March of the ‘Bhagwa’ Brigade
by Prem Ayyathurai, Batch of 2014. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To be honest, I was angered by my own ignorance of the language of this letter until I came across it yesterday, given, particularly, that I was a student of the Maharashtra Board until I joined law school. That the memory of Shivaji, a ruler who employed numerous Muslims in his army and administration, and who fiercely maintained respect for the followers of Islam, should have be trampled over by Sanghi political outfits is not surprising. Indeed, it is easy to falsely portray the legacy of a man who was, simply put, a Hindu king surrounded by many Muslim rulers. What really begins to fuck with you is how easily these lathi-carrying, chaddi-donning, garden-variety fascists are usurping the legacy of radicals like Bhimrao Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh.
For years, now, Hindutva platforms in India have portrayed these two men on their pantheon of luminaries during religious events. I will try to be as trite as possible here – after decades of political work in which he engaged with other leaders in the Hindu community as a part of the struggle to unshackle the Untouchables of India, Ambedkar converted, and led the conversion on October 15, 1956, of lakhs of Dalits, out of Hinduism. “I renounce Hinduism, which is harmful humanity and impedes the advancement and development of humanity because it is based on inequality, and adopt Buddhism as my religion”, declared Ambedkar.
It is actually easier to make a point about Bhagat Singh when it comes to religion, generally. On being chided that it was his arrogance that blinded him from the existence of God, Singh wrote an essay famously titled Why I am an Atheist, where he declared calmly, “I know, in the present circumstances, my faith in god would have made my life easier… But I do not want the help of any intoxication to meet my fate. I am a realist.”
Even so, chaddi-wallahs think they can get away with usurping the memories of these two men and using them to further their communal agenda.
We Need to Know
This brings me to why I felt I had to write this note. I would have prefaced this with ‘We need to remember‘, but that would presume we knew certain things to begin with. Let’s not even go into whether Sanatani Hinduism sold by the Sanghis is legitimate or not. What I do want to talk about is the terrifying fact that most people like you and I are not aware of – Hindu, the Sangh may or may not have been from its inception. Patriotic, it surely was not.
I remember that in my second year at law school, I came across some ICHR publications titled ‘Towards Freedom’ – a collection of meticulously researched books where news clippings and excerpts from reports of the British police over the years of the freedom struggle had been collated. Leafing through them, I came across the story of how the publishing of this series had been stopped during the years of the Vajpayee government; a lot has been written about why the publications were halted, the most obvious being that these books revealed the ‘role’ of the RSS during the struggle for India’s independence – the organisation’s most conspicuous contribution was its sheer absence from the struggle.
A report of the British Intelligence Bureau, dated June, 1946, quotes a senior RSS leader Dada Bhai declaring that the Sangh‘s struggle was not against the British but against the Muslims. RSS founder Golwalkar’s speech during the 1945 Dussehra celebrations at Nagpur quotes him as defining India’s independence as ‘Hindu rule and the protection of Hinduism and Hindu rights‘.
If we are surprised by the fact that today, the Union Minister for Culture declares that Indian education system shall be purified of its English influences and that it is not in our culture for women to step out in the dark, it is only because we are shamefully ignorant of how complex our history is, as a country. But I write this, because I feel we crossed that point in time long ago, when we could afford to be this ignorant. Today, it is desperately important for us to acknowledge that India, for the chaddi-wallah, was never the nation that was won on August 15, 1947, and will never be the republic that was founded on January 26, 1950.
We need to know, and acknowledge, that we are being ruled today by a confederation of loosely co-ordinated organisations centred around the RSS and these are people who have proven themselves capable of a most single minded, vicious campaign of defining what it is to be an Indian. Worryingly, they have become very competent at it.
Not too long ago, I was having a chat with a friend of mine, who refuses to be as unsettled as I am by the pace at which the political circumstances around us are being transformed. I am not talking simply about the fact that Modi has come into power a year ago and numerous churches and mosques have been defaced, Muslims wapasi-ed to ghar, and Heads of institutions like FTII and Nehru Museum changed and Subramaniam Swamy is suggested as the Vice-Chancellor for the Jawaharlal Nehru University. We must understand that the Sangh has been at it patiently for over seventy years, and what we’ve seen in the last twelve months is their coming of age. Are you and I going to remain naive and behave like the three-day meetings of Union Cabinet ministers with Sangh leaders does not constitute a brazen threat to the Constitutional directive that the Government answers solely to the People of India?
Last week, then, I met some friends in FTII on the 100th day of their strike. The media, as is its wont, mischaracterised their struggle as a challenge solely to the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan, when in fact their battle addresses something more terrifying. As you would know, along with Chauhan, four other paragons of sangh mediocrity were also appointed, included one Mr. Narendra Pathak. What you may not know is that Mr. Pathak was the State President of the ABVP, whose goons beat up the students of FTII in 2013 for screening a documentary named Jai Bhim, Comrade.
We Need to React
This is the message of the Sangh government. They will appoint as your college administrator the man who presides over the organisation that beats you up for screening documentaries. They will write out of textbooks the advise that Ambedkar gave to his followers, that of rejecting Hinduism – his 19th vow amongst the 22 he demanded during the historic conversion to Buddhism. They will thrash a Muslim man for travelling with a Hindu woman. They will publicly accuse a woman of prostitution, who dares to question the many inane ideas of Narendra Modi. They will shut down NGOs and try and jail the women and men who struggle for justice. They shall deny the fact that even Hindus eat meat, they shall tell us what Hindus eat. They shall project Bhagat Singh as one of their own- Bhagat Singh, who said to the Hindus, that their ancestors were ‘shrewd, who tried to find out theories strong enough to hammer down all the efforts of reason and disbelief‘. They are testing us, student community in India, we who are young and constitute the future of this nation, trying to find out if we have the spine to say ‘Enough!‘ as they ride rough-shod over our fundamental rights.
The danger in the confidence engendered by the lie that our nation is 3 millenia old is pressing – our nation does most definitely lay a claim to a history that is centuries old, but India is only 69 years old. And 69 years is a very small period of time in the evolution of a nation-state like India – the United States was on the verge of its own existential questions, leading to the Civil War, by the seventieth year after the drafting of its Constitution. The Sangh understands this – the numerous reported and innumerable unreported instances of the societal violence unleashed by it since 2014 is the first time a government from Delhi has proclaimed a naked attack on the Idea of India. “We are not saffronising India, the people have given us the mandate”, they say. Thirty one percent of the electorate of India, 17 crore individuals, do not even constitute thirty percent of the population of India. A mandate from 17 crore Indians, out of 125 crore, can never mean the mandate to throw out the Constitution and establish a police state hell bent on denying the values enshrined in our Constitution. As of today, the few students of FTII are, if not the sole, definitely the most defiant response to this violence. Ours are extremely political times, we would be too naive to believe that we can remain apolitical and distant from these happenings. For you and I, it shall not be long before we are compelled to choose where we stand in the long march of history.
M.J. Akbar, A Mirror to Power (2015); R. Gandhi, Revenge and Reconciliation: Understanding South Asian History (1999).