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Heritage Deniers

Heritage Deniers

When entire communities and countries are striving to get some cultural site of theirs recognized as part of World Heritage, some self-appointed connoisseurs of Indian culture downgrade the position of Taj Mahal, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It has turned out to be the ‘Shock of the World.’

Adityanath Yogi swore that Taj Mahal was not representative of the Indian culture, but Gita, Ramayana and Yoga. No one is disputing the contribution that these great books and traditions have made in shaping Indian minds and inculcating disciplined habits in our society; but disowning Taj Mahal, a unique product of Indian hands and hearts, could only shock the rest of the world. 

We need not be surprised. Our collective ‘historic sense’ has always been weak, though we will not be ready to admit it. Curzon found in his time that “beautiful remains were tumbling into irretrievable ruin simply for the want of a directing hand...” He created the Department of Archaeology for the conservation of cultural heritage. But even today, there is no conscious treasuring of the things of historical worth. Every historic event sinks into the ‘unconscious’ as ‘Maya.’ Many of our historical monuments remain neglected and museums are maintained below international standards. Original items have been found stolen and sold.  Yogi’s cultural and historical sensitivities do not seem to go beyond of this general standard.

Sangeet Som was more aggressive in his vocabulary. He called the Taj a “blot” on the face of Indian culture. We cannot play with history in this manner. There are some countries in Europe where ‘Holocaust Deniers’ are penalized. Heritage-deniers would earn the wrath of the entire nation. They would be called Vandals, if not primitives, barbarians, or savages. In India, insensitive Philistines are lionized for their reckless vocabulary. Any ugly name can be assigned to any historic figure, as long as he/she belongs to an indefensible minority community.

When someone describes Muslim rulers as “looters,” there is no protest. So, if we renounce our historical heritages one by one, we shall stand naked like the Trishul at the end. Omar Abdullah, the former CM of Kashmir, exploded in despair, asking the Prime Minister not to speak from the Red Fort on Independence day but from Nehru stadium, if Babar, Akbar, Aurangazeb were all ‘traitors.’ Not only shall we have to disown Taj Mahal and Red Fort, but also the Parliament House, India Gate, and New Delhi itself; the Grand Trunk Road of Sher Shah, and the administrative structures and silver coinage he introduced, the Universities that the British introduced. It is being suggested that even the Asoka Chakra is a reproduction of Persian models. We shall ultimately be left with the lanky mammals that dominate the thoroughfares and urban agglomerations as our sole cultural heritage.

I shall not refer to the personal garb of the PM nor the political garb of Yogi, all made according to foreign measurements. If we are against everything foreign, why is the 182-metres high statue of Sardar Patel that Modiji plans for Gujarat costing 3,000 crores, is not being cast in Gujarat or Gorakhpur, but in the Jiangxi Tongqing foundry in eastern China? Apart from its foreignness, put this expenditure in relationship to the 50% newborn deaths in India, pollution toll of 2.5 million which is the highest in the world, and the fact that India occupies the 97th position on the Global Hunger Index, even behind Nepal and Myanmar. Those who disown Taj Mahal, are they willing to accept these miseries as our heritage, since they are of our own creation?

Returning to history, Vinay Katiyar, the founder of the RSS youth wing Bajrang Dal, affirms that Taj Mahal is built on a Shiva temple, though he is not able to produce any evidence. A similar claim is made for Ayodhya. Similar claims are being made about many other mosques and churches. What the claimants forget is that most Hindu temples are standing over ancient Buddhist shrines, and that these in turn had come up on earlier tribal holy places.

If earlier ownership is the strongest claim, then, nearly all the sites of the present sacred edifices will have to be surrendered to the original owners of those places... those who owned them long before the colonial expansion and Islamic invasions, and even before the Aryan invasion. Taking these things to their logical consequence, the Americas will return to the Indios and all Indian spaces to the indigenous tribes of the subcontinent, the Adivasis of the land.  Is Vinay Katiyar suggesting that we roll back history and that the whole of humanity return to the caves near Tanganyika in Africa?

Yogi had second thoughts about his hasty statements disowning the Taj when his own supporters seemed upset.  His recent visit to the Taj and the dramatic wielding of the broom are mere display and reluctant concession to public opinion. Taj Mahal is beautiful, he said, because Hindus worked for it, and even shed their blood. Though we are not sure whether that is the best criterion for judging a piece of art, we agree that Hindus worked for it at every level, the humblest among them paying the highest price. But this happened in the case of every great human enterprise, whether it be the erection of the Pyramids, Versailles Palace, or the Great China Wall. The poorest who made the greatest contribution are not remembered at all.

Hindu kings too took advantage of their humble subjects in achieving great things, Dalits among them bearing the greatest burdens. Yogiji, in any case, does not seem to be emotionally very close to the Dalits, except for providing soap before they come to see him. In the Assamese language there is a saying that one who spits at the sky will have his face soiled. That is what has really happened. Those who speak irresponsibly about others and against their achievements become diminished persons.  The best way to humiliate the Muslims is not to insult Akbar, or to discredit Christians malign Mother Teresa. These great personalities need no defence. The ball bounces back. The spittle falls back on your face.

However, the superficial spokespersons who expose themselves and get hurt are merely external agents of sharper brains that wish to polarise our society and plant seeds of hatred into the hidden spaces of our collective identity.  Psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar reflects deeply on the present scenario in his “ The Colours of Violence” (Viking, New Delhi, 1995). He sees a new Hindu identity in creation, quite different from the old. 

Astute architects of this identity believe in a ‘pedagogy of doings’ for promoting polarisation more than of speaking. They use blood-curdling images, crude metaphors, unfeeling epic references, mythological allusions, symbolic resonances, and pitiless evocations, to sharpen the divide. Indifference to one’s culture is broken when something like the demolition of Babri Masjid takes place, involving lakhs of people. Caste-based internal division is covered up for a while to give vent to common anger against other communities, e.g. in the name of cow-protection, to penalize a Muslim community, or against love jihad.  Thus, cleverly constructed cultural association burrows deep into the psychic recesses, appealing to the collective identity of the majority community and re-creating it.

Shared fantasies of the Epics (Mahabharata, Ramayana) are more important than shared ideas. It was extremely revealing that Yaswant Sinha’s recent economic arguments against the BJP Government were refuted, not with facts and figures from the economic discipline but with stories and images from the Mahabharata Epic.  The Cultural symbols are deftly used for emotion-building. The architects of this new culture in India need Sangeet Soms and Vinay Katiyars to re-hurt collective memories and sustain anger.  Politics of emotion is the result. Academic issues are solved in the street, by lynch-mobs, vahinis, and senas, not through sustained intellectual efforts in Universities. ‘Political correctness’ is shaped according to Saffron codes.

Any perceptive person can notice a gradual build-up of collective emotions over the years: the televised films of Ramayana and Mahabharata depicting India as a land of warrior races, the projection of deities like Rama and Hindu rulers like Prithviraj and Shivaji as sturdy fighting men, exaltation of the Armed Forces, the undefined roles played by Anna Hazares, Ram Rahims, Patanjalis, Ramdevs, gurus and godmen. As the Chinese speak of “Marxism with Chinese characteristics,” we can speak of “Majoritarianism with Indian characteristics,” which amounts to ‘carefully crafted chaos.’ Trishul-wielding devotees, who are no more than brain-washed illiterates, are made to act like Don Quixote flying at the windmill and become the laughing stock of the world.

Sudhir Kakar sees the danger of stoking “group narcissism” verging on “pathology,” the “Hindu garv” which constructs an inflated grandiosity. This only leads to an inferiority complex in the community before the Indian reality of below the average performance in very many fields, including health and education. What arise in consequence are collective self-doubt, self-hatred, self-created fear, and the question ‘Who is to blame?” The minorities, surely!  And the reaction comes promptly with the aggressive performance of “narcissistic rage”... the destruction of Babri Mazjid, dramatized by persons like L. K. Advani and Uma Bharati. The prediction of Kakar, “I am afraid Ayodhya is not the end but only the beginning” is only proving true.

Similar dramas have been going on for a long time. Thomas Blom Hansen, a Stanford University Anthropologist, says, Bal Thackeray turned mob violence into an effective language of India’s daily politics. When Muslims and Dalits fall victims, the police stand by, not to interfere with the majority community. Neutral statements like the following are revealing, “Only a spontaneously angry crowd gets taken seriously, especially if it is Hindu.” Mob-violence has become legitimate in India’s ‘non-liberal’ society: performing anger, destroying public property, ransacking offices, beating up opponents, burning books of social critics, eliminating independent thinkers.

Hansen feels that “...the staging of spontaneous popular anger is one of the key political techniques in contemporary India and no other political force masters this better than the BJP and its allies.” The BJP has weaponised civil society by making a faceless vigilante ‘Hindu anger’ an ever present threat. It is no more an expression of irrationality, but “the most legitimate expression of a Hindu majoritarian nation.” Its aim is to stir up an enemy within the country and retain another at the borders.  A Muslim stereotype helps at one moment, a Dalit one at another, a Pakistan- or Doklam-related one at another still. An enemy is always needed. The Armed forces are Modiji’s development agents. “Spending time with the forces gives me new energy” says Modiji.

The Founding Fathers of the Nation acted differently. Sardar Vallabhai Patel worked for the integration of India, not its division. Pandit Nehru fostered an inclusive polity. Mahatma Gandhi roused enthusiasm for shared ideals, common interests, collective achievements. The pride he fostered was about the joy of belonging together. He too taught through symbols, through action: the Spinning Wheel, the Salt March, Ashram living, days of silence.  These and others were calculated to inspire people and bring all communities together. His support for the Khilafat movement touched the Muslims. His dining with Dalits won Dalit hearts. His respect for the Beatitudes edified the Christians. He never took his unhappiness against others, he took it upon himself.

These leaders were men of stature who re-interpreted history so as to bring healing to collective hurts and painful memories. They were surely aware of rulers who oppressed and aspirants to the throne who played foul. As Muslims were hard upon the Hindus, the higher castes were hard upon the lower. Saivites and Vaishnvites clashed. Sivaji who had Brahmins in prison showed respect to the Quran. Aurangazeb’s dying advice to his son was to respect the places of worship of other communities. There were ambitious Hindus who betrayed their co-religionists to Muslim rulers. There were Hindu and Muslim princes who colluded with  British imperialists. ‘Jagath Seths and Mir Jafars’ abounded in various forms and in various periods. There were Nawabs and princes who pledged “Eternal Loyalty” to the British Crown on the eve of Independence. Strangely, the less patriotic folks of earlier times seem to be more fanatically patriotic in our days in saffron garb and trishul fervour.

History is complex. It constitutes a painful reading; it humiliates and crushes everyone in turn, every community. All have contributed a great deal, and it is good to recognize that. All have acted selfishly at weaker moments; it is good to overlook that. Healing historic memories, reconciliation and mutual acceptance are always possible. Asoka’s Edict XII says, “A man must not do reverence to his sect and disparage that of another....Or else, he hurts his own sect, and does disservice to the sects of others.”  Asoka grew to greatness by admitting his fault. This door is open to all of us. The greatest service we can render to the nation is to recognize everyone’s contribution and proclaim that we all belong together.

(Published on 20th November 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 47)