By Swapan Dasgupta
In any healthy and rumbustious democracy such as India, it is only natural that government decisions are contested. Some of the disagreements are entirely ritual and lacking both conviction and substance; others are entirely ideological and stem from divergent beliefs over what is appropriate; and still others are a curious blend of alternative aesthetics, personal agendas—what is popularly called ‘vested interests’—and plain spitefulness.
Over the past few months, the Narendra Modi government has encountered some vocal opposition to its initiatives. The Goods and Services Act has been questioned by businessmen wary of being included in the tax net; the amendments to the Land Acquisition Act have been contested by those intent on permanently preserving the legacy of Sonia Gandhi and those, like Mamata Banerjee, who gained prominence by championing farmer populism; and the Prime Minister’s overseas visits have been mocked by those who believe that India’s foreign policy should be all about peace with Pakistan and accommodation of China. The public airing of differences are part of the democratic game and despite the exaggerated shrillness that accompanies rival positions, provide evidence of the innate fractiousness of Indian politics.
There are some disputes that are, however, a little more revealing than others. In the past few weeks, India has witnessed two slugfests that tell us something about alternative self-images of India, maybe even different ‘ideas of India’.
The first kerfuffle was over the World Yoga Day that will be observed both in India and in umpteen other countries. The decision of the government to actively promote the event was immediately accompanied by a wave of sectarian anger. A section of the Muslim clergy debunked the official patronage of yoga as an attempt to promote the Hindu ethos. Yoga was denounced as un-Islamic and we were informed that Muslims must not perform surya namaskar because it meant genuflecting to an entity other than Allah. To avoid getting entangled in a purposeless theological controversy that could have inflamed passions, the government accommodated a slice of the objection by the Muslim clergy and dropped surya namaskar from the official event. Of course, there is nothing to stop yoga practitioners at non-official events from doing what they do each day without necessarily equating it with a Charlie Hebdo act.
Once the apparently ‘non-secular’ dimension of Yoga Day was over and dealt with, the sceptics came up with an alternative indictment of the government. ‘We don’t need Modi’, they bleated, ‘to tell us about Yoga. He didn’t invent it. So why is he appropriating it?’ Variations of this theme can be found in articles in both the print and online media.
This expression of outrage by the metro-based sniggerati is instructive. It is clear that the real objection is not to Yoga—which, after all, commands awesome respect in the centres of ‘alternative’ living, notably California. Their dissatisfaction arise on two counts. First, they loath the fact that Yoga Day is being promoted by Modi—the man who must be mocked, decried and spat on for everything he does. Second, the association of Modi with yoga implies that there is a link to a popular Hinduism which is so un-cool. It is one thing for yoga to be practiced in up-scale gyms and followed with a glass of nourishing carrot juice. But Modi wants yoga to be learnt in sarkari schools. The Prime Minister, they rightly fear, is going to take away the mystique of the ‘alternative’ away from yoga and restore it to the centre of India’s traditional knowledge systems.
Now let’s look at the second controversy over the special operations carried out inside Myanmar against the rebels who ambushed and killed soldiers of the 6 Dogra Regiment in Manipur earlier this month.
The first bout of objection was to the publicity that was given to the operation by both the army and political functionaries of the government. The immediate response of the sniggerati was: why brag? In normal circumstances they would cried foul over ‘human rights violations’ but the deaths of Indian jawans was just too fresh in public memory to permit this outlandishness. Sniggering over the 56-inch chest was therefore the next best thing. What was lost sight of was the fact that perhaps, just perhaps, the publicity was carefully pre-meditated and aimed at sending out a wider message. The intriguing fact that while the gunfire was in the east, while the smoke and fury emanated from the north-west suggested the message had indeed gone home.
Now, of course, they are talking of a botched operation confirmed by unknown and unnamed ‘sources’. And journalists are quoting other journalists to demonstrate that the Modi government can’t even organise a proper covert operation.
What can be concluded from the recent bouts of contrived outrage is an ‘idea of India’ that is charmingly eccentric. It basically consists of India remaining in a state of permanent defensiveness. We musn’t flaunt our traditional knowledge systems, even when they find ready acceptance globally; we musn’t acknowledge our Hindu heritage because it isn’t ‘secular’; we musn’t go beyond agonising over garbage heaps and child labour because that allows some people to feel superior; and, for heaven’s sake, we must never do anything that destroys the age-old belief in our meek passivity. In short, India must be permanently short of achievement and long on accepting sympathy.
If Modi is doing something to unmake this grammar of politics and public life, he must be doing something right.
Sunday Pioneer, June 14, 2015