In his interesting book on his travels from Turkey to Pakistan, “Stranger to History”, Aatish Taseer has devoted one chapter titled “The Tyranny of Trifles” to the ways in which authoritarian regimes seek to maintain their hold on power. As he puts it “The emphasis on trifles, and the hypocrisies that came with it, had been institutionalised, turned into a form of control over the people…” This is not surprising in many countries to the west of India’s borders, where theocracies and terrorism have sought, with varying degrees of success, to impose their writ on the populace at large. It is far more surprising, not to say disturbing, when this obsession with trivia lodges itself in as vibrant and chaotic a democracy as India. And yet, events in India, in recent months and years, point in the direction of attempts to establish a monolithic society, through use of different instruments of the state and society.
Actually, this trend towards straight jacketing thought and action has its roots in historical events. We can hardly forget the treatment meted out to the celebrated artist, M. F. Husain, for his pictorial depictions of Hindu goddesses, leading to his flight from India and eventual death in exile. The longstanding prohibition regime in Gujarat state has exposed the hypocrisies of state action: if people want to drink, they can gain access to bootlegged liquor, often of the lethal variety. The only ones laughing all the way to the bank are the liquor suppliers and the arms of the state machinery in league with them.
But it is the recent efforts to dictate what the individual citizen should see, read, study, eat and create (through the written or visual medium) that give cause for concern about the encroachment on the freedoms guaranteed to each and every individual by the Indian Constitution. Let us first take the unsavoury furore over the screening of the documentary “India’s Daughter”. To display its masculine might, the Government of India applied its not-so-sensitive suasive powers to black out the documentary from social media. The law of unintended consequences kicked in here with a multiplier effect: the uproar drew public attention and led to probably a thousand fold or more increase in the number of Indians who, through one method or the other, viewed the documentary. A similar phenomenon was witnessed when, probably exhausted by a protracted court battle and recognising the harsh reality of a supportive social and political environment, a leading publishing house pulped the works on Hinduism of the scholar Wendy Doniger. To be honest, I, and probably 99.999% of all Indians, had never heard of her till the controversy blew up in public. The result: many more Indians, out of sheer curiosity if nothing else, acquired her books (till they were available) or googled to read more about her. Doniger should be grateful for the free publicity undertaken for her by obscurantist groups determined that only a particular view on the myths and legends of India should prevail.
The efforts to impose a particular world view on the educational system are part and parcel of this attempt at social engineering. We have already gone through the tamasha of the meaningless replacement of German by Sanskrit in the Kendriya Vidyalaya curriculum. As I observed in an earlier blog, this will neither help the students nor serve the cause of Sanskrit. Students will merely do what is required to secure good marks and forget about this language thereafter. To think that this step will promote Sanskrit scholarship in India is akin to chasing a mirage. The same argument applies to Yoga as well: Yoga goes far beyond mere physical training and involves complete development of the individual. Imposing it on school students, many of whom are unaware of and possibly also unwilling to follow its discipline will only devalue one of India’s major contributions to the world. Then again, the teaching of the Bhagavad Gita in schools represents a very unidimensional approach to promoting ethical values and the spirit of pluralism that characterises a multicultural society. There is no recognition of the lessons that other religions can contribute to the development of a tolerant, compassionate human character. Within the Hindu religion itself, there is no one accepted book; some follow the Upanishads, others the works of revered saints and seers, like the Thirukkural and the Ashtavakra Samhita, while many others follow oral traditions without reliance on any one book or treatise. Ditto for the efforts to rewrite history with a northern, Hindu perspective intended to eulogise India’s “glorious” past. Short shrift is given to Ashoka and Kanishka and the spread of Buddhism, the promotion of religious syncretism by enlightened rulers like Akbar and the magnificent kingdoms of the Chalukya and Vijayanagara empires in South India; revanchist history would have it that Hindu greatness died in the ninth or tenth century CE, never mind that the Vijayanagara kingdom fell only in 1565 CE.
My karmabhumi Maharashtra has not lagged behind in this obsession with trivia. We had policing of public morals in Mumbai with the ban on bar girls; not to be outdone by the previous government, the present one has intervened in the eating and entertainment habits of citizens. An almost two-decade old state legislation banning slaughter of bulls and bullocks was dusted off and given sanction recently by the central government, run by the same political party that did not see fit to give approval to this legislation when it was in power for six years at the turn of this century. Incomes and livelihoods of thousands of farmers, butchers and traders have been imperilled by this move, with grave consequences for social harmony. The law of unintended consequences (referred to earlier) will kick in here, with enormous rent-seeking powers being placed in the hands of the enforcement machinery in the police and municipalities. The compulsion on multiplexes in Mumbai to show Marathi movies in the primetime slot, since modified to a slot in the matinee and evening period, will benefit neither the multiplexes nor Marathi movies, if multiplexes run to poor audiences. How to make the Marathi film industry more robust and in tune with public tastes (a la Tamil cinema, never mind the quality) may yield better financial dividends for all concerned.
But it is in the arena of religion that one witnesses the greatest attempt at trivialisation of what ought to be one of humankind’s deepest experiences. The ghar vapsi (homecoming) campaign of some hard-line majority community groups has sought to make a big issue out of conversion of people born in the Hindu faith to other religions. Ignoring the fact that the Hindu religion has no provision for proselytisation, efforts are being made to reconvert people of other faiths (almost always from the lowest pecking order of Hindu society) to Hinduism. There are very serious issues of inequalities in Hindu society arising from the caste system, eloquently articulated by Dr. Ambedkar, which deserve introspection among all sections of Hindu society. Instead of focusing on what needs to be done to promote equality in Hindu society, attention is (probably deliberately) being drawn to the dangers of “minoritisation” of the majority community: yet another instance of seeking to preoccupy people’s minds with irrelevancies rather than getting them to confront (and change) uncomfortable truths.
So does all this give cause for concern? Yes, to the extent that it displays bigotry and a refusal to acknowledge the pluralistic nature of Indian society. And yet, in a chaotic, throbbing democracy like India (unlike its theocratic and autocratic confrères elsewhere), one can draw hope from a number of factors, borne out by the changes in Indian society and by recent history. India’s burgeoning middle class is irreverent in its treatment of the absurdities that too often characterise political and social discourse in India. Indeed, the foibles of political parties and “religious” outfits are grist to the mill for cartoonists, commentators and bloggers like me. With its innate capacity for jugaad, the Indian public will find ways to circumvent illogical and absurd governmental decisions. Wherever possible, the aam aadmi or aurat will blissfully ignore whatever executive fiats are hurled at her. Finally, if her patience is exhausted (which it will be if governments expend their time and energies on irrelevant issues rather than on crucial matters of governance), the Indian voter will exercise her prerogative in the exercise of her democratic rights: she will change the government without bloodshed at the next available opportunity (the most apt definition of democracy by the philosopher Karl Popper).