What we have been witnessing in the last seven years is nothing short of what can be termed a cultural coup: standing every public cultural institution on its head, reversing their directions and redefining their roles to suit the hegemonic ideology.
Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India had a lucid, integral vision of the way our culture needs to be transformed and the values that underlie such a change: secularism that does not exclude religious faith but treats all religions as equal and promotes religious amity as advocated by Gandhi while maintaining the democratic principle of their equality before the law of the land.
Besides, an egalitarian orientation that should, even if gradually, put an end to the hierarchical ordering of our society based on caste, class, gender and other elements that constitute power; a scientific point of view that rejects all ‘ultimate’ truths and develop an attitude of critical interrogation and unbiased enquiry in every realm of existence and emancipatory innovations of every kind.
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Putting an end to feudal patronage in arts and literature and replacing it with public institutions that encourage discussion and debate while not making them instruments of state propaganda, independent research in all areas of knowledge like history, science, culture and philosophy, education that instils democratic values in the students, cultural exchanges with other nations as equals – these were all the fundamental values and goals that shaped the great institutions that Nehru had conceived.
The three Akademies, the National Book Trust, Publications Division, Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), ICSSR, ICPR, ICCR, Archaeological Survey of India, the National Laboratories, National Museum, Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, several IITs… there is an entire chain of academic and cultural institutions founded or inspired by Jawaharlal Nehru’s great legacy.
The State funded them, but never interfered with their work and they enjoyed complete autonomy which alone, Nehru knew, would promote creative research, enquiry, debate and exchange. There is a famous statement Nehru made when he was Prime Minister and also the President of the Sahitya Akademi – he would not permit the Prime Minister of India to intervene in the activities of the President of the Sahitya Akademi.
Even the governments that followed seldom interfered with the actual functioning of these institutions though bureaucrats must have left their stamp or have had their favourites to promote. Nehru, I am sure, even in his worst nightmares, would not have thought of a time when all these institutions would become the instruments of the vile propaganda of an ideology of hatred, othering, division, pseudo-nationalism and illegitimate pride.
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But that is precisely what happened in the seven years of the Modi-Shah regime, though some signs of decadence were already visible during the Vajpayee regime – but never to this extent. The ICHR was the first casualty as history is so important to the Hindutva forces, who believe in Aryan supremacy and want to establish Hinduism as a monolithic and ancient religion which is patently untrue as their brand of Hinduism is nothing but a colonial/orientalist construct.
India really had multiple systems of thought, worship and ritual, not to speak of thousands of gods including tribal deities and religions. The consolidation began with the establishment of the Hindu Mahasabha in 1914 whose activities took a virulent turn with the arrival of V D Savarkar on the scene six years on.
Then came Hedgewar’s RSS with its history of betrayal of the anti-colonial struggle and the creation of communal division that also led to the creation of the Indian Muslim League under Mohammed Ali Jinnah with its separatist agenda whose rationale came from the growing majoritarian politics of Hindutva. The Jan Sangh, Bharatiya Janata Party and Vishwa Hindu Parishad have given new directions to the movement and helped propagate this new brand of exclusivist Hinduism modelled on the Nazi ideology.
Authoritarian populism slowly gained ground, history was distorted to serve its goals with the help of the refurbished Indian Council for Historical Research that would have no place for objective historians like Romila Thapar. The theory of Aryan culture – that has been completely discredited by recent archaeological, linguistic, ethnological and genetic research and the study of the history of the many migrations that led to hybridity – which is the defining feature of the Indian people today – was also manufactured in the same anthropological laboratory.
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Suddenly, the Moghul period that provides the best examples of Hindu-Muslim amity became discredited and the venom began to spread slowly to education, art, literature, ethics and culture in general through new educational policies, textbooks, hired authors, lapdog media and an army of real and cyber-warriors who sought to censor everything that did not suit their taste and ideology.
It is enough to look at the long list of writers and artists, scholars and academics, from James Lane, Wendy Doniger and Audrey Truschke to MM Kalburgi, Govind Pansare, Narendra Dhabolkar, Perumal Murugan, Girish Karnad, U R Ananthamurthy, M F Husain, Habeeb Tanvir, Prof Saibaba, Anand Teltumbde, Jignesh Mewani, Nandita Das, Naseeruddin Shah Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Hani Babu and several actors, playwrights, fiction writers, poets and authors murdered, imprisoned, censored, threatened, boycotted and tortured in devious ways, to see the spreading malaise on the one hand and to find out the artists and intellectuals who still dare to speak the truth to power.
The Akademies are all being taken over, all cultural institutions and Central universities are now headed by hardcore Hindutva ideologists with visible consequences. Even if this government is ousted in 2024 by the growing rage in the country, I am afraid, it will take many decades to cleanse them of the dirt and muck they have gathered during the last seven years and to transform them once again into responsible democratic institutions.
The author: K Satchidanandan is an acclaimed contemporary poet, whose works have been translated in 19 languages. A Professor of English and later the chief executive of the Kendra Sahitya Akademi, he was also national fellow of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla.
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