An open letter to Bangaru Laxman

By Gail Omvedt

DEAR SIRI-SAMI Bangaru Laxman,

I would like to congratulate you on becoming the president of the BJP. (I should also preface this by explaining why I address you as Siri: Shri is Sankskritised and north Indian; most Maharashtrian Dalits prefer Ayushaman. Tamils, on the other hand, prefer Thiru. You, I understand, are from Andhra and so may not mind if I address you by the term used by the Satavahanas in their inscriptions. They were the greatest rulers in India after Ashoka and may be considered both an Andhra and a Maharashtrian kingdom. They used nothing but Prakrit in their inscriptions though their names get Sanskritised by unheeding historians and invariably their kings prefaced their names simply with Siri and occasionally with Siri-Sami. So it seems appropriate.

In congratulating you, I would like to add an observation that I hope you won't take amiss: it is really nice to see, for once, a dark south Indian face on television up there with all those light-skinned politicians! (Not to mention the Hindi cinemas and the serials, where everyone seems not only to be light-skinned but also to live in fancy bungalows or multi-storey flats).

I worry that you may take this amiss because India has never had an effective black is beautiful movement, and the result is that all dark-skinned Indians seem to feel a bit diffident. My husband, for instance, who's often called black, is constantly told by photographers not to wear bright or dark colors, and I have been made very sad to hear nice-looking young girls refuse to buy bright-colored clothes, saying Oh, I can't wear these colors, I'm too dark. I hope you can provide a role model to break this racist idea of beauty.

So, you deserve congratulations, and I have to say that your party does too. I am sure that you are not simply a figurehead, which means that the party must have done something to recruit, train and bring forward bright people of low-caste background.

That this is not so easy is seen by the situation of almost all parties in this country, except of course those based on Dalits. As a left-liberal-secularist, I am naturally disheartened that the BJP is the first major national party to have a Dalit president. Leave aside the communists, why couldn't even any of the socialists, who have been talking about representation and Mandal ever since the time of Lohia, have found a Dalit to head their party? We don't even need to mention the Congress, which has not had an effective Dalit leader at the top level since Jagjivan Ram, where even the near-Dalit Sitaram Kesri had to run away in the face of the Dynasty. So, congratulations all around. Nevertheless, I do think there are some issues you should consider in regard to your party, especially those volunteers and cultural ideologists within it. I am not simply talking about the recent atrocities against Christians by people you would undoubtedly call simple gangsters or even provocateurs, but rather about issues of principle, of philosophy and history.

Let me start with the question of Muslims. You have said: ``They are flesh of our flesh and blood of our blood''. Well, of course, that is simply a statement of fact. Everyone knows that the vast majority of Indian Muslims are converts, almost all from the so- called low castes.

The real question is that they owe religious allegiance to what many of your ideologists consider a foreign religion. The grounds for objecting to this are expressed in what I understand to be the heart of Hindutva thinking: that a Hindu is someone who considers India to be both his/her holy land and fatherland. I would like to examine what this means. It means, among other things, that Hindus by this definition are in a class with only one other people/country in the world - orthodox Jews living in Israel.

You see, for all other religious believers, their holy land and their nation are separate, have to be separate. No American Christian that I know, to take one example, would consider anything but the land of Jerusalem and Bethlehem to be the holy land; more, if they are truly Christians, they would have to say that in the end, my God is above my nation. This does not make them less patriotic Americans; it cannot. Yet somehow your party wants to say that Christian Indians, or Muslim Indians, are disloyal to India if they should say the same thing as any patriotic Christian in the U.S. would say!

You should think deeply about this equation of holy land- fatherland, since the identification of one's people with a particular religion and the identification of a religion with a particular section of the earth's geography is basically a tribal characteristic. And I don't mean tribal in the sense of Adivasis (Bhils, Santhals and all are not tribals in this sense) but in terms of an early stage of human history. I hope the religion that you owe allegiance to is more than tribal.

Then, there is the question of what really India is. Is it after all a Hindu country? Of course we may say that it is in the simple sense that Hindu is after all a geographical term deriving from the river Sind, whose S sound could not be pronounced by outsider-Iranians and so became Hindu (just as Asura in the Vedas became Ahura for the Zorastrians). That is simple enough. But the adherents of Hindutva say more than this. They want to have it both ways, they want to say both that this is a geographical identification and that it is a religious one: a Hindu must take Ram, Krishna etc. as divine in some way or another. This is where many, many Indians take objection. I have some objections from my knowledge of history and sociology.

There is no sense in which what is called Hinduism today is the oldest religion of India. (Americans also get this wrong; even supposedly sophisticated American sociologists tend to accept the idea that Hinduism is a 5000-year-old religion. Japanese scholars in this way are a little smarter on this issue. Indians would do well at many points to pay attention to the Japanese instead of to England or the U.S. as a model).

Hinduism is not a 5000-year-old religion. If anything is 5000 years old in this country, it is the Indus valley civilisation, and contemporary scholarship in archaeology and even history tells us that its language was most likely Dravidian and its religion was more likely similar to that of the Jains or Buddhists or perhaps the Saivites than to anything found in the Vedas. The main components of what is today considered Hinduism were brought together during the first millennium BC, in conflict and dialogue with the anti-Vedi shramana tradition.

Furthermore, if India had a golden age before the coming of the Muslims, it was a Buddhist age. From Ashoka to the Satavahanas to the Kushans to Orissa and Bengal to the Tamils before the Brahmanic revival of the 7th-8th centuries, Buddhism and Jainism were dominant religions in most parts of the subcontinent. And yet, those who identify themselves with Hindutva see the Vedas and Sanskrit as the source of their thinking, and would like to think of themselves as Aryan rather than Dravidian, Austro- Asiatic or anything else.

If Buddhists, Jains etc. are called a part of Hinduism their tradition is nevertheless treated as an inferior part, while the great contributions of Islam to Indian culture are looked on with hostility. This has been the major barrier to India's unity and India's greatness.

WHY, I wonder, is there so much fixation on the Vedas anyway? And why do so many of those connected with your party seem to feel the need to claim that the Aryans originated in India? To take the second question first, originally Lokmanya Tilak and all other elite thinkers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were quite happy to agree that Aryans came from outside of India, even claiming that their original home was in the Arctic. However, since the 1930s - note that this was after dalit movements throughout India claimed an identity as original inhabitants (Adi-Dravida, Adi-Andhra, Adi-Hindu and so on) - Golwalker and his followers began to say that the Aryans also originated in India. However, that they came from outside is hardly challenged by any objective scholars. The Dravidians themselves quite possibly also came from outside.

The fact is that in most countries the main sections of the population have come ``from outside'' within the period of thousands of years. Staying settled was never a particularly human characteristic; ever since homo sapiens originated in Africa, we have migrated everywhere. My own ancestors went from Scandinavian countries to the U.S. a few generations back, and now I have come to India to settle. I am proud to belong to a world of migrants.

As for the Vedas, they are impressive books, especially the Rg Veda. I can only say this only from translations, but I am glad that the ban on women and shudras reading them has been broken, and that good translations by women and shudras themselves are available. But to take them as something holy? Read them for yourself! Most of the hymns are for success in war, cattle- stealing, love-making and the like. They celebrate conquest; the hymns about Indra and Vrtra sound suspiciously as if the Aryans were responsible for smashing dams built by the Indus valley people; though archeologists tell us there is no evidence for direct destruction by ``Aryan invasion'', the Rg Veda gives evidence of enmity between the Aryans and those they called dasyus, panis and the like. Some of the hymns are positively pornographic. Mrs. Sushma Swaraj, for example, would be horrified by the hymn on Indra and the monkey Vrishakapi, and newspapers would probably be banned from printing it. Actually the Vedas can be fun (including the Artharva Veda, with its fascinating spells for winning lovers, preventing childbirth and so on), if people would drop the fixation about them being something sacred.

If there is any morally and spiritually impressive literature in India, it begins with the Jains and the Buddhists, and the Upanishads, all coming around the same centuries in the first millennium BC. I am mentioning the Upanisads here, though I am not impressed with the ethical qualities of any philosophical- religious speculation that accepts the authority of a birth- defined elite. Manu and the later Dharmashastras are simply morally repugnant. This may mean applying today's standards of equality and social justice, but I have no hesitation about making such value judgments.

Similarly, it can be said about the epics that they were wonderful stories. All Indians should treasure them. But why should they be forced to regard as divine a hero who cast his wife aside because of slander that affected his prestige, who slaughtered a Shudra for daring to try tapascharya? Why should Shambuk not be the hero? Was Sita greater for pleading the cause of the rakshasas slaughtered by Rama, or was Rama greater for killing them? Was Ravana, who did not lay a hand on Sita, more noble or was Rama? Who was the greater archer, Arjuna or Ekalavya whose thumb was cut off so that he could not compete? And who stood on the side of justice when, as the Mahabharata tells us, Carvak was murdered in assembly for protesting against a war in which so many kin were slaughtered Yudhishtara or Carvak himself?

There are many other questions regarding culture and education in India that I wish you would take up with Dr. Murli Manohar Joshi, who recently had the audacity in a television interview to praise ``our traditional education'' by saying that Bihar before the time of the British had ``six lakh schools in six lakh villages''. There were indeed many traditional Brahmanic schools, but you know as well as I do who was excluded from them, and who was considered worthy of being taught the ``higher'' subjects. While he was talking about Bihar, why didn't he mention Nalanda? Why don't the educationists in your party take as their example the world-famous universities of ancient India, which were all Buddhist? It seems as if the followers of Hindutva like to say that ``Buddhism is part of Hinduism'' but would prefer to mention it as little as possible!

Finally, a few words about politics. There is much important political theory in the ancient Indian tradition. But there are also crucial differences between that of the brahmanic tradition and the shramanic tradition. Jainism presents us the ideal of the king renouncing his throne, as Bahubali renounced his for Bharat. Buddhist kings were to follow the model of the chakravartin universal emperor who was responsible for providing protection to the householders who worked and accumulated wealth in righteous ways, and for preventing poverty.

In fact a very famous sutra, which is cited by Babasaheb Ambedkar and made a central part of his book ``The Buddha and His Dhamma'', tells of how disaster strikes a kingdom in which the ruler fails to provide wealth to the destitute. In contrast, we find that Manu begins his chapter on kings by emphasising their divinity and then stresses danda, the role of violence and punishment as central to the state. In the more liberal Arthashastra, Kautilya talks much of the strategy of war, but little of the strategies of welfare. There is much of taxing irrigation, little about how to build dams. I know of no brahmanic text where kings are urged to provide wealth to the destitute, as in the Buddhist story, but it is fair to say that in every brahmanic text the duty of a king is to protect varnashrama dharma.

Your party is now in the position of rulership. You are the kings. The question now is which model of kingship you are to follow. Most of my friends are afraid that the BJP is at heart a follower of the Manusmriti model. They fear that there will be protection not for the people but for varnashrama dharma, and punishment for those who oppose it, rather than for those who murder dissenters and Dalits. They fear that liberalisation will mean not lead to wealth for the destitute but more exploitation. I hope, for India's sake, that you can prove them wrong.

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