A blast from the colonial past

It is a bit late to enter the national debate on ‘ >returning awards because of the climate of intolerance’. The provocation to join, however, has come from ace musician Zubin Mehta. In his interview on October 30, he had called the returning of awards “a movement that must be heard”. As an artist of the highest eminence, one who can hear the tone of each musical instrument when he conducts an orchestra, Mr. Mehta’s description is an opportunity for us to join the debate and take it two octaves higher. Let us begin with a brief history lesson.

Soon after the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh, Rabindranath Tagore, who had heard the rumours, was restless because he wanted to know the extent of the tragedy. Tagore sent Charlie Andrews to investigate what had happened and report to him. When he received Andrews’s report, with its description of innocent men, women, and children gunned down in cold blood by General Reginald Dyer who wanted to teach ‘the natives a lesson’, Tagore was deeply troubled and very angry. He was determined that the massacre not go unopposed.

Andrew Robinson’s biography describes him as pacing up and down his room the whole night, deciding on what that response should be. He was determined to deny the regime its legitimacy to rule; a regime that was guilty of killing its subjects was one that had lost the right to be loved and respected by the people.

Tagore’s note of protest

Tagore, who had been given the knighthood by the British government, in recognition of his achievements in literature, decided to return it. This was to him an appropriate form of protest in that dark hour. He wrote to the Viceroy Lord Chelmsford, on May 31, 1919, asking to be “relieved of his knighthood”. It is a long statement but it must be read at length since it has something to teach us today.

“The enormity of the measures taken by the government in the Punjab for quelling some local disturbances has, with rude shock, revealed to our minds the helplessness of our position as British subjects in India …. Considering that such treatment has been meted out to a population, disarmed and resourceless, by a power which has the most terribly efficient organisation for destruction of human lives, we must strongly assert that it can claim no political expediency, far less moral justification. The accounts of the insults and sufferings by our brothers in Punjab have trickled through the gagged silence, reaching every corner of India, and the universal agony of indignation roused in the hearts of our people has been ignored by our rulers — possibly congratulating themselves for what they imagine as salutary lessons…

“The time has come when badges of honour make our shame glaring in the incongruous context of humiliation, and I for my part wish to stand, shorn of all special distinctions, by the side of my countrymen who, for their so-called insignificance, are liable to suffer a degradation not fit for human beings”.

It was a moral statement, indicating that the regime had lost its right to rule. It was also a political statement and a statement of solidarity. It carries a lesson.

The British state was in a quandary. In complete contrast to how the current government at the Centre is reacting to the return of awards by eminent personalities, the Englishmen did not criticise Tagore for not protesting against the Mughal invasion of India; nor did they charge him with being a stooge of the Congress movement; nor did they hold him guilty of having enjoyed the colonial largesse. Even the colonial state did not stoop so low. Instead, it went into a huddle. Viceroy Chelmsford cabled Edwin Montagu, the Secretary of State, as follows:

“I propose to reply, in view of the advertisement that would be given to Tagore and the fact that grant of his request might be interpreted as admission of mistaken policy in the Punjab, that I am unable to relieve him of his title and, in the circumstances, do not propose to make any recommendation to His majesty on the subject.”

Montagu endorsed the Viceroy’s decision. King George-V concurred. They did not accept the return of the knighthood on the grounds that it was given for literature and that his act of protest was a statement of politics and not of literature. Sadly, at least in the colonial government’s eyes, Tagore remained ‘Sir Rabindranath’ till his death.

While Tagore denied the colonial state its legitimacy to rule, they, in turn, denied him the dignity of his protest. That was 1919.

BJP following the colonial script

Fast forward to 2015. The Bharatiya Janata Party-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (BJP-RSS) regime, it seems, is following very closely the colonial handbook of governance.

Its methodology is the same. First, they >attack the class of intellectuals, writers, filmmakers, scientists, as persons who are “anti-national” and “anti-Hindu”. At its meeting in Ranchi on October 30, the top leadership of the RSS, commenting on intellectuals said: “these are people of a particular ideology who have always been biased and intolerant towards the Sangh and Hinduism”.

That Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and M.M. Kalburgi and Nayantara Sahgal, Ashok Vajpeyi and Pushpa M. Bhargava, were/are Hindus is a fact of little consequence. The strategy is clear: do not let the public see the protesters as having a case. As Lord Chelmsford said, “It must not be interpreted as admission of mistaken policy”.

The second step the government follows is: attack the reputation of individuals. That is what explains their charge that Pushpa M. Bhargava was a beneficiary of Congress largesse. That Mr. Bhargava is the man who helped build India’s institutional capacity in the biological sciences, and who has relentlessly campaigned for a scientific temper in our public discourse, is again a fact of little consequence.

Third, they drum up nationalist fervour to portray the protest as diminishing the nation in the eyes of the world. To compare this with the massacre in 1919, General Dyer’s actions had also built up nationalist fervour back in Britain. When he returned to England he was given a hero’s welcome.

A growing current of anti-intellectualism

It is the same colonial card that the RSS-BJP regime is now playing versus the dissenters. See what they say. >The protests are “manufactured”, says the Finance Minister. It is only the ‘Lutyens’ Delhi’ that is protesting says the BJP chief, suggesting that those protesting are the very people who have been in a location of privilege, and are now feeling disempowered.

Must we remind him that the entire Cabinet, and people at the top in the civil services, fight to be allotted choicest bungalows in Lutyens’ Delhi? Such comments feed a growing current of anti-intellectualism as can be seen on social media. For the BJP’s spin masters, it seems the colonial handbook of governance is the guide to follow. Lord Chelmsford, not Tagore, is the teacher. These are parts of the first octave.

Now for the second octave. Stepping back from the noise of battle, between the regime and the group of writers, filmmakers, scientists, and social scientists, we see a deeper, more structural process of change under way. My colleague D.L. Sheth calls it “a transformational moment for Indian democracy”.

There are many aspects to this transformational moment — an institutional capture; the creation for a new iconography for the state; an abandonment of the doctrine of secularism; attempts to capture young minds through new school curricula; a shift in foreign policy; the prioritisation of economic growth over environmental sustainability; and an undermining of the movement towards a scientific temper. However, the aspect I want to dwell on here is the changes taking place to the coordinates of our public discourse.

The RSS and the BJP want to dump the state built by Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. In contrast, they want to build a state-society combination that embodies the thinking of M.S. Golwalkar, the RSS”s second Sarsanghchalak. The way to do so is to change the public discourse. ‘Peaceful co-existence,’ where differences are tolerated, is replaced by a ‘politics of other-ing’, where these differences have to pass the ‘national culture test’. National culture is what Hindutva says it is, not what Kalidas or Asoka or Akbar or Mahatma Gandhi said. This ‘politics of other-ing’ is fed by social conflicts. These need to be created.

Here, the steps followed are simple. Divide the society-polity into two groups: ‘us’ and ‘them’. Then, change the cultural coordinates to terms and phrases like ‘pseudo-secularism’; ‘good governance day’; ‘love jihad’; ‘ghar wapsi’; ‘beef eating’ and, now, ‘Uniform Civil Code’ — all elements intended to bring about the palatable public discourse. As a result, Nehru is made the villain who delayed our development. Secularism is a foreign import. Over the last few years, the RSS-BJP strategy seems to be working. An other-ing is taking place. You can hear it in conversations. Zubin Mehta saw it.

One would be too naïve to expect to Prime Minister to confront this trend of other-ing for he is one of its authors. It is this tactic that will give him the electoral success he seeks. It may destroy the national fabric that comprises peaceful co-existence and communal harmony but that is a cost the dispensation is willing to make the people of our country pay.

The British followed a policy of divide and rule. So does the RSS-BJP. Zubin Mehta knows a thing or two about conducting an orchestra of many instruments and many musical movements. He knows how to produce harmony. He also knows when disharmony occurs.

( Peter Ronald deSouza is professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies and holds the Dr. S. Radhakrishnan Chair of the Rajya Sabha.)

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Printable version | Jul 19, 2021 12:05:41 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/a-blast-from-the-colonial-past/article7834575.ece

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