Assault on culture is an assault on the nation

A ruling party winning a massive mandate on the plank of development appears obsessed with socio-religious issues like beef ban, love jihad & triple talaq. This is leading to a cultural dichotomy

Photo by Himanshu Vyas/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Photo by Himanshu Vyas/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Ashok Vajpeyi

Let us, at the outset, remind ourselves a few facts which are being blurred constantly in current public discourse. Firstly, India is a civilisation which has had a uniquely pluralistic ethos for millennia. Almost everything in India is plural: God, religions, languages, philosophies, customs, cuisines, costumes, etc. Secondly, the Indian Constitution and the Indian democracy are based on this irrepressible and enriching plurality. Thirdly, the various cultures subsumed within this civilisational enterprise have nourished and sustained this vital plurality. Fourthly, India has always been open to new ideas from outside and invariably adapted or transformed them according to its own pluralistic traditions. Finally, India also has had very robust traditions of dissent, plurality of dissent as well.

It is this context which we must keep in mind when we view the current scenario. It would appear that at present the Indian society is undergoing a period of intense and daily turmoil. This turmoil is not caused so much by economic forces as by cultural factors. Interestingly, these forces are not concerned with the cardinal values of cultural creativity and imagination, namely new curiosities, innovations, imaginative courage, expansion of the geography of understanding and accommodation. On the contrary, they are marked by a sickening obsession with bans, restrictions, vigilantism, creating and attacking ‘others’, etc.

The new regime at the Centre, both by its direct actions as also by keeping silent on the various outfits of its political-ideological structure which are on rampage killing, punishing, attacking the various minorities, whether of faith or of opinion or thought, is trying to suppress all forms of dissent and disagreements, of debate and dialogue to project a very masculine, aggressive and intolerant version of Indian culture. There is massive ‘othering’ and an outrageous assertion of a majoritarianism that would term any act of difference or defiance as anti-national. It is, as if being in a minority of any kind, racial, intellectual, moral, political is ab initio, ipso facto an act of rejection of the Indian culture and tradition.

Diversionary tactics

Many of these populist organisations, particularly set up by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, are culturally illiterate, uncivic in public behaviour, unconstitutional in authority and yet they are responsible for creating social turmoil in the name of culture and tradition. It is interesting to note that a political party which won a massive mandate in the elections on the planks of development is now cleverly avoiding or failing to bring about any substantial progress on that front and seems to be more concerned, if in fact, obsessed with socio-religious issues such as love jihad, beef ban, triple talaq, ghar vapasi, religious conversions, etc.

These are clearly not the burning issues facing the Indian masses and are not, by any stretch of imagination, holding back any forward moves on the front of development; it appears that a ‘Swachcha Bharat’ has to root itself in cultural and religious dirt! The rubbish that is physically removed from the streets, as it were, is being deposited metaphysically in the minds of the people. It is good that corruption is being attempted to be ousted out. But that cannot justify the massive campaign to corrupt the young minds in matters of culture and tradition.

The present regime’s obsession with history, more correctly, with putting in place the ‘correct history’ is another diversionary tactic. Having made history in democratic India by singly winning a majority in the Lok Sabha the BJP and its ideological father the RSS are not satisfied: they now want to make arbitrary changes and bring forth their view of history imposing it on the people on scholarship. Different views of history, from the colonial, the nationalist, the Marxist etc. have always existed and a new RSS version can certainly join in though it is largely unsupported by a deep understanding of facts and trends and intellectual rigour and integrity. The arrogance inherent in such a move apart, it has no right to impose itself through State support on young vulnerable minds! History, despite its attention to the State, is made by the people and it cannot be manufactured by the State, certainly not by a political party whose massive mandate is based on a little more than 30 percent vote of the electorate!

The campaign to alter the pluralistic ethos has many unfortunate aspects. Many of the national cultural institutions are being devalued and are degenerating fast into utter mediocrity and irrelevance. The top personnel for these institutions are not being appointed on grounds of proven professional expertise, experience and standing but on considerations of loyalty to an ideology which is narrow, parochial and exclusionary.

Two handpicked Chairpersons for the ICCR and ICSSR have publicly come out praising the Prime Minister, one of them going to the ridiculous length of calling him an avatar of God! This has never happened before: many previous governments have appointed outstanding persons in the realm of culture and scholarships but none of them ever came out nor was obliged to praise the rulers or the ruling party ideology in any way. The BJP, on the other hand, has not been able to pick up a single outstanding person for anything worthwhile in any of these areas. Due to its ideological compulsions, it is bent upon replacing excellence by mediocrity.

There are many reasons to question the dominance of the left-minded in culture and education. But this dominance for good or bad, was largely based on intellectual rigour and deep scholarship and could be challenged by only those who have similar traits and intellectual strengths. Certainly not by those who are loyal and pliant, shallow and aggressive but who do not enjoy respect of peers as is happening on a large scale.

A lot of these assaults, both physical and polemical, are argued to be emanating from what is called ‘cultural nationalism’. In essence, however, it has very little to do with Indian culture, as widely understood and practiced by the Indian people.  Any notion or action which promotes uniformity as against plurality encourages hatred and intolerance rather than understanding and accommodation, privileges violence and assault as against discussion and dialogue, imposes restrictions and bans vis-à-vis freedom and choice cannot be called ‘cultural’ in any sense including Indian.

Nation larger than the state

Besides, nationalism which does not admit that the nation is larger than the State, that it is people who are sovereign and the State derives its legitimacy and power from the people cannot be even termed nationalism. In a democracy, any valid form of nationalism has to allow for many different viewpoints, debates and dialogues and the widest possible opportunity to its citizens, whether from the majority or minority, to enjoy and practice equal rights as members of the nation.

A Hindu nationalism, howsoever concealed as cultural nationalism, is clearly a threat to Indian traditions and cultures and to democracy. It is, in the ultimate analysis, a threat to Hinduism itself besides to the uniquely multi-religious Indian civilization.

The author is a poet, essayist, literary-cultural critic and a noted cultural and arts administrator

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