02, Nov 2016 | Teesta Setalvad
It’s festival time again in India—not one date, one month and one festival but a multiplicity of celebrations that are cultural, religious and echo our famed, celebrated and fiercely guarded diversity. South and north, west and east, Adivasi, Dalit, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain and Hindu (even this term had entirely different connotations and meanings across the length and breadth of this vast land), the observances and rituals are different, charming and varied. Seasonal festivals with religious and ritualistic connotations, too, mean different things to different sets of Indians.
Diwali, the festival of lights, may be the biggest one. Even here, as scholar Ramesh Venkataraman so eloquently puts it, “Diverse myths around the festival underpin Hinduism’s openness, pluralism and historically tolerant ‘live and let live’ ethos. But how does the puranic link to Vamana and Mahabali square with the predominantly north Indian belief that the festival of light marks the return of Rama to Ayodhya after his defeat of Ravana? The answer goes to the very heart of Hinduism. Diwali, like the rest of the Hindu tradition, does not have a singular, unchanging meaning — its significance varies widely across India’s regions and communities and has evolved dramatically over time.”
One of the reasons for this inherent diversity is the absence of a semitised structure of a Church that has allowed various versions of the Hindu faith to emerge differently and be interpreted differently in different regions across time and space. It is also important to consider the centuries-old tensions between those power structures that imposed structured notions of caste (a superstructure within Hinduism that is one expression of its rigid, formal, institutional existence that is both exclusivist and rigid) and those vast numbers of Indians who have challenged them (Romila Thapar calls them the Shravanas, the Dalit-Bahujan movement believes them to be the Bahujan indigenous culture of vast numbers of Indians). Cultures, faiths, beliefs and even interpretations of the Divine evolved differently and are manifestations of a much-contested system of beliefs and faiths.
What then was so different this Diwali? It is the fact that India is today government by a worldview that openly professes its commitment not just to a Hindu theocratic state but, within this political ideal, has a set, rigid definition of what kind of Hinduism is acceptable and what is not.
Millions of Indians busied themselves with the celebrations that come with the festival of lights—the annual spring cleaning of homes, white washing of walls (if needed), the charming re-coloring of earthen pots (with a gheroo color, a particularly Indian and earthy version of cienne) and cooking or purchasing typical savory and sweet goodies exchanged between families, neighbors and guests. Meanwhile, this year’s festival cheer was hit by an excruciatingly steep price rise, a railway fare hike and—as bad, or worse—cultural vigilantism.
Food inflation is at an all-time high in India, making life for the working and middle class Indian difficult. Jobs have not been created, and the economy is in the midst of a slowdown, as production is not a priority for the government nor the economic planners. The worst cut of all was the steep hike in rail fares targeting Indian railway, which is the lifeline for Indians throughout the year but also at festival time. A “surge price system” has rendered some class of rail travel as expensive as air travel. This is happening at a time when the mainstream “national” (read English language) media and television channels are also being accused of bowing to corporate-political interests that do not reflect the concerns of vast sections of Indian society while failing to analyze the impact of government policy on the vast majority of Indians.
Festivals of Eid and Diwali are also all-important for the multi-million dollar Hindi film industry. Bollywood and Bollywood took a real hit these past weeks, reflecting as never before the sharply divisive politics at play in India today, sponsored and stoked from the very top. This divisive politics is today the sole claimant to Indian patriotism, and herein lies the dangerous rub.
This narrative begins in September when the attack by Pakistan-inspired terrorists at Uri in Kashmir left 18 Indian soldiers dead and 20 wounded. The Indian government’s decision to go in for much-publicized “surgical strikes” ten days later has been debated at various levels. Some are questioning whether the ruling party at the center, with little to show for its overall performance in 29 months of power, is using this anti-Pakistan and over-hyped Indian patriotism rhetoric to salvage its political fortunes for the upcoming 2017 elections in four Indian states: Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Manipur. The most disturbing aspect is what appears to be an all-out desire to politicize the Indian army with one brand of Indian politics.
Within this, Bollywood and cricket—two mass Indian icons where the “stars” are alternately fawned over and flogged by a public whose sentiments are carefully fanned by a corporatized television media—are really made to pay. So, while the rest of Indian business, medicine, law and engineering may quietly continue with links and profits from across the border, film producers were once again held ransom for glitzy film productions where a guest role by a much-adored Pakistani actor, Fawad Khan, threatened to stall the film’s release on the eve of Diwali, the festival of rights. Indian producer Karan Johar’s rather pathetic appeal on video to the McCarthyism at work in India’s high walls of power is, however, not restricted to the pathetic “deal” brokered by a democratically elected chief minister of Maharashtra, Devendra Phadnavis, with the bullying Maharashtra Navnirman Seva (MNS) party last week.
The deal allowed the film’s release in Mumbai, but that has not stopped extremist activists of the “Hindu Sena” in other cities from preventing the showing of the film. So, while Karan Johar’s film Ae Dil Hai Mushkil got a peaceful release in Maharashtra following MNS’s much-criticized deal with the filmmakers, ruckus was created in the states of Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh by Hindu right-wing organizations, like the Hindu Seva Parishad. Film screenings have been stalled at several screens in these four states following threats of vandalism by these organisations.
And there is more. On television channels it is not decently possible to advocate rationality on the debate without being put through the proverbial mob whip of mass television as another leading light of Hindi cinema experienced not long ago. In early October, India’s veteran actor Om Puri suffered for simply saying that, since Pakistani artists were working legally in India, and in case they are not allowed to work, the industry will suffer losses to the tune of tens of millions, and the Indian producers who have signed them for their films will incur financial losses. His “mistake” was his observation: “Did we force them to join the Indian army? My father was also in the Indian army… I respect them (soldiers)..I am asking you, do you want India and Pakistan to become Israel and Palestine?”
Social media and television hanged him metaphorically for this blasphemy, yet Puri stuck to his stand, and other actors commented on the hypocrisy of film-dom “paying the high price of patriotism” while other businesses went about their business unaffected. An unholy nexus between the high corridors of political power and a corporate-controlled television and social media is defining and re-defining what India and Indian patriotism is all about.
So, while well-respected journalists and anchors pontificated on the McCarthyism at play in India’s financial capital of Mumbai, where a chief minister brokered a deal with the extra-constitutional MNS, these high priests and priestesses of Indian journalism were quiet on several more worrisome and insidious acts.
At India’s premier central university—also the seat of a tussle between the politics of democratic socialism and the extreme right since early February this year—several student leaders were charged with the dreaded “sedition” law. A young Muslim student has mysteriously disappeared after being violently attacked, allegedly by none other than the members of Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), an outfit affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) that is the ideological fountainhead of the Modi-led government. Najeeb Ahmad “disappeared” after an unseemly brawl with the ABVP, and witnesses saw him being assaulted and bleeding. The pleas of his distraught mother and sister have fallen on deaf ears, and the incident has not generated the outrage it should.
Najeeb has been missing since October 15, and while a comfortable contract of silence engulfs many within the media, the ABVP successfully disrupted an academic exercise in another prestigious central university, the Delhi University, just two days ago. Organized by a left student organization around the theme, “The Idea of the University,” the clout of the ABVP held again. In Delhi, a free exchange of ideas, central to a democracy, was violently disrupted and curtailed. Intimidation, threats and the use of violence have been the credo of this outfit, the ABVP, aided by a supine state police in the country’s capital that is controlled directly by the Ministry of Home Affairs in the central government.
All these examples have excluded the issue of democratic freedoms within areas of armed conflict, especially Kashmir where the shames, shadows and silences are even more stark. For now, it is sufficient to say the following.
There is an insidiously-brokered and unlawful pact between those in positions of power accrued through democratic elections and outfits like the ABVP, MNS, RSS, HSP, Vishwa Hindu Parisha and Bajrang Dal. These outfits are stepping in as the Indian version of the German Volkssturm or the Sturn Abteiling. Whereas these outfits, including the notorious SA under Fuhrer Hitler were official “arms” of the Nazi party, in India, these proto-fascist non-state actors function unlawfully, non-Constitutionally and enjoy soft treatment from the state. Octopus-like, they have different names, shapes and forms, but they are linked to a larger whole, the RSS. The pernicious infiltration of India’s law enforcement machinery over the course of decades by individuals who swear allegiance to the ideology of the supremacist RSS makes it easy for the police to simply not act. With a government in power, wedded surreptitiously to the same goals, there is little calling to account. With a media de-privileging news of these un-democratic encroachments on free speech and space, the takeover of the public sphere is near complete.
At the heart of these recent developments lies a critical issue: the dangerous politicization of the Indian military. India was founded on sound republican principles, with a constitution that squarely makes its people sovereign, and it has always prided itself on an apolitical military. This is critical to both democratic functioning and accountability. But the current government is different from earlier democratically-elected governments, and this became clear when India’s defense minister, Manohar Parrikar, publicly credited his parent organization, the suremacist RSS, for giving him and the prime minister Modi the gumption to order the military strikes.
In September 2013, Modi, as the party’s prime ministerial candidate, addressed a rally of military veterans in Rewari, Haryana, using the occasion to target the United Progressive Alliance government at the center. Not long after the surgical strikes, posters began to appear in poll-bound Uttar Pradesh, highlighting the military action as proof of the good and robust governance that the BJP could provide to the state. In 1999, when India was at war with Pakistan in the heights of Kargil, the then-DGMO Lieutenant General NC Vij had been sent to the BJP headquarters on Ashoka Road to brief the party leadership. This created a big political brouhaha, with many academics, independent thinkers and also the Congress-led opposition in India claiming that the government was politicising the military.
With Indians “celebrating” Diwali with images of RSS pracharak (propagandists) and elected prime minister Narendra Modi exhorting Indians to wish Indian soldiers a “Happy Diwali,” a dangerous precedent is being forged that could have dangerous long-term consequences: that of coloring a thoroughly professional Indian military with a supremacist brush.