The Inversion of Responsibility

“Be Responsible”, requests the sign. It’s titled “Hate Mongering” and was seen recently in the city of Pune:

Sign seen at a traffic intersection in Pune (see article for text of the sign).

Sign seen at a traffic intersection in Pune (see article for text of the sign).

Who is it addressed to, you might wonder. Is it addressed to the terrorists of the Hindu Rashtra Sena (“Hindu National Army”) who went on a rampage in the city last month and beat a Muslim man to death? No, it’s addressed to… people on Facebook. The sign advises its readers:

Choose carefully what you Comment, Like or Share on Social Media.

And it adds an upside-down image of a Facebook “Like” icon – i.e. a thumbs-down – for emphasis.

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On “India vs. Hinduphobia”

Mr. Juluri (“India v. Hinduphobia: What Narendra Modi’s Election as Prime Minister Really Means”),

Firstly, let me congratulate you for analysing the most recent elections in India and figuring out what the “youth” really want – a unified India, as opposed to Hinduphobia – which would apparently mean Mr. Modi losing. According to you, it seems to be a rather black and white issue – a divided India or Hinduphobia (the proof being “orientalist” articles in The Economic Times, The New York Times and The Guardian?).

I would like to disagree with you. I’ll admit it – when I read your article, it made me angry (we’ll come to that later) but then, it seemed ridiculous. I’m not going to lie, I laughed. I laughed at the utopian Hindu world you’ve experienced and lived (perhaps even live) in and I’m angry that this does not reflect my experience of Hinduism and “Hindu worldviews”, even though I was born in a Hindu household and bombarded with those worldviews whether I liked it or not. I laughed because my experience of these worldviews in Hindustan has been shockingly different. So you will understand, I think, if I try to put forward my perspective in response to yours.

We disagree on many points, but foremost amongst them has to be your assertion that respect needs to be accorded to the very little intellectual, emotional or moral purchase the “anointed” secular position has in “large sections of India’s young today”. Your belief seems to be that it is not really secular (“sickular”, perhaps) and has been anointed (but by whom?) and that a large majority of the voters (by association, youth) voted for Narendra Modi, secular criticisms against him have little influence or endorsement. Here, I want to point out that only 31% of the voters voted for him and no party has ever before won more than half the seats with a vote share of just 31%, which emphasises how fragmented the vote actually was this election. But I won’t go into figures and all that jazz now, since it seems that doing so only makes us hold on to our positions with renewed determination.

Apart from that, even if it were true that a large majority of “young people” (or is it young Hindus? Never mind) disregarded secular criticisms and viewpoints in the last general elections, does that automatically make it something which should be respected?

The “new way of being Hindu” which is being equated with everything nice, starting from tolerance to universal good – I don’t see that, I have never seen that.

What I have seen, however, is a resurgence of ideas which talk of how India is “finally” becoming the country it was “meant” to be – the Prime Ministerial candidate goes to temples, offers pujas and respects the Ganges. Have you ever seen anybody do that? No, sir. You haven’t. Here is a true Hindu, a real man who will finally show Muslims their place in the country and get rid of those bloody immigrants (only Muslim ones, mind you).

Yes, India will belong to the Hindus, to us. That seems to be the overriding sentiment when they talk. I don’t know how Hindus practice their worldviews in your (seemingly) utopian world, but these are their worldviews in mine.

And no, this does not exclude “young people”. Yes, most of us are not overt about it, but there is still an “us” versus “them” mentality. Very much so, we would like to hide it, hide from it, deny it – and we do. But that does not mean it is not present. It is everywhere. No, we are not what you think we are, at least not in my (admittedly not utopian) world. And this does not refer clear cut lines based only on religion. It extends to ethnicity, language, caste and class. In a country where you have a multitude of identities, you are bound to have a multitude of loyalties – especially since most social life still revolves around the identities assigned to us with our birth in a particular family.

Allow me to point out yet another assertion of yours I majorly disagree with and which is perhaps the whole premise on which your article is built. I don’t think this election can be as simple as “India vs. Hinduphobia”. Among the 31% voters for Modi, “Hinduphobia” was the least important worry on the minds of at least one camp. Incidentally, this is the “camp” that has the greatest number of “young people”. This camp has taken into account the accusations against him but satisfy themselves with clean chits and speeches where development is mentioned more than the Ram Temple, and how can Modi win without Muslim support (the number of Muslim MPs in the 16th Lok Sabha will be the lowest in 15 years. The BJP has fielded only 5 Muslim candidates but none of them have won) and the Gujarat model of development. We lust after jobs, security, no reservations and the Indian rupee. Many of us seem to have found in Modi a charismatic, interactive leader who portrays himself as being poles apart from Dr. Manmohan Singh, who has often been the butt of jokes due to the silent and formal nature of his interaction with the public. Hinduphobia is so far removed from the truth for them, it’s absurd.

However, to another camp, this election means something else. They are glad that there are only 23 Muslim MPs. They are against anything which does not fit in with their idea of “traditional, Hindu” values (read: gay rights, etc).

You state that different faiths divided by language, custom etc still share a land and history due to Hinduism’s “ancient legacy” of respecting all faiths more than the secular constitution India has. Do you not believe that Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains have a legacy of respecting all faiths? Even if we assume your statement to be true, peace and coexistence cannot be achieved if only one religion is doing all the “respecting” and “tolerating”. Taali ek hath se nahi bajti [you can’t clap with one hand] as we like to say, you know, as Indians.

The government which is to preside over us for the next five years has just been formed, and trust me, all of us who have voted want nothing but the best for India, even though our ideas about what “the best” really is might vary. Let’s see the direction India takes in the next five years. Acche din? For everybody, I hope.

 

On Not Having a Good Hindu Name

I met up with a friend yesterday, who, like me, is an atheist but has a Christian last name. As often happens these days, the conversation drifted to the possibility of having Modi as prime minister. She told me about a friend of hers, who has a mixed background – Muslim father, and Christan mother. Her friend said that she was apprehensive about having a Muslim name in an India where Modi is in charge. There would be a sense of fear lurking in one’s mind. What if.

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What to Say When Someone Dies?

My grandmother died today – she was 97 years old and had been on the decline for some time. She had also endured a very low quality of life for years (once saying, “How long is this going to go on?”), not being able to move or read or feed or bathe herself – so her death comes more as a relief than as a shock. At work today when I told a colleague about this, they said “May her soul rest in peace”.

Awkward silence followed.

I’m sure I’m not the only atheist who’s faced this problem, so I thought I’d pen down my thoughts on what to say – for believers talking to atheists, as well as atheists talking to believers.

First, do say something – don’t remain silent. Any awkwardness you feel is irrelevant. This is not about your feelings – it’s about the feelings of the person who’s lost a loved one. Even a heartfelt oh fuck – i.e. expressing shock – is better than saying nothing.

My mother died several years ago. That death was particularly raw and painful for me, as (a) she was my mother, and (b) she died of cancer and this involved suffering. I still have the emails my friends and relatives sent me back then. Here are some snippets from the emails I appreciated:

Sunil – Extremely saddened to hear about this. Both __ & I express our condolences and hope you and your dad are ok (or as ok one can get given the circumstance). Let me know when I should call you; I’m tempted to right now, but I won’t. (I had asked people not to call.)

 

Sunil you have been so much in our thoughts these last few weeks, knowing that the news you sent this morning would finally arrive, but that death, however long expected, still comes as a terrible and painful shock. We are so very sorry.

 

I am just not sure what should I write to you. I am just thinking aloud with you and just trying to feel your feeling. This is what our life is, ups and downs, birth and death. Though we tell each other “we have to face it”, but I can feel few things are so so very much hard to face. (This person also wrote “may her soul” etc., but there was enough substance in the email for it not to matter.)

 

Hi Sunil, really sorry to hear about your mom, didn’t know what to write all these days. I hope you, your dad and sister are ok.

 

Sunil, we are very sorry.  I don’t have any words of condolence, I can’t even imagine what you must be going through right now. You have ALL our support.

 

And here are 2 emails which I did NOT appreciate. Both these friends were Christians, and subsequently, I mentally “downgraded” our friendship:

Dear sunil, I know you claim to be not much of a believer in God but at this moment I don’t know what else to say – may the comfort and peace of God be with you and your family during this really difficult time. Take care.

 

I have no idea what to say except that I would like to share with you a piece that I read out at my Nana’s memorial service. Its a beautiful piece and somehow it does bring one immense solace. (The rest of the email comprised of the poem Death is Nothing at All, which offers solace by saying that there is an afterlife, and ends with the line: “How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!”.)

 

So basically I think the thing to do is, express empathy and acknowledge the person’s loss – that this is a horrible thing that’s happened to them. That’s pretty much it. What you should NOT do when giving condolences to an atheist is bring gods into it. Gods don’t exist, so you’re not helping us at all with that.

What about the reverse – what should an atheist say to a grieving believer? Once a colleague of mine lost their father, also to cancer. I sent them a message saying something like My condolences __, I lost my mom to cancer so I have some idea of what you’re going through. They messaged back saying Thanks Sunil, let us pray for his soul. I didn’t reply any further, which I think was all right – you don’t need to lie about your beliefs, but you don’t need to bring them up either. There is a time and place for arguments about the existence of gods, and this is not it. I heard another good example recently, from an atheist friend who was speaking to the mother of someone who had died. The mother explicitly asked if my friend was an atheist too and said that there was indeed a supernatural power. My friend didn’t react to that – “I listened quietly to whatever she said”. Again, I think this is the right approach.

If you have any tips on what to say and what not to say, feel free to leave them in the comments.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unity in Bigotry

You might have read the news about the Supreme Court upholding a 19th century law that criminalizes gay sex, saying that the law needs to be repealed via legislature.

In our schools, we are taught the phrase “Unity in diversity” to emphasize the diversity of cultures in India and yet how they all belong to one country. But today we are seeing unity in bigotry where bigots all across the board have ganged up against LGBT rights.

In 2009 the Delhi high court called Section 377, the law in question, as discriminatory. Taking affront at this sudden outbreak of decency from a high court, various political, social and religious groups have filed an appeal in the supreme court.

Now the only way the law can be put where it rightly belongs – a garbage bin – is via legislation. That is going to be tough given that no major political party has come out in support of gay rights.

Here is a sample of how “united” they all are (Quotes taken from this article):

Mohammad Abdul Rahim Quraishi, a Hyderabad-based spokesman for the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, one of the groups that appealed against the 2009 decision, said the Supreme Court had made the right decision.

“We are very happy with the judgment,” said Mr. Quraishi. “There is no space for homosexuality in our social setup. It is a sin, it is a heinous crime.”

“Homosexuality is a disease,” a tweet from Mr. Ramdev’s verified Twitter account read shortly after the Supreme Court’s judgment.

“We should not encourage homosexuality in our society. It is against the laws and customs and harmful to people in India’s civilized society,” said Zafarul Islam Khan, president of the All India Muslim Majlis-e Mushawarat, an umbrella body of Muslim organizations in the country.

Subramanian Swamy, a politician with the Bharatiya Janata Party, said that homosexuality was a malfunction of the human body and should be treated medically.

“I welcome Supreme Court judgment holding homosexuality as illegal,” Mr. Subramanian told The Wall Street Journal in an email statement after the Supreme Court judgment.

“It is no accident that men and women are born in equal proportion. Moreover survival of the human race requires one man one woman cohabitation,” he added.

Any behavior which disturbs this natural selection should be regarded as deviant and treated as illegal, Mr. Subramanian said.

“The government and corporates must fund research to find a cure for homosexuality at the earliest. It is a malady that should not be celebrated but cured with compassion,” he said.

Growing Up Saudi

Saudi Arabia would easily top the list of countries most hostile to a freethinker. I can’t imagine living in a country that has a ban on theatres. Many expats justify living in Saudi, saying it is a good place to work for a few years and save money. After all, there are not many distractions. It’s pretty much Eat, Work, Sleep. But the damages on a person’s self-development are, in my opinion, not worth it. It is not a good place for children to experience life. In the ten years I lived there I never made any Saudi friends. There was very little interaction between the expats and Saudis. In a country like India where children are exposed to a variety of life changing experiences, Saudi Arabia offered very little. For instance, as my father once pointed out, in the time I lived there, I had never seen a death. Never seen a family grieve. This might seem like a small matter, but I feel experiences such as these are important. Reading about death is one thing, but seeing a dead body at a funeral is something else. It puts somethings in perspective and makes you aware of death as very real, rather than an idea.

Now I may not be the best person to write about life in today’s Saudi Arabia. I left Saudi in 2001 and I can only give you my version of the Saudi life until that point.

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Controversy Over Prevention of Caste Atrocities and Equality Act in the UK (Part 3)

(Previous parts: Part 1, Part 2.)

Now to protect their own fair skin (which they are really proud of), the AHO are suggesting that the government and the members of House of Lords themselves are being racist. They are claiming,

In April of this year there was no AHO but after Lord Harries and his racist colleagues publically(sic) denigrated our Community, discriminating against us in the most despicable manner, the British Hindu Community turned its attention to this task and the AHO was born…

It wouldn’t be surprising to observe how they want to distract the UK media’s attention from the real issue at hand. By suggesting that the members of House of Lords who included Caste in the Equality act, as committing racism and continuing a colonial legacy, they wish to hide centuries old barbaric traditions. Such is their brazenness.

The current population of those of exterior caste descent is said to be somewhere between 50,000[i] to 400,000[ii]. While the population of Hindus in England and Wales is more than 800,000 according to the 2011 census. Most of the migrants coming from India who now have settled down in western countries are obviously from upper castes as their socio-economic privilege accumulated in India over generations could afford them such a living. They have accumulated wealth and created social capital of their own to be able to keep the exterior castes socially excluded. Harassment in school, employment, provision of goods and services, and even religious places still continues. They are a minority among minority. The atrocities are being conducted for last few decades and such law cannot be delayed any further considering that even children of exterior caste descent are bullied in UK schools.

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Controversy Over Prevention of Caste Atrocities and Equality Act in the UK (Part 2)

(Continued from Part 1. Link to Part 3.)

Now let us take a look at the newly formed ‘Alliance of Hindu Organisations’ (AHO). It was formed in April 2013, only when it seemed like the upper caste or savarnas will be facing the wrath of the law for continuing discrimination. The domain name of their website is, ironically, ‘my caste is hindu.org’. Can there be anything such as society made of only one caste? Caste as a division of labourers organized individuals in different groups and closed them through endogamy. Every caste was assigned different functions and occupations in village socio-economy. Every caste had to depend on the other. The AHO wants to hide this exact hideous reality that the UK Hindus are divided in many castes. Even the names of the groups which are part of AHO give away the fact that they are exclusive for certain castes. One simply can’t be a casteless Hindu. In urban India, when people introduce themselves to each other, they are curious to know the surname of a person. Just knowing the given name does not satisfy them. They want to figure out religion and caste through family name. Many times even by observing physical features, they assume caste  of a person. Fair skin is usually attached to being born in ‘pure’ upper caste, while having darker skin doesn’t hold any social status and is usually connected to being born in ‘unclean’ castes. It wouldn’t be surprising to find the migrants in UK following this tradition.

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Is Being a Hindu Nationalist Important for Women Too?

A national political party puts up “I am a Hindu nationalist” posters across the city of Mumbai. I see complacency in the privileged Hindu men and women.  The men are not ruffled as they benefit from patriarchy and the women conditioned to exist within the construct.

I ponder over what this emphasis on religion as the primary identity marker by political parties, yes parties as almost all of them make cynical use of religious issues, means for Indian women. Will it hinder the movement towards women being regarded as individual citizens by the state? Secular women and men want civil laws for marriage, inheritance, guardianship.

While the culturally Hindu women accept obscure rituals like “kanyadaan” in traditional marriage ceremonies as part of their religion, they should take a moment to reflect that despite opposition from orthodoxy, religious personal laws like women not having the right to choose who to marry had been abolished. In fact, until Section 6 regarding guardianship was repealed in 1978 by the Child Marriage Restraint (Amendment) Act, the Hindu Marriage Act 1955, persons entitled to consent included amongst others even the girl/woman’s ‘brother by full blood; the brother by half blood; etc.’. Laws are amended by progressive thought, but the insidious nature of culture is such that notions of family honour are linked to masculine identities and women still bear the burden of maintaining this. It’s not just the family and extended family that tries to control women, but the caste group to which they belong to from the Hindu community as well.  In northern parts of India, there are the barbaric diktats of the Khap panchayats and ‘honour killings’ and in southern Tamil Nadu, there are educated Hindu men lobbying against inter-caste marriages and this in the only Indian State that legally recognizes “self-respect” marriages.

Hindu nationalism is just patriarchy in disguise duping women to take pride in a culture that harms their interests.  We see it in its extreme form in militant hindutva organizations like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) that launched the Ayodhya temple agitation, and trains young persons in and for protecting Hindu culture. Its youth wing for women, the Durga Vahini (DV) (Durga – legend of a warrior goddess) founded by Sadhvi Rithambara, enrolls young girls from ages 15 to 35. The DV says it instills Hindu sanskaars in young women:

A peek into one of DV’s training sessions gives a glimpse of how teenagers are being taught that women are the weaker sex, education and a career are not important and they should be married by age 18. They’re being coached to fit into the Hindu patriarchal construct of a heterosexual family. The DV inculcates and promotes a regressive society wherein a young woman’s growth is stymied, she will be denied the opportunity and the right to think or choose her lifestyle, and be dependant on the men in her life.

As if that was not bad enough, it goes on to give them a false sense of empowerment of being battle-ready to take on irrelevant issues:

I watch with shock and anguish as a young trainee from the DV camp says she is willing to kill anyone for her religion.  She’s being brainwashed to hate, enrolled by her father, too young to realize that she’s being used as a foot soldier for religious fundamentalism.  She is a victim.

The dichotomy between Hindu women being expected to be docile and obedient within their families and the aggression of the right-wing women leaders and activists is exemplified in the political party Shiv Sena (SS). The Shiv Sena Mahila Aghadi, the women’s front was the cultural wing of the SS.  During the 1992-93 riots these women had actively encouraged men from their families to take part in the violence by castigating them for not being ‘man enough’, implying and reinforcing the stereotype that women are weak and cowardly. The personal gains that might accrue made the SS women insensitive to the ‘other’ women brutalized in riots. (References: Shiv Sena Women: Violence and Communalism in a Bombay Slum by Atreyee Sen, and Empowering Women? Feminist Responses to Hindutva by Elen Turner.)

Not only do the SS women not acknowledge the rights and choices of other women who want to be liberated, they go on to actively oppose and harass whom they see as ‘westernized women’. Women corporators of the Shiv Sena (SS) have been known to physically assault women political rivals in the civic house, BMC.

Why did these women become collaborators and perpetrators of misogyny? They had to learn to behave just like the SS men do, to fit in. They can go ‘thus far, and no further’.  These women have been co-opted into the very masculine Hindu nationalist fold that seeks to preserve the gender hierarchies and caste hierarchies inherent in Hindu patriarchy.  Violence against women from other religious communities and castes is brushed off as collateral damage.  When women of less dominant communities become targets just by belonging to the “other” and the state does very little to protect them, what choice do they have except to retreat within their own communities and bear the gender inequalities very much existent there too.