The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
Email This Page
- Why Suraj Bhan wants to change the Manusmriti

The present is always a difficult place to live in. Given the all-too-obvious imperfections of the present we have to make do with, it's always instructive to see how much some people crave a perfect past. Few of us, I believe, need any introduction to the golden-age-wallahs ' the sort who put in a day's work and find, at the end of it, treasures in the attic we didn't know existed. These are the sort of miners of the past who will tell you that India had everything ' from women's equality to the blueprint for the Concorde; but all in the safety of the distant past.

Did you know, for example, that 'Hindustan lived a life of unchallenged glory and power for thousands of years and spread its spiritual and cultural effulgence over vast areas of the globe' This is what Guruji Golwalkar found in his version of the Indian past. The ancient period of Indian history, especially the Mauryan and Gupta periods, is particularly attractive as candidate for a golden era with Hindu rulers, before the dark ages and the 'attack on Indian civilization'. Other than demonizing the non-Hindu, this harping on the golden past also seems to say something else. It is tempting to read this brazen and relentless exhibition of alleged heirlooms as an argument for not hankering after golden-age-type harmony or achievement in the present. We have already been there and done that, so why not rest on our laurels'

We have all become adept at recognizing the ways in which sectarian uses of the past manipulate history to rule in the present. But unhealthy relationships with the past are, alas, constantly finding new modes of expression. There is, for example, the other route to the golden-age object: whitewashing the injustices of the past, removing the record so to speak, supposedly to encourage a move to a more egalitarian present. The recent demand of the chairman of the national commission for scheduled castes falls in this category. The chairman, Suraj Bhan, apparently argued at a press conference that to intensify the fight against untouchability, all objectionable references to Dalits in 'Hindu scriptures' ' including the Manusmriti and the Ramacharitamanas ' should be deleted.

I don't know if he actually used the exact words, 'Hindu scriptures', but if he did, there may be some disagreement on his examples, and on the idea of the Hindu scriptures itself. At any rate, Bhan has asked for freshly edited versions to be brought out; he claims his project has the blessings of the Sringeri sankaracharya, and he also plans to speak to other sankaracharyas. On the face of it, this seems to be merely wishful thinking ' from someone who is supposed to be speaking on behalf of those who have been at the receiving end of the past's injustices. Suraj Bhan's biodata is cluttered with his various involvements with organizations formed for the betterment of scheduled castes. He took over as the chairman of the national commission for the scheduled castes in early 2004.

Another spokesman for the Dalits, Udit Raj, says the call for cleaning up Hindu texts can be explained by Bhan's Bharatiya Janata Party link. If we follow this link, we could suspect, like Raj, that this call is a reflection of the current political need to include Dalits in the Hindu fold. In short, appropriate as Hindu those who have traditionally been kept as marginal as possible in the Hindu scheme of things.

Perhaps this may offer some help in understanding why a spokesman for people who see ' only too clearly ' the past in all its grand imperfection, asks us to get onto a time machine, travel backwards, and make some changes for the record. But suppose we give Mr Bhan the benefit of the doubt, take the demand seriously for a minute, and look at what such a demand implies.

Saying that Dalits are still subject to discrimination, Bhan said atrocities against them continue despite government attempts to control them. He said that eight Dalits were killed in police custody last year. 'The same story exists in all states,' he said. Recalling tales of tsunami survivors from upper castes refusing to share relief camps with Dalits, Bhan lamented, 'Untouchability was in their minds despite having come back from the jaws of death.' There can be no disagreement with the objective of battling manifestations of casteism, whether in old or new costume. But what exactly will editing and rewriting the Manusmriti or the Ramacharitamanas ' what I shall call 'old texts' for inconvenience ' do' Show us the human face of patriarchy and casteism'

If contemporary laws against the practice of caste or gender discrimination do not work as they should, a refurbished version of the Manusmriti is unlikely to do much for Dalits or women. This is fairly obvious. Why conferences need to be held in all the states on such a subject ' even if such conferences have the benefit of various sankaracharyas ' is baffling.

So first, there is the romantic imbuing of a text with more power than it has. Then there is the implication, quite disturbing, I think, about where we should get our living system of precepts ' for our times ' from. The implication is that it is the Manusmriti that still drives the understanding and practice of law, and the Ramacharitamanas our cultural practices. It would certainly make it simpler for all of us if we could engage with the inequalities of the present merely by taking on a ghost or two from the past. What is more worrying is the implication that the official text is all ' and that there is one authoritative text or perspective ' which is why we must tinker with it down the ages till we get it right. This is the kind of simplified view of the past that makes you ask, 'Were no other views of the world offered in those times' It is also the kind of impoverished view of the present that makes you ask, in a somewhat louder voice: 'Can't we write new texts'

The fundamental problem with wanting to change an already existing text is that it helps us to pretend that the author or authors of the text did not really think as they did, or believe what they did. The Manusmriti as it stands is, I think, a useful legacy. Not only does it tell us who the lawmakers of that time were; it also describes for us the house we belong to ' where the lower castes and women were always consigned to the backyard ' voiceless masses, inferiors, children, to be ruled, put to work or kept in order. As for the Ramacharitamanas serving a similar purpose, consider the favourite quote ' also used by Bhan ' 'drums, illiterates, Dalits, animals, women, all are fit only to be beaten'. In other words, knowing where we come from always helps us to understand where we are now. The villains of the present have ancestors; they did not appear without a history. But it's a very poor general who thinks that the battlefield he stands on is populated only by the long-dead ancestors of his enemies.

Email This Page