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Culture Wars Persist

Archbp Thomas Menamparampil Archbp Thomas Menamparampil
20 Mar 2023
The most painful side of the Ukraine war is that it is a culture-war. A community is struggling fiercely to preserve its language, culture and identity.

The most painful side of the Ukraine war is that it is a culture-war. A community is struggling fiercely to preserve its language, culture and identity. It is a fight for its “soul”. It is all the more painful because the threat comes from their ethnic cousins, the Russians. All hurt memories come alive. 

Unfortunately hurt memories are on both sides. Russians remember the NATO promise to Gorbachev in 1989-90 not to go beyond German unification. But the NATO has long forgotten its promises, enticed many of Russia’s ethnic kins into its own network in the name of liberal thinking and free market, and it is aiming at regime-change in Russia itself. On the other side, the Ukrainians remember the period when their land was absorbed into the Russian empire, their language totally marginalized, their culture looked down upon, and they were despised as a people. 

The Mighty can bulldoze, but they have no Convincing Power: For example, the Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan, Russians in Ukraine, the Chinese in Tibet, Yogi in U.P. A ‘Bulldozer culture’ is the ‘uncivilized’ edge of inter-community hatred. It has its limit. Weaker people may be made to bend, bow and prostrate on the ground, but their mind can remain unbending. When they begin to fight back, they will put their whole heart into the struggle, for they are fighting for their soul. 

Reasserting Identities

The marginal zones of India are silently moving in that direction. Perceptive people see it coming. It takes various forms: assertion of ideological difference in Kerala; protest against Hindi-imposition in Tamil Nandu; resentment against outsider arrogance in Goa; claiming back Maratha identity in Maharashtra; call for democracy in Ladakh; insistence on restoration of constitutional guarantees in Kashmir; affirmation of Sikh pride in Punjab; and, the latest, the emergence of Tipra Motha Party of Pradyot Bikram Manikya Deb Barma in Tripura, asking for a separate tribal state. 

The success of the Tipra Motha Party in Tripura elections points to an unmistakable re-awakening of the regional and ethnic identities among the Northeast tribal communities, pleading for continued existence. If you will not allow us to prosper, allow us at least to “exist”, they seem to say. Respect our culture, tolerate our existence.

No Modi Magic, No Money Magic   

In today’s India, objective interpretations of situations have little chance to be heard. For example, flatterers were the first to comment on the recent election results. Amit Shah called it the “Modi Magic” in spite of the fact that BJP got back just the 2 seats they had in Meghalaya. No Modi Magic, nor ‘money magic’. 

The BJP had put up a candidate in each of the 60 seats, poured in money recklessly, clamoured against local corruption, and got Amit Shah and J.P. Nadda to campaign, only to get two seats, as in the previous Assembly, in constituencies where outsiders happen to be numerous. No magic! 

As for Nagaland, despite the number game, it is not very clear whether the BJP bent to Chief Minister Rio or vice-versa. Even in Tripura where outsiders seem to tighten their grip, a tribal party has risen in resistance, prodigiously determined to affirm their rights! Essentially it is a cultural struggle like in Ukraine. Unbending ‘No’. Of course, some will want to keep a stronger opponent in good mood to avoid trouble.

Fear in the North-East

It was no less a weighty body than a Bench of Allahabad High Court that called the other day for a nationwide ban on cow slaughter. Justice Shamim Ahmed quoted the Puranas to say, those who kill cows rot in hell. Cow’s legs represent the four Vedas. He went on to lecture on the rite of healing purification, the benefit of milk, curd, butter, urine and dung. Cows and priests were created together, he contended. As the granter of all wishes, the cow is called Kamadhenu. 

Is this the Hindutva civilization that Himanta Biswa Sarma wants to impose on Northeast? Or Satya and Dharma? Northeast people know the difference. But Sarma argues, Modi is an ocean into which all of us will have to merge. No one seems eager, except opportunists and sycophants! In fact, the heroes of every North-eastern community have been those who resisted threat from a stronger neighbour or an outsider. If the mighty Mughals were resisted, BJP will meet with the same resistance, when they seek to impose their cow-fads or caste insanities.

Manusmriti-Culture  

Then irrationalities reach a climax. Hindutva determination has been to make irrationality more scientific. Benares Hindu University did an intense research on the ‘applicability Manusmriti’ in modern times. Lengthy studies reached the conclusion that Shudras’ destiny is their total subjection to higher castes, that they have no right to education, and that their ‘dharma’ consists in being true to their caste-assigned tasks. Similarly, the dharma of women is to be at their household chores. 

The research upheld the validity of these norms on the authority of ancient Rishis. No further argument. This was the result of a very expensive research. Meanwhile, Academic Freedom Index Update 2023 gave India one of the lowest of the 30% positions, declaring that the situation had worsened with autocratisation.  

“Men have Lost Their Reason” 

Mark Anthony’s exclamation in Shakespeare, “O judgement! Thou art fled to brutish beasts, And men have lost their reason” makes meaning under Saffron Sovereignty. Helpless farmers do not know what to do with the 500 or more cows that wander round each village damaging crops. In cities, accidents have increased with the increase of stray cattle. More than 100 died in Agra alone recently in cow-related accidents. 

When 20 people died on the Ladakh front defending the nation, it was considered a great tragedy. When 100 or more die due to the imposition of “unreasonable cow-policy” there is not a bit of grief. Farmers are compelled to erect electric fencing around their field and install CCTV. Cow-shelters fail to sustain themselves with the poor government subsidy of Rs. 50. This is not a cultural world that north-easterners can recognise as their own.

The more we concede to Hindutva ethos, the lower we fall back in general performance and world rating. If Rishi Sunak of Hindu background is making a mark as the Prime Minister of the UK, it is because he works in a secular culture, under reasonable ethical codes and a reliable measure of accountability, and equal treatment to people of all religions. It is not sadhus and pujaris that dictate social norms there. When a civilized atmosphere is missing, you move into a mantra-sloka civilization, as critics say, where RSS and godmen dictate, and everything ends up in the maya of non-achievement and unjust situations. 

A Struggle for Basic Justice

That is what makes Kapil Sibal ask lawyers to take up unitedly the cause of fighting for justice. He has set up a non-political organization towards that end. He asks them to take on the present irrational order, under which defectors have pulled down eight governments, and 350 million live below poverty line. Unjust treatment of the weak is non-impressive daily news. For example, there is report that another Muslim loses life for alleged handling of beef in Bihar, that a Dalit student Darshan Solanki commits suicide from depression in Mumbai. 

Meantime, our national leaders are busy with other concerns like renaming places, re-writing history, or humiliating political rivals by cooking up cases. They are closely following Pakistan that broke all records filing the 80th case against Imran Khan, by filing cases against Lalu Prasad and Rabri Devi when their party is in trouble. Manish Sisodia is put behind bars. It is as though the leaders are saying: Hindu Rashtra is here; we will decide what is dharma and adharma; this Hindutva order will prosper forever.

‘Hindu Rate’ of Growth

That is what makes Raghuram Rajan warn against the return of a “Hindu rate of growth”, an expression used by Raj Krishna in 1978, pointing to about 3.5-4% growth. Privatisation to which Modi government has surrendered has shown its weakness when it combines with bania-ethos: the Morbi bridge collapse, the Brahmos failure in the Philippines, the death of 66 children in Gambia after taking Indian cough mixture, of 18 children in Uzbekistan after consuming Marion drugs. 

Meanwhile, China is moving ahead with a $19.2 trillion economy, and plans for 7.2% increase in defence spending. China is a threat, Nikki Haley admits, but they are disciplined. 

Our last elections sent more criminals to Parliament than ever before. Though they belong to all parties, the BJP breaks the record. When a society consciously brings to power persons known for corruption or violence, there is something wrong with that society. Our political life becomes criminalized and our culture goes down the moral slope, leaders misguiding people and mis-shaping society, society throwing up worthless leaders for sectarian interests, groups with political clout manipulating the leaders, and leaders with political interests manipulating the masses. Indian society itself stands in need of reform today. 

Beware of Obscurantism

As cases are cooked up, so are the reports on government performance in various fields. Impressive plans and projects are announced, and confident predictions are made of speedy economic growth and proximate acquisition of a Superpower status. But these are as beneficial as the 'scientific astrology' that the BJP is promoting, and just as useful as palm-reading and fortune-telling. Courses in astrology and priestly craft introduced into Universities will ensure jobs for Brahmins and upper castes, but may not serve the nation's interests. On the contrary, such courses will facilitate the mantra-sloka culture to acquire a strangle-hold over the masses.

Meantime, our intellectual leadership is busy discussing whether Kohinoor should be removed from the British crown and brought back to India to be placed in our dust-laden historic museums, names of our cities should be changed to honour Hindu deities and Hindutva heroes, what ways should be adopted to get Bharat recognised as Vishwa Guru. But alas, we read in the papers about people of Indian origin descending to every form of unethical practices as they settle abroad, indulging in shockingly disorderly behaviour on journeys. As for changing of place names, the Egyptians may point out how jealously they preserved the name Alexandria over millennia, despite change of governments. Petty issues kill us, and we allow weighty matters to pass us by.

V.S. Naipaul, an India-admirer, wrote in his “Wounded Civilization”, "I wondered whether intellectually for a thousand years India hadn't always retreated before its conquerors and whether, in its periods of apparent revival, India hadn't only been making itself archaic again, intellectually smaller, always vulnerable" (New Delhi, 1979, p.15). This tragedy continues.

A New Future 

Rahul did not mean to humiliate India when he argued at Cambridge that Indian democracy was in crisis. He felt confident that there was a new awakening in response. Democracy is about collective self-correction. First of all, the leaders must come out of their self-deception. They must develop a larger vision for India, with great open-mindedness; and with respect for diverse identities at the periphery. The majority community must be open to criticism and challenge. Mutual correction should be a sign of fraternal concern than open hostility. 

The past can be repaired. A new future can be shaped. Emmanuel Macron has been going round Africa, apologizing for France’s colonial past. America has apologized to Japan, Japan has apologized to China, Britain has thanked India for her readiness to look at our shared history positively. Mahatma Gandhi has apologized to humbler communities and marginal groups. As the present leadership is more eager to use representatives of the weaker sections against their own people’s interests, we do not see a continuity in them with the Founding Fathers’ commitment to the weak. It can be re-built. Emotional loyalties are won, not imposed. Bonds are built up, not dictated. 

Bill Gates was impressed by Modiji’s humility and his concern for the future. Giorgia Meloni, the Italian PM, described him as the “most loved among world leaders”. These are truly tributes to traditional Indian styles of relationship and self-effacing attitudes, that differ considerably from Duterte’s or Trump’s manner of self-assertion. Our hope is that going beyond mere apperances, a sense of Raj Dharma also becomes evident in due course. Nothing is impossible. 

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