India appears to have fallen down a rabbit hole.
If this formulation is perplexing, the advice is to stir the pot of memories and resurrect Lewis Carroll’s 1865 children’s tale, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, in short, called Alice in Wonderland.
Although childlike in display of astonishment, the character of Queen of Hearts in Carroll’s words had “only one way of settling all difficulties, great or small. ‘Off with her / his head, or Off with their heads,’ she said, without even looking around.”
In an era of global populism, several leaders are refashioned versions of the foulmouthed monarch. They too are driven by an obsession to strike off whatever is disliked. The catchphrase is nowadays not limited to the titular head. These queens/kings of today have spawned numerous replicas down the line.
We have recently seen new instances of ‘off with it’ – the first in Delhi University and the other in a decision of the Indian Council of History, since 2014 the official adjudicator of which history is appropriate for study and which is not. What now constitutes history is, however, not just what is scientifically or rationally deduced, but also by belief.
‘Matters of faith’ now govern every facet of education – be it social sciences, literature and even engineering at JNU, where students will now learn that jihadi terrorism is the only form of “fundamentalist-religious terrorism”.
Mahatma Gandhi died in a road accident, or by a bullet that was accidentally fired and caught his chest!
Despite electoral embrace of Dalits and tribals by this political regime, literature that illuminates the lives, travails and struggles of these marginalised people is stuck to the syllabus of English literature.
It should be noted that the three writers whose works became targets of the ‘off with it’ decision, which was taken with the intention of pleasing the current emperors of hearts, are all women. Two – Sukirtharani and Bama – are Tamilian Dalits and accomplished littérateurs.
The third writer, Mahasweta Devi, who wrote in Bengali, appears to be a literary character herself due to the life she lived, mainly wrote about the downtrodden and distressed who remained committed to their beliefs and pursued it though it risked their existence. Unlike the other two authors, she is no longer around to express her sense of achievement at angering the political establishment.
Mahasweta Devi’s now not-in-the-syllabus story is titled Draupadi and this is the text’s ‘crime’ (in the form translated into English by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak). How can a tribal woman, not unintentionally named ‘Dopdi’ violate patriarchy-established norms of ‘decency’, parade naked to the chief representative of state power after being gangraped through the night?
How can this fictional Draupadi wipe the “blood on her palm and say(s) in a voice that is as terrifying, sky splitting and sharp as her ululation, what’s the use of clothes? You can strip me, but how can you clothe me again? Are you a man?”
Which emperor of a land of one-way streets would not get offended at her protestation?
Draupadi is to accept her fate, not defy what is meted out to her!
Likewise, Bama’s deleted work is titled Sangati and recreates lives of Dalit women who dare stand against caste repression and state tyranny. Sukirtharani also ploughs the terrain that this regime finds inhospitable – her poem Kaimaaru (‘Debt’ in English) talks about the indignity of manual scavenging, reminding the regime that this abominable practice is not yet completely in the past despite its showcasing of ‘eradication’ of open defecation.
Paradoxically, the prime minister claims to be a poet too. The current attitude of the establishment towards politically ‘incorrect’ literature is in complete contrast to an apocryphal story involving Jawaharlal Nehru and iconic Hindi poet, Ramdhari Singh ‘Dinkar’.
Nominated to the Rajya Sabha despite often being critical of the political system and the leadership, the story goes, once the two were climbing the stairs of Parliament, when Nehru stumbled.
Steadying him, Dinkar remarked, “Whenever the political leadership falters, it is the world of literature that holds their hands.”
In fact, deletion of inconvenient literature and fragments of our political heritage has parallels in ‘jazzing’ up history, as the recent renovation of Jalianwala Bagh demonstrates.
This is not the first time that Delhi University has acted as a cultural police. Thirteen years ago in 2008, the university was virtually coerced by vandals associated with the BJP affiliate Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad to wrench out A. K. Ramanujan’s essay, Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five examples and Three Thoughts on Translation.
Another outfit of the same ideological bent, Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti, backed this agitation, which did not follow the democratic precepts of protesting civilly and within the framework of law.
At that time, the opposition was to a text that discussed the plurality of the Ramayana. It, however, was given an ideological slant by depicting the imaginary ‘other’ as being behind the slander of a holy text (also considered quasi-history).
Ramanujan’s essay and its presence on the reading list of a course on culture in ancient India was portrayed as handiwork of Marxist and Wahabi historians, who have, for the Hindu nationalists, for decades gone hand-in-hand.
The attempt to control education, what is taught, in which spirit (democratic debate or top-down approach) and its contents have for long been a proclivity of authoritarian regimes, or those with such inclinations.
The growl to a loyal minister to shut down schools, and the rationale behind it, may have been mimicked in the superficially comic Satyajit Ray film, Hirak Rajar Deshe (The Kingdom of Diamonds): Joto beshi podhe, toto beshi jaane, toto kom mane (the more people study, the more they know, and the less they obey.)
Schools, colleges and universities have not been shut down, as in the film, but curriculum has been sanitised. This has been done earlier too, but probably not with such virulence and consistency.
However, much else that Ray depicted as practice of the despot has unspooled before us in recent years – grand statues being erected, window dressing of roads, paths and memorials, and of course yes-manship.
The sanitisation of educational curriculum is part of a much-wider drive to ‘cleanse’ the list of national icons. Whether it is the exclusion of Nehru’s image from the poster of the ‘Azaadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav’ celebrations, or a committee’s recommendation to delete 387 names of ‘Moplah martyrs’ from the list of freedom fighters, the ICHR is following history less and political directives more.
It cannot be overlooked that this regime has mounted a concerted campaign to present the Moplah rebellion /uprising / insurrection (call it what you will) in a uni-dimensional fashion. At a recent Sangh event in Kerala, RSS national executive and former BJP national secretary, Ram Madhav, said that the Moplah (or Mapillah) ‘riots’ were “the first manifestation of the Taliban mindset in India”. Unsurprisingly, he condemned the state’s Left Democratic Front government for celebrating the event.
It is true that the CPM-led government erred in its unqualified celebration of the 100-year-old violent chapter because it also views the episode merely from one perspective. However, Ram Madhav and the ICHR’s project is a part of a 100-year-old endeavour of Hindu nationalists to vilify those events and present them solely as a Muslim offensive against Hindus.
That the Moplah rebellion was a mix of anti-colonialism, class struggle and communal issues is a matter to be ignored because it does not serve any ‘agenda’.
Hindu nationalists’ call for a Hindu sangathan, or organisation, to “counter” Muslim brotherhood was a core articulation of VD Savarkar in his seminal text, Hindutva: Who Is a Hindu? It was this slim book, coupled with BS Moonje’s report on the incidents in the Malabar region that eventually inspired K.B. Hedgewar to establish the ideological fountainhead of the present regime, the RSS.
One’s view of history always depends on the perspective from which one is examining it. Is the past sought to be depicted in a way that justifies the present political thrust?
Or, is it being done with an open mind and an approach that believes that much of the contemporary basis of scrutiny is motivated.
Most actions that mirror the Queen of Heart’s “off with their heads” is aimed at removing from sight those, and what, the regime detests or finds politically inappropriate.
That history is written by victors is a truism. It is time to add that present sensibilities and knowledge that will shape history in future is determined solely by the ruling regime.