggish economy, and so on. So it hardly comes as a surprise when they insist that Nehru should not have been the first prime minister of India, and that Sardar Vallabhai Patel deserved the post more. India, they argue, would have been better off, politically and economically, under Patel’s leadership.

This narrative has always been there – it was there even during Nehru’s tenure, but it gained prominence only after Narendra Modi, who would go on to become India’s prime minister, endorsed it in his 2014 election campaign. And why not? After all, Modi had been an RSS man through and through right from his adolescence. And the name of Patel seemed to win him votes. The tide of public opinion had overwhelmingly turned in Patel’s favour. The first Union Budget of the Modi government announced allocation of money to an edifice they had promised in the manifesto: the construction of “Statue of Unity,” said to be the tallest statue in the world when completed, dedicated to the memory of Sardar Patel. The word ‘unity’ in the name of the structure is a reference to Patel’s contribution in ‘unifying’ India by convincing, through force or otherwise, about 500 princely states to join the Indian Union.

The constant rhetoric spewed over Sardar Patel’s role in ‘unification of India’ by Hindu right is another veiled attack on Nehru. Comparing the role of Nehru and Patel in the integration of India, Nehru’s perceived failure is repeatedly pointed out in securing Kashmir – apparently the one task that he had had. It is anybody’s guess if Sardar Patel would have been the better prime-minister, or if he would have handled the Kashmir issue better. He was, no doubt, a capable diplomat but according to most analysts Nehru was the better choice as PM as he was more sophisticated and worldly. One is free to agree or disagree. But for the Hindu right, Nehru was the Devil who escaped hell.

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Recently, this pathological hatred of Nehru has been taken to another level. The Hindu fundamentalists these days are not satisfied with just obscuring Nehru’s achievements and making him look as evil as possible, now they want to simply erase Nehru from Indian history altogether. The new Social Science textbook for class VIII in Rajasthan state board does not have a single reference to the first prime minister of India. Yes, you read that right. Nehru is not directly mentioned. Not even once. This is really strange, and one can’t help but wonder how students are supposed to study modern history of India without learning about the existence of the man who first graced its highest office, and who led it for more than a decade. The government probably believes that removing Nehru from textbooks would make future generations forget that a man called Jawahar Lal Nehru was ever born. It is the most repugnant form of brainwashing. It is like Nehru was a gaffe that India had made and wiping off his name would save India from past embarrassment.

Granted, Congress is not entirely blameless. Every government – Congress, BJP or otherwise – has tried to teach students its own version of history. And one must also keep in mind – no version of history is ‘true’, really. Napoleon Bonaparte was right when he rhetorically asked the world, “What is history but a fable agreed upon?” The NCERT History and Social Science textbooks written in Congress rule have traditionally deified Nehru and undermined the role of other freedom fighters and leaders, especially those who were not associated with Congress, and that is what partly prompted the Sangh Parivar to undermine Nehru in the first place, (one of the other reasons being Nehruvian secularism was anathema to their Hindutva – the dream of a Hindu Rashtra or Hindu Nation). But denying the very existence of arguably one of the biggest figures of 20th century is something only the most twisted and bigoted minds could manage.

The present government would do well to keep in mind that refusing to acknowledge historical figures or events does not actually alter history. If it did, European countries would have eliminated Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini from their history long ago.

Book Review: “A Strange Kind of Paradise”

“What is India?” A great many people of yore, mostly Europeans, who had only a faint idea about a distant land they thought, for a long time, incorrectly, to be located at the end of the world, must have wondered this. Even Alexander the Great was ignorant–he assumed that after conquering this land beyond the Indus, he would win the whole world. Back then, people didn’t have the comfort of quick modes of transport like aeroplanes and trains. And of course, the maps were incomplete and inaccurate… that is, if there were any. India wasn’t mapped (let alone accurately) until much, much later. If a sailor wanted to sail to the hitherto unknown parts of the world, he had scant chance of success due to poor navigation facilities and difficulties in procuring shipmates because of a general reluctance to visit an alien land.

In those days, India had a reputation of something akin to a fantasy world. Even when it was largely uncharted and unexplored, it impressed itself deeply upon the minds of the foreigners as a land of wonder, of unimaginable wealth (sigh!) magic, snake-charmers, and really strange inhabitants. Most of these impressions, as we know, were hyperbolic hogwash. Although, nothing like the exaggerated impressions regarding ancient and medieval India, which mythified it into a place somewhere in the Middle-earth, even today, the picture most outsiders create of India is pretty ridiculous, ill-informed and coloured by prejudices.

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In his new book, A Strange kind of Paradise, BBC journalist Sam Miller tells us about what outsiders thought of India starting from the antiquity to the present. He demystifies this country for foreigners, debunks their prejudices, and writes a charmingly funny tale about his personal relationship with India. Miller, I came to know, has spent about twenty years in India (Delhi) and even has an Indian wife. Apart from his considerable experience with the Indian people and lifestyle, he is a discerning observer–a nice attribute for a journalist, of course, but it also helps him to have a profound understanding of India. Indeed, I have never encountered any other foreign writer who comprehends the tangled web that is India so well, and without any preconceptions and ready-made opinions. A telling passage:

We all have our patchwork ideas of India, our notions and opinions and prejudices–often fallacious and absurd–of this enormous, disparate country, which, as I take pleasure in reminding newcomers, bigger in population than all but its own continent: Asia. It is a place onto which foreigners have projected their own exotic fantasies and fears, their explanatory and simplifying schemata. And they never seem quite to make up their minds–as they swing from one extreme to the other–whether this country is of great wealth or of appalling poverty, of spiritual renunciation or of unabashed materialism, of fasting or of gluttony, of erotic sophistication or of sexual puritanism, of corruption or of moral superiority. They probably fail to admit that it might be all these things, and even more so, everything in between.

The book is very well-written, well-researched, imbued with a lot of humour and is ultimately very readable due to the simple fact that it is written by somebody who really knows India (to give you an idea, I finished it in a single sitting, and I’m usually a fairly slow reader). As much as a scholar born and brought up in the streets of Delhi or Mumbai. And also, the author has a genuine love for the country he has adopted as his homeland. This is quite clear from this passage:

The enormous scale of India is important. It seems both large enough and varied enough for most things imaginable on this earth to be possible in just one country. Whatever you are searching for: great food, spiritual learning, a good holiday, narcotic experiences, snowy mountains, a job, tropical jungle, love of any kind, or even the happy and not-so-happy poor. And it’s because (almost) everything is possible, that visitors continue to have such idiosyncratic fantasies and opinions and nightmares about India as a country, as if one tiny part stood for the whole. And this notion of scale and variety, turned about, helps me to understand why I love living here so much. For India makes the rest of the world feel small and tame and uniform and peripheral by comparison. India has everything that is old, everything that is modern, and everything in between. It has quite enough to challenge and surprise me intellectually, aesthetically and existentially for so many lifetimes. I have never been bored in India.

But keep in mind, this is not a fairy-tale. Miller, as much as he loves the country, doesn’t skimp over the ugly side of the country. The filth, bigotry, poverty, illiteracy, carelessness, ignorance. But he tells all of that in a passive way. He doesn’t judge. That is when you realise that he is as much an Indian as you are.

A bit of warning: this book has a good deal of sexual and, um, scatological references. So as fun and informative this book is, I certainly do not recommend it for children. And prudes too, please stay away.

 

Rating: 5/5

India and the illusive Freedom of Expression

All right. So a random dude said something regarding Kashmir and the great Indian Army which proved unpalatable to many Indians. And they had to respond to it in the manner they seem to do to every dissenting voice: death threats. Charming. So much for democracy and Freedom of Expression, huh?

Heaven knows I’m quite an illiterate when it comes to finer subtleties of the functioning of a democratic government, or any sort of government for that matter. Politics in India has been pervaded by the stink of corruption to such an extent that it is a lost cause and of no particular interest to me. Indeed, if someone asked me about my least favourite topic to converse about, my invariable reply would be: politics. So think twice, nay thrice, before accusing me of being pro-AAP.

If you aren’t aware of what I’m talking about, Prashant Bhushan, an Indian social activist said this and, I’m sure, regretted it immediately: “It is my personal opinion that no country or part of its territory can be governed without the wishes of the people with the help of army. This is not in the interest of the country and the people. I want that the situation be normalized, Army be withdrawn, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act be also withdrawn and then try to persuade the people of Kashmir to stay with India. And yet, if the people want, then there could be a plebiscite, and if the people of the Valley want separation, they be allowed to separate.” (Source: http://goo.gl/KVnWxy)

Now, I personally didn’t find anything wrong with it (I’m not going to elaborate why), but it’s just me. You, sir, are free to disagree with it. But accusing Bhushan of treachery and, of course, the title we Indians like to give to every person who is so dreadful as to not agree with us: an ISI agent– this… this is a little too much, don’t you think? If he’s indeed an ISI agent, where’s your evidence? Do you have any? No? Then will you just shut up?

The poor man himself said, very carefully (considering he’s giving a statement in India, I can scarcely blame him), that this is his personal opinion at the very beginning of his statement. So, you know, you can do well to not to get so touchy about it. I’m sure most of us have a few opinions to which not many people would concur with, but we don’t go about protesting and threatening them, do we?

This country is already in shambles since a long while now, and if we suppressed every opinion which differed with majority, we might as well transform India into a communist state right now.