Wednesday, 3 November 2010

The cost of silence

Certain areas of our history have become taboo. For different reasons we prefer to not to talk about them. Instead, only certain conservative groups and political parties can speak about those parts of our histories. But are there other costs to the society because of this silence?

Amitabh Bacchan and the Somnath ad

The angry reactions about it on facebook and blogs alerted me about the Somnath advertisement video of Gujarat Tourism. They also made me curious about the ad. So I watched it on Youtube and was wondering about the reasons that had provoked the angry reactions. I think that the reactions were not about what is said or not said in this ad, they were mainly about the motives behind it.

At one level, this ad can be compared to Obama talking about loss of American jobs due to outsourcing to India or China. Or it can be compared to the Italian northern league party that uses rhetoric and demagogy about “emigrants” to create fear about criminality and national identity. It reminds people about the threats faced by the Somnath temple some centuries ago.

At another level, the ad is a subtle threat, hidden behind nice words and glossy images. That threat is serious, if we look at the history of using such arguments and how such ideas have been used to justify events like the Gujarat carnage in 2002.

I can imagine the marketing managers and ad agency of Gujarat tourism, all very pleased with themselves. Their message is being spread by persons who like it and also by those who hate it. They must be hoping that in the end people will forget the controversy and remember some of those wonderful images of Somnath temple and more tourists will visit the state. Or they have done it on purpose to stir passions and make electoral gains.

Wider issues of discussion on history: However, I think that this episode points to wider issues of different links between history, politics and religion in India, that are not being debated very often.

Can we talk, discuss and argue about historical events including religious conflicts and understand their significance in India, without making it an accusation against one group of our people?

Language in pre-independent and post independent India

In the pre-independence era and even up to 1950s and 1960s, it was still possible to talk about historical events, without worrying if that was going to offend certain groups of population. Perhaps, it was because that people were clear in their minds that they were talking about historical events, things that had happened hundreds of years ago and these were not judgements about persons of specific religious groups today?

For example Jawaharlal Nehru in his "Discovery of India", first published in 1946 wrote:

About 1000 AC Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni in Afghanistan, a Turk who had risen to power in central Asia, began his raids into India. There were many such raids and they were bloody and ruthless, and on every occasion Mahmud carried with him a vast quantity of treasure. A scholar contemporary, Alberuni, of Khiva, describes these raids: "The Hindus became like atoms of dust scattered in all directions and like a tale of old in the mouths of people. Their scattered remains cherish of course the most inveterate aversion towards all Moslems." ... He met with a severe defeat also in the Rajputana desert regions on his way back from Somnath in Kathiawar.

Socialist leader, Dr Ram Manohar Lohia in his article "Hindu and Muslim" (Hindu aur Musalman, 3 October 1963 published by Ram Manohar Lohia Samta Nyas, 1993) had written (my translation from Hindi):

A common misunderstanding in the minds of both Hindus and Muslims is that Hindus think that for the last 700-800 years Muslims have ruled us, they have been cruel and despotic, and Muslims think that, even if those who may be poorest of the poor, for 700-800 years we had ruled and now our bad days have come. .. the truth is Muslims have killed Muslims. Killed, not in spiritual terms but in physical sense. When Tamur came and killed 4-5 lakh persons, among them 3 lakh were Muslims, Pathan Muslims who were killed. The killer was a Mughal Muslim. ... I want that everyone, Hindus and Muslims, we should learn to say that Ghazni, Gauri and Babar were bandits, who attacked us.

Not just about past history, even for more recent events like India's partition, and Kashmir issue, till seventies, there are countless examples of leaders, writers, thinkers from different sides of political spectrum, who expressed themselves in words that, if used today, would immediately provoke unease and sometimes even accusations of being a part of "fundamentalists" or "saffron brigade", because now those areas of our history have become "sensitive" or even "taboo".

Changing context and changing language

I don’t think that anyone would tell the Jews not to talk about holocaust or to the persons of African descent in the Americas, not to talk about slavery.

The medieval period has been an era of Christian fundamentalism. Think of crusades. Think of genocide of natives in Americas, think of Aztec and Inca empires completely demolished and destroyed. Think of “holy” inquisition in southern Europe, where Muslims and Jews were persecuted, tortured and killed, converted by force, their books and knowledge burnt, their temples and mosques razed to ground.

While it all happened in Europe and middle east, it was more or less the same time when Ghazni or other Turkish/Afghani invaders were raiding India, burning, looting, killing people and also destroying Indian temples.

On one hand, it is perfectly legitimate to talk about what happened in crusades, what happened to natives in Americas and about the tortures of inquisition in Europe. There are countless recent books and articles about it and if you talk about it, no one would dare say that you are anti-Christian or a Muslim/Jew bigot. But if you talk of what happened to temples, you could be looked at with suspicion. Why is that?

When and why this change?

All languages change with time and our way of talking about things changes. The fights for civil rights by the blacks in America and South Africa, the continuing fights for dignity by groups such as women and homosexuals and transgender persons, have all focused on words used to talk about them. The "illuminism" of concepts and ideas of human rights following the second world war, have all impacted on what we talk about and in which terms.

Thus, it is perfectly understandable that today anyone talking about groups of persons like women/blacks/gypsies/asians in an inappropriate language is seen with suspicion or distaste. It is perfectly understandable that persons using terms like niggers or cripples are told off clearly to mind their language. Thus, ways of expression that sounded perfectly reasonable thirty/fifty years ago, may be seen as problematic today.

But the change in India in not talking about certain parts of historical events, does not seem to be an issue of language. It is something else.

Thinking back of the events of the past thirty forty years, I think that part of the change may have come from the Khalistan movement in Punjab. It underlined the fact that India could fragment and get divided.

In his "Idea of India", Sunil Khilnani had written of the apparent conviction of the British and many other parts of the world that post-independence, India would break up in different states. However, till the Khalistan issue came up, while there were wars with Pakistan on Kashmir issue, and there were religious riots every now and then in different parts of India, I think that till that time, there were no real fears among Indians about a break-up of India, and it was the Khalistan movement that brought out this fear in to open.

The demotion of Babri masjid in 1992 and the subsequent bomb blasts in Mumbai, followed by more religious riots probably affected the nation's psyche more fundamentally. The Gujarat killings of 2002 with its state sponsored violence, were the final shock that told India that it was moving towards its doom. In this changed scenario, anything that puts into danger the unity of India has gradually become a taboo area, to be avoided at all costs. Thus, all violent traumas of our recent history are to be swept under the carpet, to be hidden away.

Religions and Indian thinkers

I have a feeling that the thinkers and philosophers in today's India would prefer not to talk about religions at all. For them religion and faith is a non issue, or at the most a private issue. Their distaste towards the more conservative religious believers of different religions is clear, though they are more controlled in denouncing the conservative groups among the minorities and much more vocal in expressing their indignation at Hindu conservatives. I remember an article of Ram Nath Guha in Outlook some years ago in this sense, asking us to be more aware and careful of fears of the minorities.

At the same time, past decades have seen increasing violence of certain conservative groups and the state seems unable to do anything to stop them. Thus persons burn libraries because someone has dared to write something about Shivaji or hound persons like Hussein for having dared to paint a naked Saraswati or in the name of Islam, MLAs threaten to kill Taslima on TV. Try to discuss multiple versions of Ramayana and people pounce on you for denigerating their religious feelings. Try to make a film about conditions of widows in early twentieth century and mobs will chase you away. Pose a question about a person called Mohammed in a question paper and they will cut off your hand and university will suspend you for hurting people's religious feelings. Have a negative Sikh character in a film and sikhs will protest. Talk about illicit relationships of a priest and church will protest.

The end result of both things is silence. You can't discuss anything that touches on religions. From the thinkers and philosophers, because they fear it will hurt the sentiments of minorities. From the conservatives, who have their versions of their religions and they dare anyone else to challenge those views.

Impact of this situation

Political incorrectness issue is especially serious in terms of Hindus and Muslims. Today it is politically incorrect to talk about Muslim invaders from Ghazni to Mughals. We can talk about persons like Akbar, if it is about Hindu Muslim unity, but it is better to avoid talking of Aurangzeb, and if you do it, it should be preferably in terms of “he was really not so fundamentalist as he is painted out to be, he was actually helping some temples”. And if we show Muslims killing Hindus and Sikhs in a film or a play, you should balance it by showing that Hindus and Sikhs were also killing Muslims at the same time.

To a lesser extent, similar problem applies to relations with other religions - especially Christians.

Thus, certain aspects of history have become personal property of Saffron brigade or radical Islamic groups – only VHP, RSS, some Maulanas/clerics or others of their side can speak about it and if you talk about it, you are naturally part of some fundamentalists.

Why is that? Why can’t we differentiate between the past and present? Talking about what had happened 400 years ago, doesn’t mean that as Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Christian communities of today we are responsible of that past. In the history, terrible wars have been fought, terrible things have been done in the name of religion, but as human beings we are capable of changing, and today we can dialogue and reflect about such things without it necessarily reflecting on who we are today and what our religions are?

I also think that it is unfair to lot of persons, who are religious, but are not conservatives or fundamentalist in their thinking, who believe in multi-cultural India and have respect for all religions. Why should they be seen only as part of saffron brigade or Islamic conservatives?

I do believe that majority of people in India, be they Hindus, or Muslims or Christians or whatever religion, are sane persons, who believe in their faiths, but they also respect others, they also bow their head when they pass in front of another’s prayer place. It is a pity that they only have political parties to represent them who are either representing extremists of their religions or those who call themselves seculars but who do not understand or acknowledge anything related to their faiths.

At the same time, I think that cordoning off certain parts of our history, whether it is arrival or Aryans in ancient India or Muslim invasions of medieval India or partition of India in 1947 or killings of Sikhs in 1984 or killings of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 or killings of Christians in Kandhamal a couple of years ago, does not help us. Silence does not help us.

Reality is never black or white. Reality is not made of one simple story of one killer and one oppressed. It has multiple stories, where religion is just one part but there are many other parts. If we can't talk about them, we are closing off our possibility to understand what happened and why it happened and how can we make sure that it does not happen again.



  1. Yes, this trend of silence by the sane is very disturbing.It appears as if the right to speech and opinion is now left only with groups and not with individuals.
    I have not seen the advertisement on Somnath. Having lived in that area for many years,I can say that the temple is very beautiful and it's history is very heart wrenching.The first time I stood in front of it I was very disturbed.I could imagine the invader arriving and plundering the majestic temple.
    What we have to be careful about is that we should not let any Mahmud of Ghazni or anywhere else, of any religion, race or nationality repeat the act anywhere else in our country. I guess for that to happen we need to speak out and discuss.
    Mired Mirage

  2. In Tahelka of 6 November, Ashish Nandy also wrote on this issue: "Today the changing middle class culture is narrowing the choice of Hindus to a binary one: a Hindu can now opt for either secularism or Hindutva. The other alternatives are disappearing."


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