Freebies and movies: Why do the two Dravidian parties have such a hold over Tamil voters?

By the time this piece appears, the residents of Tamil Nadu would have exercised their electoral right and every newspaper and news channel would have begun predicting the outcome. Until now, for us, the people of Tamil Nadu, elections have only meant two political outfits and their respective symbols, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (rising sun) and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (two leaves). To be more precise, they have meant two parties and three personalities – say M Karunanidhi, MG Ramachandran and J Jayalalitha. These three have trapped and controlled the political imagination of the people. For an electorate that led the way in social reform, we have lost almost all our social awareness and reduced politics to hero-worship and sycophancy.

But this is an unusual election, as for the first time we have been given what could be called a three-cornered fight in the shape of the Front created by the Left, a couple of major Dalit formations and one led by a cine star banding together. This alliance could, technically, spoil AIADMK’s and DMK’s calculations and significantly democratise political power in the state. But will that happen? It seems highly unlikely – I should say impossible – that it will overtake the two large Dravidar formations to form a government.

Irrespective of what happens, it is true that our hero-worship, especially the display of unabashed mother-worship that Jayalalitha receives from her followers, has made us the laughing stock of the country. Therefore before we drown ourselves in the arithmetic of these elections, let us try understanding some aspects of this DMK/AIADMK loyalty.

Analysts relate Tamil Nadu’s electoral behavior to caste-based politics, “freebie culture” and pre-election bribery that has become the norm in the state. They also imply that the Tamil people in general are gullible illiterates who have been taken for a ride for a very long time. These are the easy answers but is there more to it?

At the base of our choices lies an essential cultural fact: linguistically and racially, we see ourselves as different from the rest of the country. Tamil is so different from most Indian languages that the people of Tamil Nadu do feel different, special – and isolated. The intentionality of the rest may or may not be to see us differently – and let me as a Tamil identify myself as a Tamil – but that it happens even today and quite naturally, is true. This only further necessitates the need to establish who we are. We don’t look like most people of India and the texture of our habits, rituals and celebrations are entirely Tamil. How much ever historians and anthropologists may argue the validity of the Aryan-Dravidian divide, under the skin and in the mind of every Tamilian the division exists. It is this socio-cultural reality that brought to the fore the Dravidian movement, and this is one of the reasons the Dravidian parties have taken over politics in Tamil Nadu. In spite of the emergence of so many other Dravidian parties, DMK and AIADMK even today own the Tamil card. May be it is their political lineage that gives them this strangle hold?

Amma’s appeal

Whether we like it or not this distinction also plays a role in the voting pattern of the upper-castes vis-à-vis the others. But this is not crystal clear, since at times convergence takes place due to some complex reasons. Take for instance Jayalalitha. Many forward castes prefer to vote for her and her caste and class has a role to play in this choice, not to forget that she is not seen as anti-Brahminical as M Karunanidhi. But she also has a huge support base among other caste groups. Firstly she is MGR’s heir and therefore the strong Dravida connection is confirmed even if she is upper-caste. Here political identity takes precedence over the individual. There is another paradox that cannot be brushed aside: her fair complexion that defines her upper caste-ness is also a draw. The connection between beauty, honesty, success, trust and whiteness affects all of us. Added to this is the perception of motherhood making distrust almost impossible. Here, we must remember that the “mother” culture is very strong in Tamil-land.

On the other hand, Karunanidhi and team challenge this perception and try their very best to further establish themselves as the real Dravidian representatives. In fact the worship of Jayalalitha is played up subtly as an example for Dravidian subjugation. Whenever the DMK consolidation occurs the balance tilts in its favour. But it is obvious from the recent political statements of M Stalin, that there is a clear shift, even disowning of many of their core principles. The need to appear aspirationally upper caste/class has influenced their move towards embracing a more western looking, business-like and less atheistic approach. Muddled in this is once again the “white” that appears not just in skin but symbolically as upper class power.

But we have to wonder why no other outfit has been able to challenge the DMK and AIADMK. To the credit of both these parties, they have over the years established an electoral base that cuts across caste lines. Though their choice of candidates is still caste-influenced, the parties themselves have a support base that is wider. This cannot be said of most other parties like Pattali Makkal Katchi or Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi. This has reduced their role to being second-class partners. What about the Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party? Here is another twist. Both these national parties have in their ranks very Tamil leaders, yet they will never be considered Dravidian. The strength of their party identity makes it very difficult for their leaders to convince voters that they are truly Tamilian. The Congress and BJP are, let us admit it, seen as parties of Hindi-speaking Northerners.

Screen dreams

Where does cinema fit into all this? After all Tamil Nadu has had chief ministers from the cine-world for the past 50 years. We have to understand this historically, without reducing this to “film-madness”. Tamil cinema and literature were very important tools in influencing people and accelerating the Dravidian movement. The stories that were told via Tamil films were part of the Dravidian philosophy and consequently changed peoples thinking. The novels or short stories that were adapted, the screenplay, song-lyrics were drenched in the Dravida philosophy. This also led to a change in the caste-class participation in cinema influencing everything from acting to the music that captured the hearts of millions. It is here that CN Annadurai, M Karunanidhi and MG Ramachandran created an identity for themselves.

This direct connection between cinema and Tamil Nadu’s socio-politics continued right up to the 1980s. Even though it has moved away in the last few decades, in the psyche of the Tamilian this bond has not been broken. When a cinemagoer watches a film, he/she is unconsciously connecting the political and cultural, film personalities with the power of change. The umbilical link between Tamil politics and cinema is so deep-rooted that even new voters have imbibed this tradition subliminally carrying it forward to the next generation of film stars.

What about the freebie culture? Are people so naïve that they vote based on the gifts they receive from the establishment? This is not gullibility; it is cultural conditioning. In the hierarchy of society, we have constructed a giver-receiver model. This system establishes a giver-taker power syndrome and the gift confirms benevolence as a virtue. On the other side of the scale, the receiver is thankful for the kindness. If you see how politicians distribute these gifts and the frenzy that surrounds these events, you comprehend how political outfits cultivate an environment of competition among those who are beneficiaries, always keeping them in check and consciously positioning themselves as kings and queens. This is only an extension of the landowner-labourer syndrome.

The pre-election money distribution is unfortunately seen only as another gift. The AIADMK and the DMK are masters at this craft. But I am not going to straightjacket citizens that easily. Existing within this bamboozled environment, voters also figure a way to exercise some pressure and pit one gift against another. Yet, they remain within the established condition.

Economic gains

We forget another important aspect about Tamil Nadu. We have never really been at the nadir of economic development; in other words Tamil Nadu has not been a Bihar or UP. In spite of the rampant corruption, the state has moved forward albeit slowly. Crucially reservations have been largely a success story, providing opportunity to so many. These have also kept voters at large, within the DMK/AIADMK ambit.

What have we really lost under these Dravidian giants? The truth is that over the last two decades we have lived under fear. Whether it is the DMK or the AIADMK in power, in matters of freedom and citizens rights, they are not very different. We citizens are mortally afraid of taking them on, scared that gondaas will physically harm us. The cadres of both these parties abuse their strength with great regularity and no police force will come to your aid. Tamil Nadu has been a dictatorial democracy for far too long.

Will these elections change anything? I am not sure they will, but I am certain that in the next decade political powers centres will shift. We are, in my opinion going to witness the downfall of the DMK and the AIADMK resulting in a period of turmoil and uncertainty. What will eventually come out of this upheaval is anybody’s guess, but that this is vital for Tamil Nadu is unquestionable.

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Why even devout Hindus should embrace Ambedkar’s philosophy

The last few weeks have seen the owning, usurping and the embracing of Babasaheb Ambedkar by the political class. He has become by far the most important Indian icon, deeply impacting the voting arithmetic of Indians. This has naturally led the Jai Bhim-haters to soften their stance and put up a facade of respect. The convenience of picking and choosing quotes and events from a person’s life to suit our beliefs, allows us to make Ambedkar everything from a Hindu reformist to a Pakistan hater. The larger canvas of his life experience and evolution is naturally ignored in order to duck assured discomfort. And it is not only electorally dependent politicians who find him essential, even individuals like me cannot but, at the very least, act Bhim-conscious.

Let me first confess, as an ahistorical, upper class, urban citizen, at school and at home, Ambedkar hardly ever figured in any discussion that I was present at. While the Mahatma was all pervading, the only fact reiterated about Ambedkar was the obvious one-liner – the architect of the Indian Constitution. But even that was, at times, undermined. My father & co (ordinary aristocratic citizens!) claimed at private dinner conversations that the name on the Constitution was his, but others put in the real work, meaning educated upper castes and classes – the truly intellectual. I am certain my father and his friends had not listened to, or read, the transcripts of the debates in the Constituent Assembly, and hence their understanding of this great man was extremely limited.

But that is not the point. Privilege makes it very difficult for us to accept that people from lower caste backgrounds can actually be smarter than us. If we come across a few, then they are looked upon as exceptions, but even that credit is taken away. We pat ourselves on our backs for the generosity showered on them; it was us who gave them the luxury of reservation. The problem is that this feeling exists at every step of the class and caste ladder, making collective realisation that much harder.

The commonly held negative opinion on the quality of public services, healthcare or bureaucracy stems from this caste and class discrimination. As a resident of Tamil Nadu I hear this many times in the form of insinuations and innuendos, and point to it for all our societal ills. If only more deserving and meritorious people had been in these positions of power, India would have been a far greater country! The complexity of merit as an idea and affirmative action as a transformational tool is completely ignored.

The human mind is fascinating and always finds ways to justify contradictions by creating contextual spaces and resisting any overlap. One such anomaly is the upper caste Hindu traditionalist’s vociferous debunking of the Aryan invasion in order to further nationalistic unity among the Hindu majority and, at the same time, finding integration with cultures of the lower caste Dravidian struggle. Let me be very clear, public relationships of convenience are very different from socio-emotional co-existence. Deep within these conversations lies Ambedkar’s voice of questioning without the baggage of tradition.

Spiritual inquiry

Ambedkar’s investigations of Hinduism and his expose of what I would like to call abstractive isolation is an essential debate for all. In religious and spiritual dialogue we seek the ideal, the place of awakening, where the laukika – as it is – ceases to exist. All sadhana (practice) hopes for that movement through self-enquiry, ritualistic practice or emotional surrender. In order to move into that state of being it becomes essential to leave behind the real, that being the uncomfortable and irreconcilable. And in realisation, the real we believe becomes crystal clear. A substantial problem that emanates from this line of thought is that by default the economic, political and social discrepancies caused by structures that enable spiritual growth are swept under the carpet. The other issue with spiritualisation of inquiry is that the pure cannot be argued or disputed and is placed beyond the tactile, earthy.

We hear ever so often of people talking about the spiritual as being the higher level of intellectual being than any debate on caste, gender or class – one belonging to the realm of existential freedom, and the other to societal functionality. Which is why we keep both these in separate boxes within ourselves. Ambedkar broke this bubble by revealing the treacherousness of socio-religious structures that oppress even while proclaiming to provide pathways to self-awareness. This is to me as much a questioning of the self as it is of the politics of religion. Ambedkar has asked whether the abstraction that we call brahman is real when we live lives of segregation and differentiation. Does spiritual awareness change how we relate to the world around? Do I help and support people out of pity, or do I really feel that we are equal? Do the religious or spiritual really allow me to erase condescension, or does it want to make more people like me? I think each one of us should dispassionately ask these questions.

Multiple realities

Ambedkar questioned the foundations of Hindu religious and spiritual institutions. The demolition of the Hindu religious strangleholds is what he sought, but even Hindu devout have to site Ambedkar within their belief. Can someone remain religious, be aware of its pitfalls and yet move beyond its limitations? I know Ambedkarites will see this as religious appropriation, undermining the basic foundation of his thought. But it is important that we allow for this possibility, if not we will be enforcing another form of intellectual tyranny.

There have to be many Ambedkars and even a pious Hindu Ambedkarite is a possibility. I have to be careful here! Am I converting Ambedkar into a Hindu philosopher? Another appropriation? Certainly not, but the honesty of his enquiry, strength of conviction and tenacity to stand up against the powerful force me out of my comfort zone, bringing me face-to-face with who I am – including my faith and philosophy. I may choose to embrace Ambedkar and Rama, and allow myself solace in this contradiction!

At the other end, there is great resistance to non-Dalit Ambedkar voices, unless they conform to the language and tone of actual Dalit arguments. The empowered will never know how it feels to be an outcaste. This makes our entry into this dialogue problematic right from the beginning. But that does not mean that any non-Dalit who enters the fray is twisting its soul. Keeping aside the frauds, all those participating in this process are also doing it for personal reasons. There is an inner need to introspect, understand, feel and contribute that powers us. This is important, since it reveals an urge to change, and it is this spirit that creates collectives. We will make mistakes, at times be insensitive, even naïve but not insincere. Allow the privileged to come to social understandings from their own experiences and let them grapple with it, only then will the resultant sensitivity be true.

The fight for social equality has to come from varied voices. There will be disagreements and clashes but let us not reject multiple realities as long as the heart is in the right place. I was once asked whether I have the right to speak for a Dalit. I can speak for anyone as long as I am willing to understand the realities that make that person. And even after that learning I cannot be who he is and will never experience his living trauma. I have to realise him in and within myself. It is this internalisation that can change me and this takes time. Therefore yes, I will join my voice to the Dalit voice and do so, in all humility, knowing that I can never really know.

We should be thankful that Ambedkar lives among so many different people. Whether he is loved, eulogised, hated or decried, the fact that he is a consciousness gives us the strength that we are still a vibrant society. The moment he disappears from our midst we become truth-less.

Originally written for

The Sri Sri syndrome: What we should not forget about so-called gurus and godmen

Even as the high-decibel criticism of students from Jawaharlal Nehru University and Hyderabad University continues unabated, the riverside celebration of “Hindu-India” curated by the self-anointed Sri Sri has been forgotten. It has dissolved into the polluted air that hangs over the Yamuna. This so-called guru initially proclaimed that he would pay no fine or charge towards the environmental restoration. There was of course no question of his being accused of being anti-national or harming the flood-plains of a river. In fact, he was applauded. The certification came from none other than the prime minister himself.

We live in ridiculous times.

The defence of the event, violent in ecological terms, extravagant in financial and social terms and shockingly wasteful in terms of time, energy and sheer man-hours, has come not in terms of a reasoned explanation but in low and mean personal accusations levelled against environmental activists, finger-pointing towards the excesses by other religious groups and the reduction of every criticism into the pettiest forms of party politics. Serious discourse is, of course, lost.

Old phenomenon

But none of this is really new to us.

Religious showmen have had their way with politicians and governments for decades. Many have had numerous cases against them, with accusations ranging from sexual abuse to land grabbing and encroachment of reserve forests. But how many have resulted in convictions? Unmindful, these gurus continue their work.

In making such individuals stronger in recent times, I think two contrasting social movements have played a major role. One is better known as a model and the other as an ideology. The capitalist model has shown itself to be Machiavellian and the communist, oppressive. Navigating the in-between has not been an easy task, affecting everyone, the landless and daily wage earners being the worst hit. People need reassurance and voila, the guru grants their wish. “Things will get better for you, just do this, this and that,” he says.

At the same time, social power equations have considerably changed. The traditional misogynist, high-caste, high-class power groups are being challenged and all those who took their control for granted are now fragile. They seek refuge and security from such gurus. New socio-political tsars are aligning themselves with similar gurus in a new nexus that provides them the much-needed aura of a different order, of socio-cultural respectability. The only beneficiaries in all this are the godmen.

The good work argument

Nay-sayers like myself are many times asked one question, the obvious one. What about the social contributions, the self-help groups and institutions that these godmen have created or the schools they support, private hospitals they build, their focus on wholesome living, organic foods and the huge number of their volunteers who help during natural calamities? All this is undeniable, but how is this any different from the corporate social responsibility initiatives that even the most insensitive corporations spearhead? Even politicians and political outfits are involved in such activities.

Are we so innocent that we do not recognise the obvious brand-building, image-establishing part of the social activity agenda? Let us not treat their work any differently from that of a mega-corporate. Godmen are good ad-men. The “godly” makers of good hospitals and schools do not deserve an extra ring on the halo around their heads any more than makers of good medical equipment, cars or tractors.

The larger agenda pushes hazy spiritual institutions into the hard social sector – a huge gain for the religious orders. “Good” happens for society, of course, but then this is not due to institutional – or the godman’s – selflessness. It is because of the volunteers, who act selflessly, with hardly a hint of personal gain. The godman showers his blessings only to gather a harvest of great socio-political and financial power. There is also a deeper point: these “ships of good deeds” may not show it right now but when they appear from beyond the horizon, they may well be carrying undeclared toxic cargo inside.

Political targeting

Unfortunately in today’s times, real and honest social, political and environmental activists who have been walking the by-lanes and tortuous roads for years are branded and brushed aside as nuisance makers. Even worse, they are politically targeted, like in the case of the Green Peace campaigner Priya Pillai.

I find it very interesting that Christian schools, hospitals and colleges are all seen as conversion platforms, but none of the initiatives by the Hindu swamis are spoken of in a similar vein. These Hindu gurus are also converters – maybe not to a religion but certainly to a cult. Ashrams are recruiting grounds, indoctrination centres where a cult is created around a god-man/woman.

We have to ask ourselves a far more serious question. Why have we, as a people become vulnerable, so pliant, so completely subservient to these master-indoctrinators? Don’t get me wrong, the Sri Sris and Sathgurus may well be wonderful yoga teachers – and others religious scholars or ritualists. But when did these individuals become philosophers and mystics? It is this crossover that needs questioning. Somewhere during this shift, we have elevated them from the temporal to the celestial, the human to the super-human bordering on the divine and in the process subjugated our “god-given” gift of intellection to them. We have given up our “self” and its ability to seek, gifting it to someone else. It is time we reclaimed our minds.

Just be aware

Here, I could be asked: “But what is so wrong if I need their help and support?” Absolutely nothing, but can we all be aware and I mean truly aware of the maze that we are entering, the mirage of clarity that is presented and that in the end we are most likely to be as lost as we thought we were when we joined?

In the ashram we become one more character in the grand Broadway production. After hundreds of appearances we are inseparable from the character we act out. We may feel “full” and in-peace while inside, so much so that we are not self-critical. But once we leave the show, there is very little to hold on to and the question of who we are looms large over our heads. The moment we separate ourselves from these gurus, “realisation” vanishes and reality takes its place. Why? How does an ardent devotee then become an apostate or even a traitor?

Our unhappy land has seen thinkers who have urged that we free our minds of any baggage, to find pathways that we need to explore for ourselves. They have not asked us to emotionally sign up for a long-term assignment nor manipulated us into doing so. They have not tried to trap us in a spider’s web, where at the end of a three-day course we are asked to offer guru dakshina to the supreme leader. They have not asked us to take home a brain washing package.

There is no doubt that even today amidst these operators there are institutions and teachers who propagate various ways of religious living with integrity, sans any fluff or artificial flavours. But many are delusionists, who trap us in their net of charisma, mind play and clever one-liners. We forget our mind and consequently the questions that trouble us, and parrot those that the guru choreographs us into asking. There is of course great variety on offer: Some cater to the traditional Vedic crowd with their yagnas, pujas and tantric gesticulations. Then you have the ones who are most eloquent in Queen’s English, modern in the upper-middle class sense, ethnic to perfection, combining nuclear science, quantum mechanics and Vedanta with the greatest of ease. Apart from many shades of grey in-between.

It is time we recognised the institution of spirituality in India for what it is – a high-tech commercial enterprise – and these gurus for what they are – self-appointed chief executive officers who provide products to the consumer.

I will end with a practical tip as suited to our time-short times: If their products please you, even enable some change in you, go ahead and use them. But know them to be assembly line manufactures Made In India for Trade, not Transcendence. That is where the contact should start and that is where it should end.

Don’t let them hijack your mind and soul.

Originally written for

Why we must love our land and not romanticise the nation state

Let me begin with a declaration.

I am not a nationalist. I am not even patriotic about this state created national identity. I refuse to be an unquestioning loyal servant of our political form. I am not wowed by the symbols of the State. I certainly don’t enjoy watching the Republic Day parade where every type of killing machine is on grand display. I don’t believe that the death sentence should be awarded even to terrorists. Yet, I will say that I belong to this land and have an equal right to its embrace and no one, and I mean absolutely no one, including the highest courts can take that away from me. That sense of belonging is in me and will live until the day I pass on. But I will not have someone demanding my love, my salute, my tribute for his notion of India.

So, who am I and where do I belong?

Right to question

In the last few weeks we have seen the deadliest venom spewed on students who have expressed a different idea of their land and its purpose. Beyond the legal arguments, we have seen rank hatred being hurled and that needs challenging. We must ask: What is the nature of the love that is being demanded from all those who hold that white voter identity card or blue passport? Is it love at all, or just a selfish protectionism, violent assertion, an unthinking stone-walling of those who question the very foundation of our political construct? But is it not just this kind of discourse that allows for a revaluation, even rejection of “what is”? We are told that these questioning people are negative, bringing disgrace to our country, contributing nothing to nation building. Where does the blueprint for this building come from? It evolves from difficult, uncomfortable, disturbing questions raised by voices of varied textures and tones. I, for one, certainly believe, that we cannot move ahead without their words questioning the meaning in our sentences. This is openness to receiving without anger, inhibition or confrontation.

Let us also not reduce this to Voltaire’s cliché on freedom of expression. This is a deeper, subtler enquiry into the nature of belonging to a nation. We need to go beyond the right to speech and explore the thoughts behind expression. Born from this is also humility towards what we believe as being sacrosanct and essential. There will be very many pitches, each providing for a different insight. And unless we make an attempt to receive everyone, we are lifeless.

Creating the ‘other’

Why are we unable to listen to voices without being reactionist? What are we so scared about? I am baffled. The students in Hyderabad Central University and Jawaharlal Nehru University did not at any point take up arms and attack anyone. They did not demand the killing of any human being or the destruction of any natural assets, yet we want them removed. But the corporates and conglomerates of the world are allowed to strip our land with state sanction and displace people. And religious bullies continue to spread hate among people.

Where did this madness for national pride come from? By drawing dotted lines around us and separating us from the rest we have all been forced to assert an identity of pride, pride itself being an imbalanced emotion. The students at Hyderabad and JNU are not anti-national – whatever that may mean – but let us suppose, for the sake of argument that they are, I don’t see a problem. They are not anti-people, anti-life, anti-nature, anti-love, anti-compassion or anti-welfare. We need to seriously ask ourselves what we are looking for in our co-inhabitants. Isn’t an inhuman nationalist worse than an empathetic anti-national? Take one look at many of those who today drum their loyalty to the Indian nation and you will see a religiously sectarian, casteist, male-chauvinist who cares little for the poor and marginalised. Any active involvement of theirs in social upliftment comes from the position of charity or a misuse of that for advancing their own divisiveness.

What keeps us safe?

Let us love our land, not romanticise the nation state as the insider-outsider dichotomy built into the latter’s DNA. This separation operates as much within its borders as it does beyond. It is to the credit of our founders that they recognised this problem and tried their very best to address its structural complexity. But the debate continues and should. Our Constitution has given us some remarkable things. But there is nothing absolute or final about a document that allows amendments to keep it abreast of the times, of life!

Political parties have only worsened the situation by twisting people’s ideas into party positions. The BJP, Congress and the rest are incapable of seeing anything beyond their own noses but will use every opportunity to create confusion, manipulate minds and weaken the quality of the debate that normal people want. It is also true, that we live in a society where few are willing to listen to political questions that emanate beyond party outfits.

The other dimension that has been added to this shouting and counter-screaming is pitting the sacrifice made by the armed forces against questions being asked by students. Mahendra Singh Dhoni and actors like Mohanlal have unfortunately used the death of soldiers to trivialise dissent. Their sacrifices can never be forgotten or diminished, yet I am wearied by the argument that we sleep safe at night only because someone patrols our borders, for truth that it is, it is not the whole truth. Sleep settles over us at night because someone called the Indian peasant is growing our cereals, someone called the line engineer and manual scavenger is keeping our water and drainage pipes going, someone is handling the dangerous chemicals that make our paints safe, someone cleans our streets of all the garbage we patriots keep heaping on them, someone is fighting for the rights of the downtrodden and because our teachers share generously and policemen and policewomen guard our roads selflessly. And, let us not forget, we find rapture in the morning and repose at night because someone called an artist sings or dances for our happiness. Every member of society helps us sleep safely and happily and no one can be placed on a lower or higher pedestal. There is also another side to any country’s fighting machine that we cannot glorify. That which keeps us safe, threatens others, does it not? I refuse to sanctify the bomb-dropping jet and the flame-throwing tank.

Humanity above all

I belong to this land because of the air, fragrance, earth, sounds, languages, music, dance, drama, rituals, cuisine, unsaid words, smiles, quirks, jokes, habits, battles, inequalities and sharing that make me who and what I am. All this exists beyond the state. This is my land, my people and my life. My “here” is not bound by the homogenising tag that makes for an Indian citizen – whether of the ordinary native, or OCI or NRI variety. My land is fluid not static, constantly self-renewing, self-defining, leaving me free to sing any song. There is no question that the state has facilitated my living, but the state itself comes from the experiences that I have described above and therefore it cannot take away who I am. The state is not a privilege gifted to us, it is built on the understanding, questioning and framing of what already exists. If the state forgets its reason for existence then it needs to be, and will be, challenged.

Tagore, who gave us our national anthem, also said:

“I will not buy glass for the price of diamonds. I will never allow patriotism to triumph over humanity as long as I live.”

Let us not destroy life by succumbing to the State.

Originally written for

As hope floats for LGBT rights, it is not just the law that needs to change

While describing physical relationships between two individuals, we use many expressions to describe the “act”. The clinical term is of course sexual intercourse. As an impersonal biological need, we call it “sex”, but to describe the intensely passionate experience that it is, the phrase used is “making love”.

Every time we use these phrases, we picture in our mind’s eye we a man and a woman playing their pre-scripted, definite sexual roles to erotic effect. We are verbal in our descriptions of the experience – clinical, physiological, not to forget commercial, everything except creative. In fact, we are most un-creative in what we seek to conjure; only contexts and liberties vary.

We are incapable of removing our limited and limiting selves from the bonds of what we believe are our respective parts in the unfolding phenomenon. We see ourselves as the divine cast of a primordial play, the successors of Adam and Eve, Purusha and Prakriti, primeval and pure.

I have so far used “we” without batting an eyelid. In fact, the thought never occurred to me that “we” is discriminative. Not for a minute do “we”, so-called straight people, imagine other sexual possibilities as being natural. While the Supreme Court of this nation has opened the possibility for the decriminalisation of sex among the LGBT community, it is time we look within, question ourselves and de-stigmatise people of various sexual physicalities and orientations. The change in the law is a fundamental right but a change in the minds of the majority is a fundamental need.

Our delusions

Are we heterosexual men and women really the “pure”? This is a lie, a mirage that we have created as a control mechanism to enforce a sexual regime in society. Honestly speaking, we are all, in various degrees, both man and woman, and no weighing scale can quantify the tilt.

Every one of us lives with thoughts and feelings that crisscross sexual identities, from attractions to people of our own sex, to fantasies of what we may call wild behaviour. In what is a complex negotiation between our emotional-sexual urges and our social conditionality, we strike a balance that pushes certain wants into the deepest reaches of our minds while others explode in an orgasmic effervescence.

Ardhanarishwara/Maadhorubhaagan is symbolic not just of the queer community, he-she represents humanity – we are all Ardha. This celebration of the beauty of who we are has to be on the basis of sexual realities. Nothing in life is straight. Creativity is a nuance, an in-between state that sways to multi-directional winds and the human being is no different. Our each slant allows for another shade of colour. We are all gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender.

The dislike, bordering on disgust exhibited towards the LGBT community is only an extension of the misogyny that drives societies. Having emotionally and physically subjugated women for eons, the “others” among us who are closer to “her” are instinctively rejected. And when “she” wants to be one of us, she is an aberration, one that destroys our image of the woman.

Defining normal

Gays are seen as inadequate men and weak, like women. Lesbians are in our minds nothing more than a threesome sexual fantasy. Transgenders who want to be women are a taunt to manhood and if they become men, then they are grotesque caricatures of machismo.

Men can be ugly as hell but they will regard transpersons as being, by definition, a distortion. They will turn their faces away from a heterosexual woman who is muscular as being man-like. The woman primarily has to be eye candy for straight male consumption. Reading these lines must make stomachs churn, not because we are numerically large and “proper”, but because we are brutishly vulgar.

The numerical strength of any one group cannot define the idea of what is an acceptable or normal condition. The dominant cannot and should not dictate homogeneity. The normal is the diverse, the spectacularly different body languages, features, smiles and embraces.

Time for reform

To begin with, we must remove this duality in perception – them and us and acknowledge that this also comes from religious baggage. The hate-ridden narratives that all religion and their caretakers have convinced us as being the truths have to be questioned.

The argument that “they” and “their” tendencies are against the order of nature is violent. And unless the believers force the powers at the helm, this story will not change. I will go even further and say that as a ritual, we need to re-discover the splendour of marriage. Its sanctity lies in the promise of love, faith, surrender and pleasure, and not in the sex or sexual orientation of the individuals. Every religion must erase from its marriage rituals the pleas for healthy progeny. Even the gods, be it Jesus, Allah or Rama need to be seen with newer sexual mindsets.

We need modern religio-social storytellers. Not those who find one little incident in a religious text and use that as approval for diverse sexual orientation. That goes nowhere, because there will always be the mythology hunter who will find another story that rejects this interpretation. What was said in the past must remain there. We need to say new things, experience people afresh. We need religions to come to life today, from today.

The idea of equals

But why this obsession with sexuality as being the primary mechanism of creating identity? This is the fundamental flaw in our living. It is the body that restricts our ability to share, cramping our mind. We have to see man, woman, heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender as minds and hearts, as emotional and intellectual beings, as creative spirits. We need to hear their music, absorb their dances, and listen to their words. Their body is only an expression of who they are and the beauty lies in the way the body crystallises the subtle and the brash. In this realization, all of a sudden shape, size, touch, movement and sexuality at once become stunning and normal.

The LGBT community is not “out there” in battle-array to disrupt our perfect world; they are as perfect and let me add, as imperfect as anyone else. We are the ones who have separated, exploited and treated them with less dignity that one can ever imagine. And it is time this stops. This is certainly not going to be easy since we are still uncomfortable with the idea that we are all equal. And it is not just discomfort, we feel threatened, there is palpable fear.

For thousands of years we were the standard, but now we are being told that there is no real gold sexual standard. This shift in the sexual self-perception is not going to be easy. So let us accept the discomfort and fear, but enable its disappearance by consciously acknowledging of how unreasonbly we have treated one of our own. Laws have to change but more than those incomprehensible words written on a rigid document, we have to transform and transcend.

Originally written for

A suicide note and the debate on bullfighting reveal our distorted reality

This is going to be a patchy column – one that does not tell a story expressing a reasoned single line of thought. It will be disjointed, reading like a stream of consciousness. Maybe there is a connection, but does that really matter? At times I wonder whether in wanting to speak or write sensibly, we get so obsessed with making the correct, accurate, error-free argument, that the seed experience is lost. As human beings, we move emotionally from one space to another, taking time along, stringing together a life of experience. I hope this piece does the same.

Human sacrifice

When I read Rohith Vemula’s suicide note, I said to myself, “This is the most aesthetic expression on human conflict that I have ever come across” and I felt that instinctively in the most profound sense. It was not just the gut-wrenching, hard-hitting truth in the words of the note, but the larger philosophical imports that they carried.

Every word is real and tangible for millions around the world, the privileged and the unprivileged. It is not just about Rohith’s own mental state; it speaks to us about what it means for a person from the fringes of society’s borders to enter and reside within the heavily guarded fortress of the traditional insider.

Some come in and make it their life’s agenda to become like us, while a few hope to remain as they are, yet play our game. That is usually a losing battle. If you want to belong, you have to be a damned good actor. If not, you are the troublemaker, the one who is not grateful for the favours we have generously granted. To become one among the establishment you have to sacrifice yourself, purge a part of your being. The cost of erasing oneself is only paid by the individual.

When we put in rules, we want to keep the divergent out. We want only those who are just like us to come in – homogeneous excellence is what we call it. There are those other rules too – the unwritten, unsaid ones – that live within the darkest reaches of our mind, those that we use to assess people by colour, race, caste, age and gender.

The moment we meet someone, we are ticking or crossing many boxes in our minds. Do we really believe that the people being put through this word-less inquisition are unaware of this practice? They, on their part, manipulate our covert system by playacting the role to the best of their ability. When Rohith Vemula says there is no real love without hurt, is he speaking about this? Has this social order contributed to that emptiness he felt? Like he has said, has the value of a man been reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility? This is not just about Rohith, but about all those that need to negotiate the powers at the helm, be it the lower caste and classes, women or LGBT. We do not listen to people; we only offer freebies, concessions and favours since it is “our” image that matters.

Ritual sport

Can we tame the bull or not, ask many from the interiors of Tamil Nadu. But we ask a second question: is it a just, equal fight? And then go on to dictate the rules of the game. No hurting the bull, forcing rods into its anus, stuffing alcohol down its throat or blowing chilli powder into its eyes. That it how it was in the past, exclaim the elders. This is our culture, a traditional ritual of masculinity with socio-economic relevance. It is its present commercialised version that has made this “culturally rich contest” an act of violence.

But who created and proliferated these commercial monsters? We did. The same ones who today find the sport ghastly and the participants uncivilised. When we, with sound liberal reasons oppose the idea of banning beef and do not object to the idea of Halal, can we argue that jallikattu even in its old avatar is barbaric? Can we afford to overlook the contradiction in opposing jallikattu and forgetting that numerous membranophones such as the tabla and mrdangam use the skin of goats, cows and buffaloes? Should we ban them since they are constructed for aesthetic pleasure and not sustenance? Let us be aware of the reality in all its nuances.

Where, how and who draws these lines? It is social power consortiums. They exist across institutional bodies. Therefore the judge, the administrative office, politician, the elite upper caste rarely pass judgements taking into consideration the complexities that force a contestation between cultural heritage and animal protection; it is their own socio-strata driven morality that guides action.

Conversations on animal rights and cultural traditions must emanate without the compulsion to establish power or control over society. We must ignore the whisperers who cloud our mind. There is no perfect road or approach; it is another quest for direction, not necessarily resolution. We can nevertheless choose a path of enquiry that is not about ourselves, that which seeks a rediscovery of a cultural core rooted in ethical living – a cohabitation that is not stuck in false dichotomies such as the cruel jallikattu aficionado versus the compassionate animal activist.


And then there are people like me, today’s privileged active liberal. Not too long ago, many of us were very different people, unconcerned about the others, with one clear and solid goal in life: making it big, larger than life. And for me that was becoming star musician. I dreamt of auditoriums brimming with people jostling for space just to get a glimpse of me, hoping to hear one line of a raga through my voice. I was intoxicated, always in an inebriated state that engulfed me even more once I attained that coveted position. I was far removed from the realities around, even within my own functional circle. I was not ignorant, just plain insensitive. I may not have pushed people over but a “second person nudge” was not beyond my reach. I saw relationships change, become bitter, but there was always a justification.

But I seem to have changed. Today, I speak for hours and write pages about equality, humanity and beauty. I am not the same person. Or am I? Is all this also about achieving another goal, to be known and perceived as a reformer, liberal, deeply thoughtful human being. Are all the words real to me, or are they substance-less sounds suspended in vacuum? Are they said to fulfil my own selfish need to sound socially and politically aligned with the people I want to be seen with? In the process whom am I now pushing on to the pavement? Whom am I not listening to? Maybe I have just not changed one bit, it is still all about me…and has always been that way.

We have constructed relationships with people and the planet on the basis of self-gratification. This includes satisfying all that we want from the various circles of relationships; the personal, social, economic and political. Goodness is a favour, your use is defined by my culture and my rules are always for my betterment – if you join the bandwagon you will benefit.

But if we want to seek a dialogue, we need to ask the following questions. Can there be giving which is not about “me” giving? Can there be a debate on animal rights that is neither based on our own cultural mooring or modern notions of animal welfare? And can a discourse on the subaltern not begin with condescension? If we truly can, then there is hope that someday we will experience the stardust in all of creation.

Originally written for

The dress law for temples is just another tool to rein in ‘provocative’ women

As the new year dawned, Justice S Vaidyanathan’s prescribed dress code for Hindus visiting temples came into force in Tamil Nadu. These were new rules, amounting to an “apparel law”. The “ruled” attire for men visiting temples, hereafter, is a shirt with pants or upper cloth with pyjamas or a dhoti, while women are to be in a sari, half sari or a churidhar with upper cloth. For children, the law is “any fully covered dress”. The order and the concept of an order on such a matter have been difficult enough to accept. But for me, what has been an uncomfortable reality is the fact that Hindus have more or less accepted this diktat, and find it most appropriate.

Dress codes as such are not new. “Customs and traditions,” according to the 1947 Tamil Nadu Temple Entry Authorisation Act, determine entry permissions. Temples in Kerala, for instance, enforce the rule that men need to be bare-chested and women are expected to wear a mundu.

Though the rules are directed towards all devotees, it is clear from the details that the target is the modern woman. It is more than obvious that all of these conditions are intrinsically misogynistic, further establishing the sexist notion of “distracting” women. This court order is no doubt another enforcement of puritanical notions set in place by one gentleman.

Determining what’s appropriate

“Common” people have spoken up in justification of the words. The words in their statements supporting this order include “sanctity” and “modesty”, both only reiterating my understanding of the situation. All this brings to mind moving pictures from mythological Tamil films, of the pure and saintly Vishwamitra being lured by the seductress Menaka, dressed in a shimmering tightly-fitted dress highlighting her physical attributes. We often hear Pravachanakars turn these stories into metaphors, but even there the woman is the corrupter.

The fear is that unless there are rules in place, women would enter temples wearing “all kinds of odd clothes” such as shorts, mini-skirts and other Western clothes. These, it is presumed, will arouse the baser instincts in “poor, vulnerable men” and violate the sanctity of the place. Borne out of twisted traditional ideas of sexual control and violence, this is indeed an extension of the commonly held belief that women who “expose themselves” invite rape and molestation.

The 1947 Act referring to customs and traditions is against equality, which is the basic spirit of our Constitution. Almost every tradition and custom is a combination of patriarchy, caste and class. There is no doubt that the practice of men entering the sanctum without an upper cloth is at least in part linked to caste discrimination. In interior villages, even today we see lower caste men remove their loosely knotted headgear while speaking to a person of higher caste or class. If we do not question these cultural hangovers, how do we ensure equality? Therefore, to allow every temple to prepare its own set of guidelines according to its own traditions is no different from uppity clubs demanding that individuals are allowed only in shoes.

But what is “appropriate”, and how does one determine this? This is the difficult question that does not have a “right” answer. But let us step back further. What is our relationship with our bodies and sexuality? Enforced morality is borne out of our inability to embrace ourselves as sexual beings with intense desires that transcend the boundaries of socially created relationships. To avoid this emotional turbulence, we have “attired order” among other things. But the matter is not so simple, entangled in this are more complex barbed wires.

The man is seen as the uncontrollable sexual machine and by the laws of nature is corruptible. The woman exists to satisfy “his” needs and aware of his inherent weakness, a conniving enticer. When people speak of distraction in the context of the temple, they are referring to this entrapment that women are said to practice, whether by design or not being beside the point. And, therefore, clothing control is a tool to rein in the provocative woman and support the weak man.

Role of religion

Where does religion fit into all this? God is the perfect mechanism to establish this very idea and religious organisations across cultures play that role perfectly. Therefore, it is no surprise that we want to remove any idea of sexuality from the precincts of the temple, even though sculpted voluptuous women stare at us at every turn. Women being titillated by the carved broad shouldered, muscled dvarapalakas are of course of no consequence.

Ritual practices within the temple celebrate sex, but we should remember that sexual desire among the gods is pure while that which happens between homosapiens is neech. The tragedy is that this canvas is a creation of the powerful male (not gender-specific) who has altered the images at different times to suit his own convenience.

The larger issue is therefore far removed from the temple itself. What we have failed to create is a society where we respect our bodies and build relationships on trust, an environment where sexual desire is not suppressed and placed on the lowest step of nature, but absorbed into the understanding of each other irrespective of gender. Instead, we have made the woman the physically weak sexual object who provides pleasure to the insatiable man. And religion is one mechanism through which we manipulate her. I do not see any sanctity in this construction.

It is the same faith that we need in human interactions that should guide our relationship with god, and this bond will naturally determine how we present ourselves to him or her – not what men believe is appropriate or comfortable in their eyes. We stand before Rama, Kamakshi or Siva in a rapture that is as much about our own physical self, as it is about our belief. We admire Nataraja for the exquisite sexual imagery that human creativity bestowed upon him and surrender to the cosmic strength he gives us. This all-encompassing experience is the temple.

Varying degrees

Such controls are not confined to Hinduism. Islam and Christianity have their own customs and practices with regard to personal attire. I was once given a harsh shelling by a woman from the Islamic faith about the hijab. She convincingly argued that in every society, it is the man who determines the amount of skin that a woman can reveal, and therefore the hijab gives her the ability to take control of her body and deprive man of his control and consequently pleasure.

But what seems like a strong feminist statement ignores the fact the enforcement of the hijab is borne out of misogyny. There are enough cases of women being forced to wear the hijab by their families. Free will itself is not at all that liberated, and it high time we understand this nuance. And here I must say this: we the “majority Hindus” in this country constantly speak about the hijab as an oppressive tool, forgetting that Hinduism forces similar conditionalities on women in the form of the ghunghat, metti, and mangal sutra. There is also the unquestioningly accepted practice that menstruating women should not enter the temple. These are all abusive in nature, it is only the degrees that vary.

While the Acharyas, Mullahs, and other priests and judges are busy demanding sexual propriety, they ignore the class discriminations that choice of attire brings forth. No one seems to care that people flaunt the most expensive and branded clothes at the temple and create unfair comparison, jealousy, sadness and discrimination. The sight of legs affects us much more.

Originally written for

Chennai must look beyond the flood relief spectacle

The Chennai flood has left a watermark. It speaks of the heights the swollen waters had reached. And, ironically, the depths it is now touching, as well. Without fail, almost on an everyday basis, we see photographs of Chennai’s leading industrialists and businessmen including those wanting to be regarded as ‘leading’ posing with ‘Amma’ handing over cheques of 1 crore and above towards the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund. Within a week we have turned a tragedy into a political, financial and branding exercise.

Knowing very well the openness of India’s political leaders to flattery and, equally, their vengefulness, business houses have very little choice but to use this moment to earn brownie points and – let us not forget – benefits. Donations such as these earn tax rebates. How many of the donors are going to say ‘This is our contribution and we are not going to claim a tax rebate on it’? These donations are, therefore, not entirely about the ‘dharma of giving’. Nor are they entirely about pleasing the political power centre. No one seems to find the use of donations as tax breaks, in these times of need, to be poor in taste and worse in ethics. As one hand offers the cheque the other quietly accepts the rebate, one that these large companies can for sure forgo. But nevertheless the drama plays out unquestioned. World over we have built tax regimes that use tax breaks as ‘bribes’ to encourage contributions to larger social causes. Then there is the publicity generated from this show of generosity for both the corporate and the Chief Minister. This is a corporate-political coup, one in which the real happenings are forgotten and savvy philanthropy holds sway. There is always the counter argument that publicity is a much necessary component to ‘giving’ since it in turn inspires others to do the same. There is some truth in this, but so often giving ‘in the spotlight’ turns into ‘basking in the limelight’.
We, the people look at the amounts on these cheques with our mouths wide open and our respect for our city-based businessmen and women soars, reassured that the corporate world has responded to this crisis. But there is more. And it is more than sad. All this wonderment, dullens our minds to a very important truth. If we examine the origins of the ‘unprecedented flood’, we will see almost at once that it was not just what the skies were doing but what was happening on the earth. One major contributor to all that led to the collapse of our ‘urban settlement’ we call Chennaipattinam, was the thoughtless and limitless growth of industries, private and public the pollutants they have discharged into our land and water. For how long and with what abandon have the giants giving their giant cheques been a factor in the devastation caused by Chennai’s inability to receive and hold water in its tanks, ponds, water-bodies and wetlands?

There seems to be one unwritten agreement among business houses. They are all part of corporate associations such as CII or FICCI, which are basically ‘unions’ they use as lobbying platforms. Companies will never come out and hold a compatriot-member accountable unless the law of the land convicts him or his actions affects their own interests. Their silence allows for the exploitation of people and environments. These cheques therefore mean nothing unless the industries individually and through a collective voice look beyond their own business interests and say ‘Our development methodology has been at fault; we must all take a new look at it.’ What is needed more than cheques, is corrective action. No amount of outreach activities can replace honest empathetic living.

And what about us, the ‘ordinary’ citizens of Chennai, where do we go from here? We have all done our bit, haven’t we? We packed food, sourced much needed relief material, even rescued people. Now that it is done and we feel wonderful about ourselves, is it only time now to do what status quoists famously advise – to ‘ move on’? And in any case what does ‘moving on’ really mean? Are we going to casually leave behind the hurt, bruising, suffering, loss of livelihood and health that we were witness to? Time will heal and memories will fade we are told. But I don’t want these horrible memories to dissolve. Once that happens we slide back into being ruthless selfish consumers. We use people around us and build utilitarian relationships where everyone is a mere enabling tool to satiate our needs. But what I want and how I go about getting it impacts people and lands that I may never know exist. It is not only land sharks that are to blame for the destruction of our Eri’s and marshlands. For many of us these spaces did not matter. Those living in ivory towers believed that the disappearance of natural bodies will not affect them, after all money can buy anything. We the empowered are constantly putting pressure on living spaces within the city forcing prices to rise, consequently leading to the uncontrolled expansion of the city. The slum of course is an eyesore, one that should be erased the way we stamp out an anthill. The legal and the illegal are used by the powerful for their own ends, the poor always being on the side of illegality. The politician only takes advantage of who we are, a society of corrupt self-serving power brokers.

As a ‘person of Chennai’ I need to, at the critical juncture, change my mind-map of the city. It can no longer be limited to my geo-stationary position and functionality. Space is unbounded; we have carved out varied shapes, pushing people into matrices, social, financial and political hierarchy being the determinants. This manipulation needs to be addressed if we want to avert another rain-related or cyclone-driven crisis. Chennai to me must hereafter mean every narrow road, kuppam, housing board settlement and fishing village that dots its coast. The fruit seller I pass everyday en route my fifteenth floor air-conditioned cabin must become more than just another face on the street. A construction of a flyover must not only be about transport convenience and job creation. It must also be seen as a more-than-likely cause for environmental degradation, waterbody-strangulation, forced migration and unemployment. After seeing heaps of waste on our streets will I realize that my waste does not just go away? It is only removed from my sight and dumped in places where people who ‘don’t matter’ live. They suffer the consequences of my avariciousness, forcing them to scavenge through my rubbish for just one square meal. And let us please see this as clearly as we see ‘that’ garbage heap: the lack of awareness about indiscriminate consumption and waste disposal is not a problem of the uneducated mass; it is the educated rich class. It is that which needs to take so much more blame. We have created an aspirational living model that is inherently abusive. Culturally too we have to rediscover our identity. Culture moulds the way we think, feel, experience and respond and therefore a fundamental shift is essential. The Gana songs inspired by Kunangudi Mastan Sahib sung by a Dalit daily-wage worker living on the banks of the Cooum river and a Tyagaraja kirtana rendered by a Mylapore Brahmin Carnatic musician must live equitably within all of us.

I have heard many proudly proclaim that Chennai is back on its feet. But which Chennai are we talking about? The one that exists between Alwarpet and Besant Nagar or the one that exists in the irrelevant by-lanes of Vyasarpadi, Manali, Mudichur and Nesapakkam? Things are normal for whom? There are scores of people still battling the financial and emotional trauma of the floods. Heading back to work is not a choice, it is the unfortunate compulsion of their reality. Normalcy is only a convenient expression used by the privileged to justify their insensitivity. We are a long way from any semblance of it.
The drowning of Chennai was a watershed moment, not just for the inhabitants of its landscape. It revealed the undeniable inter-connectedness of all our lives. The Chennai disaster was man-made, some even call it mass-murder by sterile, synthetic people. It is an environmental, political and social issue but at its very core it is about human nature. The sooner we begin living with this awareness, the greater chance of transformation. Cosmetic solutions will congeal the wound, not heal the lacerations within. And when on another December night, the gash reopens we may have a heavier price, by far, to pay.

Originally written for Indian Express

The Aamir Khan controversy is a classic example of what is happening in this country

Almost a month ago, the violent discourse and the insensitivity debates disturbed and astonished Carnatic classical musician Thodur Madabusi Krishna to the affect that he decided to hole himself up in his cottage, away from his residence in Chennai and the world of ragas and talas, to ponder over the situation. “I was following the news. The conversations I heard around me, unfortunately the same kind, were so black and white, the whole idea of right and wrong and justifying violence and saying that it was reactionary became quite difficult to deal with,” said Krishna, in conversation with The Indian Express, just before he addressed the session “Creativity and Censorship” at the Indian Languages Festival, Samanvay.

The result of the two days in the hide out was an open letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which he wrote after returning to Chennai. “This is not the time for platitudes, Pradhan Mantriji, but for a ringing condemnation from you, a kind of condemnation which will leave no one in doubt that the Indian State is not going to tolerate anyone being killed for his views, his faith, his food,” Krishna had written on October 10.

Condemning the violence through this letter seemed to be the only outlet Krishna had. “When you are in the government, you have the power to say things and make an impact. And the PM of India knows he does — he does it every day; he does it in London, he does it in Hamburg, at Madison Square. If you don’t use that, and if you have people of the rank of ministers propagating this notion of unrest, and well, they continue to do so, then it’s not a good situation to be in. The Aamir Khan controversy is a classic example of what’s happening in this country. I’m glad he said what he said,” said Krishna. He is relieved that artistes and the intelligentsia of the nation have reacted to the violence — be it in Dadri or killings of writers MM Kalburgi, Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare.

“Finally, at least some artistes are coming out of this bubble. Ironically, in this country, artistes have become synthetic, insensitive people. They believe that the beauty of their craft is in sensitivity. It’s not. The beauty of what you write or what you sing comes from beyond how it’s created. Which is why art is losing that quality. I am glad that even if it was reactionary, artistes are reacting to something,” said Krishna, who hopes that this will also lead to more inclusiveness.

It’s notable that Krishna had withdrawn himself from the iconic December Music Season earlier this year, raising concerns about the inherent caste system of the music season. He believes that the current situation in the country, like a lot of our music, stems from this idea of exclusivity. “Political conversations and social conversations change. Who does this art belong to changes. There cannot be this condescension. That’s scary. Oh, I am so benevolent, I am allowing you to sing this art form, which is also the political condition right now. It can’t work like that,” said Krishna, who added that any art form thrives when diverse people from diverse backgrounds practise it. “All this is about enriching and not offering something. There is an internal dialogue when I am singing. At the same time, I want those to listen who usually don’t. The art form will be enriched by their response. The moment we understand this pluralism, as musicians, as a nation, things will be better,” said Krishna.

Originally for Indian Express

The people returning their awards have as many questions to answer as the government

Over the last few months, Arun Jaitley, Amit Shah, General VK Singh and others who share their thinking have launched a counteroffensive. They rebuff the claim of writers, artists, academics and scientists returning their awards that intolerance is growing in India. Everything is hunky-dory with the nation, they claim. Tolerance is India’s signature and never has it been as pronounced as it is now. Had so-called liberals not been muddying the waters, India’s spirit of tolerance would not have been questioned today.

This proclamation of Indian tolerance is meant to showcase Hindu magnanimity, which, it is asserted, envelops the “sisterly” traditions of Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. It is the Muslims and Christians who are intolerant – they refuse to accept their Hindu-ness or find the Idea of Hindu problematic – and of course the liberals.

There is no doubt that the returning of national honours by eminent personalities has rattled the Hindutva establishment. Around the nation, Hindutva’s sway has been checked, and people are rebutting majoritarianism. But the real credit for initiating this must go to the students of the Film and Television Institute of India who pressed their demand for the removal of the new institute chairman for months, even after the media lost interest in their agitation.

The events of today are not new unique, of course. In the past too we have protested regimentation, bullying, arrogance and bigotry in this country, like when Nayantara Sahgal sharply criticised the draconian Emergency regime, or when people spoke up after the Babri Masjid demolition, the 1984 Delhi riots and the 2002 Gujarat riots. The People’s Union for Civil Liberties founded by Jayaprakash Narayan, PEN International and NGOs too numerous to name have raised the red flag at different times with courage and conviction. This is what happens, and should happen, in a society with multiple voices. Memory is short and the debates and protests from the pre-internet era are often lost in the pages of old newspapers. Khushwant Singh, we must recall with pride, had driven to the residence of President Giani Zail Singh to return his Padma Bhushan after the anti-Sikh riots of 1984. I am certain there are many such stories, but my ability to recall more instances is limited by the fact that I am not a historian.

The protests today are not about a political party or an individual, even if he is the prime minister of India. They transcend the transients such as governments and leaders of the state. It is about the deeper repercussions that divisiveness can have on how we feel, think and live.

Powerful political act

The word “award” is from the Old French eswarder, which means, interestingly, to ward, to guard. So, to award is really to protect, to conserve. It is not so much to decorate, praise or confer as it is to safeguard. This etymological understanding changes our perspective towards what are egocentric decorations.

Rarely are awards born out of respect for any work or serious engagement. This is worse in the case of awards given out by the government or institutions under the government’s wings. Whether to return an award is, no doubt, a personal decision. But to claim that one is not returning an award because it has been given by objective peers or by the nation itself is a falsification of truths. Please do not return your awards, if you wish, but don’t claim that it was a pure offering from the awarders.

Those who have given back their awards also have something to think about. The returning of awards is, indeed, a powerful political act. But what does it say about the politics of receiving them? Unlike the Padma coronations, the Sahitya Akademi, Sangeet Natak Akademi or National Film awards may be one step removed from the actual ministries. But they too are manipulated spaces. And here I am not only talking about political leanings – that is just one aspect.

The much deeper issue is the way these akademis and ministries use awards to gain a hold over academic, scientific and artistic communities. Without doubt, many members of these collectives have, and continue to, pamper people in control of these bodies. Everyone knows this, including those who have received the recognitions without indulging in vulgar lobbying. When these clean recipients accept their awards, are they not unwittingly being party to practices that undermine the value of their work. And beyond themselves, have they not reduced the value of academic, scientific or artistic integrity and independence? Have awards not been given to the same intolerant people that the returnees today oppose on principled grounds? Getting an award is a moment of great pride, but we fail to recognise that this pride blinds us to the larger malaise afflicting these recognitions. Intolerance begins right there.

A reactive movement

After a very long time, people from varied fields, regions, speaking different languages, with opposing religious beliefs and belonging to different castes have come together. We need to recognise the preciousness of this moment and hold on to it. We cannot remain separate entities, fragmented and divided by the differentiating aspects mentioned above. Writers cannot react only when other writers are attacked. Our socio-political view must go beyond our own perceptions and functionality to the larger spirit of human co-existence. I have not seen the same national condemnation from us, the self-proclaimed liberal group, of the ridiculous sedition charges against the Tamizh folk singer Koven and the way he was arrested.

There is another issue that has remained with me over this month and that is the fact that this whole movement has been reactive. A friend said to me, “But it is only now that we have reached this critical juncture.” Yes, it is true that the present situation needed a response, but we also need to introspect on the last decade and more. A lot of little things, with significant inflection points in between, have driven our nation here. And this is not just about the Bharatiya Janata Party or the Sangh Parivar – it is as much about the Congress and the many regional players. These political parties have systematically polarised the society, while the fragmented left parties have lost themselves in ideological fantasies and ignored their own violence.

The victors in this collective degeneration have been the extreme elements and the far right. The truth is that apart from the media and those in the social sector, who have been tirelessly sounding warnings, the rest of us have been silent. So today we cannot divorce our inaction and passivity from the atmosphere that surrounds us. Did we need to wait for the death of people to speak up in an unequivocal voice? Engaging with the society cannot be a reactionary process, it has to be observational and constant. We have to remain sensitive and proactive even in the most peaceful of times.

The inner self

I have an additional but equally vital appeal to make: This is not a fight of those who are called and who regard themselves as intellectuals.

The use of that word by the media, government and even some academicians for those who have sought governmental introspection has troubled me. Even if it has not been accepted by the protesters, it has most certainly not been disowned. We, the anti-intolerants, have placed ourselves on a pedestal, taking into our hands the right of thought and, in the process, appropriated the very act of intellection from the larger society. What makes us intellectual? Being creative individuals, historians, academics and writers? This is absurd and more seriously classist.

Every citizen of this country who engages with the social and political environment is an intellectual. We are all flawed, fragile, conditioned and manipulated human beings bound to make the gravest errors in life. In my mind, there is no difference in intellection between Irfan Habib or Ashis Nandy and a faceless farmer in West Bengal or a factory worker in Tirupur. All of them live and respond to life based on their journey, which makes them thinking people. This is not about right and wrong or good and bad, it is about mind and body. There is of course one significant difference between us and the rest: we are privileged, empowered. We are people with access. But if this is reinterpreted as being intellectual, it is indeed violence.

We forget that we are like everyone else. Yes, voices are being raised for everyone not just for intellectuals, but that cannot come from a position of patronage. It has to come from self-realisation. I am not saying that this is happening purposely, but it is indeed being heard that way. Which means there is a problem in thought and articulation. And let us not forget that by allowing this label of intellectual we are providing the accusers another weapon to make our voices marginal or irrelevant.

Those of us who are participating in this protest must engage with utmost sincerity with the outer as well as with our inner. It is in this honesty that we will find strength and a way forward.

Originally written for