Prime Minster Narendra Modi thundered in the Lok Sabha on 27th November 2015 that his government has only one scripture and that is The Constitution of India; and then defined his idea of India by chanting eighteen mantras that include santyameva jaite (सत्यमेव जयते) and eakam sad viprah bahuda vadanti (एकं सद् विप्रा: बहुधा वदन्ति). Noble sentiments indeed.
On the other side Dinanath Batra of Wendy Doniger fame has written to HRD Minister Smriti Irani to get the Bipan Chandra’s book India’s Struggle for Independence “banned, recalled from everywhere and destroyed.” In this connection the MHRD Minister has said, “If I am to be called intolerant to ensure that Bhagat Singh is not called a terrorist, then that is the tag I will proudly wear.” Another part of the same government, an HRD Ministry official told The Hindu, “As of now, the Ministry has just forwarded a similar complaint by Bhagat Singh’s family members to Delhi University.” Which mean that the attempts of removal of the book from reference list are on.
Banning books is nothing new in India, every one, it seems, likes to ban books which they do not like and cannot intellectually counter. The history banning books formally is at the least a century old. But more recently the demand for banning books or punishing people who express views that can be considered offensive by any stretch of imagination is being raised much more frequently.
And at the same time we keep on hearing slogans like satyameva jaite nanritam and ekam sad-viprah bahuda vadanti. The first one is from Manduka Upanishad and proclaims that the truth alone conquers, not falsehood. If one goes by the context where it is said, it sounds like a statement of a law of nature; only the discussion seems to be on the moral nature of the universe, rather than the physical. However, those who chant it and simultaneously also demands bans on books and views do not seem to be convinced of this law of nature, therefore, want to actively ensure victory for their own kind of truth. Which goes against the second slogan.
Ekam sad-viprah bahuda vadanti is from the Rig Veda and explains that what different sages call Indra, Mitra, Varuna, Agni, etc. are different names used for the same ultimate reality. It allows differences of perception at the surface reading. But one can also argue that the reality may not only be seen differently by different people, but the true nature of it may always remain contested.
It seems the MHRD Minister is either going against these mantras or she and the PM understand them differently. They seem to be saying that “BJP and its supporters’ interpretation is the only true interpretation and that their truth will prevail”. It is quite clear that the true meaning of these mantras and BJP government’s behaviour are at odds with each other. That however seems to be the case in almost every idea they pick up from Indian cultural history; their understanding of such ideas is almost always at variance with common Indian, be the idea ‘Hinduism’ or India itself or the greatness of Guru Dronacharya.
Controversies of this nature are being raised with a certain regularity which indicates a game plan to force people to accept their interpretation of Indian history, mythology, culture, nationalism and limits of freedom of expression. That which is counter to it should be banned or coved down by making the atmosphere unsafe through vigilante gangs. This is a systematic attempt to close the space for dialogue and descent.
The RSS-BJP seem to be increasingly recognising that religious card cannot be properly used while one is in the government. Therefore, they are bringing in the nationalism. But this nationalism is modelled on religion. This move of modelling nationalism on religion gives double advantage: their own religion can be made the basis of it and it can be made too sacrosanct to critique and question. Even if the intellectuals don’t accept this, it does not matter as long as common public does. Therefore, losing the intellectual debate is of no consequence, as far as electoral politics goes.
Education and ban-culture
A few years back ABVP activists objected to an essay by Ramanujan titled “Three Hundred Ramayanas” and finally the University of Delhi removed the essay from the course it was being taught in. In Rajasthan there was a controversy on relative space given to Akbar and Maharana Pratap in school history books. Now the issue is that Bipin Chandra’s book should be removed from the reference list in syllabus of a University of Delhi course. In the first case it was a mythological character who was supposed to be protected from insulting remarks, in the second it was a medieval Hindu hero, and finally it is an undisputed national icon. This movement has kept the idea of imposing their own interpretation intact while the characters have moved from limited to wider appeal.
Religion was always out of bounds of free discussion in our educational institutions. The education system never seems to have understood that a critical and unbiased understanding of history and dogmas of a faith helps understand the mind-set and behaviour, up to an extent, of adherents of that faith. We have conducted our education so far in a manner that most of the educated people are ignorant of religious dogmas, their historical fallout and their influence on the minds of the believers. All an educated Indian can parrot is “all religions say the same thing”, “no religion teaches animosity towards others”, “all religions teach love for humanity” and so on. These are inane slogans and create a completely false impression of religions in students’ minds. Actually, it is not at all hard to argue on the basis of religious dogmas, history and behaviour of believers that almost all religions are deeply divisive and bread animosity either in a passive latent form that can be used at any time by the religious leaders or of active violent variety. Even if this perception of religion is totally mistaken, it should be examined in the open. However, we only condemn such views outright and shy away from any serious debate on them. As a result many of the educated people behave in a schizophrenic manner: they have a public view and a private view on religion, which are at variance with each other; and deal with the resultant prick of conscience through self-deception and sophistry.
Now the interpretations of history are being made into the same kind of sacrosanct pronouncements. The attempt is to cast all historical characters in black and white. The richness, complexity, ambiguity and multyvocality within each historical character and event is being reduces to a formulaic good/bad binary. Thus blunting the tools of thinking, which is an antithesis of education.
Who is a terrorist?
This question is thrown at people with alarming regularity by those who want to produce arguments in favour of the current day personalities who are considered terrorist by common people. Politically it may be difficult to arrive at a consensus on definition of terrorism, but conceptually it does not sound to be such a big problem. Terrorism can be defined as a political ideology of using violence, indiscriminately to target even innocent people, to create terror in the minds of general public to achieve political goals. Anyone who believes, preaches and indulges in acts of perpetrating terror for this purpose is a terrorist. It does not matter whether his goals are justified or not, whether the historical processes that produced such an ideology are justified or not. The intention of spreading terror in the public by indiscriminate killing is enough to call it terrorism. Of course, in attempts to understand the causes and solving the problem of terrorism injustices perpetrated on the people whom the terrorist want to defend have to be taken into consideration; but that does not need to blur the concept. Terrorism in this sense may be seen as justified by some; but that does not mean that it is not terrorism.
On the other hand there could be an ideology of violent resistance, which does not want to terrorise the public, but only the perpetrators of perceived injustice, and does not kill innocents but only those who are directly involved in perpetrating injustice. It seems to me it is not appropriate to call such an ideology terrorism; not to call its practitioners and adherents terrorists.
If one accepts this definition then Bhagat Singh cannot be called a terrorist. As he is on record as being against spreading terror in the public, actually they wanted to create a favourable opinion of themselves in the public. They consciously avoided killing innocent people, even innocent Britishers were not their targets. They usually selected particular individuals who they thought had committed some act of grave injustice. This can be called violent resistance or armed resistance, but not terrorism. Therefore, calling Bhagat Singh a terrorist is somewhat unjustified. However, that does not justify banning books and writings which describe him as a terrorist.
The current NDA government is using double speak to confound people. On one side it chants slogans like ‘ekam sad-viprah bahuda vadanti’ and ‘satyameva jayate’ and on the other they want to ban books, want to be intolerant, by their ow admission, to some views and stifle debate and dissent.
Whether freedom of expression and space for dissent is allowed or not can be determined only when the views that the government detests but the constitution allows are not throttled. One can say nothing about freedom to dissent as long as all expressed views are in agreement with the government. And this government does not want to allow views it does not like in the public space and in education. So far they seem to be thinking of bans and their supporters are threatening to go to the courts; but they are indirectly also sending messages to their vigilante groups to attacking people whom the government does not like.
The double speak of the government needs to be exposed and the ban attempts need to be resisted. If they cannot refute arguments and views at an intellectual level then they should improve their capabilities rather using threats and state power.