Archive for the tag “religion”

THE LOST ART OF REASON: WHY SMALL ACTS OF INTOLERANCE ARE LINKED TO LARGER ONES

(Meera’s article discussing May Day and the debate on Ganapati led many people to revisit not only the events of that day but also our approaches to politics and culture. Along with this, it was also a call for the debate to be conducted on a larger canvas. Through Facebook, blogs and pamphlets, people responded to issues ranging from the absence of civility in our political culture to the nature of ‘Freedom of Expression’. Both agreements and disagreements with Meera’s position were expressed. Keeping in mind these many reactions, here is Meera’s second response.)

By Meera Vishvanathan

 Out of a single event, many webs of interpretation can be spun. Many issues were raised in the discussion following my article on the May Day concert in JNU. I can only try and address some of them. The intention here is not to provoke a new debate, but to provide a response that may help tie things together.

Unfortunately, in most instances, the debate was reduced to defining ‘freedom of expression’. Whereas, I meant to raise a larger set of questions about cultural politics. For this reason, I think it is important to address three issues we must consider in the long-term: the first relates to platforms and contexts; the second, to cultural symbols and forms of appropriation; and the third to censorship and freedom of expression.

If the argument seems to have become limited to JNU, then this has to do with the nature of the responses. But I write this in the hope that understanding one particular situation may help us understand these questions as a whole.

Of Platforms and  Contexts

Let us begin with the event so as to put it behind us. I have been asked, ‘Does not JNUSU (or any organization or group) have a right to decide what is conveyed from their platform?’ Of course they do. Platforms have their significance and organizations have the right to determine their political and cultural orientation. Debates can happen only if differences in positions and distinctions in ideology are understood. I was not saying that anything can be said anywhere or that we must create some kind of intellectual free-for-all.

Nor is the crowd forced to accept what is  thrust upon it. I will not argue for enforced decorum. For, from the intervention of crowds there often arises great and lasting political change. But the nature of this change depends on the political understanding of the crowd: it is what separates a riot from a revolution. And it is this political understanding (or the lack of it) that I was querying.

Nor should my arguments be read to infer that a  GaneshVandana or any kind of vandana should  be sung as a matter of practice every May Day.  But supposing, as happened that day, on a  platform that you have carefully constructed, on  an occasion that means a great deal to you,  someone comes and says or sings something  that you not only find uncomfortable but also  hate. How do you deal with this intrusion? Is  your primary response, in fact your only  response, to shut her up and forget about it? Is  your understanding of May Day so brittle that a  single wrong note must be silenced  immediately?  Is silencing something our only  form of resistance? Whatever happened to  disputation, argument, sarcasm, irony or  debate?

Let me thank the person who put up Nagarjun’s poem entitled ‘Pita-putrasamvaad’ because it makes many points with a subtlety I am not capable of. But since we hold that Ganapati belongs to the Hindu right and is a brahmanical figure, Nagarjun made a grave error when he composed this poem! Should we not remove this poem or this poet from our tradition so we can have a truly ‘progressive’ politics? And further, since anything touched by the right-wing is reprehensible and our identities as an audience are so brittle, shall we also stop reading Namdeo Dhasal entirely and never cite him from a public forum?

If, instead of singing a Ganeshavandana, Tritha had sung the Purushasukta, my response would have been different. But the point is she sang what she sang, and responses are based on events and not on hypothetical situations. I have a problem when we begin to respond to every situation in the same way, and when for a whole variety of situations we begin to propose a set of standardized and even ‘final’ solutions.

Cultural Symbols and Forms of Appropriation

Frankly, I am baffled by how my arguments can be read as ‘romanticizing’ Ganapati because he was once a tribal god. Instead, what I was trying to point out was the complex process by which he was absorbed by brahmanism. If we understand this process, perhaps we will understand that the appropriation of Ganapati by the Hindu right in itself is not enough cause to silence a hymn devoted to him. This does not mean that we must glorify Ganapati, worship him or appropriate him for ourselves. But the process must be understood because figures whom we hold dear, such as Bhagat Singh, are similarly appropriated by the Hindutva right. This is not to equate Ganapati and Bhagat Singh because that would be ahistorical. But if you can’t tell the difference between a simile and an analogy, then I would suggest that you first check a dictionary.

A certain kind of cultural politics, espoused by anti-caste movements, has tried to reclaim icons appropriated by Brahmanism. Thus, Phule brilliantly read the Puranas to indicate a non-brahmanical substratum to Indian history. Attempts to reclaim Mahabali or Mahishasura draw from such an understanding. Ganapati also fits this paradigm, but since he was appropriated slightly earlier, he appears not as a vanquished symbol but a deity in his own right. So, when we oppose Ganapati but celebrate Mahishasura, we exhibit not only the poverty of our political imagination but also distort the innovativeness with which someone like Phule could reach out to the past.

In comparison, the left wants to uphold a definition of secularism where all religious symbols must be removed from public platforms. Fair enough. But the problem is, in India, if you reject everything touched by the taint of religion, what will be left is not a secular space but a sanitized one. So, in keeping with this argument, we removed the Ganapati hymn from our platform. Then surely we should also have stopped Laal’s rendition of Baba Farid? But have not many adivasis deified Birsa Munda? Is not Ambedkar a deity for many Dalits? Shall we remove all references to them as well? And is it just me or is this argument getting increasingly stupid?

No one studying ancient Indian history or Sanskrit texts can ignore the tremendous brutality of the varnajati system. Granted, but at the same time you cannot attribute to entire periods of history only one text and only one character. To equate all Sanskrit texts with the Manusmriti is similar to saying that Golwalkar’s ‘We or Our Nationhood Defined’ is the defining text written in English in the 20th century. A critical attitude to history requires that we engage both with the brahmanical past and those who dispute it. But the ‘critical attitude’ on display in our campus labels even a student who studies Sanskrit but does not vote for the ABVP and eats beef a ‘communal fascist’. Frankly, there are traditions of debate and disputation in Sanskrit that could teach the organized (and disorganized) left a great deal — if only they were prepared to listen.

 When Ambedkar burnt the Manusmriti at Mahad, I see it as a symbolic act of great force, a necessary act of violence if you will. But Ambedkar also sat and read the Manusmriti with a brahmana, and if I remember Eleanor Zelliot’s account correctly what were burnt were sections of the Manusmriti dealing with the oppression of the shudras. I don’t remember Ambedkar saying that we should not read the Manusmriti or burn the brahmana. This is why the act of burning the Manusmriti at Mahad is different, so fundamentally different, from the burning of books in Nazi Germany.

Censorship and Freedom of Expression

What I saw in JNU on the night of 1st May was an act of censorship. On this, I will stand my ground. If the audience had booed and the singer had stopped, that would be one thing. But the moment someone, anyone, leader or crowd gets up on stage and enforces silence, then it constitutes an act of censorship. The choices made and subsequently defended were made by one vocal minority that decided it could determine what could be heard and what could not without even the semblance of  reasonable debate.

I have been told that  since we  were   celebrating May Day   whatever was sung    should have been ‘appropriate’ for the   occasion. Since it was a  platform  for  progressive  culture , Faiz and Habib   Jalib were  fine. But  Ganapati was not   part  of  ‘our’ culture, so Tritha  had to  go.  Explain to me  how this is  different from   a logic that says  ‘Valentines day is not a    part of our culture, so it  must go’,  ‘wearing jeans is not a part of our  culture, so it must go’, ‘women visiting  pubs is not part of our culture, so it must  go’?

This is not to say that everyone has to  adopt the same cultural symbols.  Monocultures are undemocratic and  dangerous. But if you think that in  rejecting these symbols you can say “So-and-so offends me, so I have a right to silence her,” then I will say you have no such right. If you think you think you have this right, then the ABVP similarly has the right to force a ban on Ramanujan’s essay, certain Muslim clerics have a right to silence The Satanic Verses, and the Maharashtra police has the right to ban the Kabir Kala Manch and hound its activists. Fundamentally, if there is any difference between these positions it is only one of degree. The right to oppose something is not the right to silence it without any debate.

It also worries me when we begin to parrot the language of offense and blasphemy. Because these are not ‘new’ or ‘materialist’ or ‘secular’ or ‘Marxist’ categories. They do not constitute the ‘freedom of expression of the audience’ or the ‘right to dissent’. Rather, they are ideas rooted in hegemonic religions and replicate their structures of silencing dissent. Of late, in India what we have begun to see is the fragility of both secularism and freedom of expression as concepts because we have all begun to take and legitimize offense so easily.

The questions I raised were addressed to the university precisely because intolerance has been rising in campus spaces. To say that one should have the same expectations of a crowd at JNU as a crowd at a Bon Jovi concert or a bhajanmandli does great disservice to the university. Because I expect a university to be open to reflection and criticism and to have the generosity to at least consider different points of view.

There is a vitality to debates that is dying because we have steadily reduced ourselves to a series of assertions and positions. We have bracketed ourselves such that we only wish to hear people who say exactly what we want them to say. And above all, we have taken to bowing down to a culture of political correctness.

If someone says, ‘What you have said offends me’, we never say, ‘Let us discuss the basis for this offense and what has gone wrong.’ Instead, we take out an apology and say ‘Oh, forgive us, for we had no intention of offending you’. We silence the debate, brush it aside, and move forward. But the debate has not been addressed or resolved.

Perhaps what happened in JNU on the night of May Day was not as serious as ABVP’S enforced removal of the Ramanujan essay. But it was just one step away and that distresses me. Nothing I can say should or will stop JNU from raising its voice against the repression of struggles across this country. But I maintain that such acts reduce our moral authority to be the voice of such struggles. To say ‘Our language of politics is different from others’ is no defense. Small acts of intolerance are linked to larger ones.

As a historian, what the night of 1st May reaffirmed for me was the fact that the silences of our sources are as important as what they tell us. For, it is from the present that we reach out to the past. The past is not separate from us. The past is our contemporary. It lives among us, even the most ancient past. And though we find certain ideas inconvenient, though we might wish to oppose them, we cannot block them and neatly stash them away.

And so, I will sing the praise of inconvenient ideas, even if they have an elephant head and a large body. Not because I vest my faith in them. But because doubt is the first step towards querying false certainties.

 (Meera Visvanathan is a former member of JNU students’ Union and a student of the Ph.D programme at the Centre for Historical Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University)

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VAKRATUNDA, MAHAKAYA… OR WHAT CANNOT BE SUNG IN THE UNIVERSITY?

By MEERA  VISHVANATHAN                                                                

Apoorvanand’s article published online on Kafila had the courage to say in print things that I, as a student of JNU, had so far only said in private. Such acts of outspokenness are important for the conversations they set up. They allow me to believe that the space of democracy is available, at least intellectually, even as it retreats everywhere else.

I too stood among the crowd at the Parthasarathy Rocks in JNU on the night of 1st May as we waited to hear the Pakistani band Laal. Before Laal rose up to sing, we were introduced to a young singer, Tritha, who was to sing three compositions.  The first two were clearly classically inspired, but did not have a form that the audience could fit words to. As she began the third composition, singing Vakratunda, Mahakaya… in what was clearly a hymn to Ganapati, an uproar broke out among the crowd. Tritha, however, continued to sing with her eyes closed. I watched in horror as the President of the JNU Students’ Union (JNUSU) walked on stage, the image magnified by the huge screen set up for the audience, and asked Tritha to stop her song. The reasons for such an act were not discussed. One must assume that a hymn to Ganapati was considered ‘inappropriate’ for May Day Celebrations. On the big screen, I watched the singer’s face fall as Laal took the stage to much applause.

Vakratunda, Mahakaaya… I   cannot remember what the   rest of the hymn was because I     was not allowed to hear it. Somewhere, a few lines later,   the chant began Ganapati Ganapati… Based on my limited knowledge of  Sanskrit, Vakratunda, Mahakaaya translates as ‘of curved trunk, of great  body’. Just look at these epithets: can we imagine them being used for  any archetypal brahmanical God? Can they be used for Rama smiling  sweetly on Ramanand Sagar’s serial and presiding over the blood of  riots? As for   ‘Ganapati’ which provoked such an uproar: the term means  ‘lord of a gana’ where gana is usually translated as a political group, sometimes even a military one. The same etymology holds true for ‘Ganesha’. That is why, comrades on the left, even the General Secretary of the CPI(Maoist) can go by the name Ganapathy and no one has got up to ask him to change it.
Historians will tell you that in origin, Ganapati was a yaksha, a tribal or folk god of great powers. Over time, as brahmanical religion entered village and tribal societies, he was absorbed into the Hindu pantheon. This process was
not unique: it occurred for any number of local cults, images and themes across history. True, the figure of Ganapati himself tells us little about the people of the past. But we cannot always reach out to the ancient past with an ease that is possible for more recent events. And even if narratives of appropriation are complex, they need not take away from points of origin. To use a contemporary analogy: Does the fact that Bhagat Singh is appropriated by the Hindu-right detract from the fact that he was a Marxist? Does the mere image of Che Guevara occurring on vodka bottles or mass produced on t-shirts allow us to ignore his iconic status as a revolutionary? Cultural symbols are usually more complex than the ways in which they are packaged and made available to us.

What happened in JNU on the night of May 1st was an act of unbelieveable intolerance. It was marked by the peculiar combination of ignorance and populism that drives censorship. But worse still, is the fact that such intolerance is being justified in discussions subsequent to the event. Clearly, people did not come to the concert expecting to hear a hymn to Ganapati. But perhaps the situation could have been dealt with by allowing the singer to finish her song and then taking the mike to offer a critique? Surely we should be able to deal with ‘uncomfortable’ situations with some amount of political maturity and grace? Such an action goes beyond the unhappiness it causes an individual artist or member of the audience. It ties up to larger questions of how we view our histories and what worth we assign to freedom of expression.
Of course, we seem to have agreed that there are limits to the freedom of expression. But surely these limits are meant to be ‘reasonable’. Would singing a hymn to Ganapati on May Day have led to a carnage? Did it amount to hate-speech? If not, why shut it up instead of dealing with it in the terms of democratic debate? Small acts of silencing pave the way for larger ones. If JNUSU can use its position of privilege to act so summarily, then it erodes its moral authority to speak out against censorship. Next time you raise your voice in support of M.F. Husain or the struggling people of Kudankulam and Nonadanga, the chorus will be muted because you too have shown your ability to suppress something that isn’t ‘convenient’ for you. Next time you speak out against the moral policing of the ABVP, your voice will be muted because you too once abrogated to yourself the role of a ‘custodian of culture’. It is just one step away from the idiocy that says ‘he break my nation, I break his head.’
Stranger still was the fact that night we were able to accept disco versions of Pakistani poets we revere, but that tolerance died suddenly when faced with a Sanskrit hymn. True, certain languages are used by political and cultural elites to undertake acts of violence and bolster hierarchy. But they are also often used to articulate a politics of dissent. English, for instance, has been used to justify the worst possible racist and imperialist excesses. But does that mean that we will cease to read anything written in English? Most of the standardized bhasha languages of today’s India grew and spread at the cost of local and tribal languages. But does that mean we will exorcise them from our psyche? Nor is the knowledge of Sanskit opposed in any way to a left-democratic consciousness. D.D. Kosambi was one of the greatest Marxist minds of India, and yet he spent years of his life studying, editing and translating Sanskrit texts! To put it simply, it is not Sanskrit that must be opposed. Rather, it is the people who use Sanskrit (or any language, for that matter) to bolster caste hierarchies and brahmanical patriarchy.
And in the end, perhaps, what we need to reflect upon are the absences of our cultural politics. To the fact that we have reduced ourselves to canonizing certain texts and figures at the cost of others. To the fact that our involvement in cultural politics is often no more than a blur of slogan shouting. It shows not only an ignorance of history, but a hollowness to our political selves.
Of late, the university is a space where debates on censorship are becoming more potent. We have seen how difficult it is to even raise the debate on the removal of AFSPA or go through with a screening of Jashn-e-Azaadi. How the most terrible forms of discrimination are experienced by Dalit students, forcing them sometimes to commit suicide. How the legitimate demand to be allowed to eat beef or pork on campus is meant by sexist and casteist violence and abuse. But we of the left, progressive, democratic, feminist, anti-caste spectrum cannot replicate such forms of silencing, on however small or big a scale, because it takes away from our larger struggles and demeans them.
I too have been on occasion a member of the JNUSU Council so I know how difficult it can be to take decisions on the spur of the moment. But political decisions cannot and should not be based on the ‘mood’ of a crowd. They have to be handled in terms of democratic reasoning and civil debate. I would not expect a union that has known the inconvenience of speaking truth to power, that was forcibly shut down for three years in the name of the Lyngdoh Committee Recommendations to suddenly abrogate to itself the privilege of
deciding which voices can be heard and which cannot, which songs can be sung and which cannot.
But it is not JNUSU that is at fault so much as the larger university community. I do not expect such acts of silencing from a university, particularly not from JNU.

(Meera Visvanathan is a former member of JNU students’ Union and a student of the Ph.D programme at the Centre for Historical Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University)

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