Saturday, September 15, 2007

Perversity as Secularism

Sri KPS Gill in Pioneer

It is, indeed, amazing how polarising the political discourse has become in this country, and how entirely unnecessary and extraneous controversies are being generated by an intellectually bankrupt national leadership. It is incomprehensible how such perverse nonsense relating to the controversy on Ram Setu could have entered a supposedly secular Government's representation before the Supreme Court of India.

The Government has, of course, recanted and has sought to distance itself from the contents of the affidavit, but this is far from enough. Someone must have drafted this document; someone would have approved and signed it. This is not something that can simply be pinned on to some minion in the Archaeological Survey of India. The Ram Setu issue has been a prominent political and public controversy for several months now, and it is impossible that a critical affidavit in this regard would not have the explicit assent of the political executive at the highest level; and, in the remote possibility that this is actually the case, the dereliction at senior levels of Government is unforgivable.

The individuals concerned at every level of the drafting and approval of this pernicious affidavit need to be clearly and publicly identified and penalised for causing unnecessary offence to Hindus - the majority community in this country, and one that is evidently not regarded as a vote-bank by the so-called 'secular' parties - and, indeed, to many non-Hindus who share in the vibrant collective and cultural consciousness of India's variegated civilisation.

There is a new and escalating insensitivity in Indian secular thought, which not only insistently neglects the sensibilities of the majority community, but, worse, appears eager to cause injury to such sentiments. India's opportunistic political secularists - as distinct from those who are, in fact and practice, actually wedded to the secular ideology - feel that they cannot sufficiently proclaim their secularism without displaying at least a measure of contempt for Hindu beliefs and practices.

By contrast, the most extraordinary sensitivity - often transgressing not only the limits of good sense, but even considerations of national interest - is prominently displayed towards the Muslim minority vote-bank (though other minorities - with their smaller shares in electoral contests - are ironically treated with the same contempt that is directed against the majority community). These tendencies appear to be getting worse with the passage of time, and a precipitous decline in the quality of political debate and intelligence is manifest.

These tendencies are, nevertheless, deep rooted in Indian - and particularly Congress - politics, and the tallest of our leaders have not escaped susceptibility to this perversity of perspective. When the Khilafat movement collapsed in 1924, the Moplah rebellion, in which Muslim mobs inflicted untold savagery and rapine on Hindus, broke out in Kerala.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the Mahatma, who wore his Hindu identity very much on his sleeve, first denied these atrocities. As evidence of Muslim excesses mounted, he described the Moplahs as "god-fearing" people who were "fighting for what they consider as religion, and in a manner they consider as religious". Even during the Khilafat movement, Gandhi chose to ally with the infamous Ali brothers, silently sharing a platform with them, and refusing to criticise or comment when they declared: "If the Afghans invaded India to wage holy war, the Indian Muhammadans are not only bound to join them but also to fight the Hindus if they refuse to cooperate with them.".

The problem with the current controversy goes beyond this, to the way in which we view science itself. The Archaeological Survey of India, in its affidavit to the Supreme Court, has asserted that there "was no historical and scientific evidence to establish the existence of Lord Ram or the other characters in Ramayan". But to conclude from this lack of evidence that Lord Ram did not exist, and that the whole of Ramayan is no more than a religious myth, exceeds the scope of the evidence (or lack thereof).

The inability to prove, on scientific criteria, the existence of a particular individual or entity does not amount to a proof of the non-existence of such an individual or entity. Falsification has entirely different criteria - and the dearth of archaeological and historical evidence is not sufficient basis for such falsification. Regrettably, many have jumped into this controversy with sweeping assertions regarding the existence or otherwise of Lord Ram and of Ram Setu, reflecting the poorest possible understanding of scientific methodology or of evidence.

Unfortunately, science, with rare exception, is taught in India much like religion: As an authoritarian, faith-based system, to be internalised by rote on the mandate of a teacher whose assertions are to be accepted without question; and, not as the tentative, continuously expanding enterprise of discovery rooted in human freedom and imagination.

The Ram Setu issue, moreover, goes beyond science, to the very heart of faith and of the collective consciousness of a nation - and these considerations cannot be irrelevant to a legal determination of the issue. If, indeed, they were to be treated as extraneous and immaterial, then there could be no objection to razing every religious structure in the country to the ground, on considerations, purely, of expediency. The greatest caution must be exercised when intervening in these issues, and the clumsiness, the political chicanery and the opportunism - across party lines - that characterised the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid issue should be avoided at all costs.

The legend of Ram and Ramayan - archaeological evidence or no archaeological evidence - has primal resonances in the civilisation, culture and multiple identities, not only of India and among Hindus, but among the people of the entire South and South-East Asian region, and occasionally well beyond. I recall watching films and theatrical performances - Ram Lilas - based on Ramayan from earliest childhood, and one of the most exciting scenes was the vaanar sena building the bridge to Lanka with rocks inscribed with the name of their Lord. These are images embedded in the consciousness of millions across India and beyond, and to trivialise this is to misunderstand the very nature of governance.

There is an increasing fraud and dishonesty at the core of the Indian secular establishment. Secularism means, at once, a distancing of the institutions of governance from communal influence, but also sensitivity towards all religious communities and faiths - not just a particular minority vote-bank. The current, contentious and prejudiced orientation of so-called 'secular' forces in national politics reflects a complete collapse of political intellect.

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