Editorial/ Words and pix
Nationalizing minorities
The Telegraph Diary
Letters to the editor

There are students of history who have learnt more about Roman history and about ancient Gaul from Asterix comics than they did from their history text books. Yet there is a tendency in certain circles to treat comics as if they are something that the cat brought in. Comics, the conventional wisdom ran in most orthodox schools and families, stopped the growth of imagination because they presented a story in the form of sketches and pictures. There was the added prejudice that something that was fun and entertaining could not really be serious and educative. Education has to be sombre and grim, devoid of laughter. One can detect in all this more than a hint of Victorian prudery and discipline which, through anglophone education, was carried over into the intellectual and mental world of the Indian middle class. In the West, such notions have become passé. Cinema and television have shown that education and entertainment can be brought together with incredible effect. One needs only to remember that the knowledge and insight imparted by a television serial like Yes, Prime Minister surpassed with ease anything provided by a drab textbook on British politics. Similarly, comics have now received their due recognition as a literary form. Schoolchildren need no longer read comics surreptitiously after lights out. It might even become fashionable to be seen with a comic book in the Bodleian Library or the British Library.

It will remain a mystery or a part of some arcane psycho-sociological analysis why comics were seen as the devil’s invention. The evidence, if there were ways to track and record this kind of testimony, would adumbrate something to the contrary. A young and curious mind catching first glimpses of the gun-slinging Wild West in comic books like The Lone Ranger or Have Gun Will Travel could begin to explore that phase of American history and learn, for example, about the Indians and the Californian gold rush. Comics are also vehicles of biting satire. Witness Doonesbury or the adventures of legionnaire Beau Peep; the British working class had a mirror held up to them in the strip that depicts the exploits of the unforgettable Andy Capp. But there is something more. The very idea that a literary form should have something instructive embedded in it needs to be queried. The entire oeuvre of Shakespeare was created for sheer entertainment. There are good grounds to believe that education was not exactly on the bard’s mind when he created Falstaff or the mad Lear. He wanted his audiences to be entertained. Enlightenment, if any, was secondary. Comics, in their own way, have tried to entertain children and adolescents. They have created a world for their readers, a familiar world with known characters and “in jokes”, a world in which young minds have willingly suspended their disbelief. There is something liberating in the very idea of a small village holding out against the Romans with the aid of a magic potion created by a druid. Or in the story of a white man living in a skull cave in the heart of Africa, worshipped by the natives as the Ghost Who Walks who fights evil and crime with the help of his pet wolf called Devil.

At the heart of the contempt for comics lies a strange valorization of high culture and a spurious intellectualism. Out of this emerges the bizarre notion that the abstruse is equal to the serious and the instructive. This attitude ruled against comic books out of court. Thus poor old Charlie Brown and dear old Obelix were never put on the shelves next to Winnie-the-Pooh and Alice. It is good to see the tide is turning and the picture of a lady reading a comic book at the Frankfurt book fair spoke directly to many hearts that have enjoyed comics but have not had the courage to say so. A streak of authoritarianism often manifests itself in the world of letters. This is evident in the desire to create canons and in the privileging of one literary form over another. A good comic can easily hold its own against any other literary genre. And should be allowed to do so.    

The recent statements by leaders of the sangh parivar, K.S. Sudarshan of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Bangaru Laxman of the Bharatiya Janata Party, on Christians and Muslims in India, have been widely interpreted as evidence that the RSS and the BJP have begun to diverge on the question of minorities. I think this is wrong. Sudarshan’s demand that Christian churches be “nationalized” and his gratuitous advice to Indian Christians and Muslims to indigenize themselves, is perfectly consistent with Laxman’s declaration that the BJP intended to recruit amongst minorities because most Christians and Muslims were converts from a Hindu parent population.

Gail Omvedt, in an interesting essay, makes the point that Sudarshan’s demand that Christian churches snap their links with organizations outside India on nationalist grounds is odd because with the exception of Israel and India, the religious majorities in nearly all modern nations have their sacred sites outside their national boundaries. The strength of the nation state in Austria isn’t undermined by the fact that Austrian Catholics are ecclesiastically subordinated to the Pope. Sudarshan’s insistence that churches be nationalized has nothing to do with the security or integrity of India’s nation state.

This urge to nationalize Christian churches, to publicly snap their links with organizations outside India is based on the sangh parivar’s need to assert Hindu primacy by stigmatizing Christians as alien. It is a way of saying that while Hindus are effortlessly and organically citizens of India because their religion and the aboriginal culture of their nation coincide, this is not true for Christians and Muslims, whose punyabhumi lies outside their pitrbhumi. Since it is politically unacceptable to say that minorities should put up or shut up or get out, an attempt is made (by leaders like Laxman) to assimilate minorities in the idiom of flesh and blood.

Crudely put, the parivar is saying that an Indian Christian’s soul might be Christian but his body is Hindu, because Hindu-ness has been genetically written into desi bodies. Hinduism used in this way is a radioactive belief system that enjoys an infinitely long half-life even in a body that has disavowed it. Whatever the mind believes, the marrow remains Hindu. From the parivar’s point of view the religious beliefs of minorities are epiphenomenal. Therefore Indian Christians and Muslims are being perverse when they refuse to acknowledge the Hindu substance, the Hindu flesh and blood that houses their recently acquired alien beliefs.

There are two ways of disarming this subversive alienness: one, shuddhi, which is not so much a conversion or a reconversion as an exorcism, a purging of the foreign ghost that has possessed the inherently Hindu body or two, if the Christian or Muslim in question chooses to remain stubbornly Christian or Muslim, an acknowledgment from him that this identity is subordinate to the national identity which in turn is premised on Hindutva, the ideology that asserts the basically Hindu foundations of India. So, minorities in an RSS India would have the free choice of either ceasing to be minorities or genuflecting publicly at the altar of the Hindu state and the majoritarian culture that it sponsors.

The politics that follows from this view divides India’s citizens into two sorts: the country’s “natural” citizenry, Hindus, who, in tennis terms, get a bye into the main draw and the rest — Muslims, Christians etc — who need to play qualifying rounds. Unlike tennis, this treatment isn’t based on performance; it isn’t meritocratic. It is based on birth and belief and is discriminatory in the worst sense of that word.

When Sudarshan and Laxman say that minorities should join the mainstream, or be proud of their “Indian” heritage, what they mean practically is this. Minorities should, as a token of their good faith, their Indian-ness, use “Indian” names because Raju is better than Roger and Asit more Indian than Aslam. They should acknowledge the vandalism of their Christian or Muslim forbears and share in the sense of historical injury that is the sangh parivar’s reason for being. They should accept Hindu claims to disputed sacred sites as public atonement for the sins of their ancestors and partly because they too were victims. If only they listened to their deepest selves, to the Hindu marrow of their desi bones, their blood too would boil with remembered outrage. In effect, the proper psychological state for patriotic Muslims and Christians (as prescribed by the parivar) is a compound of contrition and self-hatred.

The sangh parivar’s enthusiasm for this metaphor of flesh-and-blood should alert us to its intellectual pedigree. The only way in which the parivar can assimilate minorities into its conception of a nation is by granting them a racial alibi. Laxman’s green card issued to Indian Muslims and Christians is based on the assumption that nearly all of them were converts once. Laxman, Sudarshan, the cadres of the sangh never tire of repeating this.

It follows that India’s minorities were indigenes before they were converted. They are sprung, therefore, from aboriginal stock, which is, by definition, Hindu/Indian. This pseudo-biological nationalism is derived from Gobineau’s long-discredited racist idea that successful nations can only spring from pure, unmiscegenated Aryan communities. This idea nourished the political thought of H.S. Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler as well as that of M.S. Golwalkar, the great ideologue of the RSS. It isn’t surprising that Sudarshan’s views on nationalized churches are inspired by the practice of China, a wholly totalitarian state.

The troubles in Israel and Palestine illustrate how dangerous a community based nationalism is to the peace of a nation. Israel, a functioning democracy, has the greatest difficulty in incorporating that 20 per cent of its population that is Arab. Defined by the project of Zionist nationalism as a Jewish state, Israel’s constitution makes it clear that the natural citizen of Israel is a Jew. In fact, the unqualified right of return, that is the right of any Jew anywhere in the world to “return” to Israel and become a citizen, gives non-Israeli Jews greater rights in Israel than are possessed by its Arab citizens.

The example of Israel or Sri Lanka, nations where the state formally identified itself with a religious majority, should serve as a cautionary tale. Second class citizenship is a prescription for chronic violence and civil war.    


Tastes chastened

It’s festival time, but not much rejoicing for the West Bengal state Congress chief, Pranab Mukherjee. No, the assembly elections and the hard times ahead have nothing to do with it. It’s his oppressed taste buds and, as usual, the Congress is to blame for that. Much like a true blue Bengali, Mukherjee craves for sweets, still. His drawers are often found full of toffees and chocolates. But this man has had to make his share of sacrifices, courtesy his stern boss. Indira Gandhi, a strict disciplinarian herself, had on several occasions either severely reprimanded Mukherjee for gorging on sweets or thrown away his box of sweets. On one sojourn to west Asia, she had even pointed at an Indian politician’s huge tummy to indicate what the future had in store for Mukherjee if he gave in to his sweet tooth. Unable to escape her clutches, Pranab has had to give up on his love, although the longing is still there, especially on shubho bijayas and happy Dussehras. Now it is the bahu of the Nehru-Gandhi family who sits in the watch tower. Last week, when Sonia Gandhi was in Calcutta on her way back from Lakshwadeep, Mukherjee was there with his colleagues to receive her. Pranabda didn’t need much disciplining. But his junior, Sougata Ray, polished off his plate of sweets. Madam, who had keenly watched the disappearance of the goodies, came quietly by Ray’s side and offered him another plate. Sweet of her, wasn’t it?

Larger design of things

Bitterness in the larger Congress camp. This time it is former party spokesperson and one time political advisor to the discredited PV, Jitendra Prasada, who is trying to upstage the Italian. Senior leaders are trying desperately to guess the “designs” behind Prasada’s daredevilry. Prasada, according to some, is acting on behalf of a big industrial house to keep Sonia perpetually on her toes. The other school sees the return of the war horse, Sharad Pawar, and his joining hands with Prasada along with Mulayam Singh Yadav. After all, Amar Singh, Yadav’s lieutenant, admitted recently that he was in touch with three Congressmen — Sitaram Kesri, Prasada and Kamal Nath. The last, however, is no rebel. He is merely trying to play Sonia’s troubleshooter to land a berth in the working committee, and that too not very convincingly. Many in the party believe Kamal Nath is preventing a reconciliation by keeping Jitibhai perpetually excitable against madam. Another man who has assumed a role for himself in this crisis is party animal Subbirami Reddy. His bright silver Mercedes was spotted by scribes zooming into Prasada’s house before it zoomed out again at top speed having seen the men. Was he the errand boy? And on whose payroll?

House for Mr Laxman

Trust a Hindutva vaastu. The new BJP president, Bangaru Laxman, swears by them. When he took over, he was required to quit his ministerial bungalow and move into the Tilak Marg residence where the former president, Kushabhau Thakre, lived. Bangaru promptly refused. His astrologers have told him that the house would be unlucky for him. Laxman continues to inhabit his Kushak Marg residence. But major changes have been made there as well, thanks to his soothsayers. The banana plants in and around the house have been wiped off. In the BJP headquarters at Ashoka Road, Laxman has refused to grace the room used by his predecessor. Instead, he is reported to have taken over three rooms, making life difficult for other office bearers. He has also ensured all doors connecting his room with those of lesser mortals were barred. With so much luck on Laxman’s side, AB Vajpayee better watch out.

Find a place for him

This is also about rooms, rather the absence of them. In fact one would have sufficed. Unfortunately, for the minister of state for information and broadcasting, Ramesh Bais, this was not to be. Bais is without a room in Shastri Bhavan as all high profile bureaucrats have grabbed one for each of them. Bais is being forced to work from home and of work there isn’t much given that his new boss, Sushma Swaraj, insists on seeing each and every file. Life wasn’t easy in Bais’s previous employment in the ministry of mines either. The Madhya Pradesh chief minister, Digvijay Singh is to blame for it. He had complained against Bais’s conduct to no less than the prime minister. Apparently, Bais had called up the state chief secretary and directly asked, “Woh heron wali file bhijwa do” (Sent me the file on the diamonds). That was a gem.

Footnote/ Visit to a small joint

Calcutta sent back another guest unhappy. The Union rural development minister and former BJP general secretary, M Venkaiah Naidu, was in the city on his maiden visit to participate in a programme held to celebrate the anniversary of the AB Vajpayee government at the Centre. He found none of the senior leaders of the party in West Bengal had arrived at the airport to receive him. Some of them were even absent from the supposedly very important party-sponsored function. To boot, Naidu was taken to a mediocre restaurant in Park Street for lunch where to his utter embarrassment, party leaders jostled to sit close to him. This was surprising since, as a state BJP leader clarified, it was usual practice to put up central ministers and leaders at the house of any senior member of the party. Many BJP leaders of the state hope to take the matter up with the central leadership. Reacting to this, a senior BJP vice-president pointed out that this was one indication that detractors are trying to blow up the incident to corner those at the helm. Why is the party surprised? Squabbling after all is part time activity for all politicos.    


Ravished beauties

Sir — What makes Lata Sinha hope that Bollywood might finally be growing up on “sensitive issues like rape” (“Formula number 2”, Oct 20)? If one goes by recent Hindi films, it would seem that rape has remained just another excuse to show titillating glimpses of female flesh, and its aftermath to evoke popular sympathy. There have always been two diametrically opposed paths a rape victim can follow in a Hindi film: marry and reform the rapist, or take revenge. And while being raped and afterwards, the victim never ceases to look glamourous, barring a few like the Bandit Queen. Hasn’t it occurred to any director that a girl cannot possibly look like Aishwarya Rai through such an ordeal?
Yours faithfully,
Shabnam Mistry, Calcutta

Time gained and lost

Sir — The University of Calcutta has recently decided to scrap the summer holidays for teachers and students attached to the 223 colleges under it, and to hold undergraduate examinations in the months of May and June from the session beginning in 2001. The results will be published in October. This is likely to cause infinite problems for most students.

It will result in a loss of one year for students who intend to pursue their masters in business administration and other post-graduate studies in other universities in India and abroad. This is because the admissions and other formalities are finalized by June and classes usually commence from August. One sincerely hopes that the senate and syndicate members of the University of Calcutta will change their decision, keeping in mind the fact that the future of the students is at stake.

Yours faithfully,
T.K. Niyogi, Calcutta

Sir — As Kalyan Chatterjee has pointed out in his article, “Between the class and the job” (Sept 14), the dated examination system of the Indian universities makes it imperative that simply getting a 55 per cent mark cannot be the criterion to gauge a candidate’s teaching ability. With the waiving of the magic percentage and bringing it down to 50 per cent, as mentioned by the columnist, a better success rate can be ensured in the national entrance test and the state level entrance test. Since internal politics seems to play an important part in granting marks to students, a 55 per cent alone cannot make someone eligible for a lectureship.

Yours faithfully,
Sharbani Ray, Hooghly

Sir — In West Bengal’s government colleges, the superannuated teachers are invited to serve in their respective institutions as part-timers in the category of guest lecturers. We hope that this system can be extended to private colleges too.

Nowadays priority is given to recently retired teachers and the competent teachers who have passed NET and SLET examinations We also hope that first class holders of the masters degree, who are acting as part-timers in different colleges, will be considered.

Yours faithfully,
D.K. Chakravarti, Calcutta

Down memory

lane Sir — The birth centenary of late Dr K.D. Ghose, MA (Oxon), Bar-at-Law, eminent educationist and sportsman, falls this year. We are hoping to commemorate the occasion in a fitting manner shortly and we invite his colleagues, students and well-wishers to join us in this endeavour. All are requested to contact the undersigned at 18/10, Ballygunge Place East, Calcutta-700019 (Tel: 440-7425/473-4598).
Yours faithfully,
Sudhir K. Nandi, Calcutta

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