| Ominous portents
Election preparations are in their dog days: even filmi personalities lined up for media headlines have lost their shine and act as fillers for empty space. Political news is now at the level of low comedy, but has ominous portents. Yet the contest for the Indian mind is not far from the efforts of the sangh parivar to retain power. The elements of farce were introduced with the ridiculous goings-on in Mumbai. A book by an American scholar unknown in professional Indological studies, James S. Laine, about the social imagery and parentage of Shivaji, the Indian guerrilla-resistance fighter against northern imperialist penetration into the Maratha desh, and a library in Pune, where it was displayed, were vandalized by a chauvinist mob. The book is surely no better or no worse than the sociological rehashes of Indian history in the pre- and post-colonial periods, elevated to the status of “cultural studies” or “identity studies” by the imprimatur of Chicago or Harvard. It perhaps noted the Hindu national icon, with some warts in his personality or imagery of power. The excuse given by the state home minister of the ruling Congress-Nationalist Congress Party coalition when he banned distribution of the book was that it was exciting violent sentiments by besmirching a national hero.
Book-banning is an authoritarian way of brushing contestations over social ideology under the carpet. Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress used it as a shield to deflect the Shia interdiction of Salman Rushdie’s irreverence about much that is sacred in the Quran, so that Muslim tensions after the Shah Bano affair could be defused.
Many people who were disturbed that the state was intervening in matters of the freedom of the mind remained silent, hoping that in the interests of “communal amity”, no serious harm would be done to the liberty of thought. This expediency bedevils much of the less serious peripheries of secularist thought. It bore bitter fruit when the government of West Bengal, over-reacting to journalistic gossip about which crony was being singed by Taslima Nasreen’s tell-all serial memoirs, stopped publication of one of the volumes; giving the reason that it might cause Hindu-Muslim tension. This argument had not been previously used about her even more forthright statements in the past about Muslim men.
We still kept our eyes and ears covered.
A breach was opened for those who never hid their view that critics of the sangh parivar and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s communalist rewriting of Indian history are “pseudo-secularists”. It came to the gaze of no less an eagle eye than that of the Great Trimmer, A.B. Vajpayee. Consonant with the parivar’s “good governance” strategy of elders talking moderation and trimming their sails to winds blowing from the four quarters, leaving the urchins of the extended family, such as the Katiyars, Singhals, or Dalmiyas, to break windows with their wild swipes to maintain a reputation for a truculent movement whenever sweet words failed, the prime minister wanted book-banning to be dropped as policy, thus shifting the onus of liberalism on critics of his own illiberal party.
An interesting extension of this political ping-pong, of carrying a war of words into the opponent’s lines on the latter’s terms, was the use by the Bharatiya Janata Party leader of the opposition in the Maharashtra state assembly and the previous BJP deputy chief minister, Gopinath Munde, of the same tactic of insinuation and sneer. In a rowdy session in the assembly at which the home minister, R.R. Patil, defended the ban on Laine as being in the national public interest, he said that on the same grounds, Rajiv Gandhi’s 1986 edition of the Discovery of India of Jawaharlal Nehru should be also banned; it had derogatory comments on Shivaji, comments which he said were to be found in the first edition published in 1946, but deleted in subsequent editions.
Consider the implication. If pushed subsequently, Munde could aver that he had not said that Discovery of India should be banned, but that it could be banned if Laine’s book was. If newshounds sniffed a potential story about “the BJP banning Discovery of India”, it would be treated as a mere black joke. Then it would not be the sangh parivar which would be the loser, since the latter was already attacking Nehruvian ideas. Its anonymous foot soldiers had wasted no time, when the elections were announced, in spreading among Indians in the Americas and Africa, a virus-type email salaciously detailing every filthy story about peccadilloes in the Nehru lineage, which his secretary, Mathai, had conjured up.
Another issue hovers in the background, the assault on academic autonomy by Joshi’s human resource development ministry with regard to the Indian Institutes of Management. When it began, senior managers complacently thought that this assault on market freedom for admission fees would lead to the captains of industry toppling Joshi. The captains of industry may still be biding their time. But then, so are the all non-committed voters who still say Vajpayeeka vikalp nahi. Large chunks of the Indian population may feel that they will not be scorched when the furnaces blow against the Congress and the left. Do the small parties that appear unconcerned about the assault on democracy, autonomy and freedom of opinion, which the NDA is accessory to, not even think of who it is that they are clinging to in their uncontrollable desire for petty positions and pelf'