A new kind of purification

Our laws must be used to resist the aggressive re-inscription of the Indian body as Hindu.

July 14, 2016 01:07 am | Updated September 20, 2016 10:17 am IST

PATNA,BIHAR: 01/05/2016: JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar addressing a meeting of Azadi organised by AISF and AIYF in Patna on 01/05/2016.    Photo: Ranjeet Kumar                                       -

PATNA,BIHAR: 01/05/2016: JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar addressing a meeting of Azadi organised by AISF and AIYF in Patna on 01/05/2016. Photo: Ranjeet Kumar -

Sobering, even disturbing, were reports that a recent visit of Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union president Kanhaiya Kumar to the statue of Bihar poet Ramdhari Singh ‘Dinkar’ triggered an unusual response. Members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad and the Bajrang Dal undertook a “purification” of the space and the statue that had been “polluted” by an alleged “anti-national”. What new stage of deification has been reached in contemporary India? More properly for this discussion, what new depths of “purity” and “pollution”, the dark and shameful underside of the Hindu social body, have been plumbed in such an act?

All about the statue For some time now, we have been witness to statues, whether of political or cultural leaders, being “consecrated”, “desecrated”, and given protection that sometimes exceeds that of mere mortals. Of late, we have also seen strident calls to pay a high-decibel obeisance at every opportunity to “Bharat Mata”. (The latest display of such maudlin piety was at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Delhi, following a purportedly academic discussion of Syama Prasad Mookerjee’s political life.) Ours is fertile soil on which heroes (usually) and heroines (less frequently) are not only deified and worshipped, but luxuriantly proliferate as well. Since statues are the symbols not only of belonging and assertion but increasingly of conflict and coercion, they receive a high order of priority and visibility in our public life.

But Mr. Kumar’s visit to the Dinkar statue was to honour, not dishonour, his memory. What then were our self-appointed watchdogs of the Hindu order exercised about? It was his presence, as a body now stained by his alleged role in events which led to him being charged with sedition, that disturbed the lions of Hindu society. The very body of Mr. Kumar has now been declared capable of “polluting” the social body. It is not enough that this case (which, from all accounts so far, will not stand the scrutiny of law, justly applied) has been heard, bail granted for some time, and is being pursued with all the vigour that the current dispensation can muster. His very presence, and perhaps his irreverence towards those in power, must, more importantly, be stigmatised. By claiming the moral authority of exorcising his spirit, the champions of the new order are thumbing their nose at the legal authority of the state. In this new order of things, Mr. Kumar, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya will be marked men even if they are fully exonerated in law.

We are, then, at a new stage of Hinduising the Indian body: consider the treatment meted out to two transporters of some allegedly bovine meat. They were publicly made to consume a “purifying” mixture of bovine refuse. This, after their bodies were made to suffer grievous physical assaults whose marks they clearly bore. Body blows were insufficient for our vigilantes: they needed to make public that those of another religion participated in an act of “purification”. Such “purification”, we may further note, is nothing if it does not invite the mass “witnessing” by voyeurs, amply aided by the obliging loops of our news channels.

Our newspapers are replete with stories of “two tumbler” villages and towns, of caste threads in schools, a terrifying and ever creative array of contemporary forms of discrimination. The latest in this inexhaustible assemblage of practices is a school in north Karnataka which left out RTE-quota students from school excursions; it’s as if even the formal equalities of the 21st century, post-RTE classroom must not be allowed to seep into the larger social body.

The yoga template We should no longer assume that these are remnants of an older social order. The re-inscription of the social body as a Hindu body has gathered apace. Not even the bodies of those who are employed to serve in the protection of the Indian nation and its people have been spared. In the recent announcement, on the eve of World Yoga Day, that yoga will be made compulsory for the 10-lakh-strong paramilitary forces, and the further decision to turn many of those who have retired into yoga instructors, a new Hinduisation of the military body is being attempted. A committee has been formed to award medals to the deserving, Baba Ramdev has been pressed into action, and it may be no coincidence that troops of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police were made to join the Prime Minister in this public display of allegiance.

Critics will no doubt shout themselves hoarse about the non-sectarian, universal benefits of yoga, and its roots in an ancient Indian, pre-sectarian past. But yoga’s modern revival, like the “purification” of Bharatanatyam (of its more erotic content), was an early 20th century achievement of Brahmins in Mysore and Madras Presidency, respectively.

The move to homogenise and mark the Indian body as Hindu, evident in this assortment of events, programmes and assaults, may, however, be undermined by the iron hold of differences on which the contemporary Hindu order is built. Even compulsory yoga may not seal those too useful and entrenched differences. It will require another revolution of the 12th century kind, this time by women who suffer the indignities of discrimination, to undo the apparent contradictions that nourish the segmented Hindu social body. Meanwhile, we must rely on the assurances of our laws and the powers of our democracy to resist the aggressive re-inscription of the Indian body as Hindu.

Janaki Nair teaches history at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

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