By Swapan Dasgupta
In the late-1980s, and for a time between 1987 and 1991, Devi Lal became a prominent player on the national scene. Deeply rooted in the politics and rural ethos of Haryana, he was known for his earthy wisdom and disdain for all things that didn’t fit into his ‘kisan’ experience. A particular target of his derision was that section of the country that has come to be known as ‘India’—as opposed to ‘Bharat’. The true representative of this land, Devi Lal used to say, were those whose addresses would be prefixed with the name of the VPO—Village Post Office.
It was an interesting formulation and perhaps something that even Mahatma Gandhi with his utopian notions of self-sufficient village communities would have tacitly approved. The problem was that it left a lot of people (including myself) with a feeling of being second-class citizens. Urban India may well be the Devil’s workshop but it happens to be the only place many Indians can call home.
Nor is it accurate to regard rural India as the natural epicentre of virtue and holiness. In his lifetime, Babasaheb Ambedkar was eclipsed by the larger-than-life influence of the Mahatma and the Congress. But it is worth remembering that the Dalit icon always regarded Village India as the citadel of prejudice and oppression against all those who were damned for being ‘untouchable’ by birth. The self-governing qualities of the local panchayat didn’t inspire Ambedkar. To him and to many who were concerned with caste-based oppression, rural hierarchies didn’t have space for those who were condemned to live apart. The stereotype of happy kisans harvesting grain, flanked by women in colourful clothes, didn’t always incorporate the brutal underbelly of an economic order where some communities were regarded as sub-humans, and their women treated as commodities.
Rape, the RSS chief asserted in Silchar last Friday, is essentially an ‘Indian’ phenomenon. He is only partially right. The brutalisation of women is more widespread in the ecosystems of Bharat—and has been so for centuries.
Mohan Bhagwat is also entirely right when he maintained that the respect for women is idealised in Indian culture. But he would be the first to admit that traditional society was less than welcoming and applied very different standards to those groups it regarded as being outside its social orbit—an attitude that has been transmitted into the widespread disrespect for white, women tourists. The deep reverence for ‘stree shakti’ in Bengal, for instance, didn’t prevent the cruel custom of sati and the social degradation and sexual exploitation of widows by ‘respectable’ sections of society. It also didn’t prevent collective sanction for the sexual exploitation of women from the ‘lower orders’.
A feature of the vibrant social reform movements that arose in the 19th and early-20th centuries was their willingness to first admit the shortcomings of Hindu society and then address the question of possible remedies. Some of the reformers—notably Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Swami Vivekananda—were modernists and had imbibed the intellectual currents of the West. But others such as Pandit Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar were steeped in tradition and approached the question of reform from a humanist perspective.
The point to note is that for the Hindu stalwarts of the past two centuries, there was a clear understanding that the Hindu, both as an individual and as a collective, wasn’t the epitome of perfection. In today’s context, going by the admission that cosmopolitanism has distorted the minds of ‘India’ and encouraged unwholesome attitudes towards women, the issue to be addressed is: what can be done to change society? After all, there must be glaring imperfections in the modern Hindu that facilitates the ready acceptance of misogyny—the utterances of the Congress MP from Jangipur and a senior BJP minister of Madhya Pradesh being two recent examples. (I am confining my remarks to Hindu society because it sets the tone for India.)
More to the point, the heads of cultural organisations such as the RSS must begin to ask why their unceasing activism over more than eight decades hasn’t altered things. Why have the samskaras they have sought to inculcate in their followers not had a wider effect on society? Maybe the fault doesn’t lie in the samskaras—although a little less patronising attitude towards women would help greatly—but in the priorities of groups that have sought to create a moral leadership for India. If there was greater emphasis on regenerating the institutions of what goes by the name Hinduism rather than on exercising control over a political party, the nation would have been better served.
There is little point celebrating the 150th birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda in style unless the grand speeches are complemented by serious attempts to cleanse the temples of venality, casteism and even the exploitation of women devotees by perverted priests. Vivekananda spoke and wrote at length of the Brahmanical religion’s cruel indifference to the plight of the Sudra and the Chandal. Was he exonerating Bharat and indicting India? Was he creating false binaries?
Sunday Pioneer, January 6, 2013