Monday, June 22, 2009

A case for Bharatiyata

After a long long time, I have the possibility to spend hours reading different Indian newspapers every morning and get and un update on how India is changing.
For the past twenty-five years, ever since I moved to Italy, my knowledge of happenings in India had gradually substituted by memories of past. Till about a decade ago, there was no way to receive any regular news about India, except when there were big disasters or wars or events related to Sonia Gandhi. Like the Western world, Italy also knew India thourgh the narrow lenses of yoga, spirituality, Mahatma Gandhi, Tagore, poverty, religious conflicts, etc.
Short visits for work or family holidays were cocconed in their own spheres, rarely looking out to see how the India I knew had metamorphed into new directions. My knowledge of the changes remained quite superficial, limited mostly to physical changes like the new shopping malls, metro and fly-overs.
Then about a decade ago, arrived Internet and with it the possibility of reconnecting with India. For me, the reconnection has been more related to music, culture, films, literature, friends and family. Probably I was never very keen on politics and cricket, and whatever, little interest I had, had withered away in those long years of being unconnected.
Now, for the last three weeks, I am at home alone with my mother. Apart from an occasional visit of a friend or a relative, most of my time is passed reading newspapers and magazines, and watching TV. So I have plenty of time to meet the changed India through these mediums and reflect about it.
The impact of the recent election results is one area where I have been trying to understand more about the changing India. And, I have to confess that I am a little confused.
Like, I am confused about the leftist parties. The wiping out of the smaller regional parties from the national parliament and the loss of the left parties in West Bengal, their apparent inability to reflect systematically about their defeat, etc. occupies some space in newspapers everyday. Over the past few days, the development related to Maoists in Lalgarh have been occupying front pages, increasing that confusion.
In my area of work linked with voluntary organisations, development and health, I have frequent opportunities of meeting a lot of persons who hold sympathies towards leftist or socialist philosophies. In all those discussions, I have heard regularly about the possibility of the leftist ideals of an egualitarian, sustainable world that opposes the imperialist forces of liberalization, globalisation and privatization to avoid exploitation of the poor and the marginalised. They lament that with the congess rule, without the presence of saner left forces, thse forces of liberalisation and privatization would get momentum to the detriment of the poor and the margainlised.
Yet, I have yet to read anything that properly articulates, what went wrong with West Bengal? The left-parties had the opportunity to put into practice all the wonderful egalitarian and developmental policies for the past 32 years, then how come tribals and marginalised groups of persons in places like Lalgarh continue to live lives of poverty, lack of infra-structures and lack of justice, as they do in Orissa or Chattisgarh?
Like the better known on-off relationship between BJP and RSS, is there also a gap between all these people who know all about sustainable development and justice, and their leftist parties?
The squabbles in the BJP about power and control positions are also baffling, but are perhaps more predictable. Like all those wars fought by Bush in the names of justice and liberation, even the “party with a difference” is actually made of fallible human beings that are just looking for another clever slogan for their public image. Their insistence on continuing with hindutva, seems more like hiding behind the already-known because of an inability to come up with a vision for the future.
In fact looking at the visions, ideas and strategies of the different political parties, I see a similar lack of ability to look at the wider reality and a continuing narrow focus of debate on liberalisation, privatization issues, either for them or against them. Yet issues and areas that require a new vision are so many!
Isn’t it necessary to see why did the leftist vision of anti-liberalisation, anti-privatization lead to poor and marginalised being still poor and marginalised? If the rabid stupidness of hindutva, that sounds very much like the reborn evangelists or talibans, does not work, what else can be there that does not close itself in women in jeans-pubs kinds of medieval debates? If reservations have had such a limited impact on the lives of millions of dalits, can we look for newer ways of decreasing those disparities? Our environment, our rivers, our forests, our biodiversity, how can we safeguard them and yet without renouncing to our share of material and economic progress?
I have never been impressed by these “our gods and our culture are in danger and we need to protect them” kind of ideas that are behind concepts of hindutva or muslim or christian revivals. On the other hand, I feel that Bharat has long and glorious religious traditions of acceptance, sharing and tolerance that the world does not have, also because probably no oner country in the world has such a long tradition of living with multi-cultural, multi-religious, multi-lingual societies.
The kind of fearless debates that Hinduism could have about its gods, about its philosophies and about its spirituality, the way Islam could develop in directions of sufism and ganga-jamuni culture, the kind of different strains of religious doctrines of equality, peace and harmany such as philosophies of Mahavir, Buddha and Nanak, that could develop in India, how can we safeguard all those?
Can’t we think of Bhartiyata, the Indian way of looking at issues that does keep in mind our culture and our traditions, but looks fearlessly at the new and the future, including the ideas of progress that come from the more “developed” world, looking at them critically?
Where are such persons, such parties, such political manifestoes?
Tavleen Singh in her coloumn in Indian Express of 20 June, “Lessons from the Ayatollah”, had written, something similar:
“It (Iran) might wake them (BJP leaders) upto the reality that the party of Hindutva is dead, dead, dead until it severs its links with the RSS. It is this “cultrual” organisation that brought into politics all those sadhus and sadhvis whose only contribution to Indian politics was venom and bigotry. Whenever religious people enter the political arena, they have to find an enemy and, in my humble opinion, it was this very bad habbit that became the primary reason for the BJP’s defeat.
The more the BJP’s leaders vented their venom against Muslims, the better they made the “pseudo-secular” Congress look….
There is great deal about ancient, Hindu India that we should try and understand and preserve. It saddens me everytime I go to a Southeast Asian country and see the immense influence of Indian civilization that continues to exist there and that is almost totally lost here. We need to understand why it has been lost here if we are not to end up as a country whose only culture comes from Bollywood.”
Perhaps a new party or a new leader would look at the concept of Bhartiyata and articulate it in a way that makes all forward looking Indians, of different classes, castes and religions to feel that they have a stake in India’s future! I hope.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Obama's speech and Islam in India

I liked Obama's speech to the Muslim world from Cairo. I can't understand why so many Indian commentators are only concerned about "he did not mention India though ...". I think that Obama was very clearly saying that he was talking about "countries with muslim majority" in the Arab world, since the issues related to thse countries are very different from those regarding a country like India.

I can understand Tavleen Singh's point in Indian Express that Obama's dialogue is one-sided and similar dialogue from Islam's side is needed. She writes:

"The Jihad did not appear one morning out of clear blue sky. It happened because of a system of education in most Islamic countries that perpetuates the idea that Islam is the best thing that happened to mankind and that pluralism is wrong in Allah's eyes. As for us happy idol-worshipping types, we are doomed to damnation. This idea is in direct conflict with the Indian idea of Sarvadharma sambhaava. But it is more than just religion that is the problem. ... President Obama seems not to know that there are more Muslims in the Indian sub-continent than any where and that we lived in relative harmaony till Saudi money started to fund Wahabi Islam."

While Tavleen Singh is known for her position on Islam, I have been a little surprised by relatively open criticism of traditional islamists in the mainstream Indian media that used to avoid any mention of these subjects.

Like the report in The Week (June 7, 2009 issue) called "Sheikhen Shibboleths - are Indian muslims getting arabised?" In an interview in this article, Dr Ghoshal from Jamia Milia university says

"The transformation of Pakistan under Zia-Ul-Haq and the Islamization of the society had an effect on Indian Muslims, creating an assertiveness on their part, which produced Hindu extremism, and in turn produced a sense of insecurity among Indian Muslims."

I am not so sure if I entirely agree with Ghoshal here. It is convenient to show Hindu extremism "a result" of Muslim assertiveness. I think that Hindu extremism, like all other extremisms, has much more complex roots.

In May 2009 issue of the Hindi magazine Hans, there are two interesting articles about Muslim identity and issues todays. In her article, Sanvidhan aur Kabeela(Constitution and Clan), Sheeba Aslam Fehmi feels that while Indian constitution gives equal rights to Muslim women, these are not really accessible to them and wonders if this is because Muslim women in India got these rights through default at the time of independence without really fighting for them.

In the same magazine, Rajendra Yadav, one of the leading veteran Hindi writers, raises up other issues about Muslim identity in India, in a surprisingly direct way, and asks why every thing related to Islam must look for answers from Kuran?

"What kind of rule is that we can't raise any questions about Kuran or about prophet Mohammed .. why they are above all questions? Tell me what kind of eternal truths are there that are beyond questions? Can there be rules given fourteen hundred years ago that are unchangeable truths even in todays scientific and rational era, that can not be questioned? ... Can't you be free of Kuran, Shariyat and Hadis? If you will not be free then how will this production of Talibans will stop, who kill a girl only because she did not want to leave her studies. .... I was very surprised when you said that many Muslim women wear Hijab or Burqa out of their free will without pressure or order from others. Don't you really accept that every religion conditions the women in a way? What ever they do out of "free will" is a result of unnamed orders from deep inside. A bird freed of its cage, comes back to the cage out of its "free will". In "Guest" the story by Camus, the prisoner who had run away from the prison, doesn't he come back to the prison by himself? Please don't call psychological conditioning as "free will".

In the June 2009 issue of Hans, Rajendra Yadav goes back to this subject and the responses he has received about his first article:


Against my editorial of May 2009, many Muslim friends have advised me that first I should seriouosly study Islam, only then my words will carry some weight. The same advise I get from Hindu religious leaders. Christians also say the same thing. ... For me "what I can see" of a religion is more important in deciding man's thinking and behaviour. Certainly Islam gives all the rights and equalities to women that are not available in any other religion. But around us and in far away places, the "religious torture" supported by Muslim women is in no way less than Hindu torture. Here I don't see Shariyat, I see only injustices that crush women's cries with cruelty.

History of Islam in India, the way it linked with other Indian religions, the way it created syncretic thoughts and traditions such as Sufi thoughts, is too precious and needs to be safeguarded by everyone. Also I feel that all the religions, including Islam, need progressive reforms in line with concepts of human rights, so an honest debate on different critical aspects is needed. This means that sacred texts must also be reviewed critically. I believe that future of India and the world depends upon it.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Prisoner of TV serials

I am a prisoner these days, forced to watch hours of mind-numbing serials on the Indian TV. I had been always dismissive towards those who watched TV serials. Now, in spite of myself, I find myself drawn into the unimaginable complexities of the serial worlds, where in every episode before every break, a new question of life and death gravity comes out with clockwork regularity. Minor misunderstandings are somehow never cleared, till I feel an anxiety-wreck, and are stretched, till I am ready to scream.

Miracles, superstitions, ghosts, bhoot-praits and assorted characters from Purans and other ancient texts reign supreme in this Indian TV world. Most of the time, it is a world of fair-skinned upper middle class Hindu homes, where dark-skinned persons, lower castes, ethnic minorities do not or hardly exist. In that sense, the Indian TV world is similar to the Bollywood world. From their moral highground, 24x7 news channels of this world spew judgements about the racist Australians.

Among the serials that I like are Balika Vadhu and Jyoti. I had always liked Surekha Sikri, and she is formidable in BV. Among the serials, I watch mostly NDTV Imagine or Colours, since my mother's old TV seems to show them well. And I like some of the old fashioned programmes on Doordarshan, probably because they don't shout endlessly or they don't have breaks every ten minutes. A few days ago I saw an old interview of Manna Dey by Irfan and another woman journalist, that was really lovely. I also like their adaptations of books from different Indian languages.

It is a shame that Doordarshan doesn't have proper internet based online trasmissions for those like me who live outside India. Among all Indian TV channels, I would rather like to watch Doordarshan rather than all these commercial channels, with lot of gloss and stupidity. If Doordarshan can have a non-film based programmes channel, probably it will also be easier to deal with copyright issues and make transmission of all those documentary films and films by independent film makers that no one watches and that do not attract sponsors.

Some time ago, in the news they have written that people in Doordarshan are converting their old tapes into digital archives. I would love to watch those.


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