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Atishi Drops Marlena

Atishi Drops Marlena

Who has not heard about “Romeo and Juliet”, the central characters of the Shakespearean romantic play by the same title? Early on in the play and in a very lovey-dovey mood, Juliet asks Romeo, “What's in a name? That which we call a rose/ By any other name would smell as sweet.” Few may remember that their full names are Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet.

They are like the famous star-crossed lovers Salim and Anarkali. They are doomed from the start as members of two warring families. Here Juliet tells Romeo that a name is an artificial and meaningless convention, and that she loves the person who is called "Montague", not the Montague name and not the Montague family. 

Romeo, out of his passion for Juliet, rejects his family name and vows, as Juliet asks, to "deny (his) father" and instead be "new baptised" as Juliet's lover. This one short line encapsulates the central struggle and tragedy of the play and is one of Shakespeare's most famous quotes. It can be called one of the highest poetic utterances like his “to be or not to be”.

The play was a prescribed text for me while I was at college. I remembered the famous quote when I heard that Aam Aadmi Party leader Atishi Marlena has dropped Marlena from her name as she prepares to fight for the East Delhi Lok Sabha seat, now held by the BJP’s Maheish Girri. One report said that she was asked to do so by the AAP, while another said that it was her own decision.

As a wag said, the moment a child is born, she is given a religion and a name which she has to defend all her life. It is literally true in the case of “Marlena” whose parents, Vijay Kumar Singh and Tripta Wahi, coined a new name by taking “Mar” from Karl Marx and “Len” from VI Lenin. Had her parents been more conventional, she would have been named Atishi Singh, revealing her Rajput identity.

I knew the secret of her name, as she was a classmate of my son at St. Stephen’s College. What has created problem for her is that the BJP had started spreading rumours that she was a Christian. By succumbing to pressure and dropping the name, she has proved that in India of the 21st century, one should not only be a Hindu but should also have a typical Hindu name to win an election!

I have a great admiration for Marlena, as she had tried to convert government schools in Delhi into centres of excellence in her capacity as Advisor to Education Minister Manish Sisodia. That is something which the BJP government at the Centre could not tolerate, and she was removed from the post. Incidentally, she was drawing a salary of only one rupee per month.

The report that she was forced to drop the name gained currency when Ashutosh, who unsuccessfully contested against Union minister Harsh Vardhan and former Union minister Kapil Sibal, on the AAP ticket in 2014 and who parted company with the party, claimed that he was forced to use his caste name while contesting the election. He had never used it in his long career as a journalist.

Is this the kind of change that the AAP promised to bring about in the country if it is voted to power? By succumbing to pressure, Marlena has only perpetuated the stereotype that a Christian-sounding name is a political liability in India. She should have known that in the 1980 election in New Delhi, Atal Bihari Vajpayee got a margin of only 2000 votes against CM Stephen of the Congress.

Stephen, named after the proto-martyr in Christianity, like her alma mater St. Stephen’s, did not drop his name to fight against Vajpayee. I have heard both and I can say without batting my eyelid, that Stephen had greater oratorical skills than Vajpayee. While Vajpayee could speak effectively only in Hindi, Stephen could speak both in Malayalam and English. To quote the wag again: “You can enjoy listening to Vajpayee for two hours but at the end of it, if you are asked to say in brief what he spoke, you would be at sixes and sevens”. I can write a whole column based on Stephen’s speech which I reported for The Hitavada in the eighties when he was the Union Minister for Communications. He had come to Bhopal to inaugurate the new office of the Postmaster General.

Journalist AR Wig, who was my colleague at the Hindustan Times, and who knew all the BJP leaders of Delhi pretty well, once told the late P. Tharyan and me, how the Sangh Parivar managed to defeat Stephen. During the campaign, it was clear that Stephen had an upper hand. So a devious strategy was developed. 

On the polling day, a Sangh Parivar person would stand in the queue and say a little loudly that “Stephen is a good leader but the only problem with him is that he wants beef for all his meals”. The rumour was strong enough to influence 1000 voters to vote against Stephen, paving the way for Vajpayee’s victory.

For Stephen, it was an honourable defeat. No, he did not go back to Idukki in Kerala to win an election. Instead, he went to Karnataka, won a Lok Sabha seat and came back to Parliament where he was once the Leader of Opposition. No, his Christian tag was not a liability for him in Karnataka, though he did not speak a word of Kannada.

Marlena should have known that it is better to lose on principles than to win on falsehood. True, the BJP is capable of spreading such canards. The party has at its head a past-master in this. My reference is to none else than Narendra Modi. He wanted immediate election after the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat so that he could sweep the poll.

Alas, the Chief Election Commissioner at that time, James Michael Lyngdoh, played spoilsport. He wanted to hold the polls only after taking all the precautionary steps. In public meeting after public meeting, Modi began attacking Lyngdoh claiming that he and Sonia Gandhi met at the Cathedral Church in Delhi every Sunday and discussed ways to defeat Modi. It was an utter lie. 

She never attended any church service, as she had adopted the religion of her husband. As regards Lyngdoh, he was an atheist who would quote the Rig Veda and ask, “Whence was God produced? Whence is this creation? The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe”.

He may even quote Swami Vivekananda who explained atheism in a better way:  "As certain religions of the world say that a man who does not believe in a Personal God outside of himself is an atheist, so the Vedanta says, a man who does not believe in himself is an atheist. Not believing in the glory of our own soul is what the Vedanta calls atheism”.

How does Modi, whose educational qualifications are a top state secret which can be revealed only at great peril to the revealer, know that a Marlena can be a Hindu and James Michael an atheist? Recently, Modi gave a sane advice that the social media should not be used to spread lies when he uses the public address system to spread all kinds of lies like no Congress leader visited Savarkar when he was in the Cellular Jail in Andamans as if visitors were allowed there.

Marlena is mistaken if she thinks that a Christian-sounding name is a liability in India. It is not. Everyone knew that Mother Teresa was a Catholic nun, born an Albanian. Yet, she enjoyed a cult status, especially in Bengal, where William Carey, the great Baptist missionary of the 18th century, who did pioneering work in Bengali, is known popularly as Carey Baba.

Of course, the RSS cannot digest this fact and that is why it tries to denigrate Mother Teresa. Indian voters are not as fickle-minded as the AAP thinks. George Mathew Fernandes was born a Christian. In fact, he was trained to be a Catholic priest like Union Minister KJ Alphons. He dropped his middle name, not to hide his religion, but for reasons of brevity.

When Fernandes took on the Congress’ tallest leader in Maharashtra, SK Patil, in the 1967 Lok Sabha election from South Bombay constituency, the Mangalorean did not consider his religion a liability. He caused an electoral earthquake when he defeated the Maratha strongman.

He contested the 1977 election from the jail and won the Muzaffarpur Lok Sabha seat by a thumping margin. The number of Christians in the constituency could be counted by a nursery student. 

Unlike Congress chief Rahul Gandhi, who keeps visiting temples and is all set to go to Kailash-Manasarovar to prove that he is more Hindu than Modi, Fernandes never tried to hide his religion, though he was no longer a regular church-goer.

Bihar is said to be the most caste-conscious state. Fernandes disproved the belief that the Biharis voted on the basis of caste and religion. Long before him, hotelier MS Oberoi won an election from undivided Bihar on the Jharkhand Party ticket, though there was not a single Oberoi in the constituency. Interestingly, he was fielded there by a Christian and Olympian Jaipal Singh, who was given the rare privilege of staying free of cost in any Oberoi hotel.

It is the grand old Congress which strengthened the notion that only a Hindu could win in a Hindu-majority constituency. Take the case of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, education minister in the first Nehru Cabinet. He was not just a Muslim leader like Gandhi was not just a Hindu leader. He was one of the tallest Congress leaders of pre-Independence India.

Azad was president of the Congress when the Quit India movement was launched. Historians cannot deny the fact that Vajpayee played a nefarious role in the movement. In short, Azad was not just a Muslim leader, whom MA Jinnah called a “Congress’ showpiece”. Yet, when the first Lok Sabha election was held in 1952, the party fielded him from Muslim-majority Rampur, instead of from a Hindu area.

Why go that far back into history? When Rajiv Gandhi wanted to field MJ Akbar, who is now a minister in the Modi government doing God-knows-what, in the elections, he chose a Muslim-majority constituency in Bihar for him. 

There could not have been a better secular candidate than Akbar. He did not write about the Islamic doctrines or the Islamic law but about contemporary national and international issues. He did researches on how Jawaharlal Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten were found in a long lip-lock. His wife is a Syrian Christian from Kerala. Yet, the Congress thought that the Hindus would not vote for him, though he was named after one of the most “secular” Mughal rulers. Actually, he could have won from any constituency, given his popularity as a journalist and writer.

One mistake journalist BG Varghese did was to contest from Mavelikkara in Kerala in the 1977 election. Had he contested on the Janata Party ticket from anywhere in the North, he would have won hands down. Marlena may find it interesting to know that the Muslim League in Kerala fielded one Raman on the party ticket in a Muslim-majority Legislative Assembly constituency in North Kerala. No, he did not change his name to garner the Muslim votes. Raman won the seat with a large majority.

There was a time when political and social leaders stopped using their caste names. Mannathu Padmanabhan was one of the tallest leaders of Kerala. He was also a great orator like fellow Malayali Swami Ranganathananda, about whom BJP leader LK Advani waxes eloquent in his autobiography. It was he who founded the Nair Service Society. He united the Nairs under the banner of the NSS. Yet, he dropped his own caste name “Pillai”.

In the eighties, Dr Jagannath Mishra as Chief Minister of Bihar announced that he would thereafter be known as just Dr Jagannath. But once he lost the post and contested the next election, he re-attached his caste tail to his name to garner the votes of Maithil Brahmins.

Unlike Dr Mishra, Mannathu Padmanabhan never used the caste name once he forsook it. Before I conclude, let me narrate an anecdote. I had a Hindu friend who had a typical Muslim name. The name helped him to get a job and promotions in a Saudi Arabian newspaper.

His father was as innovative as Marlena’s father. He had three sons. He gave one a Christian name, another a Muslim name and yet another a Hindu name. My friend was the one who got the Muslim name. He found it to his advantage when he worked in Saudi Arabia.

Marlena could have proudly said that her father was not a casteist but an internationalist who dared to combine a Jewish name and a Russian name to create her name and if it sounded Christian, so be it. To paraphrase the quote with which I began this column, “ What's in a name? That whom we call Marlena/ By any other name would smell as Aam Aadmi (mango person)”.

( ajphilip@gmail.com)

(Published on 03rd September 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 36)