A K. Ramanujan ends his poem, titled “Prayers to Lord Murugan”, with these lines : “Lord of answers,/ cure us at once/ of prayers.”
India’s conscience-stricken pluralists have a secular equivalent of prayers — faith in “good sense prevailing over the communal virus”. The time has come for them to cure themselves at once of this naïve faith. The virus has no intention of letting itself being prevailed upon.
The same year — 2011 — that Ramanujan’s publisher stopped selling his thought-churning essay, “Three Hundred Ramayanas”, the Delhi-based Shiksha Bachao Andolan Committee went to court against the publisher of Wendy Doniger’s acclaimed work, The Hindus: An Alternative History. The grounds were similar to those advanced against Ramanujan: Hindus felt “humiliated” by the book, which “denigrated Hindu traditions”. A little over two years later, in an out-of-court settlement, the publisher has withdrawn the book from the Indian market.
Book-bullies are a major strain of the communal virus. They go for the authors, publishers, book-stores and galleries with the glee and rapacity of a conquering horde. In likening Doniger’s detractors to the Taliban and describing the out-of-court settlement as “atrocious”, the Union minister, Jairam Ramesh, did show a backbone, but one that is rare in politics, and becoming rarer. The historian, Ramachandra Guha, has done what was expected of him. He has said that Doniger’s publisher should have taken the matter on appeal to the next higher court. It chose not to do so. Why? Because, like everyone else, publishers too are “adjusting” to the tyranny of perceived hurt, feigned injury. They are submitting, like most of us, to the “inevitable” of a denominational take-over of India. A spine can be faulted for turning noodle only if the rest of society is vertebral.
So, the loss of this individual battle against the “virus” can be said to have been lost. Scholars of Indian history — its sociology, its faith traditions, its liberal instincts — will take the Doniger episode as a sign that the epidemic is spreading, getting stronger; also, that the virus is now being described as something that is not only not to be resisted but as something to be embraced. A self-styled Shiksha Bachao Andolan calls The Hindus a bad book, and so it becomes a bad book. Calling it a bad book becomes good nationalism, calling it an anti-India book becomes a pro-India position, calling it “denigrating” of Hinduism amounts to valorizing Hinduism.
Dubbing a work, any work, as derogatory of Hinduism or subversive of national pride serves three purposes. First, it stokes the fire at the Hindutva havan. Second, it bonds those who take the objectors at their word, with the Hindutva priesthood. Third, and most important, it takes attention away from issues of criticality like gender justice, domestic violence, khap tyranny, honour killings, malnutrition, migrant-labour exploitation, the loot of natural resources and corruption. The Doniger episode, like the Ramanujan one before it, is about more than a publisher’s acceptance of the subversion of domain integrity. It is yet another indication of Indian society’s innocent neglect of the subversion of its genetic integrity.
For these many decades since Independence, the communal rhetoric has been negative — the Congress is pseudo-secular, the Left is disconnected, Trinamul is opportunistic; all of them appease the Muslim minority, flatter the Christian minority, use the Sikh, Dalit-Buddhist and other minorities, to keep “us”, the real sons and daughters of Bharat Mata, down. Now, that communal rhetoric has turned “positive” — forget all the others, they do not count. India is Hindu, we are Hindu, we are India. And we now have a leader of leaders who is what we are: Hindu, Hindu Indian. He is the turban on our head, the tilak on our forehead, the string on our wrist, the ring on our finger. To the jargon of “Bharat Mata in danger” (in the hands, among others, of writers like Ramanujan and Doniger) is now added a fatherland vocabulary, where a leader is being fantasized in the shape of all that Nehru was not, and his Congress successors have not, and can never be. He is Maharana Pratap, Chhatrapati Shivaji, Krishna Deva Raya. He is also Swami Vivekananda, he is Sardar Patel. He is more. He knows his technology. He knows his commerce. He either dams rivers or bridges them. He is going to propel us into superpowerhood.
Max Mueller has said in his essay, “The Movement for Religious Reform in India inaugurated by Raja Rammohun Roy”, “[The Indian] people are ready to be led, but they expect a leader to lead them.” Our agitations, protests and rallies are populated by people not just “ready” but wanting, eager and, in fact, impatient to be led. And since the people in their different pockets expect a leader to lead them, they will find them, not always wisely but always earnestly, sometimes worshipfully.
The challenge lies in what Babasaheb Ambedkar said. “You must know,” he said with his extraordinary perspicacity, “that your man is really great before you start worshipping him.” And he added, “This, unfortunately, is not an easy task. For these days, with the Press in hand, it is easy to manufacture great men. Carlyle used a happy phrase when he described the great men of history as so many Bank Notes. Like Bank Notes they represent gold. What we have to see is that they are not forged notes.”
A relentless exposure of air-pumped masculinity is what is now needed, and alternatives found, according to one’s best lights. The electoral choice is one choice ahead of us. The larger choice, which is linked to the electoral choice, is that of our unhappy land’s goals for its joint peoplehood. I cannot subscribe to the view that like all viruses, let the Hindutva virus have its five-day (read five-year) run, and it will exhaust itself. This is the Ramanujan “prayer”, which we must cure ourselves of, at once. For the slouch towards the Bethlehem of our unique peoplehood is not just electoral or even political. It is cultural in a very deep sense. It seeks to change the axis of our national identity, converting a society that is inherently plural and therefore co-existentially accommodative, into one that is essentially intolerant, punitive and non-inclusively authoritarian. The Ramanujan and Doniger cases are signposts to the path of determined resistance for those who look upon the Indian republic as a home to its people of varying strengths, not a gymnasium for its six-ab obsessors.
There is struggle ahead.