Editorial/Diamonds are for everyone
All cosy in a joint family
Letters to the Editor

Over the years, many countries have lost their marbles. Now some are clamouring for them back — as well as other artifacts lost, stolen or misplaced over the centuries. Efforts to retrieve lost cultural treasures came into sharp focus following a recent showing that most United Kingdom parliamentarians supported returning the Parthenon marbles — also known as the Elgin marbles — to Greece. This inspired a group of Indians, including 25 parliamentarians, to make a similar pitch for the Kohinoor diamond, presently ensconced in the Tower of London. Germany and Russia are arguing over various art objects stolen by the Red Army after World War II. Even Holocaust reparations have a cultural side. Galleries and museums are being asked to return artwork and antiques taken from murdered Jews.

Much flag waving and moralizing surrounds such debate. However, international law favours the party with possession. Legal experts note that Lord Elgin had written permission to remove the Parthenon marbles by the Ottomans. The Indian case for the Kohinoor is even more tenuous. Contrary to the restorationist view, there is reason to believe Maharaja Dhuleep Singh gave away the Kohinoor to win brownie points with the British. It is also unclear who exactly is heir to the property of a royal family whose empire no longer exists and whose capital was Lahore. The late maharaja has more than a few descendants ready to make a claim. The Punjab government and the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee both say the diamond is theirs.

It is pointless for New Delhi to try and get back all the subcontinental relics strewn across the world. The vast bulk of these items are beyond repatriation. When countries unilaterally return artifacts, the motive is normally politics. Mr Boris Yeltsin supported legislation allowing Germany to reclaim the art pieces looted by Russian soldiers because he wanted a new post-Cold War relationship. Mr Vladimir Putin, however, supports a law slamming the door on such returns. India can ask for certain artifacts, but its case must be based not on primitive nationalism but on solid aesthetic grounds. The strongest Greek argument for the Parthenon marbles was that they were an integral part of a larger artistic work. India could make a similar case for, say, the Amravati marbles of Andhra Pradesh.

All works of art and relics of antiquity are part of a combined human cultural heritage. Museums and galleries are exciting because they have so many objects from different parts of the world. A parochial museum is generally a poor museum. People are uninterested in seeing what their neighbours painted. The ideal would be for all the world’s cultural artifacts to cease to be “national”, to circulate endlessly around the world from one museum and gallery to another. The restorationist drive runs counter to this ideal. Because of legal problems, institutions like the J. Paul Getty Museum are now refusing to buy or even display artifacts whose ownership is in dispute. This does not help governments. Instead, it drives artifacts into private collections. This is the worst possible world: mankind’s cultural heritage squirrelled away behind locked doors.

India and other countres should push for a breakdown of the various barriers that make the free flow of cultural artifacts between nations difficult. In the third world a key barrier is the lack of high technology storage and preservation facilities. One goal of an open cultural policy would be to provide such facilities to developing countries. The result would enrich everyone concerned — and help preserve the artifacts. The Kohinoor is a poor representative of India’s cultural heritage. Its beauty is more a testament to nature than the human mind. However, there are plenty of more metaphorical jewels that need to be preserved, displayed and shared with the world as a whole. Cultural diamonds should be forever and for everyone.    

The last fortnight’s newspapers supply us with several examples of how the sponsors of Hindutva deal with religious difference while simultaneously protecting their basic position that the definitive Indian is a Hindu. There have been reports in newspapers about “Hindu” encounters with Sikhs, neo-Buddhists and Christians.

The one that got the most newspaper space was a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh front organization, the Sikh San-gathan, manned by pro-sangh parivar Sikhs. There was controversy about the Sikh Sangathan because the RSS chief, K.S. Sudarshan, argued that Sikhism was distinct from Hinduism but not separate from it. This provoked some Sikhs to demand that the Akali Dal distance itself from the Bharatiya Janata Party, or at least distance itself from Sudarshan’s position. The Akali Dal, currently in alliance with the BJP, tried to stay clear of the controversy.

Sudarshan’s position was consistent with the RSS’s long time stance of seeing “Indic” religions — Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism — as Hindu emanations still joined to the parent faith. Thus the Sikh community was the sword arm of an otherwise vanquished Hinduism during the dark times of Muslim rule. Sudarshan reportedly cited the Dasham Granth attributed to Gobind Singh to support his position. Hostile Sikhs questioned the authenticity of the attribution; Sikh historians argued that scriptural arguments apart, the Sikh community had, in the course of the 20th century, steadily evolved away from Hinduism especially after the control of gurdwaras was legally wrested from Hindu mahants in 1925.

Sudarshan’s position seemed part of a larger sangh parivar plan to coopt the Sikhs. The RSS, a newspaper report claimed recently, would ask Hindus in Punjab to return Punjabi, not Hindi, as their mother tongue during the current census. This is interesting because the RSS actively mobilized Punjabi Hindus in the Sixties to do the opposite (claim their mother tongue was Hindi) in an attempt to create a Hindu, Hindi-speaking state out of the Punjab, namely Haryana. This change of stance would affect Haryana’s chances in the disputed Fazilka and Abohar districts but the RSS had obviously decided that integrating Sikhs into a larger Hindutva coalition was worth a few disgrun-tled Haryanvis.

Also, while the sangh parivar was naturally opposed to Sikh militancy and separatism during the bad old days, it was the Congress that was in power and took the decisions to violently suppress Sikh terrorism. So the Congress was the villain of the piece for most Sikhs while the sangh parivar, having kept its nose creditably clean during the murderous Sikh pogroms of 1984, had political credibility and some room to manoeuvre.

The front organization established by the parivar to woo neo-Buddhist Dalits represents an even more intriguing move. The RSS knows that it has an upper caste profile; it knows that the upper caste Hindu whom it has traditionally represented is the enemy of the Dalit movement and it also knows that B.R. Ambedkar tried to lead Dalits into self-esteem by leading them out of Hinduism. That a Hindu organization should be trying to bring neo-Buddhists into its fold and devoting its energies to the cause of coopting Ambedkar, the sworn enemy of Hindu hegemony, seems odd and doomed to failure. Why should Dalits be persuaded by this move?

Whether it works or not, there is a logic in the RSS move. We need to remember that Ambedkar led Dalits into Buddhism after much looking around. He considered Islam and rejected it because it would provoke too much hostility and also Ambedkar wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about that faith. If Dalits became Muslims, it would certainly spite upper caste Hindus but it would also destroy Dalit identity because becoming a Muslim in India, given Partition, was such a charged business that Dalits would stop being Dalits and simply become Muslims. Christianity was not a plausible option because rightly or wrongly Christianity was associated with colonialism and India had just become independent. Buddhism seemed a suitable faith because it had been sidelined by mainstream Hinduism in much the same way as Dalits had been marginalized by Hindus.

Nearly 50 years after the event, the RSS is ready to enfold Ambedkar and Buddhism. This poses no psychological difficulty because the ordinary Hindu thinks of the Buddha in a vaguely proprietory way: as one of the 10 avatars of Vishnu the Buddha is comfortably part of his eclectic pantheon. The RSS is equally comfortable with the idea of Sikhism and Buddhism as junior members of the Hindu joint family, cadet branches of a broadly Hindu lineage.

Christians and Muslims are a different matter because they’re the fruit of alien trees. Their citizenship is conditional on good behaviour which basically means a willing subordination of their cultural preferences to a “national” culture and history defined by Hindutva. The only way the sangh parivar can deal with Muslims and Christians is either as hostile aliens or converts of Hindu stock awaiting purification. On June 3, newspapers carried a story about Christian families reconverting to Hinduism in Orissa, in the area where Graham Staines was murdered. The chief guest at the reconversion was the shankaracharya of Puri who declared that all conversions after independence were illegal and that all such converts would be reclaimed to Hinduism with “love”.

Since Buddhism is quasi-Hindu in the parivar’s view, no guarantees of good behaviour are needed. If the cost of buying into an important political constituency (the Dalits) means taking on board a minor prophet like Ambedkar, that’s all right: after all Hinduism recruited the Buddha himself; why strain at the gnat having swallowed the camel?

The approach towards the Sikhs is more emollient still. They’re keshdhari Hindus, the sword arm of the community. There is a certain pathos to this. The parivar wants Hindus to coalesce into a virile, disciplined, armed nation. Basically its metaphor for a fighting Hindu is a Sikh. The Sikhs have everything that parivar Hindus aspire to: a martial past spent fighting Muslims, a martial race certificate from the Brits when they ruled us, a strong sense of community discipline, a centralized religious organization under the gurdwara’s act, confidence, swagger and an absence of timorousness.

The sangh parivar is so unmanned by the spectre of Hindu subordination in the past that when it calls Sikhs keshdhari Hindus what it is really trying to say is that Hindus are tonsured Sikhs, pupal sardars. The RSS drills because it believes mass P.T., uniforms and discipline will restore to the community its lost manhood. Hindus in this view are the Khalsa in embryo.

These encounters with Sikhism, Buddhism and Christianity illustrate a politics founded on a sense of historical inadequacy and a corresponding need to assert a Hindu primacy in the present. But a nation is not a proving ground for the virility of dominant communities. Germans, Serbs, Sinhalas have all discovered this to their cost.

A democratic republic has a limited task: the creation of the necessary conditions for free citizenship. A notion of Indianness founded on a sense of aboriginal injury is an odd prescription for citizenship. But more than that, a Hindu identity that finds reassurance in appropriating the religious identities of others, does Hindus no favours. To want Muslims and Christians to see Hindu reflections when they look into their mirrors and then to see a Sikh when you look into your own is fine if you’re in a fairground, but it isn’t a stable foundation for a view of the world.    


Nothing royal about it

Sir — Britney Spears has been vindicated. However, a dislike for castles is not the only reason to avoid links with the British royal family ( “The pink panther”, May 7). An alive, well and now holidaying former daughter in law of the Windsors can vouchsafe for that. She now finds herself making headlines for being subject to a possible tax scrutiny by the state (“Taxman shadow creeps up on Fergie,” June 1). There is no doubt Sarah Ferguson has been particularly liberal on the financial front— remember her affair with a financial advisor and her perpetual debts. But instituting a state inquiry soon after she settled her debts makes it obvious she is suspected of fudging accounts.

Yours faithfully,
M. Chaudhuri, Calcutta

Stubbed out

Sir — Barun S. Mitra’s “Illegal smokescreen” (May 28) is a typical justification ploy smokers resort to. The author is eloquent in calling for the system to allow people to devise their own ways to combat this menace — something he refers to as “ freedom of choice”.

Smokers often do not bother about the inconvenience they cause to nonsmokers. One only needs to board a Calcutta bus to believe it. In a jampacked bus lacking proper ventilation, the driver, conductor and his helper are found smoking away to glory. The other day, I was met with arrogant glare when I cautioned a highly valued customer of a multinational bank against smoking in a nonsmoking office. It seems some men are more equal than others.

Perhaps the time has come to enforce and implement non smoking regulations more strictly in the larger interest of the public. There is no point in crowing for more freedom and choice for smokers by harping on the futility of these anti smoking regulations initiated by the government and its agencies. Half hearted attempts by the government are useless and it is upto us to wake up and convince the smoking minority to spare at least some fresh air for the rest of the populace.

Yours faithfully,
George Mathew, via email

Sir — I am surprised at Barun Mitra’s views on smoking. For nonsmokers, public smoking is always a disturbance. Mitra should realize 90 per cent of Indian women and about 50 per cent of men do not smoke. It means the smoking population is less than 30 per cent but the public places, streetcorners, railway platforms, hotels and canteens almost lead one to believe otherwise. A smoker is a chimney at your nostril level and more harmful than an factory chimney. Why does Mitra insist 70 per cent of the population should suffer because of the smoking 30 per cent?

As far as his views on liberty is concerned, if implemented, it would legitimize pornographic movies, suicides, prostitution and so on as they affect only the person involved. He also thinks control on drugs and liquor are useless. Perhaps he also wants them to be marketed freely and let people “choose”. This is preposterous.

Mitra may have a talk with the women of Andhra Pradesh. During the period of prohibition in the state, families spent more money on food and children’s education. Had it not been for the politicians’ vested interests, the step may have spelt success.

One need not explain the results of allowing drug trafficking, particularly in universities and other institutions. Mitra’s idea of liberty is more than a little skewed. The only people who might benefit from his views are private industrialists and the mafia who wish to cash upon the weaknesses of people.

Yours faithfully,
Vizayakumar, via email

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