Two Voices, One Resonance: How Jinnah and Radhakrishnan Help Us Close Divides

Rediscovering history can be stunning.  As, for instance,  when we stumble upon words spoken by historical figures. They can compel us to revisit our present.

I recently came across two beautiful speeches by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Mohammad Ali Jinnah. These were two very different individuals. Jinnah a Karachi-born Gujarati liberal, barrister, an active participant and architect of the freedom struggle – and partition of India. In Radhakrishnan we had a quintessential thinker, scholar, philosopher,advaitin who was shaping the modern discourse on 20th century Hinduism.

This address by Radhakrishnan to the Constituent Assembly of India was delivered on December 11, 1946 and Jinnah’s to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan exactly eight months later, on August 11, 1947. The Dominion of Pakistan and the Union of India were ‘works in progress’ at the time, the deliberations on their respective constitutions had already commenced or were just about to. It is in this backdrop that they spoke.

The opening of both their speeches are very similar, celebratory yet to me a little dissonant in the context of their time. Jinnah says,

This mighty sub-continent with all kinds of inhabitants has been brought under a plan which is titanic, unknown, unparalleled. And what is very important with regards to it is that we have achieved it peacefully and by means of an evolution of the greatest possible character”.

And Radhakrishnan says the following

This Constituent Assembly has met here to frame the constitution, to effect the withdrawal of British control, political, economic and military and to establish a free independent India. If successful, this transfer of authority will be the biggest and the least bloody of all transfers in human history”.

Spoken against the backdrop of the Hindu-Muslim genocide of 1946-47, these statements do appear wishful. I kept looking for references to the riots but found no direct mention. The bloodshed of 1946 in Calcutta, Bihar and Noakhali were a recent memory for Radhakrishnan and the massacre and suicides in Rawalpindi in early 1947 must have been active in Jinnah’s mind. The omission may well have been conscious. Both of them speak of creating a new, non-discriminatory society, without any socio-religious divisions, placing the state ahead of personal faith. But it is evident that both of them are acutely aware of the past.

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. Photo Division, GOI.

The two individuals were flawed like everyone else, and there are parts of their respective speeches that are problematic. Yet when we hear Radhakrishnan say

India is a symphony where there are, as in an orchestra, different instruments, each with its particular sonority, each with its special sound, all combining to interpret one particular score. It is this kind of combination that this country has stood for”

something stirs deep within us. As when Jinnah, foreseeing a future Pakistan, says

“… you will find that in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State.”

A universality binds us to their thoughts.

Radhakrishnan’s ‘symphony’ metaphor obviously resonates with the musician in me. How exquisite! One score that is complete only when every instrument with its distinct character shares aural space, weaving melodies, harmonies, textures, tones and accents with the others. Once brought together, no one knows which instrumentalist played which part of the score, in fact, we shouldn’t be able to deconstruct the experience. The piece exists only together, as parts it is music-less.

Radhakrishnan yearns for such an Indian society, a seamless blend of historicities, philosophies and faiths. And this is where in my imagining, Jinnah glides in and completes the thought. He seems to be saying, ‘It is not enough if we, the observers don’t know who has played what role in the symphony, the musicians themselves shouldn’t care, their own identity has to be subsumed in the music.’ The oboe player is ‘the music’ even when she silently watches the score and listens to the violinists. Every individual should see herself or himself as part of the other and, collectively, the nation. Was this, unknown to himself, an advaitin in Jinnah?

Warning against self-enslavement

Elsewhere in that speech, Radhakrishnan speaks of the psychological evils that India suffers,

“…from loss of human dignity, the slavery of the mind, the stunting of sensibility and the shame of subjection’. He says ‘these are common to all: Hindus or Muslims, princes or peasants… The chains may be made of gold but they are still chains that fetter us. Even the princes will have to realise that they are slaves in this country’.

Equality in general is addressed in the sense of opportunity, access and benefits where the underlying reality is inequality, but now comes an interesting inversion of the idea. Radhakrishnan points to another ‘equality’ – the equality of psychological slavery among all Indians. He uses this argument effectively to demolish socio-political hierarchies. Though he comes from the point of view that colonisation is an underlying condition of oppression for everyone including the princes, he helps us see how the assumption of unbridled political power, wealth or spiritual control are specimens of our own many self-enslavements.

He goes on to say “To murder yourself, to betray yourself, to barter away your spiritual wealth for a mess of pottage, to try to preserve your body at the expense of your spirit – that is the greatest sin.” Having spoken impressionistically, as a true philosopher, Radhakrishnan does not further substantiate this point. What is this spiritual wealth or the spirit that needs to be protected? Is this some abstract Upanishadic idea or is it an observation of reality? Once again, Jinnah comes to the rescue, brutally denouncing the curses and evils of his times; corruption, bribery, black marketeering, nepotism and – yes, jobbery! All actions that lead to immediate benefit when our spirit or should I say our spiritual wealth is sacrificed.

Mohammed Ali Jinnah, at the 1946 session of the Muslim League

Jinnah believes that partition was the best way forward but accepts that not every one in Hindustan and Pakistan agrees with him. At one place, utterly sure of himself he says “I am sure future history will record its verdict in favour of it.” But very soon a great doubt – one could say a very Nehruvian doubt – creeps in:

 “Maybe that view is correct; maybe it is not; that remains to be seen.”

This uncertainty in his voice is real. A country is being born, torn out of a larger land, that many feel ought to have remained united, and so…can we be sure that we were right ? I will not judge the course he took, but the trepidation and self-doubt in his discourse are truly moving. From the other side of the Radcliffe Line we hear a clear message. Radhakrishnan elegantly condemns the idea that the people of “this one country” can ever think that they belong to different nationalites. The use of the word nationalities in this context does seem to suggest a subtle attack at Jinnah’s successful two-nation theory.

In the following passages we hear very different voices from them. Says Jinnah:

“If you will work in co-operation, forgetting the past, burying the hatchet, you are bound to succeed. If you change your past and work together in a spirit that everyone of you, no matter to what community he belongs, no matter what relations he had with you in the past, no matter what is his colour, caste or creed, is first, second and last a citizen of this State with equal rights, privileges, and obligations, there will be no end to the progress you will make”.

Here there is an acknowledgment of the hatred and violence that tore through communities, but Jinnah wants bygones to be bygones. He is unwilling to dwell on the past and dirty himself in its pot holes. He wants people to forgive, forget and move ahead to create a future. Radhakrishnan will of course have nothing of this:

“Softness, gentleness – that is the greatest weapon which will wear out the highest kind of opposition. We have not been true to It. We have betrayed and done wrong to millions of our own fellow beings. It is now time for us to make atonement for all our past guilt. It is not a question of justice or charity, it is atonement – that is how I would put it.”

Radhakrishnan’s atonement is Gandhiesque, a self-purification, cleansing where the future course of action must be aprayaschita of the past. But even with this obvious difference in their modes, if were to read these lines of Radhakrishnan followed by Jinnah, not a word would seem jarring.

Imagination unfettered

Reading these together was not an exercise to bring Jinnah and Radhakrishnan nearer each other, in fact they cannot be. But their words, separate yet connected, do one thing together – they seek to close divides in the human condition. After a point of time it did not matter to me whether I was reading Jinnah or Radhakrishnan.

Truth be told, people of both nations began with very similar hopes. They were battling the very same demons and were as tense about what might happen, yet with equal courage they moved ahead. Neither country was a mistake, since the people of both nations charted a future with honest hopes and aspirations. In spite of an immediate past that was ugly and brutal, neither Jinnah nor Radhakrishnan utter one word laced with anger or hate. Could I interchange the speeches between them? In style and in the specifics, with difficulty, but conceptually, with ease.

When I look at my country today, irrespective of whether I am Pakistani or Indian, truthlessness and insincerity stare me in the face. These speeches are not about the greatness of the individuals, they are a glimpse into the socio-political conciousness of a certain collective. In spite of all their inadequacies and imperfections they were able to, at least for a few fleeting minutes, fix their minds on a nation built on sharing, mutual respect and freedom.

As I said at the start, the most stunning aspect of rediscovering history is when we allow ourselves to stumble upon those rare moments in peoples’ lives, when words – ‘their’ words – reveal an imagination unfettered by attitudes, lined with introspection drawn from the past and spiked with a fear of the future.

If we can forget the realities of the speakers’ actions before and after these moments, not to brush them aside but to un-cloud our minds while receiving their words, we may be able to see our present with greater clarity.

Every time we read history we look for the consequence – for “why and what happened next” – and then every word is coloured by our predisposition. But if we can press the pause button for just a moment, the words of these individuals glow in a new light, allowing us to draw out of them that one quality that we seem to have surrendered to parochialism – a vision of our collective wellbeing that beckons our future in selflessness. 

Originally written for The Wire

TM Krishna on why he won’t wing in December Sabha

My decision to withdraw from the Chennai music season (the December sabha) was neither sudden nor was it triggered by any specific occurrence. Over the last four or five years I have been thinking about the season. What does it mean to me? What are we contributing through it to music? And where is it heading?

I grew up listening to concerts in the music season and my own evolution in the world of Carnatic music has been through the processes of this festival and therefore it would be dishonest on my part if I don’t acknowledge that I have benefited from it, artistically and professionally. Yet I feel that the music season today has reached a point where music has almost disappeared from it. Perhaps I should say music has fled from it, because of the noise that pervades it; noise that comes from within the music and beyond.

For over two decades we have heard it said loudly that the music season has become unwieldy with too many competing organisations and that concerts show a lamentable bipolarity: sparsely populated auditoriums for some and unmanageable crowds for the handful superstars. But this is only a symptom of something else that has been happening and now has reached a critical point. I don’t think anyone is surprised if crowds throng only the popular and famous but if somewhere the whole music world is becoming subservient to the idea of the “popular” then this is a serious artistic problem. This is what the season has become. In this din, many wonderful musicians are not just ignored, they, in fact, get to be discarded. I feel that any art world must have a sense of the rich diversity within its ecosystem where the famous are the “face” but the other artists are recognised and respected as important contributors to the aesthetic diversity of the art form. Today the other musicians do not really matter. This bothers me since I too am responsible for this situation.

For the young musicians with dreams, things have only gotten worse and murkier. There is money being spent in the name of donations for concert opportunities, middlemen operating at many levels and the power of the dollar becoming more and more visible. I have the greatest admiration for those young musicians today who have made a mark in spite of all this. But there are many others who are still left behind only because they cannot play this game. I don’t think things were as bad in the early 90’s.

It has to be accepted that the music season has become more or less a non-resident Indian (NRI)-driven festival and hence, young learners from there, egged on by their parents, appear as “fly by night players” every year during the season. A decade ago they were a small part of the season but today, among the junior slots, they are a mainstream reality. Musicians who have a foot here and in the US also play their part in creating opportunities for their NRI students during the season so that the quid pro quo is in play. Today money is paid, reviews are planted in newspapers and all this is “par for the course”. All this happens behind closed doors, so I have no proof! Due to this even the few truly committed Carnatic musicians from North America who are making their name in Carnatic music have had to struggle to make people realise that they are here for the long haul. Again I have nothing but respect for them.

Beyond the little world of art that Carnatic music occupies, what have we, the participants of this mega festival, done for the music? How much effort during the season have we made to bring diverse listeners into the art, take this art to other sections of society? Only individual artists have taken a few initiatives in bits and pieces. We really don’t care about the rest of society and don’t see that this music must be democratised. I stand by my view that the world of Carnatic music is socially stifling and narrow with all of us unable to see that this art must be made accessible to the larger society and welcoming of it.

Some of us who are thought to be the powerful stars are unable to put our differences aside and come together for anything beyond ourselves. We have rarely even raised the issue of the payments given to our friends and colleagues on the violin, mrudanga, kanjira or ghatam.

In the “frenzy of the season” now aided and abetted by technology I find it very hard to give myself to the music. I am unable to find the quiet that I need to try and sing and this is my inability.

Considering all this I feel it is best that I don’t participate in the music season. Over the last five years I did try creating an alternative space within the season framework by offering free concerts but feel that the overall atmosphere is so commodified that listening has more or less vanished.

The Carnatic music in Chennai has become more about the season than about music and this is dangerous for the art. What we see happening in the season is only a symptom of a deeper lack of introspection on the art, its form, access and its integrity. There are of course exceptional individuals who despite the music season continue to make honest efforts as organisers, musicians and connoisseurs.

I am not saying that everything in the past was hunky-dory, but I do feel that the Madras music season has reached anaesthetic tipping point. May be it was always this way and I just did not see it. But now that I do, I cannot remain a participant.

Originally written for Dailyo

Above the mundane?

Over the last week, we have read innumerable stories on the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle (APSC) vs. IIT-Madras battle. Was it a ban or de-recognition? Was it ‘merely’ a show-cause notice? Were the students ‘involved’ in the episode just indulging in demagogic propaganda, disturbing the peace of the campus?

To these ‘campus questions’ are added larger ones: Is being opposed to the policies of the government or for that matter the prime minister an act that demands ‘remedial’ action? Was the HRD ministry correct in requesting comments on an anonymous complaint? Is not a letter from the ministry asking for ‘comments’ a veiled threat?

In between all this, political parties have constructed their own narratives to the happenings, with open letters of support from some, condemnation from others. Among these, the most bizarre is the appropriation of Ambedkar by one Hindu front that had demanded the banning of the APSC! A caste-based break-up of the professors, assistant professors et al employed at IIT-M is doing the rounds. There is also the online bullet-point superficial debate on Ambedkar and Periyar.

In the course of all the finger pointing, one idea has been peering out of the discourse. “IITs are places for study, not venues for socio-political discussions and agitations.” With the corollary: “These groups corrupt the minds of students and distract them from their primary goal — science.” “Have these students gone to IIT to study or indulge in politics?” some asked.

We do not hear this admonition when strikes or protests take place at what used to be called ‘Arts’ colleges and are now known as Institutes for the Humanities. But when it comes to science, there is a strong feeling that “This cannot be allowed in places of scientific learning.” At a very basic level, we Indians see pure science and its allied subjects as far more serious, even sacred, compared to the social sciences. This belief arises from our notion of the intellect framed by math and science.

The study of science is seen as being above ‘mundane’ social issues, leave aside conflicts. Science is not meant to engage in the whimsicalities of humanity. An individual immersed in science is seen as being detached from the politics of life. The science student or the scientist cannot be found indulging in political activity, since it brings him down to the level of a fickle irrational human being. Emotional squabbles are left to ‘ordinary’ people. Would-be engineers and scientists are to experience life through honest scientific enquiry.

In this is implied the notion that ‘the rest’ is inherently flawed while science is a pure search, almost bordering a spiritual quest. Hence science and religion can be seen in fact as natural partners. They may differ in their view of the world but there is very little contradiction in how people feel about engaging with them. The argument is that both require a deep, intense, almost selfless surrender to something else; call it Rama or a complex equation. Therefore, unlike the way economists, sociologists or historians view life through the eyes of human fallibility; scientists and bhaktas see life as being beyond the manipulations of man. Sociologically we have placed science and religion on a kind of altar beyond which there is only the sky! The sanctified priest and the science professor are semi-divine.

And oddly enough, I find here a resonance in the universe of our classical music. We feel superior; music after all is the fastest and simplest way to moksha! We inhabit nada’ and once we are in music we are beyond caste or gender politics. We are in contact with that intangible divine, elevating people, nourishing their souls. Even if uncomfortable facts stare us in our face, we wave them aside. We, in the Carnatic world, go one step further. We not only claim that our music is bhakti laden; we constantly prove that ours is one of the most ‘scientific’ of systems. We believe both the rational and the spiritual reside in us.

But only the blindfolded would believe that science, religion and classical music are above or outside the real world. Every human being has to battle the emotionality of being an individual and part of a collective. If we do not allow for that we will continue to be dominated by artificial social orders that ask adherents of Ambedkar and Periyar to ‘fall in line’.

Originally written for The Hindu


A singular preoccupation of newspaper and magazine editors, columnists, TV anchors, political commentators this week has been and will be ‘Modi ka saal girah’. With each fighting to provide an ‘in-depth analysis’, we are flooded with wave after wave of opinions. But we are not a monarchy, a dictatorship, a corporate firm or a religious order where one all-pervading, larger-than-life figure controls everything. So, why this fever?

This obsession with one person is not new, though. At one time ‘Indira was India and India was Indira.’ An audit of the PM’s first year is a natural consequence of electing a Modi sarkar. But may be it is time we scrutinised not just the PM but all those who were elected, as he was, to the 16th Lok Sabha and are seated in that iconic semi-circular space.

The 16th Lok Sabha has the largest number of women MPs — 62 out of 543 — that any Lok Sabha has had. This in itself is a good thing, though it does not call for any celebration. But has this changed the mindset of the men in the House? The bill that seeks 33 per cent reservation for women is still ‘unpassable’ and the coming together of women across party lines has not made a difference. In the 15th Lok Sabha, we were witness to some wonderful discussions on the Lokpal bill, but the bill has become just another stacked file. These two proposed legislations are only examples for many other Bills that remain in the back rooms of ministries and the Parliament itself.

Beyond the bills, the conduct of parliamentarians within and beyond the precincts of that hallowed space has, by and large, been abysmal. In Delhi’s corridors of power, Smriti Irani, Minister for Human Resources, was treated with disdain because she was not a graduate. I wonder if the same treatment would have been meted out if she had been an ‘elderly’ lady or a ‘man.’ But she herself was far from being a dignified MP, let alone a minister. The way she spoke on the floor of the House to fellow-MP Sugata Bose did no credit to propriety.

But this is not about one Minister or one MP alone. We saw and heard JDU’s senior Member of Parliament Sharad Yadav’s incredibly offensive comment on the skin-tones of ‘South Indian women’. BJP members such as Sakshi Maharaj and Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti were unabashedly anti-minority. This has also been a year where ghar wapsi, a ban on beef, vandalisation of churches, the demand for compulsory Sanskrit have been let loose into our collective.

Labelled pseudo-secularists like me have demanded that the Prime Minister make a statement on these ghastly ideas and, no doubt, he should. But what about the Lok Sabha itself? Some individual MPs may have spoken on some of these issues but is there a sense of the 16th Lok Sabha as such having taken a stand or having spoken up on these issues?

When someone feels affronted, an apology is tendered and everything is forgotten and forgiven. Parliamentarians are seen laughing and making up. But a derogatory or inflammatory statement by an elected representative is not a personal matter; it is an act in the public domain. It does not matter which party they belong to or which constituency they represent; such statements do and should wound us.

Here is a fact to ponder. About one-third of all the Lok Sabha MPs have at least one pending criminal case against them; with some being serious criminal cases. For the record, I want it to be known that MPs from the BJP, the Congress, the TMC, DMK, AIADMK and Shiv Sena have criminal cases filed against them. I know that ‘crimes’ are often committed without the intention to commit them. They just ‘happen’. May it be that all our MPs facing criminal cases are finally found to have had no criminal intent! But there is one act that I cannot call a crime since the IPC does not list it and which MPs commit constantly. And that is obstructing the House, interrupting an MP who is speaking, making the Lok Sabha adjourn. (This happens in the Rajya Sabha as well). MPs are paid what amounts to a salary. They are not in the Lok Sabha for free.

And then we had the case of the ‘perennial prince’ who vanished! Rahul Gandhi has the right to take a break, meditate, rest and remain in solitude. But doing it at a time when Parliament was in session was an act of callousness towards that institution by one of its most ‘visible’ members.

There is one thing for which opposition MPs deserve credit. And that is the way they stalled the anti-poor amendments to the Land Acquisition Act. Beyond that, they and members from the ruling combination were on a par. I leave it to the reader to choose the appropriate adjective for that ‘on a par’.

Originally written for The Hindu

Dravidian-Hindutva axis in Tamil Nadu: The slow death of the Periyar atheist

Political outfits have a standard line for incidents of intimidation and violence: ‘These acts are condemnable.’ But when such events make their own socio-political position untenable, they add the following: ‘These are stray incidents carried out by fringe groups.’ In other words, these are just stray dots scattered over large geographical spaces and time that we should ignore. This begs the question: when does the surface density of these dots make them important? At what point does one need to worry that an underlying conflict is tearing apart our social fabric? Are we going to wait for many dots to appear at shorter time and space intervals? Are we all headed for a large Black Hole?

These thoughts have lingered in my mind over the past few months as I watch numerous dots of violence appear in various parts of Tamil Nadu, some darker than others, but all indicative of a polarisation of people. For all of us whose attention and knowledge is based on what the media finds significant, a major point of inflection was the hounding of the author Perumal Murugan in the small town of Nammakkal. All of us know the story and are quite aware that the underbelly of Hindu society, namely casteism and its perceived sanctity, had a hand in the way the ‘episode’ panned out. The state government was an active participant and allowed local vested interests to take control. After a few months, in another obscure town, Karur, another Tamil writer ‘Puliyur’ Murugesan was assaulted by members of a caste group who claimed that a short story in his book had hurt their feelings.

Then the intolerance arrived in the state capital itself. A Tamil TV channel office in Chennai was attacked, a cameraman assaulted and crude bombs hurled at their premises by another set of ‘fringe elements.’ All this to protest and condemn its proposed TV debate on the relevance of the tali, the equivalent of North India’s mangalsutra. But things did not stop there. Soon, the Dravida Kazhagam, a party known as ‘DK’ that was founded by EV Ramasamy Naicker (Periyar), who gave birth to Tamil Nadu’s rationalist, self-respect and anti-caste movements, held a public event where 21 women members of their party removed their tali. And just when we thought the circle was complete, some alleged members of a group called the Dravidar Viduthalai Kazhagam assaulted a few Brahmins in Chennai, forcibly taking off their sacred thread (poonal). For every one of these incidents, there were protests and counter protests with the chatter on TV channels and social media further polarising the dialogue. While the attack on Brahmins brought back memories of the 50s and 60s when similar violence had occurred in Madras, the overall sense this time was of disbelief.

Though caste battles have remained a part of Tamil social life with parties such as the PMK being self-avowedly caste based, it is unusual today for Tamil Nadu to be a theatre of aggressive acts over religion with such high visibility and frequency. Many of us, over the last three decades or more, have come to believe that the people of this state are less religious than hardcore Hindus in, say, Maharashtra or UP’s hinterland, and hence have held the view that matters of religion cannot stir trouble here. To an extent, we have also attributed the BJP’s failure in Tamil Nadu to its overtly ‘upper-caste’ orientation.

A brief historical rewind would be in order here. In Tamil Nadu, whenever the word ‘Hindu’ or ‘caste’ is used, the larger- than-life figure of one person appears at once in our mind’s eye: Periyar EV Ramasamy. So deeply etched is that bespectacled, bearded nonagenarian personality in the Tamil mind that his caste-surname ‘Naicker’ is irrelevant; all that matters is that he is the one and only ‘Periyar’ (the Elder). Within that image are subsumed all discussions on religion and caste. He is the preceptor of all Dravidian parties. Even political parties that are not direct offshoots of his movement and politicians who are not his protégés accept that they owe their place in the Tamil political spotlight to Periyar. His Dravidian Movement is the foundation on which Tamil political identity has been constructed.

The complete control of Periyar-invoking Dravidian parties over Tamil Nadu’s socio-political scene over the last three decades and more had led many to believe that ‘Dravidian rationality’ had pushed religion to the periphery of the Tamil psyche.

I have heard some pious ‘upper-caste’ Tamilians say with great regret ‘we Tamils don’t have any bhakti’. But nothing can be further from the truth! Despite Periyar and the Kazhagams, Tamil Nadu has always been driven by religiosity and ritualism (by the term ‘religiosity’, I refer only to Hinduism here, since it was the chief target of Periyar’s reformist movement).

The self-respect movement had a significant impact in changing the demography of public life and creating spaces for many caste groups. But what it was unable to achieve was a ‘revolution towards rationalism’. Faith is an intriguing creature; it hides, disappears momentarily, even retreats temporarily, allowing rationalism to lead the way, but very rarely does it completely vanish. Periyar, as much as he tried, was unable to erase religious faith from the hearts of the Tamil people. He was vicious in his attack on superstition and chided believers for their ‘blind beliefs’. Yet his and the DK’s inability to understand and respect the intensity of religious emotion within an individual and in the Tamil Collective was revealed by the way the adroit Tamil mind has used astonishing selectivity to embrace yet reject Periyar. Like Gandhi’s approach to untouchability, in some ways, caste became an internal Hindu problem that needed redressal. Therefore the elimination of a caste hierarchy was essential, but the demolition of Hinduism as sought by Periyar, even as a notion, was probably never in the majority’s mind. Faith took a backseat, it remained camouflaged, unseen, but did it die? No, it did not. It continued to thrive in silence. Periyar, by default, had enabled the political empowerment of everyone, but within the religious belief system itself. Why discard belief? One could hold on to that crucial axle, an emotional anchor, and yet rise in the social hierarchy.

The DMK, which has remained ideologically closer to the DK, has been unable to untangle the web of religiosity that holds its party members and followers. The DMK’s unquestioned leader and former Chief Minister M Karunanidhi may continue to espouse atheism, but the actions of many within his party reveal a stubborn sense of religious habituation. Even some of his own public actions have, on occasion, come to be critiqued by atheists. Casting a vote for the DMK today (the DK has ceased to be a party of electoral value) is in no way a sign of atheism, rationalism or anti-casteism in an individual. Many DMK supporters will routinely head for a temple and pray for a DMK victory!

The other dominant Dravidian party, AIADMK, has encouraged religiosity and moved far away from Periyar, though it will not openly concede this. In Tamil Nadu, the AIADMK is what the BJP is in North India. Whenever there is a direct contest between the two parties, Hindu-minded voters are hard put to make a choice. Most choose the latter, not only because the BJP has virtually no organisation in the state, but also because they are drawn to the allure of its Dravidian-Tamil genealogy combined with the charisma of Jayalalithaa, who is often worshipped as a goddess. The fact is that except for the Periyar faithful, atheism and rationalism are now passé in Tamil Nadu.


What explains this sudden Hindu awakening? There is no doubt that the emergence of Narendra Modi as a national leader and his pronounced Hindu stance has had its impact on Hindu Tamilians. Let us also not forget that Tamil Nadu is presently under AIADMK rule. This is what we call a ‘double whammy’. Many of this party’s voters also support Modi, which makes the recent incidents even more significant.


Beyond party politics, a long dormant sense of being Hindu appears to be surfacing across caste groups, bringing back ideas of antiquity and purity to the fore. In a modern reinvention of the late 18th and early 19th century Hindu revivalist movement, Tamil Hindus have begun creating, probably for the first time, a distinct Dravidian-Hindutva identity. And here, caste identities both appear and disappear in ingenious ways. They seem to appear if a caste-based attack offends Hindu-caste purity and disappear the moment the enemy is identified as an ‘outsider’: that is, Muslim, Christian or a secular liberal generally seen as ‘anti-Hindu’.

The debate on the tali was perceived as an insult to a symbol of purity, fidelity, honesty, antiquity, sanctity and faithfulness. Every one of these words is wedded, literally, in a tight knot to what is seen as the Hindu identity. Symbols are exactly that— they go beyond their contextual use, becoming emotional definers of the larger identity that we occupy. Questioning the tali amounts to questioning the purity of the religion itself.

A respected religious symbol can be problematic. The tali, beautiful as it can be as an ornament, is also a patriarchal and oppressive symbol of man’s control over women. It is, after all, the man who ties it around his wife’s neck. Some reformist women have even gone to the extent of comparing it to a dog’s leash. It would be irrational to ignore the fact that there is not one such Hindu symbol that visibly marks out a married man; even a wedding ring is optional. There is a Tamil saying, ‘Kallanalum kanavan, pullanalum purushan’, which means, ‘A husband is a husband, be his heart as hard as stone or as pliant as a blade of grass.’ Its spirit is threaded into the tali. We cannot erase the record of cruel ceremonies—some of them still in practice—where a woman is forced to break her bangles and take off her bindi andtali at the death of her husband. Tamil cinema has been party to eulogising the tali-wearing woman. The ways in which it has been portrayed as a symbol of femininity and womanhood are quite bizarre.

The wedding ritual, kanya daanam, where the bride is ‘donated’ to the husband, is sexist and offensive to some even while it is considered ‘rather sweet’ by many. Such practices must be debated. Women who believe in thetali as a symbol of womanhood and feel the need to wear it have the right to freely do so. But surely, those who find it offensive must have the same freedom. When we speak of hurting religious sentiments, we seem to forget that one could also hurt non-religious sentiments.

A counter question that frequently features on social media is: ‘Why doesn’t the media discuss the burkha or hijab?’ Indeed, that too should be debated. Just as there are women who see in the tali an important symbol of love, there are Muslim women who feel they wear the burkha or hijab of their own free will. Can the finger-pointing Hindu mind accept that? Or, will it be viewed as delusional free will? If that is the case, then is the need of the talialso a conditioned delusion? As in the case of Hindu women and the tali, I am certain that many women of the Islamic faith feel obliged to veil themselves. This has to be taken up by the women themselves and every one of us must enable this dialogue.


During the Tali-related attacks and counter-attacks, very few from any Dravidian political party, barring the DK, were willing to openly support the telecast of the debate. They only offered superficial statements in condemnation of the violence. No one was willing to take the provocations head-on. The ruling AIADMK clearly did not want a debate on this issue, and, as state officials say, wanted ‘the law to take its own course’, which usually means do nothing. This only corroborates the fact that inherent in Tamil politics is a Dravidian-Hindutva sentiment that is finding expression today.

In such an environment, the truly atheistic Periyar follower is scrambling for relevance. He knows deep within that ‘evangelical atheism’ has failed and he cannot break faith through rational discourse. It is partly in this state of desperation that the DK conducted its tali removal show. Did they have a right to do it? Of course they did, even if many have questioned its timing. Look at it from their point of view, however. This was the first time in many years that the DK and its leader Veeramani have had an opportunity to claim attention, and so they did. I do not see any problem in this, since it is a strategy used by all social, religious or political bodies. But the irony was the way the event was held. Every ‘wife’ who took off her taliwas asked to hand it over to her husband. But one thing must be said about the DK, which is that it is the only Dravidian party that has stayed true to the ideals of Periyar, the father of the Dravidian movement. Whether this is the right thing to do, though, is a completely different question.

To the extreme elements in the DK, a simple way to counter the growing Dravidian- Hindutva axis was to attack Brahmins. I am critical of many Brahminical practices and the influence of Brahminism on society, but assaulting people only because they believe in a way of life that you disagree with is unpardonable. This cannot be allowed. And as expected, in an inversion of reason for inaction, most Dravidian parties once again remained silent. They could not be seen supporting Brahmins, even if on the tali issue through their muted response they were implicitly backing a Brahminical notion.

As much as the religious Right is unable to revisit religious and ritualistic practices handed down by tradition, Dravidian parties face a serious crisis of ideology. They seem to lack the maturity and insight to revisit their philosophy within the current social context. Their embrace of religion is not a conscious ideological position, and so they are unable to articulate its role in their own lives. They seem philosophically empty and ideologically lost, and hence may find it difficult to survive beyond the lifespans of their present party leaders. Holding on to their leadership for dear life, they are nervous of a future where the most unlikely contender, the BJP, may just find a foothold in Dravidaland.

Tamil Nadu’s politicians find themselves in a conundrum. The Hindutva of Tamilians is now out in the open and every Dravidian party wants a piece of the electoral pie. Hence, they will play their cards carefully if the issue is about ‘hurting Hindu sentiments’. But Periyar cannot be swept away and therefore he will make his perfunctory appearance whenever there is an ‘upper-caste’ battle.

The BJP finds itself performing a different circus act, bringing all Tamil Hindus together and hiding its own casteism behind the banner of Hindutva—a political possibility that is a reality only because of Periyar. Yet, they will have to be critical of him in order to retain their religious identity and ‘upper-caste’ vote bank.

For the common man, things may only get worse. Inciting religious and caste related anger would be the modus operandi of all. Meanwhile, such actions will remain the ‘condemnable acts of fringe elements’. This will allow parties to hop, skip and jump between various ideological positions: pro- Hindu, anti-‘upper caste’ or pro-Tamil. The dots will increase in number and may occur more in places of high visibility, which means they will overlap and perhaps envelop us. We can be certain that this will be the trend at least until the next state polls due in 2016.

Originally written for Open, The Magazine

Gorgeous or grotesque?

It happens every time the aircraft approaches my ‘home-city’ and the captain says, “Cabin crew prepare for landing”, I look out of the window and visually trace the contours of my city, Chennai, until the plane touches down on terra firma.

 Structures of various shapes, sizes and colours lie scattered around the city. As I spot landmark buildings and bridges, I also silently bemoan the growing lack of aesthetics in my city. Where has all the beauty of the past gone? Why have ancient art and architecture been erased from our memory? The city has become ugly, I say to myself. I am repulsed and my mind desperately seeks aesthetic comfort. And voila! In my mind’s eye, the city of my childhood appears in all its grandeur or my inbuilt neural projector re-plays reels from an old Films Division documentary. In that warmth of nostalgia, I retrieve my precious old city.

  But, of late, I have tried questioning this feeling. What is this ugliness? What exactly am I rejecting? Is my sense of the visually distasteful an unconscious expression of my rejection of someone else’s way of living? Is it because ‘they’ belong to a lower class? Is my feeling of ‘the beautiful’, a vulgar sense of superiority or purity? Is the newly emerging upper-middle class a challenge to ‘me’, the hereditary stakeholder? What is in ‘my past’ that I treasure? What is this aesthetic that I seek and cling on to?

 Before I move ahead with this discussion, I must describe what I perceive as ‘ugly’. I am instinctively responding to shape, size and colour. This response is generated purely on my own habituation and conditioning.

 A truly aesthetic response to a visual comes from observing the object as a continuum of the past that lives in the present and moves into the future. The sensitive observer is responsive to the object, its environment, purpose and, crucially, the people who inhabit the space.  Here, that observer goes beyond his own contextual limitations.

But often this is not how we respond to visual stimuli. Our reactions are not insightful observations on the aesthetics of design and architecture. Examples of the unaesthetic exist in many places — be it the home of Mukesh Ambani in Mumbai or the utter filth in the gully near my home — display scant respect to context, space and people. But when I demand ‘a’ beauty in the world around that is personally acceptable to my class and me, it becomes problematic.

 Let us look at ‘our world of the beautiful’. We, of the upper-middle class, are more or less of the ‘same’ kind? aren’t we? Old or quaint furniture adorning the home, hand-crafted objets d’art, stonework and brassware in appropriate places, some eco-friendly elements and, if you are wealthy enough, a few antiques. Along with all this will also exist the modern abstract painting, a framed contemporary cartoon or a retrospective photograph. There is another style-template — minimalistic, clean and ultra-modern— in which Scandinavia seems to have descended into the living room! The exteriors here are usually off-white, with geometric lines or reflecting village-style roofs or throwbacks to colonial India. Our own physical appearance too is often only an extension of what I have just described. This idea itself is not a shut container. It changes according to what the upper middle class absorbs and appropriates into its socio-cultural framework. New entrants need to fit into this image if they want the ‘classy’ tag; otherwise they will remain members of the ‘Janata club’. As the saying goes “money doesn’t buy everything!”

 There is really nothing wrong with every community fashioning its own styles. The problem arises when one model becomes the controlling creative narrative of society as a whole. Do we want all of society to look and live like us? Do we want our home designs to be prescribed like they are in the U.S.? In fact some of us do; ‘standardisation is elegance’!

 Let us not misconstrue this argument as being against the revival of handlooms or indigenous techniques of design and construction. A revival of traditional views of space, design and utility is necessary not because they look pretty but because that makes aesthetic sense.

 Now, realising who I am, if I look at the outside will I see the beauty in what seemed to me to be distasteful? Along with the colours and shapes will I feel the needs, aspirations and dreams of the people occupying those spaces?  Will I realise that so many factors determine choices regarding appearance? Can I be less insensitive? Will I stop strangling the beautiful with my notions of it?

 Though I have discussed the attractive, graceful and the alluring, this discussion is as much about what we have pre-supposed as being development, success, or culture. In every one of these elements of socio-political life what we first absorb is that which our senses receive and slot as the gorgeous or the grotesque. If we can cross this first hurdle, we just might move closer towards becoming less judgmental, more reflective human beings.

Originally written for The Hindu

For the greater good

The self-appointed conscience keeper in every society seems to be the activist but the label denotes a less self-absorbed and far more empathetic human being; a person with a cause to fight for. And that is no self-aggrandising motive!  The activist lives for others, listens to the oppressed, feels for the fragile. This ‘for others’ condition is further specialised into specific commitments  such as social justice, minority and Dalit rights, LGBT issues, environment, education, animal welfare, organic food, cultural activism and so on .

And so activists are inspiring people but, for many of us, they are intimidating as well. We feel inadequate in their presence; utter failures, in fact. We have after all only drawn from society, consumed, lived for ourselves, never seen the real hardships of the nirbal, have hardly ever dirtied our hands. We believe that providing education for the son of our house help or donating ‘X’ amount is social service. We understand socio-political-environmental issues not by facing them but from Facebook, Twitter and the headlines. We feel we are moral and ethical compromisers while they, the activists, are men and women of principles. It is also true that some activists by their body language and patronising tone perpetuate this air of superiority.

Let me make it clear that I have the greatest respect for activism because it entails, at various levels, the curbing of man’s greed. But I do find that activism can itself become a self serving, narrow tunnel within which the activist is trapped. In this trap exists that very same un-deflatable ego that blinds the activist, making him believe that his cause is the ‘end’. Like his antithesis, the CEO of a multinational, he too at times ignores the side effects or, should I say, the collateral damage caused by his thought and action. And like the fight for resources among the corporate tsars, here too that very battle for resources takes place, establishing its own turfs and turf-fights, as also hierarchies. It is ironic that within the world of activism also exist haves and have-nots! The battle among activists for financial, social and cultural space can become dirty, liberty becomes selective, jingoistic nationalism becomes an essential tool. From deep within the crevasses in the activist’s mind appear patriarchy, dogmatism and ‘poof’ goes idealism. But the fascinating aspect is that it is camouflaged behind the basic fact that the activist is working for others.

During the recent hungama about the beef ban in Maharashtra, one set of animal rights activists expressed great happiness about this decision. Their logic was simple “I don’t care about the reasons behind this ban or its socio-cultural implications. I am happy that at least cows will be spared”. Here the end has been met for the animal rights activist but at what cost? Caste, nutrition and cultural issues are not his/her concern. Another aspect that I find intriguing is how several activists involved in organic living tie their movement to Hindu religious superiority. ‘Shuddha Vegetarian’ or ‘satvik’ food,ahimsa, yoga and Ayurveda bundle themselves into an affirmation of Hindu culture. All of a sudden, caste becomes a distorted social evil of British-Raj origins while in its original fount — Manu — it was the much-needed varna classification. This is something even the celebrated socio-cultural-religious-political activist Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi battled with.

Some activists become hyper sensitive to comments from the west. I agree with some of the criticism ofIndia’s Daughter, but the fact remains that there was a lot in the movie that came as a powerful revelation. Irrespective of who produced or directed it, it needed to be seen. And so there were those who did not support the ban but were unhappy with the ‘foreign’ criticism! Culture and heritage activists have similar conflicts of being caught in a spider’s web of religion, class and history. In all this we see an inability to look beyond their limited need and condition.

I know that activists of various causes speak to each other, but I am not certain they listen enough. This lack of listening causes an inability to open their own selves to revisiting ideas about the larger world that may even push them to re-imagine their cause. Like all of us, they are protectionist about themselves and stay caged.

The danger to activism comes not so much from the outside as from itself, since it allows individuals to believe that their sphere of activity makes them introspective, contemplative and therefore transformative human beings and consequently somehow ‘superior’ people. As an individual it is essential for all of us to realise that being an activist, politician or a CEO is only a mode of functioning. Ultimately, it is who we are that needs addressing. Being in activism is only playing a role, being a self-inquiring human is living.

Originally written for The Hindu