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The rush to appropriate icons

When mainstream politics becomes recklessly instrumental, nothing is spared; even great idols and cultural symbols are trivialised through a process of appropriation in order to manipulate people’s emotions. In the campaign to the Assembly elections in West Bengal, we have been witnessing the competitive game of demonstrating one’s affinity with the icons of Bengal, such as Swami Vivekananda and Rabindranath Tagore. The Bharatiya Janata Party is at pains to demonstrate that it is not a north Indian party; and even if it loves to chant ‘Jai Shri Ram’, it understands what the average Bengali bhadralok regards as his ‘cultural capital’. No wonder the leaders of the party, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, often express their close ‘attachment’ to Vivekananda, Tagore and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose.

Bhadralok consciousness

This symbolic politics of cultural appropriation cannot be adequately understood without looking at the consciousness of the Bengali bhadralok. Possibly, this consciousness has not yet been able to come out of its attachment to lost glory. The colonial encounter, the birth of the new intelligentsia, the nuanced conversation with the West or its ‘Enlightenment’ philosophies, and the rigorous process of inner churning led to what is generally regarded as the ‘Bengal Renaissance’. In a way, from Raja Ram Mohan Roy to Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, from Bankim Chandra Chatterjee to Tagore, or from Swami Vivekananda to Sri Aurobindo, Bengal witnessed its cultural fineness in the 19th and early 20th century. Possibly, the likes of Satyajit Ray or Amartya Sen sought to carry this legacy forward in contemporary times.

However, the harsh reality is that because of the trauma of Partition, the division of Bengal, the influx of refugees, economic decline and widespread social unrest, Bengal began to lose much of its cultural aura in independent India. In fact, this fall led to the bhadralok fixation on 19th century Bengal, and associated nostalgia.

Consequences of a fixation

This fixation led to a mechanised process of ritualisation; instead of a living and organic engagement with Vivekananda and Tagore, people reduced them to objects of worship. It would not be an exaggeration to say that average Bengalis often equate spirituality with routine visits to Belur Math or the Dakshineswar Kali temple and buying a couple of pocketbooks containing the messages of Vivekananda. Likewise, the middle class from Kolkata occasionally visits Shantiniketan, reduces it to a tourist spot, and uses Rabindrasangeet as some sort of ritualistic mantras.

Not only that. A Bengali child, as I recall from my own experiences, often grows up with a belief that Bose was the ultimate icon of the freedom struggle and both Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru were not nice to him.

In fact, no political party in Bengal, be it the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or the Trinamool Congress, is free from this cultural politics. The BJP too seems to have understood this Bengali weakness; it is seeking to demonstrate that it can quote selectively from Vivekananda, appreciate Tagore’s paintings, and glorify Netaji’s heroism.

Amid this ‘invocation’ of Vivekananda and Tagore, we see the manifestations of ugly politics. The language of this politics is toxic; the continual classification of ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ votes pollutes the collective psyche; and as everything becomes a utilitarian transaction, nothing is impossible — a politician in the Trinamool yesterday joins the BJP today; or a ‘leftist’ becomes a militant nationalist. While Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee seems to be becoming angrier and more restless with every passing day, Mr. Modi and Mr. Shah have begun to visit West Bengal quite frequently. Amid all this, there is no creative breakthrough or critical reflection. For the political class, Vivekananda and Tagore are just names; there is no honest engagement with their lives.

Misfits in the world of Hindutva

What is quite absurd is that the proponents of Hindutva — an ideology of hyper-masculine nationalism — are trying to possess Tagore. Imagine Tagore’s sublime prayers in Gitanjali, his poetic universalism, his rhythmic engagement with the abundance of nature, and his tender, feminine and spiritually enriched aesthetic sensibilities. Imagine Tagore’s profound reflections on the dangers of hyper-nationalism and the resultant psychology of violence. Imagine some of the characters Tagore created in his novels — Gora with his existential quest and realisation of India as a maternal/inclusive space without walls of separation; Nandini with her feminine grace questioning the gigantic/hyper-masculine machine; and Nikhilesh seeing the dangers of communalisation of politics in the name of nationalism. Imagine Tagore nurturing the art of Nandalal Bose, conversing and debating with Gandhi, and experimenting with a kind of education that expands one’s horizon and nurtures the aesthetics of living. The politics that the proponents of Hindutva practise is the negation of almost everything Tagore stood for.

Likewise, it is important to realise that Swami Vivekananda, despite his saffron and visibly ‘Hindu’ look, cannot be fitted into the discourse of Hindutva. The monk sought to activate the conscience of a defeated nation, pleaded for “muscles of iron, nerves of steel and gigantic will”, celebrated the idea of a resurgent nation with a ‘soul’, and created an organisation of monks for social/spiritual work. But there is hardly any similarity between this project and what the likes of V.D. Savarkar and M.S. Golwalkar sought to create. After all, Vivekananda’s message was that of Upanishadic oneness and ‘practical Vedanta’ — an engaged religiosity that is not indifferent to the plight of the subaltern, or a religiosity that seeks to arouse the potential we all carry. Possibly, a hermeneutic engagement with the radical monk would inspire us to spread the message of love and altruistic action, not hatred and exclusion.

Who will educate our noisy politicians? We are living at a time when lies are transformed into gospels of truth, words have lost their meaning, political speeches have become mere rhetoric, and democracy has been reduced to election mathematics. It is perhaps futile to expect anything higher or nobler from the political class. But then, the question is whether average Bengalis are really ready to have a deep engagement with Vivekananda and Tagore. Or will they continue to reduce these figures into just brands for a false cultural pride?

Avijit Pathak is Professor of Sociology at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, School of Social Sciences, JNU, New Delhi

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Printable version | Apr 23, 2021 2:12:16 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/the-rush-to-appropriate-icons/article33965167.ece

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