I am feeling disturbed by an article titled 'How Modi defeated liberalslike me' by Prof Shiv Viswanathan, published in 'The Hindu' today. I have jotted down a few thoughts in response to his article. I will often refer to the author as Shiv with apologies to those who mind it. Shiv is a prominent personality of our times. I am aware that I do not have the scholarship in social sciences that he possesses. I am trying to articulate some serious problems I find in his article.
The article begins with a reference to the pooja performed by Narendra Modi at the Kashi Vishwanath temple followed by an aarti performed along the Ganga river. Shiv observes, 'As the event was relayed on TV, people messaged requesting that the event be shown in full, without commentary. Others claimed that this was the first time such a ritual was shown openly.' It is quite true that it was the first time Modi's performance at the Ganga was shown openly. But does anyone seriously think that such rituals are not shown openly on public media in this country? That National leaders have been performing religious rituals in public is not even a matter of debate. From Rajendra Prasad's pujas to Sonia Gandhi's visits to religious places, it is a common knowledge that religion, whether for private or public use, is an overwhelming presence in the lives of political personalities in India. Why is it that Prof Viswanathan makes such an issue of it then? One gets a glimpse of the possible reasons in the next sentence claiming that with Mr. Modi around, the message claimed “We don’t need to be ashamed of our religion. This could not have happened earlier.”
Who is ashamed of which religion? Was Modi merely practising a religious ritual? If so, a good question to ask is how many times before that day did he come to the Dashashwamedh ghat to do this act; after all, he is 63+ years old, a person with a lot of power and easy mobility, certainly it would have occurred to him some time earlier too that there is a necessary act to be performed according to his religion.
No, it was not a religious act. One could argue that every religious act is a political act. In this case it was a purely political act devoid of any religiosity. The message was not what Prof Viswanathan reads, the message is, “Behold, the Hindu dictator cometh.” The word 'Hindu' here is not a religious term (to begin with there is no religion called the Hindu religion).
Ironically, in another article published in 'The Hindu' a little more than a month ago, Shiv had written, 'Varanasi breaks the Bharat-India, Muslim-Hindu divide that Mr. Modi seeks to enforce.' Read that again, ' the Bharat-India, Muslim-Hindu divide that Mr. Modi seeks to enforce'. After Modi winning, he is saying 'We don’t need to be ashamed of our religion'. Interesting.
In the second para, the article hits the Bull's eye in quoting a friend, “You English speaking secularists have been utterly coercive, making the majority feel ashamed of what was natural.” That there is something pathological in the Englishwallahs in this country is felt by many of us. I pointed out a few aspects of this in a recent article titled 'फासीवादी उभार का भाषाई पहलू' published in Jansatta. In a poem titled 'टोनी मॉरिसन इंग्लिशवालों के खिलाफ लिखती है', published in the literary journal 'बनास जन', I expressed the irony differently. While the scholarship in my opinions does not even come close to that of the author I am reacting to, nonetheless I, another desi bugger around, have my take on it. The 'natural' as understood by Prof Viswanathan is very different from how I understand it.
Then Shiv moves on to describe the paranoi of leftists about ' positing a period of McCarthyism in India'. He may be quite right if we remind ourselves that only 31% of the voters have given BJP 'the majority'. This is not like an entire Nation has succumbed to authoritarianism. Not even a third of it. Given that not everyone comes to vote, perhaps not even a fifth of it. Indeed there is no need to be paranoid. But are we not aware of what happened when the last time BJP was in power with even less support than today? Is it unfair that some of us are getting paranoid remembering how the books were rewritten? Today we are 'some Leftists', what were we before Modi won, when we shared with Shiv the fear from 'the Muslim-Hindu divide that Mr. Modi seeks to enforce'? An interesting chapter in the NCERT History text book is written by my friend Prof Anil Sethi, on multiple narratives about partition of India in 1947. It is a widely lauded work – is it wrong to fear that this chapter is likely to be removed because it attempts to show the South Asians across the borders as equal vicitims of the hatred that flared?
As he says, indeed 'both Right and Left have appealed to the state to determine what was correct history'. Is he suggesting that the books being downloaded are written as the Left's version of the correct history? Interesting.
His statement 'With the advent of the Right, there is now a feeling that history will become another revolving door regime where the official and statist masquerade as the truth', is again right on the Bull's eye. But then he attempts to give his own explanation of 'why Left liberals failed to understand this election' by suggesting that there are anxieties that the middle class suffers from and that is what Mr. Modi understood 'more acutely than the intellectuals'. Consider this juxtaposed to his 50 days before the victory dictum '... Muslim-Hindu divide that Mr. Modi seeks to enforce'. No issues with the words, except that we need to explore the nature of 'anxieties'. Shiv seemed to share the understanding of these anxieties with the 'Left' earlier. Not now. Today, the Left is a 'club, snobbish about secularism, treating religion not as a way of life but as a superstition'. This is like going back to debates from 50 years ago – 'Marx called it the opium of the masses' versus 'no, he said it was the agony of the oppressed'. The least I can say is that for the first time I am thoroughly disappointed at such simplistic verbosity from a master that I have held in high esteem for long.
And after this, OMG, he blasts the Left for being the demon 'that tried to inject the idea of the scientific temper into the constitutions as if it would create immunity against religious fears and superstitions'.
Very interestingly, near the end of the article, Shiv calls Dalai Lama his 'favourite scientist'. Obviously, there is a contradiction. Or perhaps, 'the scientist' is one free of the evil called 'the scientific temper' which in his words, overemphasises secularism, creates 'an empty domain, a coercive milieu where ordinary people practising religion were seen as lesser orders of being'. It will be childish to claim that the idea of science does not come with a package of value judgments and power relations, but the suggestion that science creates that domain and the coercion referred to by Shiv, more than other social institutions like the stratifications based on caste, gender, etc., which are intricately related to and are reinforced by the institution of religion, is again very disappointing.
Then Shiv continues his tirade against secularism, a word lost in the quagmire of the intellectual khichdi of the great Indian soil. It is an 'invidious weapon'. Shiv tells us 'The regime used to placate minorities electorally, violating the majoritarian sense of fairness'. Pray, what are the placations? Oh yes, there is the old Shah Bano case, then we have the personal law, article 370 for Kashmiris, but presumably those are not the issues that Shiv is pointing out (though, these are the ones that Sangh parivar wants its supporters to be angry about), he is talking about the electoral placations. Now, even Shiv would agree that much of the Hindutva thought has to do with Brahmanical hegemony, to quote a 'Left' idiom, and if so what about the caste based reservations violating the sense of fairness of – no, not a majority, but a dominant minority! Electoral politics compels candidates to seek support by hook or by crook. There is a large scale corruption in the whole process. Money, liquor, drugs, violence, everything goes. Then there is casteism and communalism. The question is what are the bottomlines that must not be crossed. The Sangh ideology has successfully penetrated large sections of OBCs and Dalits, specially in North India, with what – by giving them a false majoritarian identity and then instilling in them the anger against the violation of their sense of fairness about relations between the so-called religious communities, the Hindus and the Muslims. Pray, is it wrong to care for the minorities? What are the principles in this regard in our great tradition, some features of which Shiv elaborates in his article? If it is not wrong to worry about minorities, and keeping in mind facts on the miserable condition of minorities as detailed for instance, by the Sachhar committee, then why is a great scholar so perturbed that some parties claim to be caring for the minorities? Interesting. In any case, is it not irresponsible to add to the rant of electoral placations without mentioning the details? Instead of contributing to false notions like minorities are given undue privileges, we should be concerned that the minorities in this country are insecure and it is this which makes them vulnerable to exploitation, electorally or otherwise. We should be concerned that the minorities still live with a low quality of life and poor educational standards and the progressive voices from within them have no power.
Shiv's interpretation that 'The majority felt coerced by secular correctness which they saw either as empty or meaningless' is one way of looking at it. The other is that the existential angst that continued suffering from poverty and exploitation causes in any human being, makes most of us vulnerable to the idea of a modern Nation-state linked with a majoritarian way of life that necessarily looks for an enemy within, Jews in Germany, Hindus in Bangaldesh or Pakistan and Muslims in India. It is this insecurity that Modi and the Sangh were able to consolidate. It has nothing to do with 'the cosmic way religion impregnated the everydayness of their lives'. No, the majority has no such fear of coercion by the 'secular correctness', they are hardly even touched by it. On the contrary, the basic human urge of love and altruism is constantly challenged by the bigotry all around cultivated by the Sangh Parivar and their cohorts.
Then Shiv gets back to what his scholarship is known for – the rediscovery of our religions and our sciences. But is it sufficient to say that ' Indian religions were perpetually dialogic' forgetting that in practice, they also reinforced with brutality the institutions that dehumanised large sections of society? While there are many good things about the dialogue of medical systems in our tradition, can we forget why the 'Guptasharmas' had to be 'gupta' (secret)? Indeed we are not like some of the European countries, where religion is just a small part of one's life, but that does not mean that the religion that we live with is all spiritual and uplifting. Any one waking up in the morning anywhere in India can see this, and hear this, from the loud blast, by the poor quality audio loudspeakers installed on varieties of places of worship, that destroys the morning serenity. It can be safely asserted that religion has mostly an oppressive presence in our lives, specially in the lives of the marginalised. That the 'Left' in this country has hardly been a champion of the separation of church and state is well-known; any one can dig up the numerous news items on CPIM ministers inaugurating Puja mandaps in West Bengal. What are we talking about? The bogey of 'Left' that exists only in the rhetoric of academic campuses? My God, from Shiv's article, one would think that we just got rid of the Stalin era from India!
Shiv's emphasis on ' Christianity that was continuously at odds with science' is presumably meant to remind us that secularism is a western idea. True, but is the idea of a modern Nation-state identified with Hindutva an Indian idea? Was Hitler, the source of inspiration for the Sanghis, an Indian?
It is true that some of us find it difficult to accept that practising scientists often mix their religious beliefs with there professional life activities. But to suggest that this has any impact on the larger societal dynamics is absurd. To start with, there are hardly any atheists among Indian scientists and by and large all scientific bodies are extremely conservative. Go to any National conference and see how much time the scientists spend talking about Modi and the Gujarat development.
I thought I write poetry, but I do not understand what Shiv means by 'There is a sense of snobbery and poetry'! And the illiteracy he mentions that 'religion, especially Christianity shaped the cosmologies of science' is not quite fitting. More than anyone else, he knows that the prevalence of flow of knowledge, that eventually became science, across cultures, was quite common and much wider in the last two millennia than the extent scholars believed it to be in the last century. Besides, if he is insisting on minding the distinction between Christianity and our religions, which anyway were not much different form pagan religions elsewhere in the world, then why should we worry about Indian scientists' being unaware of how Christianity shaped the cosmologies of science!
Shiv's attempt to portray secularism as the demon that the poor middle-classes were waiting to be overthrown, is utter nonsense. What kind of lie is this that ' The activism of Hindutva groups was treated as sinister but the fundamentalism of other religions was often treated as benign and as a minoritarian privilege.'? The words speak of a sinister design. The fact is that there is a Narendra Modi in each of us. There is a communal orientation of our minds, that is vulnerable to exploitation. Modi and the Sanghis were able to consolidate this with most of the 31% of voters - the rest of the work was done by the ten thousand crores of capital poured in to buy the media. With as overwhelming a majority in population, that the political entity called 'Hindu' has in India, it is only natural that Hindutva will be more noticed here, just like the fundamentalism in Islam is more noticed by liberals in Pakistan and Bangldesh or Iran.
It is very interesting that Shiv refers to the incidents of Ganesha statues drinking milk. I was at that time the convener of a science forum in Chandigarh. Responding to a lot of pressure from friends, I sent a letter to the press (it was published as a letter to the editor in 'The Tribune'). It had three itemised statements. I pointed out that the idea of a religious idol drinking milk is in not a subject of scientific investigation. For whatever we do following a scientific method will not be acceptable in the domain of faith. We requested those indulging in feeding milk to Lord Ganesha that they should try not to waste milk and remember that their faith will be noticed even if they use a spoon of milk with some water. We asked people to be concerned about children and patients in hospitals who need milk. Notice how different it was from the cynic reaction that Shiv points out in his article. Here I am, a believer in science and secularism. Interesting.
It is sad that today intellectuals like Shiv are equating opposing Modi with science and modernity. In a way, they are doing a great service to science. After all, much of what Modi used to say before 2002 will not be erased. His reference to Muslims inevitably used to be in derogatory and often threatening terms – 'Ham paanch hamaare pachees' was a rant we do not forget. After he became the chief minister, he was careful, but not without a loose end every once in a while. There is enough evidence available, that surely Shiv cannot be oblivious of. If science gives us the courage to resist such bigotry, good for us and good for science.