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Ramayana controversy: India's pluralism under threat again

Saturday October 29, 2011 09:48:18 AM, Amulya Ganguli, IANS

As Delhi University's pusillanimous decision to scrap A.K. Ramanujan's essay on 300 versions of the epic Ramayana shows, vice chancellors and professors easily choose the discretion of trashing a book or a work of art over the valour of upholding the principle of intellectual freedom in a democratic country.

As was demonstrated by Bombay University's similarly gutless capitulation to the Shiv Sena last year on Rohinton Mistry's novel, "Such A Long Journey", in the syllabus, the academic community is mortally scared of defying Hindu right-wing militants. It is, however, worthwhile noting that the saffron crowd has succeeded in making its writ prevail in Delhi and Mumbai, where the Congress and other secular parties - which claim to have a more open mind on the question of art and letters - are in power. It would have been understandable if the deletion of Ramanujan's essay and Mistry's novel had taken place in Narendra Modi's Gujarat, but that is not the case.

If the secular stalwarts in the government at the centre have maintained a deafening silence, the reason is a cowardly reluctance to offer a head-on challenge to the Hindu nationalist brigade lest it cost them the Hindu vote. But that is not the only reason. Such faintheartedness has been in evidence in the corridors of power ever since Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses" was banned by the Rajiv Gandhi government in 1988 to placate Muslim fundamentalists. So it isn't the Hindu extremists alone who are favoured.

Even the Communists haven't been noticeably brave in this respect considering that the Buddhadev Bhattacharjee government hurriedly bundled out Taslima Nasreen from Kolkata in 2007 following demonstrations by a little-known Muslim outfit. Interestingly, Taslima first went to Rajasthan, which was under the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) rule at the time.

It has to be remembered, however, that the BJP is all for artistic freedom as long as it is the Muslims who claim to be offended. Hence its support for Rushdie and Taslima. The party is up in arms only when it believes that the sensitivity of the Hindus is affected.

Curiously, however, it is the BJP's Atal Bihari Vajpayee who voiced the correct sentiments when the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune was ransacked by a group of Marathi chauvinists in 2003 because the author of a controversial biography of Shivaji, James W. Laine, had worked there. Vajpayee's view was that anyone objecting to Laine's book could write a rebuttal of his own instead of indulging in vandalism.

If only the leaders of secular parties had been as forthright about the importance of a scholarly debate, M.F. Husain would not have had to die in exile. There is little doubt that it is their gutless conduct which has encouraged the saffron goons to lay down the terms which the artists must follow.

For the Sangh Parivar and the BJP, it must be a matter of satisfaction that their agenda in the "cultural" field has not suffered any setback as a result of their loss of power at the centre. True the two United Progressive Alliance governments have rectified some of the distortions in history books which the Vajpayee government had introduced. But there has been little or no resistance to the threat of violence which the saffron outfits make against books, paintings or exhibitions which present a picture different from their own.

They are particularly aggressive about the Ramayana since their politics revolves around the proposed Ram temple in Ayodhya, which they project as a symbol of Hindu assertiveness vis--vis the Muslim "invaders". It also propagates their concept of establishing a Hindu 'rashtra' (state) in India, which is the Parivar's ultimate objective.

Not surprisingly, therefore, they are unable to accept any interpretation of the epic, as the one by Ramanujan, which differs from their version in which the emphasis is on Ram as a warrior. This selective depiction is intended to provoke the Hindus to rise against their enemies who, in accordance with the Parivar's subtext, comprise the minorities. It is easy to see how this rendering is different from Mahatma Gandhi's focus on Ram Rajya, the ideal state where Ram is a benevolent ruler for all.

The Ramanujan version was reflected in an exhibition organised by Sahmat in 1995 which looked at diverse origins of the Ramayana. Like the essay, it had earned the ire of the saffronites who lost no time in attacking it.

Unless the secular politicians and intelligentsia show great courage and personal integrity in their commitment to an ideal which they profess to cherish, both pluralism and artistic freedom in India will be under constant threat from the pseudo-religious zealots.



(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at amulyaganguli@gmail.com)

 




 

 

 

 

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