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Silly Point : A modern-day churning

THOSE of you who remember the story of Samudra Manthan will recall that the Devtas led by Lord Indra had lost heaven to the Daityas and were very keen to recover it. However the curse pronounced by Rishi Durvasahad divested the Devtas of their powers and they were rendered ineffective in their struggle against them. They went to Lord Vishnu, who advised them to forge an alliance with the Daityas and try to partake of the amrit (the celestial elixir) so as to regain their strength. In this hazardous task Lord Vishnu promised to help them.

What are the analogies that one can draw between the situations prevailing then and now? Depending on your political affiliation you will either consider the UPA government as the Devtas who have been ejected from heaven and the NDA coalition of political parties as the Daityas who have usurped the throne. Or else it will be the reverse.

Now suppose Manmohan Singh and his chief advisers call on Pranab Mukherji seeking his advice. Unfortunately here the analogy fails. In our brand of democracy, presidents are constitutional authorities and can ill afford to take sides in political battles. So Pranab will keep his personal opinions to himself and not air them in public.

What is amrit? In the modern context, the strength of a political party does not depend on the quantity of the celestial elixir imbibed by its individual members. It is contingent on the election funds they have accumulated, the electoral alliances they have forged and such similar factors.

In today’s context, we have to look at a host of disparate factors like manifestoes, promises, statements made to the electronic and social media; personal interviews in live interactions, comments offered by party spokespersons, and so on. Some of these would contribute amrit and some halahalvish to the party’s image and electoral performance.

Many commentators throw up their hands in despair about the future of India as a country, a nation or a State. They would worry about any and every crackle in the opinion bush. The whole thesis of this article is that one need not be bowled over by small incidents, but should be able to take everything in our stride, notching up pluses and minuses in our popularity scale as each element comes into play.

The interesting fact about life is that there is nothing clear-cut about anything. Let us take a few illustrations. Let us start with food. What should a person eat or not eat? Even nutritional experts are not unanimous about what is desirable for the human body and what is not. When we travel to the plane of morality, the matters become even more difficult. An extreme view could be that man should eat only vegetarian food. If he eats animals, he causes pain to other living beings who have as much a right to survive and prosper on this planet.

The matter is far from over with the choice you make. If you permit non-vegetarian food, should it be blanket permission or should there be graded permissions? Some persons may wish milch cows to be exempted from this permission, as they yield milk. Others would cast the net wider by including the cow, the bull and even calves. On the other side, some might prohibit only the killing of milch Indian cows. In India, the cow has traditionally been revered and we have discovered great benefits from even her urine and her excreta. Should killing be prohibited or even eating banned? Should possession of beef be an offence? There are a trillion questions.

A fundamental question: should society or the State at all interfere in this vast area of choice and tie itself into knots or should it leave each individual to make his choice and let the market forces decide.

A similar conundrum awaits the ideologue when we take up the complicated issue of liquor. At what age should a person be considered adult enough to decide whether he will imbibe spirituous liquors? Should he be allowed to purchase liquor all the week through or should there be restrictions on where he can buy, the days or dates when such sale is permissible, the timings of sale, and so on. Can a liquor shop be located within 100 yards of a school? Can a person be allowed to drive if there is liquor on his breath? Or when a breath-analyser finds him exceeding the prescribed level?

Any solution that you find has consequences for your amrit-vish balance. It gets you votes or gets people to vote against you. It is as simple as that.

When you come to the more complicated aspects of life, the situation becomes murkier. Is marriage a sacred institution? Should everyone be hustled into marriage irrespective of his desire, need or preparedness? Should only heterosexual marriages be recognised? What is the moral quotient of relationships?

Should rape be equated to murder and be subject to similar punishment? Can a husband rape his wife? Can we justify a rape on the ground that there was grave and sudden provocation by the girl wearing too revealing an outfit? If a court of law orders a rape victim to marry the rapist, is it fair to the girl?

Why do some people in contemporary India have the feeling that India is becoming intolerant?

I think that by far the biggest reason for this feeling is that India is currently the most open, tolerant, democratic society in the world. Take conversions, for example. You cannot profess any religion other than Islam in Islamic countries. Leave aside propagating a religion; you cannot even keep a photograph of a deity, saint or incarnation in your purse. China does not permit mass conversions on its soil. And we had the Pope telling his Cardinals that India was the land they should concentrate on, if they wished to have more converts to Christianity.

We have such a laid-back attitude to Hinduism that even foreign commentators have worried about it. It is only in India that Maqbul Fida Hussain could draw pictures of Hindu goddesses in the nude. When Hindus protested, he went into a huff and ran away to foreign climes, and stayed there to bask in the reputation of being an iconoclast, while the fate of Salman Rushdie is too well known to need any comment.

A more recent example is that of Aamir Khan, who chased a person dressed as Shiva in P.K. much to the merriment of all. He also made a celebrated comment about his Hindu wife asking him whether they should continue to live in an intolerant India. Nothing has happened to Aamir Khan.

Why there is so much talk of intolerant India is due to the combined impact of a number of factors.

The first reason is that Indians like to talk. And we have almost no controls on what a person can say or not say. Look at the outrageous things leaders of different communities keep on throwing at one another. A Hindu fringe element will say, “Those who do not like India should migrate to Pakistan”. The Muslim fringe element shouts back, “Even if you cut me into pieces, I will not shout Bharat Mata ki Jai.” What have they achieved? A few more votes from the fence sitters on both sides, but also a few less votes from the saner elements in both communities. Someone has to calculate the shift in the amrit-vish ratio.

THE second reason is that everything in India gets politicised. Children have been shouting Vande Mataram or Bharat Mata ki Jai for decades in school and college functions, without looking at the religious messages that might be embedded in them. If one looks at the emblems of government. establishments, universities, etc., we find quotations from the Vedas all over. Even the national slogan “Satyameva Jayate” has deep religio-spiritual connotations which have not yet percolated down to the Owaisis. Of all things they have latched on to the exercise titled Surya Namaskar in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and refused to perform it on the grounds that the prophet has prohibited their bowing down to anyone other than Allah. So they cannot bow down to the Sun.

The interesting part is that the Government of India deleted Surya Namaskar from the exercises listed for World Yoga Day.

Contrast the stand taken by us with that of the Government of Australia. In an address to the nation on national television, the Prime Minister stated his position quite emphatically. All immigrants had come to Australia of their sweet will. No one had forced them to come. Now that they have settled down here, they have to obey Australian laws. In schools, their children will have to sing the national anthem and recite the prayers to God as laid down in the school curriculum. If they do not like these rules, they are at liberty to leave.

In India no one talks frankly on core issues. We are afraid of the repercussions and hide the problems under the carpet. All issues relating to minorities, specially Muslims, are lying under the carpet, be it the temple at Ayodhya, Article 370, common civil code or whatever. They stay there, smouldering like ticking time bombs, and detonate when we least expect them

No doubt the Muslims did not enter India as immigrants. They came more as invaders and traders. They also ruled the country for centuries. But even they had a choice in 1947: either to join an Islamic State of Pakistan or to continue in the secular state of India. They made their choice and now they have to bow down to the national consensus as it emerges. They cannot sit on their high horses and be the tail that wags the dog.

But in India no one talks frankly on such core issues. We are afraid of the repercussions and hide the problems under the carpet. All issues relating to minorities, specially the Muslims, are lying under the carpet, be it the temple at Ayodhya, Article 370, common civil code or whatever. They stay there, smouldering like ticking time bombs, and detonate when we least expect them.

The third reason is that suddenly all the disparate elements which mostly held their tongue have come out into the open. This may partly be due to the euphoria generated by Modi’s landslide victory in the Lok Sabha polls. It brought out the RSS and its sister organisations under the supposition that the days of Hindutva had arrived. The gays have an international lobby. Modi lashed out at the international NGOs and they are a powerful lot. The gender lobby also found some rallying points like the Nirbhaya rape. There was a huge backlash of the Anna Hazare movement, the clean sweep of Delhi assembly by Arvind Kejriwal and his rickshaw drivers and so on.

Suddenly, anything seemed possible. The whole hullabaloo about India being intolerant should be seen as a modern day Samudra Manthan, albeit in a democratic setting. Today it cannot be on eMandrachaaaaaalParvat. The whole polity is our Mandrachal. Amrit has to be collected drop by drop from a million mutinies. It is somewhat like the Arab spring also.

That is why the disorder, the seeming lack of direction.

MK Kaw is a former Secretary, Government of India. (The views expressed are those of the columnist.)

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