Modi, the Woo Peddler

ModiIn his address to the UN General Assembly today, Modi said this:

Noting that Yoga is “an invaluable gift of our ancient tradition”, he said: “It is not about exercise but to discover the sense of oneness with yourself, the world and the nature.”

“Yoga embodies unity of mind and body; thought and action; restraint and fulfillment; harmony between man and nature; a holistic approach to health and well being,” he said.

“By changing our lifestyle and creating consciousness, it can help us deal with climate change,” he added.

Modi came up from the ranks of RSS, so I guess it’s not all too surprising to see him peddle the spiritual mumbo jumbo that is standard fare in those circles. There is a whole lot of nonsense surrounding spirituality and consciousness. Like this and this for example.

And then earlier this month, Modi said this about climate change:

“Climate change? Is this terminology correct? The reality is this that in our family, some people are old… They say this time the weather is colder. And, people’s ability to bear cold becomes less.

“We should also ask is this climate change or have we changed. We have battled against nature. That is why we should live with nature rather than battle it,” he said.

That is again is your garden variety Hindu woo. Growing up, I heard stories about how our ancestors were more stronger, robust and lived longer than us. That belief is a derivation from Hindu cosmological idea of yugas – where Satyayuga is the bestestest of times and how it all went downhill from there and things will finally reach their lowest point at the end of Kaliyuga. Not-so-coincidentally, we currently live in the Kaliyuga. Hence Modi’s wondering that it is not the climate which is changing, but us humans who are growing weaker. Human biology be damned.

So those are the kind of beliefs our Prime Minister holds, and more importantly uses his position as an elected leader of India to preach them to anyone who’d listen. I wonder what other crackpot ideas are in store for us in the future.

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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It’s Time to Become an Anti-National

One of the goals of the Hindutva project is to make “India” synonymous with “Hindu”. So a true Indian is a Hindu whereas one who is not a Hindu or doesn’t acknowledge the Hinduness of India is an anti-national. Over the recent years, this Hindutva project seems to be gaining some perceptible ground.

A while back Subramanian Swamy wanted Indians to either acknowledge their Hindu antecedents or give up their voting privileges. This feat of bigotry cost Swamy his Harvard position. but his views won him millions of fans in India. By any standard, he is a very popular politician in India and that is not because of the various lawsuits he filed, but mainly because of his new found Hindutva piety.

Then there is the intolerance of any contrary views when it comes to issues like Kashmir. So people like Arundhati Roy and Prashant Bhushan became seditionists and anti-nationals. The question here isn’t whether they are justified in their views or not, but whether they have the right to express those views in the first place. But the increasing jingoistic cacophony doesn’t make any allowance for such questions. It only has patience for one mindless chant – “India First”; where what counts as “First” is an euphemism for putting Hinduness before the constitutional idea of India.

In the recent weeks there was the rhetoric surrounding academic research on Hinduism. Apparently, not joining the Hindutva orchestra in demonizing the likes of Doniger is grounds for suspecting that one is anti-national.

And this week, some Kashmiri students were booked for sedition because they supported Pakistan in a India vs Pakistan cricket match. It may well be that the students are enamoured of the Islamic state of Pakistan and so support it, but that is no grounds for sedition.

So where does that leave freethinkers like me?

I liked Doniger’s “The Hindus” in that I got to hear Hindu voices that lie outside the framework of Vedic Hinduism. I think people like Arundhati Roy have the right to express their views without the threats of sedition charges. I have no love for the Islamic path that Pakistan has taken, but someone supporting a cricket team should never be treated as a thought crime that would eventually lead to they becoming traitors.

Given those views of mine, the “India First” brigade may well decree that I am an anti-national. In that case I gladly accept that label. I would not have settled for anything less, as for me people and their rights come first.

Riffing of an old Hindutva slogan, Garv se kaho hum anti-national hain (Translation: Proclaim with pride that we are anti-nationals).

Keeping Rainbows Undimmed

-Taking back the night…and our own bedtime stories-

Cover of "On Hinduism"This article, making an earnest and anguished plea to recall alternatives in the popular imagination was posted on Nirmukta after the publishers’ recall of the Indian edition of The Hindus : An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger. It now seems that it is not just alternative narratives that are under threat, but even quotes of ‘standard’ narratives that are being silenced. At the time of writing, On Hinduism by the same author faces recall and pulping. One of the ‘offensive sections’ in the book, as cited by the petitioners (from the report in the Outlook weekly here ) is this:  Lakshmana… says, ‘ I don’t like this. The king is perverse, old and debauched by pleasure. What would he not say under pressure, mad with passion as he is? The king referred to in that piece of dialogue is Dasharatha, father of the deified Rama and his brother Lakshmana, the apotheosized paragon of fraternal conduct. The petitioners who apparently treat such deification and apotheosis as undeniable truth, are perhaps shocked at an attribution of such filial irreverence towards Dasharatha, the revered patriarch and head of the archetypal Hindu-Undivided-Family on part of Lakshmana, the foremost of the Ram Bhakts (devotees of of Rama). Trouble is, the Sanskrit version of the Ramayana most commonly accepted as the original one, namely the version attributed to the poet-saint Valmiki of uncertain historicity, puts those very words in the mouth of Lakshmana:

Valmiki Ramayana Ayodhya Kanda Sarga 21 Verse 3

C. Rajagopalachari, Indian independence activist, scholar of Indian classics and patron-saint of sorts for the Indian ‘centre-Right’, had no compunctions quoting other verses similarly unflattering to the patriarch, from the same chapter in his well-loved English retelling of the Ramayana, which can be read hereEven your enemies, O Raama, when they look at you begin to love you, but this dotard of a father sends you to the forest. It turns out that Lakshmana doesn’t stop seem to have been in a mood to stop with verbal barbs. Verse 12 of that very chapter goes “If our father with an evil mind behaves like our enemy with instigation by Kaikeyi. I shall keep him imprisoned with out personal attachment or if necessary, kill him.” This is not Doniger’s Lakshmana speaking, but Valmiki’s Lakshmana, if only those who claim to treat that retelling of the epic as their ‘scripture’ had been paying attention. Both Rajagopalachari and K M Munshi,  founder of the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan whichpublished the former’s Ramayana were in their time considered Hindu stalwarts and respected spokespersons of Hinduism. Those who self-identify as Hindus today, at least those among them who would like to consider themselves literate and liberal, must be gravely concerned about the precipitous fall in the quality of their spokespersons from those endowed with classical scholarship to bumptious demagogues and cultural protection-racketeers who make a mockery of India’s much-vaunted intellectual traditions.

So much for why liberal Hindus, whom I am told constitute a silent majority, must be concerned about the fate of The Hindus and On Hinduism. Why should humanists be concerned about the straitjacketing and suffocation of mythical narratives and retellings? Here’s a snippet from a conversation that might help understand what’s at stake here for anyone who values equity and diversity. In this section of a Tamil videomade by members of Orinam, a Chennai-based organization for LGBT advocacy, a participant speaks of how an writings by Devdutt Pattanaik on homosexuality in Indian epics were a useful conversation-starter while coming-out to a straight friend interested in Indian lore. In a report of the Bangalore Pride Walk of 2013 published in the Nirmukta blog, one of the placards is quoted as asking “Our epics do not discriminate, why do we?” Well, it turns out that while the epics by themselves don’t lend themselves to a single discriminatory slogan and may on occasion even supply a humanist slogan, the Doniger-haters’ reading (actually ‘unreading’ and attempted unwriting) of the epics does indeed discriminate. Like the scriptural literalism afflicting the Religious Right in the US (conveniently selectively), what afflicts such ‘defenders-of-the-faith’ in India maybe called an epic litero-clasm, an infliction of iconoclasm on any  literature, however classical, that does not align with the palingenetic myth they are peddling and seeking a monopoly for. Their motto may well be “No listening. No story-telling.“, a more menacing variant of the grudging “Don’t Ask; Don’t Tell.“, and they seek jurisdiction and the last word over every town’s night-life and any bed-time story that departs from their revisionist ‘history’.

Be it Batra vs Penguin Book India Pvt Ltd or Koushal vs Naz, such unimaginative and inhuman readings of either Law or lore, represent different fronts in the same larger struggle. The ‘defenders of the faith’ are ostensibly wielding legal and constitutional means, but relying on the unspoken, implicit and very palpable threat of orchestrated civil unrest. The threat is not vaguely implicit but has been manifested unmistakably in the past, be it a ransacking of an archive when a hagiography was revisited scholastically, or the vandalizing of art galleries when mythical motifs were reimagined. With such an intimidatory history and with colonial-era legal provisions by their side, such custodians of ‘normalcy’ are attempting, and alarmingly appearing to succeed, in an attempt at usurpation of cultural space and disinheriting anyone whom they consider not ‘normal’, of the slightest socio-cultural capital. This cultural disenfranchisement calls for a resolute resistance to enforced dourness and colourlessness with undimmed rainbows, and can begin with something as simple as Iranian youngsters celebrating a ‘pagan’ Nowruz in the face of the Ayatollahs’ strictures.

Sangh may not make a debut in Kerala, but…

Video: Audience at ViBGYOR protest vandalism by RSS workers

400 and more. All shouting in unison “RSS GO BACK! GO BACK! GO BACK! GO BACK!”.

So proud to be a Malayali, right now (I can’t believe I missed out on this video for so long). The video shows the reason why the Sangh will never crack into the state, any time soon. The following is a quote from a friend.

“I do not believe in banning the RSS. It has a place. It has a place in the shadows, the last benches, the corners which the broom has missed, the gutter left neglected over the years. It is a badge of shame we didn’t clear out with the other bric a brac from the dusty attic of our past, a rabid cur we skirt past on the road, a lunatic’s abuse heard from afar and immediately forgotten. Such is the place of the RSS. And I believe it should continue to occupy its place as a constant reminder of the darkness that can envelope us if there are no lights kept burning, those of tolerance, pluralism, free speech and ever widening knowledge. No, I certainly do not believe in bans. But they should know their place and know it well. 400 people in the audience during the screening shouted “RSS go back” and back they went. Because, those 400 voices represent the true voice of this great nation.”

~ Gautam Benegal

“RSS workers stop screening of ‘Ocean of Tears’ at film festival”

But there is still much to be concerned about. The police did not arrest the vandals even though they assaulted some of the audience members. Almost a week later, we hear about police brutality against some of the ViBGYOR activists, a female filmmaker AND their female lawyer and her children, for staging “Vagina Monologues”. So while we revel at the unanimous rejection of the fascists by the audience, we should not forget that Kerala is not exactly the vacation spot for progressives and liberals. If anything it’s getting worse.

These incidents seem unusual in Kerala, a state known more for its liberal values, high literacy rates and excellent social indices. Historian J Devika believes that the attacks are a fallout of the success of Sangh Parivar members in getting Wendy Doniger’s book on Hinduism pulped, and are a sign of the national assertion of what she calls “Moditva”.

“These are goons, and what we see is not a rise in their intellectual confidence, but in their brazen determination to inflict violence and terrorise others,” said Devika. “Interestingly, their supporters in the police have also found it easier to hit out now, and the most vulnerable sections they can target are precisely young people who identify with the non-mainstream left.”

According to Devika and Sasi, extremist elements – with the help of the police and the media – have been trying to whip up “Islamophobia” in Kerala. Said human rights activist BRP Bhaskar, “The Modi factor is giving them more encouragement.”

Weeping for the Modern Caste-Hindu?

Jakob de Roover

Outlook recently published, on their website, Jakob de Roover’s reaction to “l’affaire Doniger”. In the article, de Roover cooks up a story to explain how the “deeply flawed” narrative of the caste system and the Hindu religion is responsible for the creation of Hindu fundamentalism.

What brings Hindu organizations to filing petitions that make them the butt of ridicule and contempt? Whence the frustration among so many Indians about the way their culture is depicted? Why is this battle not fought out in the free intellectual debate so typical of India in the past?

S. N. Balagangadhara

Nevermind the fact that the inspiration of this story is S. N. Balagangadhara, the Ghent University professor and beacon of caste-Hindu privilege blindness and arrogance (“how can we conclude from just 38 murders that caste discrimination exists in India?”), the story even in its isolation stands as a shining example of caste privilege apologia.

What comforts me is the prompt responses it received from Nivedita Menon (first published by Kafila and later by Outlook) and Prashant Keshavmurthy of McGill University.

The following is from Nivedita Menon’s article,

So let us imagine another growing child— not De Roover’s boy, but his sister. She hears (and retains) some other stories that the boy chooses to forget or ignores —the cruel slashing of Surpanakha’s nose for her merely expressing desire for a young handsome man, the even more cruel abandonment of pregnant Sita, the Lakshman Rekha that she is called upon to observe every single day of her twentieth century life—imagine her excitement when on growing up and entering the world of scholarship, she comes across Indian feminist scholarship that attacks both Western Orientalist critiques of Hinduism as well as nationalist responses that reconstruct a Golden Age before “Muslim invasions”—for instance, Uma Chakravarty’s critique of the ‘Altekerian Paradigm’. Or Iravati Karve’s Yuganta. Or Nabaneeta Deb Sen’s account of women’s Ramayanas in which Rama is a far cry from the ideal man. Village women sing “Ram, tomar buddhi hoilo nash’. Oh Ram, you have lost your mind. Molla, a Shudra woman in the 16th century wrote a perfect classical Ramayana, which the Brahmins did not allow to be read in the royal court. Chandrabati’s version that told the Ramayana from Sita’s point of view was criticized as a weak and incomplete text by the same arbiters of taste and morality.

Imagine this young woman trying to engage her sulky brother in dialogue as he rants about the denigration of Hinduism. Imagine the absolute lack of empathy from his side as he fulminates…

Imagine after this, the daughter of the Dalit woman who cleans the toilets of that young Hindu boy’s home. Imagine her excitement at learning, if she ever reached school, that one BR Ambedkar had torn apart the entire foundation of the religion so celebrated by the boy and his family. Or that Ranganayakamma had written a book called Ramayana The Poisonous Tree, saying we should reject it because it supports the powerful against the powerless. Or that EV Ramasami had deconstructed the story of the killing of Shambuka by Rama for daring to recite the Scriptures despite being a Shudra.

Imagine the fact that this girl would literally have been invisible to the sulky boy as the household spun silently around him on the labour of women and lower castes, as he prepared to go to America ‘for a few years.’

For De Roover and his ‘Hindu gentleman’, sexuality is not the problem, mention of caste discrimination is. By putting Christian distaste for both sexuality and caste in the same basket, De Roover is able to suggest that both critiques are tainted. But of course, some of us may want to take a more nuanced position, celebrating sexuality and attacking caste oppression, even if critique of the latter comes exclusively from ‘the West’, which of course, it does not.

And this one is by Prashant Keshavmurthy,

One doesn’t have to have read the theorist of post-colonial identity, Edward Said, to expect a modicum of reflexivity in the use of such categories of identity. Nor does one have to be familiar with the English poetry (that adapted an American Modernist minimalism by discovering its elective affinities with ancient Tamil poetry) and scholarship (bringing European Folklore Studies and semiotics to bear on pre-modern Tamil and Kannada literatures) of the founder of South Asian Studies in the University of Chicago, A.K. Ramanujan, to expect a minimum of intellectual sophistication in not simplistically equating ethnicity with scholarly identity. So much for shallowness and theoretical poverty.

In the end I’d like to say that, de Roover’s Hindu Boy is not a fictional character, but a real one. I see him in my family, in my father, my cousins, neighbours, roommates, friends, on the social network, everywhere. He definitely exists and he is someone to be wary of, since avoiding him is not an option in India right now.

A Documentary on Durga Vahini

Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and its youth wing Bajrang Dal are Hindu extremist organizations which are usually at the forefront of spreading Hindutva by using violence and threats of it. They have been accused of forceful conversions, attacks against Christians, Muslims, intimidating people who celebrate Valentines Day and have been found guilty in a few instances like the 2008 attacks in Karnataka, and the conviction of Babu Bajrangi in the Naroda Patiya massacre case.

There’s a new documentary The World Before Her that takes a look at Durga Vahini, the women’s wing of VHP. Not many people outside of the Hindutva circles have had access to inner workings, so the documentary should prove to be an interesting watch. Nisha Pahuja, the maker, was interviewed here and at one point she says “You know, more than the physical training the girls at the Durga Vahini camp are given, it’s the brainwashing and the blood curdling chants they are taught that shocked and depressed me. On the bus ride they take en route to their parade, they learned a few phrases that I simply refused to include in the film. Those were the sorts of moments that were hugely trying for me and my crew as well”.

The documentary is available for order and will also premier on PBS on Sep 16. Apart from Durga Vahini, the documentary also looks at the fashion industry in India and draws a parallel as to how women are restricted into certain roles in the name of empowerment. Here are a few clips from the documentary: