No Alternative

The “pulping” of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History by Penguin is yet another blow to the freedom of expression by the religious radicals and fundamentalists who take offence at the drop of a hat. The instances of such attacks — started in 1989 when the Indian government banned Satanic Verses — have increased dramatically in recent years, and the offence-mongers’ purview has expanded from books to movies, artists, and even celebrities. This is not surprising. When a society obliges to a culture of mutual intolerance by capitulating to those who are easily offended, it results into an if-them-then-why-not-us race, with every faction of society vying appeasement for their injured self-esteem.

the hindusI read this book back in 2009. Although the size and scope of this epic was prohibitive (with more than 700 pages), I found Doniger’s vantage refreshing and thought-provoking. The book offers an alternative history of the Hindu religion, looking through the prism of scriptures and tales, zooming into the role of women, members of the lower caste, and animals. It’s a story about the alternative people and characters. Her rationale is to provide an auxiliary viewpoint to show that the so-called marginalized groups (women and Pariahs) actually did have substantial contribution to the development of Hindu tradition. The book is a “celebration of diversity and pluralism, not to mention the worldly wisdom and sensuality, of the Hindus “.

By renouncing such scholarly work, the Hindu radicals are not only attacking the liberal values of our society, but (ironically) also weakening the pluralistic nature of Hindu tradition. It doesn’t surprise me that this regressive act is braced by the right-wing Hindus that are often politically motivated. What troubles me more is the passive support from the moderates. “Yes, I believe in freedom of speech as well, but we have to draw the line somewhere”, “We need to be careful about hurting other (religious) people’s sentiments”, “No one gets away with an offensive book about Muslims, then why shouldn’t we protect Hindu sentiments as well?” are some common responses to this controversy by the religious moderates. It’s dismaying to see a rather large section of the Indian society supporting (however passively), and hence fortifying, the spirits of offence-mongers.

A culture with no space for alternative interpretations and ideas is a culture of putrid orthodoxy. We must not succumb to these regressive forces that are destructive to an open society. 


What If

What if Vallabhbhai Patel, not Nehru, had been India’s first Prime Minister?

Here is a cursory yet plausible answer from historian Ramachandra Guha:

“[T]he Congress would have become more right-wing (and pro-Hindu), with Nehru leaving to start an opposition party which, with his charisma (which far exceeded Patel’s), would have swept to power in the first general elections. So, I fear, this most remarkable and simultaneously most reviled of modern Indians would have become prime minister after all.”

nehru gandhi sardar

[Pic courtesy: Rediff]

Zero = Nirvana?

The invention of zero


Zero emerged as a result of spiritual as well as numeral thinking. 

[Above: The number 270 from a ninth century inscription in Gwalior, India.]

Gandhi’s Rendezvous with Movies

I thought Ram Rajya (1943) was the first and only movie that Gandhi had ever seen. So I was quite surprised when I found out that it was not the only movie that he had watched. Moreover, it appears that it was not even his first one!

According to this website he watched Ram Rajya in 1945:

‘Ram Rajya’ was shown to Mahatma Gandhi in 1945, when he was convalescing at Juhu. His secretary, Smt. Sushila Nayar, had given Vijay Bhatt only 40 minutes for “Bapu” to see the film. But the movie so engrossed him, that Mahatma Gandhi saw it for over 90 minutes, uninterrupted. Since it was a ‘moun’ [silence] day for him, he gave Bhatt a pat on the back at the end, to show his appreciation.

Ram Rajya, by the way, was a very successful film which ran for 100 weeks in a theatre in Bombay. The director and producer of the movie, Vijay Bhatt, went on to make another classic in 1952: Baiju Bawra.

In Gandhi: The Man, His People and the Empire Rajmohan Gandhi writes about the other movie that Gandhi had seen [Chapter 14: Rejected, Page 497]:

Twenty years earlier, released from Yerawada jail after an attack of appendicitis, Gandhi – a son of Porbandar – had gone to convalesce by the sea at Juhu in North Bombay. In May 1944 he turned once more to the Juhu beach, where he was again entertained by the Morarji family. On 21 May he was persuaded to watch Mission to Moscow, a Hollywood movie made to popularize America’s alliance with the Soviet Union, possibly the first talkie he had ever seen. It did not attract him to Stalin or Communism. [Emphasis is mine.]

So there. Michael Curtiz’s Mission to Moscow (1943) was the first movie that the Mahatma had watched. And that makes Ram Rajya the first Indian movie to have been seen by Gandhi.

[Hat Tip: At the Edge]

In Search of the Sacred in Modern India

I’ve just started reading William Dalrymple’s Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India. I loved his last book The Last Mughal (my review), and if the Introduction chapter of Nine Lives is any indication, another great read is on the way! Excerpt below:

Much has now been written about the way that India is moving forward to return the subcontinent to its traditional place at the heart of global trade, but so far little has been said about the way these earthquakes have affected the diverse religious traditions of South Asia, or explored how the people who live out these rich traditions have coped with living in the eye of the storm. For while the West often likes to imagine the religions of the East as deep wells of ancient, unchanging wisdom, in reality much of India’s religious identity is closely tied to specific social groups, caste practices and father-to-son lineages, all of which are changing very rapidly as Indian society transforms itself at speed.

All this raises many interesting questions: What does it actually mean to be a holy man or a Jain nun, a mystic or a tantric seeking salvation on the roads of modern India, as the Tata trucks thunder past?

Also read the following article by Dalrymple that provides a glimpse into the format of this book (which is, oral histories and personal accounts): Serving the Goddess – The dangerous life of a sacred sex worker.

And here’s one of his recent articles about a remarkable festival in South India where Hindu pilgrims celebrate a Muslim warrior. [Hat Tip: Ultrabrown]

[Picture Courtesy: The New Yorker]

And So He Left…

About a year ago, I wrote about Delhi High Court’s exemplary verdict that disposed off the charges against M F Husain; I cherished each and every word of Justice Kaul’s verdict that emphasized the importance of tolerance in a free and democratic society.

M F Husain, who was once called the Picasso of India by Forbes magazine, has now given up on India and embraced Qatar. Thanks to the game of competitive intolerance in India, he has now become the Picasso of Qatar.

Many newspaper articles and blogs are written about this – some endorsing, some condemning – but the best article that I came across is from Salil Tripathi (link). Here’s an excerpt:

And this is how it ends. This is how India loses one of its own.

Maqbool Fida Husain, born in Pandharpur, Maharashtra, before there was an independent India, is no longer ours. After a decade in which he faced arrest warrants and was threatened, his canvases defaced, his family harassed, his property attached, his personality ridiculed, art galleries showing his art attacked, and his art deliberately and disingenuously mischaracterized, he has decided that it is enough.

For those who argue that Qatar is not a democracy and Husain has become a laughingstock for choosing a country that’s light-years behind India in terms of human rights protection, here’s what Tripathi says: “Qatar’s record on free speech is not relevant; India’s is. And it is for Indians to reflect on why India’s most widely known painter feels safer in Doha than in Mumbai.”

I couldn’t agree more!

Husain felt unsafe: He spent his summers in London, winters in Dubai. He apologized; he explained; he clarified. But nothing was enough for his detractors. Indian ambassadors abroad praised him, while police officers at home prepared arrest warrants. Courts threw the cases out and defended art, but the state dragged its feet. Some officials said the state would protect him, but Husain did not feel safe—to think, imagine and create, in peace.

And so he left.

And the saddest part of all is that this is no longer about Husain. Just look around and you’ll see many examples of people taking offense and often retorting violently (Taslima Nasreen, Yarlagadda Lakshmi Prasad, Sachin Tendulkar, Shah Rukh Khan are some of the recent victims of competitive intolerance), and such events are gaining momentum and earning a wider ideological support.

The end-note on Salil Tripathi’s article reads:

Maqbool Fida Husain was Indian. India made him a foreigner.

I deeply regret this loss, and being an Indian I want to apologize to this great painter and expatriate who still talks proudly about his Indian-ness, expresses regrets if he had offended anyone, and blames the politicians – not Indians in general – for his exile.


And while on the subject of ‘taking offense’, here’s today’s comic strip from Jesus and Mo:

Divine Justice?

The idiotic claims from televangelist Pat Robertson — that the earthquake in Haiti may be a blessing in disguise and is a result of the pact the Haitians made long time ago with Satan to help them against French imperialists (video link) — reminds me of a similar speech made by Gandhi in 1934 to the victims of earthquake in rural Bihar.

On 15th January 1934, a colossal earthquake hit Bihar […] The death toll was estimated at twenty thousand. Gandhi visited Bihar in March and spoke to the bereaved, destitute and homeless people. The earthquake, he told them, “is a chastisement of your sins.” And the particular sin that he had in mind was the enforcement of untouchability.

Even Gandhi’s closest supporters were horrified. The victims of the earthquake had included poor as well as rich […] But Gandhi was explicitly blaming the victims, appropriating a terrible disaster to promote his own religious ideas. Nehru, who had been helping the relief efforts in Bihar, read Gandhi’s remarks “with a great shock”. But the most effective refutation came from Rabindranath Tagore, long one of the Mahatma’s greatest advocates. Tagore argued caustically that this supposedly “divine” justice, if such it was, constituted the least just form of punishment imaginable. [From Indian Summer, Tunzelmann]

Behind these types of – possibly noble yet misleading and plain wrong – claims lie the fundamental tenets of religion(s) that demand and propagate the need for a greater (divine) purpose of life and events. Once you give in to the belief that our existence in this world (and the existence of this universe) has a purpose; and explanation that is anything other than natural and rational, you’re in for a whole lot of nonsensical, unscientific, and dogmatic convictions (like God punishes you for your sins etc.) Here’s a passage from an article on Slate by Hitchen:

Earthquakes and tsunamis are to be expected and can even to some degree be anticipated. It’s idiotic to ask whose fault it is. The Earth’s thin shell was quaking and cracking millions of years before human sinners evolved, and it will still be wrenched and convulsed long after we are gone. These geological dislocations have no human-behavioral cause. The believers should relax; no educated person is going to ask their numerous gods “why” such disasters occur. A fault is not the same as a sin.

However, the believers can resist anything except temptation. Where would they be if such important and frightening things had natural and rational explanations?

Indeed, where would they be?

Vande Mataram

The “dead issue” is brought back to life yet again by some Muslim clerics who issued a fatwa against the recital of Vande Mataram by Muslims. In response, Hindu hard-liners retorted that those who refuse to sing the national song should go to Pakistan.

Two connected but fundamentally different claims are made here: (1) that Vande Mataram is un-Islamic, and (2) that refusal to sing Vande Mataram is unpatriotic. While the former is induced by religion, the latter has national chauvinism written all over it.

We certainly can’t deny the communal and political motives behind such claims, but the falsity of the second claim deems the first one almost irrelevant. In a just and liberal society no one should be forced to sing a song, be it national song or national anthem. If I, for example, find Vande Mataram offensive for religious, personal, ethical or any other reason, I should have freedom to deny its recital.

As Amit Varma has argued in a compelling blog post (link), there are two types of patriotism: one is primarily driven by love, and the other from pride and self-esteem. The first type of patriot doesn’t impose his own love and reverence (for the country) on others. While the second type of patriot demands everyone else to share his fervor and passion. A love-driven patriot may feel bad if others don’t share his feeling, but unlike a pride-driven patriot he wouldn’t get offended by that. Symbolism (like national anthem, flag etc.) and display are very important to the pride-driven patriotism. But they don’t mean much to the love-driven patriot, who adores the real things (like food, culture and music) as opposed to symbols that represent them.

The other concern that this event raises is about the vices of an unbridled democracy. There is a detailed discussion in Fareed Zakaria’s illuminating book The Future of Freedom about this. The first source of abuse in a democratic society comes from the government, and the second source comes from the people themselves. The will of majority can easily transform into tyranny of majority. The will of majority is important, even crucial to a democratic system, but so is the protection of minority’s rights. Democracy is surely a good system, but too much of a good thing can be bad sometimes.

[See my earlier related post: Talibanization of India]

Clarification: It might appear from my post above that I am implicitly approving the fatwa declared by the cleric. I am not. What I am defending is: liberty. If one doesn’t want to sing Vande Mataram, he should not be forced to sing. And same way, if a muslim wants to sing Vande Mataram then he should be allowed to do so as well.

For the interested reader, here’s good summary of issues and controversies surrounding Vande Mataram.

Indian Summer

I just ordered Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire written by Alex Tunzelmann. Below is the first paragraph from the book:

In the beginning there were two nations. One was a vast, mighty and magnificent empire, brilliantly organized and culturally unified, which dominated a massive swath of the earth. The other was an undeveloped semi-feudal realm, riven by religious factionalism and barely able to feed its illiterate, diseased and stinking masses. The first nation was India. The second was England.

And then, after two hundred years of British imperialism, the author argues, the situation was completely reversed! (The “beginning” she’s referring to is 1577, when the Mughal empire was at its peak under the great emperor Akbar, in case you’re wondering.)

It’s difficult to imagine a country as diverse as India to be “culturally unified” as the author suggests, but even after adjusting for the exaggeration, the shift in opposite direction is as conspicuous as it is interesting. It shows what imperialism often does to the ruled, and to the ruler.

indian summer

Due to some early mixed reviews and the gimmicky subtitle (The Secret History of the End of an Empire) the book didn’t make it to my bookshelf in spite of its tempting subject. But now someone is making a movie based on this book with primary focus on Nehru and Edwina’s “clandestine and intense” relationship and my curiosity skyrocketed. And why not, after all one of the cover designs of this book features the infamous picture (the image on the right) that inspired me to write a post that’s very close to my heart: Love to Hate Nehru.

Unfortunately, but expectantly, the production of Indian Summer has been halted. The Indian government officials are evaluating the salacity of the script. “It was a relationship of great friendship between individuals of the opposite sex but at what point that relationship becomes more is between them. The desire to guard a reputation is institutional,” said Nehru’s biographer M J Akbar.

Cattle Class

The recent Twitter controversy about Shashi Tharoor’s “insensitive” remark reminded me of this cartoon by Mike Luckovich published about two years ago.

luckovich2006112680423 - Airline Passengers

The joke, as Amit Verma explained on Times Now show, is on the airlines, not on the passengers.

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 66 other followers

On Twitter