Archive for the ‘Hindu ultra-nationalism in Democracy’ Category

Bollywood’s jingoistic hero assures voters that he will stay put and work for the constituency

I must say I am a bit disappointed. I have been hoping to catch a glimpse of the macho man who felled many an enemy — to say nothing of the gruesome Pakistani villain — in Hindi cinema. But here he is, steering clear of all those jingoistic dialogues that made his films such hits.

Sunny Deol is on the road, canvassing for votes in Gurdaspur, a constituency in Punjab once held by Vinod Khanna, his senior in the Hindi film industry and in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The party, which lost the seat in a by-election after Khanna’s death, hopes to wrest it from the Congress. And Deol is seemingly just the right candidate for a party fighting the Lok Sabha polls on the proud plank of nationalism.

A dialogue from the blockbuster Ghadar: Ek Prem Katha (2001) is being played at public meetings. In the film, Deol plays a truck driver who fights Pakistanis to bring his wife back to India in the film. Speakers blare out the line: “Hindustan zindabad thahai aur rahega (Hindustan was, is and will remain free)”.

But Deol, who mostly waves to the crowds from the sunroof of his car, may have realised that the voter is more concerned about development than filmi dialogues. He does not speak much about nationalism and the enemy across the border. He no longer dons the saffron turban or the military camouflage cap he was seen wearing earlier in the campaign. He doesn’t repeat the line “Main deshbhakt hoon (I am a patriot)” at the rallies.

“I don’t want people to vote for me because of my nationalist roles. I am connecting with people to genuinely serve them,” he tells BLink.

For the BJP, 62-year-old Deol is a potent symbol of the establishment. He has played the role of a soldier, cop and spy — in Border (1997), Indian (2001) and The Hero: Love Story of a Spy (2003) respectively. “Nobody else has done patriotic films like Sunny Deol has. He would work for the country just as (Narendra) Modiji does,” says BJP’s Gurdaspur president Bal Krishna Mittal.

The constituency in Gurdaspur, a district that shares a 110-km border with Pakistan, has its own set of problems. Heroin is smuggled in hollow pipes that come floating on the River Ravi from Pakistan’s Narowal, 50km from Gurdaspur. Two militant attacks in Gurdaspur and Pathankot were believed to have been carried out by terrorists from Pakistan. Speculation is rife about the revival of a movement for Khalistan — a homeland for Sikhs — with alleged support from Pakistan.

“Being a sensitive border constituency, the BJP wants to use the nationalism card in its favour,” political scientist Ashutosh Kumar of Panjab University says.

The constituents, however, are watching the electoral play with a fair dose of scepticism. They would rather the BJP addressed issues of unemployment, farmers’ debt and drug trafficking. Sugar cane farmers allege that sugar mills are yet to pay them their dues worth 85 crore for the previous crushing season. There is agrarian debt, and 60 per cent of Batala’s cast iron and foundry production units have shut down in recent years.

“BJP’s nationalism won’t give us jobs, but new factories will,” says Jugraj Singh, a 25-year-old voter who lost his job in a sugar mill in 2017.

But Deol has his supporters, thousands of whom wait to catch a glimpse of him at rallies. His campaign trail, mostly road shows, carries on for 12 hours every day. Men want to shake hands with him and kids run alongside his white Land Rover on the highway. “When I meet people, I see the love and affection they have (for me),” he stresses.

Since the actor and now would-be politician came late into the fray — he joined the BJP last month — he has had very little time to cover his constituency’s nine assembly segments before the May 19 poll. He looks fatigued but despite his hectic schedule, takes out 40 minutes for a workout every morning.

“People become health conscious when they look at me. They want to be family-oriented and obedient the way I am. They are taking the right path of life,” he says. He also believes that his films have influenced the young to join the Army: “I have been unknowingly influencing people.”

Dressed in a denim shirt and a pair of blue jeans, Deol stresses that his focus is on education, jobs, health and farmers.

The actor knows that Gurdaspur, once a Congress bastion, was won four times by Khanna largely on the plank of development. Khanna was known as “pulon ka badshah” (the king of bridges) among the locals for having built a bridge over the Beas, connecting the neighbouring Mukerian with Gurdaspur. After Khanna’s death, the BJP, along with its ally, the Shiromani Akali Dal, fielded a security guard company boss, Swaran Salaria, in the 2017 bypoll. Salaria lost to the Congress’s Sunil Jakhar — son of former speaker Balram Jakhar — by 1,90,000 votes.

“A combination of factors may work for Deol — his patriotism in movies, his Jat identity as Jats are in large numbers here, and the legacy of Vinod Khanna, the man from Deol’s fraternity,” says Kumar. And it helps that Deol’s father, actor and former BJP Bikaner MP Dharmendra, belongs to Ludhiana.

What may also help him is that Jakhar has not kept his poll promises of providing the youth with smartphones or creating jobs. There are also whispers linking him with illegal mining. But Jakhar’s answer to Deol is that once he returns to Mumbai, the actor will do nothing for the people.

Deol is fighting not just Jakhar but the rumours that he will not be seen after the poll. “They say: He is an actor. He won’t come here, he won’t stay here, he won’t do this, he won’t do that,” Deol complains. “I want to make people believe, I will be here, for them.”

I fear that as a line, it is not quite as effective as some of his fiery dialogues.

This story appeared in Hindu Business Line’s BLink on May 17, 2019

A group of 15 men proudly salute a saffron flag hooked firmly onto an iron rod. The flag belongs to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the right-wing Hindu nationalist group that claims it has more than 6 million direct or affiliate members and is the ideological mothership of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). “Our flag is our guru, our identity,” says 30-year-old dentist Vikram Dhillon, a resident of Supreme Towers, a high-rise apartment complex in Noida near New Delhi.

It’s a sentiment the RSS — whose early leaders publicly admired Hitler and Mussolini — feared it was losing a decade ago among Indian youth, a group that is becoming increasingly urban, globalized and middle class. But a 21st-century upgrade, from a new uniform to modern recruitment tactics, is helping draw young engineers, doctors, lawyers, chartered accountants, bankers and journalists into the fold, especially in upscale neighborhoods where supporters traditionally felt the need to hide their allegiances.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity also helps, RSS leaders say, at a time when nationalist forces are bringing once-fringe conversations to the mainstream globally. As Modi seeks reelection — results will be declared this Thursday — these new recruits are emerging as some of his biggest cheerleaders.

Over the past two years, the RSS has witnessed a 20 percent increase in most neighborhood units (shakhas), which offer daily and weekly milans (gatherings) in suburbs and cities dominated by young upwardly mobile professionals. Noida has seen 120 new shakhas emerge since 2017, compared to around 100 in the same period before 2016, says RSS volunteer Pankaj Kapil. Between 10 and 20 volunteers attend each shakhadaily, with more on weekends, he adds. In Gurgaon, another Delhi suburb with offices for global financial and tech firms, at least 80 new shakhas and milans have started in the past two years in high-rise apartments, says Vijay Kumar, the regional RSS in charge. In Bangalore, 160 new milans for information technology professionals have started in this period. And 90 new shakhas and milans have come up in the Mumbai neighborhoods of Andheri and Lokhandwala, and in the satellite township of Navi Mumbai since 2016.

Many of these fresh recruits have studied at elite schools. They tend to make more than $100,000 annually, work for multinationals, go on international holidays and send their children to global schools. Yet, they’re finding meaning as members of the RSS, which advocates for a Hindu nation.

“Now, you can be tech-savvy and upwardly mobile, yet support sectarianism,” says Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, author of The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right. “Earlier, it was politically incorrect to be a part of shakhas. Now it is not improper to publicly say [that] Muslims need to be shown their place.”

For some recruits, shakhas  — where volunteers sing prayers, chant nationalistic slogans and perform physical exercises — are primarily attractive as pathways to fitness, discipline and a reconnect with Indian “family values.” Others concede they want to edge closer to the ruling BJP through the RSS. For several volunteers, such as Dhillon, the RSS is also fundamentally about doing something for society. “Social work is part of the RSS’s Hindutva package,” says sociologist Shiv Visvanathan, referring to the group’s guiding philosophy.

He adds, aspirational young middle class has many anxieties – economic, religious and cultural – RSS is only cashing in on it. “RSS’s solution to all problems is chest-thumping nationalism which gives them a sense of security,” says Visvanathan.

Founded in 1925, the RSS has long counted India’s urban middle class as a key base, with shakhas in neighborhood parks a common sight throughout India. But that relationship was beginning to snap with a millennial generation that found the organization’s rigid hierarchical structure outdated, and the daily physical exercises boring, says Mukhopadhyay. As liberal, left-leaning education and politics dominated India, the RSS came to be seen as regressive among the English-speaking elite of the country. Dhillon’s neighbor, 42-year-old Supreme Court lawyer Bipin Bihari Singh says that people didn’t want to be identified as shakha participants.

That’s now history because the RSS is adapting — except its ideology — with the times. After consulting a top fashion designer, it swapped its khaki shorts in 2016 for smart brown trousers and made the uniform optionalThe RSS now recruits door-to-door and offers weekend and virtual events for those who can’t attend daily meetings. In meetings, Sanskrit lexicon is now occasionally replaced by English, and the RSS has launched 65 new affiliate bodies targeting specific professions. Since 2016, an average of 100,000 new recruits have signed up through just the website each year, compared to just over 60,000 annually before that, according to the RSS.

Abhishek Junnarkar, a 38-year-old assistant vice president for a multinational company, says the RSS “trains us how to save our country from people who want to overpower us.” That sense of threat from an often-unspecified source — be it Muslims, Christian missionaries, Pakistan, communists or secular liberals — is at the heart of the RSS training.

Take the common shakha game Lahore Kiska Hai (Whose is Lahore). The group leader asks, “Lahore kiska hai,” and players shout back, “Lahore hamara hain (Lahore is ours).” Players then push each other to grab a stone that’s meant to symbolize Lahore. The RSS vision for India, after all, includes most of South Asia as a single nation.

The urban middle class in India largely subscribes to RSS ideology to proliferate and dominate by eliminating the ‘other’ to overturn country’s secular consensus,” says Visvanathan.

Modi’s muscular nationalism which is based on this principle of alienation fits this narrative. “People want to work for the nation the way he does,” says Ajay Mudpe, RSS publicity head in the Konkan region. But working “for the nation” can mean “othering” those the RSS sees as outsiders. A WhatsApp campaign in a Noida neighborhood, for example, led to a boycott of Bengali Muslim household helpers who were en masse labeled  illegal migrants from Bangladesh.”

Meanwhile, the National Voters Forum, an affiliate of the formally apolitical RSS, has been urging professionals to vote for a party that works for the “interest of the nation” — code for the BJP.

Back in Supreme Towers, Dhillon says he’ll stay with the RSS no matter how the BJP does this week. The deep roots the organization has put down in India’s high-rise apartment blocks aren’t going anywhere. “Once in RSS, always in RSS,” he says.

(A version of the story was published in Ozy on May 21, 2019: )

  • Sunny DeolThe 62-year-old actor has made a name for himself portraying soldiers, spies and police officers in a series of hypermasculine blockbusters
  • But will his on-screen anti-Pakistan persona prove popular among those who live in neighbouring Punjab state?

A  day before the festival of colours, dressed in her trademark white tant sari, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee walked up to a cluster of television cameras and wished “Holi mubarak” to everyone. Maintaining her authoritative tone, in broken Hindi, she added, “Radha-Krishna ko pushpanjali nivedan kijiye… koi Ganpati ko kartein hai (You may offer prayers to Radha-Krishna… some pray to Ganpati).”

Why Mamata is playing the Hindu card against Modi

Again, at a pre-Holi get-together with Marwari businessmen, she dared Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah to compete with her in reciting Sanskrit shlokas. Mocking the BJP, she said at the same gathering that while the saffron party had failed to keep

its promise of building a Ram temple at the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid disputed site in Uttar Pradesh, her government had undertaken development initiatives for Bengal’s Hindu religious sites such as Dakshineshwar, Gangasagar, Tarapith, Tarakeswar and Kalighat.

The message of the Trinamool boss, who at a public meeting in January led a ‘secular’ alliance of 23 parties to oppose the ‘communal’ Narendra Modi, is loud and clear — the battle with the BJP will be fought on religious lines.

“Mamata Banerjee is in a hurry to prove she is more Hindu than Modi,” Kolkata-based political observer, researcher and activist Kumar Rana says. “As BJP started emerging stronger in the state in the past two years, Banerjee has started appeasing Hindus and replicating the BJP’s Hindutva brand of politics. Her approach is not as regressive as the BJP’s, but it is soft Hindutva.”

By giving donations to Durga Puja committees, building temples and holding religious rallies, Banerjee and her party have taken a series of initiatives since last year, with the general elections approaching, to garner Hindu votes that the BJP has been eyeing. Banerjee announced the construction of a Jagannath temple in Digha, 183 kilometres from Kolkata. Mayor of Asansol, Jitendra Kumar Tiwari, has started mobilising funds to build 10 sun temples.  A grant of `28 crore was offered to Durga Puja organisers out of state coffers. At a Martyrs’ Day rally on March 23, Banerjee emphasised that her party doesn’t subscribe to the BJP’s version of Hinduism but she rattled off a list of Hindu gods.

Trinamool spokesperson Mahua Moitra denies that these are tactics to appease Hindu voters. “This is a communal narrative which the BJP has been feeding the media,” she says.

The communists call it “competitive communalism”. CPI(M) leader Sujan Chakraborty says, “After all, the Trinamool once was part of the BJP-led NDA (1999). The ideology is the same. It is competing with the BJP on communal lines. It helps both parties to divert attention of the people from real issues of the state — corruption, unemployment, farmers’ distress and free speech.”

That’s the reason, Chakraborty asserts, why the Trinamool is becoming an active participant in communal politics of the BJP instead of resisting it. To counter the saffron party’s Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti rallies, it has started organising its own. Trinamool workers are sprinkling Ganga jal and cow dung, both considered sacred by many Hindus, to “purify” the grounds where the BJP holds rallies. Banerjee’s party has given more space to the BJP and its fount, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), to grow in the state. Over 250 new RSS shakhas have opened in Bengal in the 18 months. There is an upsurge of activities of Hindu radicals too. Soon after the Pulwama terror attack, a Kashmiri Muslim doctor was harassed by Hindu men at a market in Kolkata and they allegedly threatened him to leave the city. Two years ago, two Muslim men were lynched by self-styled cow vigilantes in Jalpaiguri. Such violence was unheard of in Bengal before.

But political scientist Maidul Islam points out that the fundamental difference between the two parties is the BJP has a mission of creating a Hindu Rashtra by subordinating religious minorities while the TMC believes only in public display of all religious festivals.

That distinction doesn’t seem to be strong enough to deter Trinamool leaders from switching loyalties to their “enemy” camp. Three Trinamool members — Arjun Singh, Soumitra Khan and Anupam Hazra — recently joined the BJP. This crossover is happening at the grassroots level too.  “A large section of liquid cash holders — cement dealers, illegal sand miners and transporters — fund the Trinamool and they have a huge support base, especially in rural Bengal. These people are largely anti-Muslim and up for the BJP’s brand of petty nationalism. They are switching sides because they are more comfortable with the saffron party’s aggressive Hindutva,” Rana says.

The trend can certainly help the BJP, which aims to win 23 of the state’s 42 parliamentary constituencies, up from the two it bagged in the 2014 general elections. Though some Bharatiya Janata Party leaders appear a bit perturbed to see Banerjee replicating their Hindutva politics, they assert that no amount of Hindu appeasement can help the Trinamool win this election. “Trinamool is adopting such tactics in desperation because it dreads losing the polls,” says Kolkata-based BJP leader Shamik Bhattacharya.

Hindus, he asays, know they were never the “first choice” of Banerjee: after all, she was busy pandering to Muslims all this while. The CM offered a stipend to imams which was eventually struck down by the state high court, postured to offer namaz wearing hijab, and tweaked the schedule of Durga idol immersion to ensure Muharram processions were uninterrupted. All this irked a section of Hindus.

Hindu vs Muslim tension has become the order of the day in the state which was relatively calm earlier. A series of riots have taken place in Dhulagarh, Basirhat and Asansol in the past three years. Bengal seems to be a veritable communal tinderbox now.

It appeared in Firstpost on April 5, 2019:


If you think, it is only the Hindu-right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which fans anti-Muslim sentiments, you are wrong. The Communists are no less. The school textbooks in Tripura, a state which was ruled by the Left for over 25 years, would tell you why.

The political science textbook of the state-run schools  labels the “mentality” of Muslims as one of the many causes behind communalism. Plus, it states, the Kashmiris harbour “anti-India” mindset because most of them are Muslims.  This textbook was introduced in February last year by the then CPI(M) government.

As per the chapter titled, “Power division, democracy, gender and caste,” in the English version of the political science textbook of Class X, one of the most important causes of communalism is the mentality of minority communities, “especially the Muslims who could never adjust themselves into the mainstream of the nation.” It further adds, “They have very little interest in involving into the national secular politics. They most of the time try to keep their independent identity. The Muslim intellectuals also have been unable to rouse a feeling of nationalism in the Muslims.”

The same chapter says, “Hindus in India think the Muslims are traitors and fundamentalists. So the Muslims think that they are the second class citizens of this country. And so they are not getting the due respect here. This feeling gives indulgence to communalism.”

Further on, the book listed the “Kashmir issue” as one of the effects of communalism in India. The book states, “As most of the people there (Kashmir) are Muslims, the endeavour to create an anti-India mindset is always there.”

This textbook is written by the former assistant teacher of Calcutta’s Hindu School, Tarak Nath Mallick and published by Calcutta-based Parul Prakashani Private Limited, the leading publisher of textbooks used in all state-run schools in Tripura. The contents of both the English and Bengali versions of the book are the same.

The state education board officials say, they were not aware of these paragraphs in the textbook. “When we had okayed the Bengali version of the book but we didn’t notice this. Now that we have noticed it, we will talk to the publisher and consult our internal expert; we will ensure these portions are removed from the textbook,” Tripura board of secondary education (TBSE) secretary Swapan Kumar Poddar told me on Wednesday.

This book was introduced soon after the new syllabus was framed by the state education board in 2016 keeping NCERT textbooks as a model framework, say officials who served during the Left-regime. Mihir Deb, who was the serving president of TBSE when this textbook was introduced, says, “We didn’t notice this portion but it shouldn’t be there in the textbook. But we always encouraged schools to follow NCERT textbooks.”

Interestingly, the publisher doesn’t think, the content of the book promotes anti-Muslim sentiments. “What is wrong with this? Isn’t it true that terrorist or radical Muslims are not interested into mainstream politics?” asks Gourdas Saha, the director of Parul Prakashani.

According to historian Mridula Mukherjee,  such textbooks would have a negative effect on the minds of the young students. “Such content only promote the stereotypes already existed in the society against the Muslims. Students would start to believe it because it is written in their textbook,” she says.

But interestingly, the same textbook  listed “inter-religious marriages” as one of the methods to prevent communal influences in democracy, an idea highly opposed by the BJP which runs the “love-jihad” campaign to discourage Hindus from marrying Muslims.

Textbooks have created controversies earlier in Tripura too. In 2014, the Left-government had to withdraw the political science textbook of Class XI in which the BJP was tagged as a “communal party.”

Meanwhile, Tripura chief minister Biplab Deb had already announced to replace social science textbooks of Classes IX-XII as he doesn’t want them to study the Russian Revolution, Lenin and Karl Marx.

Here are some of the reactions from people on Twitter when I posted these controversial portions in the textbook on Wednesday.

Calm_Witness Retweeted Sonia Sarkar

Yes, these are simply unpalatable and harmful for the tender minds who would study them and form a dangerous opinion in their formative years.

Calm_Witness added,

  1. Replying to  
  2. Whatever has been written in this book, is right. This is the true fact…. Nobody can deny it. Read your history from 11th century that what you have done with Hindustan, specially with Hindus..

Enabled by the dominant political temper, shaming and bashing Muslims is fast becoming an accepted trend among India’s cosmopolitan smart set. And it begins early, at school. Sonia Sarkar reports on why this should worry us all.

When 12-year-old Noopur invited her friend Asifa home for her birthday party, her father said, “Do you really want to call a Muslim home?” Asifa attended the party but when she got to know about the reservations of the host family, she distanced herself from Noopur. “I don’t want to engage with anybody who looks at me differently because of my religious identity,” says the Class VIII student of a prominent west Delhi school.

Two years ago, on August 13, students of a posh Greater Noida school were exchanging greetings. “Happy Independence Day in advance,” each said to the other; it was going to be a two-day school break. Class V student Abirah, however, forgot to add the “in advance” bit to her greeting. That did it. A classmate immediately started to taunt her saying, “It’s Independence Day for you today because you are from ‘P’ [or Pakistan, apparently the geography that must not be named].” There was the factual inaccuracy – Pakistan’s Independence Day is August 14 – but their barbs found their mark. Abirah, the only Muslim girl in class, was horrified. On returning home, she asked her mother, Hafiza Sheikh, if she was a Pakistani. “I told her, no, you are an Indian,” Hafiza tells The Telegraph.

It is not that Muslim children were never teased about their religious identity before. The difference lately is that stigmatisation of Muslims as “Pakistanis”, “terrorists”, “beef-eaters”, “wife abusers”, “polygamists”, etc. is no longer limited to the economically disadvantaged or socially conservative sections of the populace. Urban educated Muslims, professional success and consequent financial well-being notwithstanding, are also targets.

Travelling through forwards from smartphone to smartphone; echoed by the ruling political dispensation in word and deed, discussed in “in” conversations in carpeted living rooms – these stigmas have found their way into mainstream Indian consciousness as life-truths. And as happens with life-truths, they are being handed down to the next generation with all the ceremony and seriousness reserved for all things heirloom.

In the 2018 book, Mothering a Muslim, Nazia Erum writes extensively on this. Erum, who is based in Noida in the National Capital Region, captures in her book how Muslim children from affluent families are bullied by peers in elite schools across India’s metros and how the current political climate is responsible for this.

In her book, she narrates the experience of one Asma Rizwan, a professor of English. When Asma was asked by a neighbour, in the 1970s, “Are you a Muslim?” she had replied, ” Tum hoge Mussalman – main toh Asma hoon… You might be a Muslim, I am Asma.” Erum adds, “But when a kindergarten student is asked the same today, she replies, ‘Yes, I am a Muslim but I don’t eat beef’.”

Putting out disclaimers, even as one breathes, is tedious way to be. It is easier to bring on the counter-offence.

Delhi-based counsellor Geetanjali Kumar cites one time when a Class VII student of an east Delhi school was asked to pull down his pants by his non-Muslim classmates. They had also teased, calling him “Mulla-Pulla”. He retaliated with stinging gendered abuses. “During counselling, he asked me: If they are right, how am I wrong?” says Geetanjali.

Erum writes about an incident, wherein 17-year-old Raffat was called terrorist by a classmate. When his mother took up the matter with the other child’s parent, the latter said Raffat too had called her child fat. “Fat and terrorist – are they same?” Erum asks.

In an open letter #MotherAgainstBullying, Erum writes: “While the situation often borders on violence among boys, it mostly comes out in the form of subtle jokes among girls: ‘ Kya tumhare mamma papa bomb banate hain? [Do your parents make bombs at home?]’ and sometimes as misogyny along with Islamophobia in statements like ‘Isn’t your father angry that your legs are exposed in your skirt? Is he part of ISIS? Will he shoot us?'” Juvenile, yes, but not too different from public and political rhetoric that is turning pervasive.

Politicians such as the BJP’s Giriraj Singh and Surendra Singh never tire of saying, Muslims will be packed off to Pakistan if they don’t support beef ban or don’t chant Bharat Mata Ki Jai or Vande Mataram. BJP MP Vinay Katiyar said Muslims should not even be living in India. “Acceptability of anti-Muslim feelings has become part of the popular culture, which is reflected in elite schools. Since the easily available Muslim is the person in your class, he or she is targeted,” says Hilal Ahmed, associate professor of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi.

He adds, “When the non-Muslim elite children see that their Muslim peers are also equipped to avail of the same privileges as they do, they cannot fit them into the stereotypical image of the poor and suffering Muslim they have formed. By bullying, they assert their superiority, using the idiom of nationalism. The message is – you are also powerful like I am but you are a traitor and I am a patriot – commonly heard outside schools, too.”

Stereotyped beliefs about Muslims might have existed in the minds of many non-Muslims for decades. But what is happening now is different.

In the existing political climate, prejudices are not just flourishing but parading as indisputable truths. Mumbai-based media professional Arif Ahmed, who studied in a convent school in Nashik, recalls how his friends used to address him by the Marathi cuss word for circumcised men but he never took offence. “There was no malice,” he says. He adds, “But now, if any child calls a classmate by such a name, it would be an informed choice.”

Hafiza, who is the mother of the Greater Noida school student, Abirah, says her daughter has become extra conscious of her Muslim identity. She says, “Abirah tells me not to say khuda haafiz or salaam – salutations typical to the Muslim community – over the phone when I am in her school premises.”

Bangalore-based Anuradha Alize Ahmed’s Bengali Hindu mother, Anuradha Basu, says, her child is not too open about embracing her “Muslim side” either. “She avoids saying her full name. I assume she doesn’t want to feel out of place because she doesn’t have Muslim friends,” says Anuradha.

Twenty years ago when Anuradha Alize’s father, Rumman Ahmed, routinely travelled to Delhi from Calcutta on train, he never gave his full name while booking the ticket. “India has had a history of communal violence. If something happens, a Muslim will be the first to be identified,” says Rumman. It was a subversion of identity and as subversions go, not a happy thing, but voluntary nevertheless.

Saima, mother of Class VIII student Asifa, witnessed many riots in Kanpur in the 1990s as a child but never felt alienated. But she, too, believes that the anti-Muslim sentiment deeply ingrained in people’s psyche today is here to stay. In Asifa’s class, conversations about “why do Muslims pray aloud” or “why do they keep a beard” are not uncommon.

Abhishek Kabir, a law student based in Calcutta, was once told by someone that his eyes were just like a Muslim’s. “This person was possibly trying to suggest I apply surma. I laughed and took it as a compliment,” he says.

Mumbai-based media professional Afrida Rahman, whose children go to an international school and have never faced Muslim-shaming, plans a similar line of combat if it comes to that. “If my child is called a Pakistani, I would say, ask your friend, what’s wrong with being one?” Some schools are doing their bit. At Springdales (Pusa Road), Delhi, contemporary political and social issues are discussed. But compared to the epidemic at hand, one-off efforts seem like too little, too late.

When it does not come down to finger-pointing, prejudice finds expression in social exclusion. Psychologist Rajat Mitra talks about a Muslim teen who attends school in south Delhi. He says, “Whenever she is part of a night-out plan, mothers of other girls in the group do not allow their kids to join.” These things, however subtle, affect a young mind.

Often, it leads to self-censorship too. When Abirah’s aunt, Ghazala Wahab, who runs a magazine on national security, narrated her niece’s episode – her classmates had taunted her over the Independence Day greeting – on Facebook, her brother wanted her to remove the post fearing his child would be identified. “I was more upset with this defeatist mindset of a family member,” says Ghazala.

She recalls when she was in school in Agra 28 years ago, Muslims didn’t have to be so conscious of their identity. Acceptability among non-Muslim friends was never a problem. “They demanded scrumptious kebabs from my mom’s kitchen but my niece never takes non-vegetarian food to school,” she says.

In a situation where there is no scope for dialogue or air clearing, this dogged othering has behavioral fallouts. In some cases, Muslim children are left feeling more determined than ever to wear their religion on their person. “They are often told by the haraam police [haraam means sacrilege] they can’t do this or that or they are not doing enough to be a Muslim which confuses them,” says Erum.

Experts feel that for some, harbouring radical thoughts is often seen as a befitting reply to alienation, which may lead to systematic radicalisation. A study titled “Why join ISIS? The Causes of Terrorism from the Muslim Youth Perspective” by University of Huddersfield, UK, stated alienation and discrimination are common drivers of terrorism. “Radical ideologues play upon the vulnerability and pain. If you see the trend worldwide, intelligent children belonging to affluent families are getting radicalised,” says Mitra.

Erum cautions in her book: “In today’s political climate we have to be concerned about where and how far we are pushing our children.” Indeed.

Published in The Telegraph : March 25, 2018

The ruling Sangh has taken upon itself the task of educating our educators. Sonia Sarkar takes a close look at the altered grammar of teachers’ training programmes .


LESSON PLAN: Atul Kothari (right), national secretary of Shiksha Sanskriti Utthan Nyas, addressing teachers at CPDHE
Picture: Sonia Sarkar

A class is in progress. A man in white kurta-pyjama and a blue Nehru jacket is on the dais. He chants, ” Hey Prabhu, mrityu do Akhand Bharat mein… Dear Lord, I wish to die in undivided India.” Next, he extends both hands towards the audience and asks, ” Sauda manzoor ki nahin… Are you game or no?” “Yeeeesss,” the audience responds in chorus. “So raise both your hands,” the man commands. “Bharat Mata ki jai!” he cries out thrice and the audience repeats after him and, thereafter, dissolves into claps and cheers.

The venue: Delhi University’s Centre for Professional Development in Higher Education (CPDHE). The occasion: An orientation programme and refresher course for university teachers. In the audience are 220 central university teachers from across the country.

Nationalist chest thumping is the new normal. Here too, the class leader is a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leader, Indresh Kumar; no surprises there. The surprise, if at all, lies elsewhere.

Picture: Sonia Sarkar

The point of the four-week orientation and three-week refresher courses is to widen the repertoire of educationists through lectures by seasoned academics and professionals. The thrust of these is supposed to be on the use of e-learning in curricula, innovations in classroom teaching, stress management, conflict management, environmental threats… The exercise is non-negotiable for career advancement and crucial to promotions.

In previous years, the CPDHE’s speaker list has included former election commissioner S.Y. Quraishi, historian Irfan Habib, former Delhi University vice-chancellors Deepak Nayyar and Deepak Pental. So what’s with Indresh Kumar raising slogans now?

Ask and you learn that since 2014, teachers’ orientations have developed a Right spin. The list of speakers drawn up by the CPDHE now frequently includes the likes of Indresh Kumar, BJP general secretary Ram Madhav, Right-wing ideologue K.N. Govindacharya, editor of the RSS mouthpiece, Organiser, Prafulla Ketkar, and so on.

Discussions and addresses, no matter what the broad title, eventually boil down to lectures on the “bad influences of the West”, Jawaharlal Nehru’s vices and, of course, Akhand Bharat. The last refers to the RSS belief that one day India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Indonesia, and indeed vast parts of Afghanistan, will reunite through popular goodwill. The talks are delivered in Sanskritised Hindi, ignoring the fact that many attending teachers are from non-Hindi speaking states.

This particular winter morning, Indresh Kumar and the other speakers are supposed to speak on the topic “Eternal Indian Culture, Spiritualism and Life Values”. The panel is diverse – the newly appointed vice-chancellor of Pondicherry University, Gurmeet Singh; professor of the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies in Varanasi, Wangchuk Dorjee Negi; and the vice-chancellor of Jamia Millia Islamia, Talat Ahmad. And, of course, there is Indresh Kumar.

All very well, except that the programme comes to be so tweaked that Kumar gets more than an hour to hold forth on Hindutva, while the others have to wrap up their speeches in five to seven minutes.

Once on stage, Kumar perhaps forgets he is not campaigning for votes. And that among his audience are qualified educators across disciplines. Soon, his speech outgrows the subject at hand. First comes some Congress bashing. He tells the teachers, “Congress under the leadership of Nehru didn’t get freedom for India; he divided the country.”

Next, he presents some startling statistics. He says, “In a span of two months after Partition, over three crore people were displaced, 10 lakh people died, four lakh women committed suicide to save their honour and 1,300 temples and gurdwaras were destroyed.” Mind you, no source, no attribution offered. There is only his word for it.

Historian and former professor of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) Mridula Mukherjee says, “Credible sources quote that there were losses but they were much smaller in number as compared to this. Plus, the figure about women is absolutely off the mark.”

The CPDHE’s orientation programme is thus lost in nationalistic rhetoric, leaving many teachers angry. A few come forward to say as much, but fearing consequences, do not wish to be identified. “They are training to brainwash us. This is not what I came for,” says a teacher from the Northeast.

The teacher’s anger brings to mind a chillingly prophetic film from the 1980s – Satyajit Ray’s Hirak Rajar Deshe. In the film, the tyrant king attempts to consolidate his power and position with the help of an ingenious invention – the brainwashing chamber. Systematically, different sections of the populace – peasants, miners, labourers – are rounded up and all individual thought erased and replaced by new pro-establishment chants.

In Ray’s film, the Raja’s most formidable, most intelligent, most indomitable adversary is the educationist. The Raja wants the school shut down and the teachers and students brainwashed.

Orientation programmes and refresher courses are a must for college and university teachers. The invitee list is drawn up by the institution, no direct state interference.

The CPDHE is not alone in thus yielding space and place to the empowered Right-wing. The Academic Staff College of JNU, which is responsible for training teachers, has also upped the number of Right-inspired speakers and trainers in recent times. The director of the Academic Staff College of Jamia Millia Islamia, Anisur Rahman, too admits there is informal pressure from the academic world to invite RSS ideologues. “But I refuse to give in,” he says.

At a JNU teachers’ training programme, a guest prescribed satsang for teachers after retirement. In yet another session, participating teachers were targeted for their proximity to Left-leaning academics. “Since I did my PhD under historian Irfan Habib, a guest speaker told me, ‘Habib has distorted history; now we are going to rewrite history.’ When I objected, he said, ‘If you want a career, you should never object.'”

At a training programme in DU two years ago, when Jesus and Mary College teacher Richa Raj objected to a guest’s speaker’s insistence on lecturing in sanskritised Hindi because according to him, ‘Hindi hamari rashtra bhasha hai,’ she was told off thus : ” Aap shant nahin hai. Aap swasth nahin hai…You are not at peace, you are not well.” Amit Suman, a teacher from Kirori Mal College, who attended the same session, recalls how one speaker likened subatomic particles – electrons, protons and neutrons – to the Hindu Trinity of Brahma-Vishnu-Maheshwar.

Does this mean that the Narendra Modi dispensation at the Centre is arm-twisting teachers and higher academic institutions into toeing its political line and becoming propaganda instruments? It isn’t as if politics or governments haven’t influenced or tried to dominate academia in the past, but what’s beginning to unfold on campus institutions is probably a more brazen thrust by the powers to impose its worldview which is often at variance with pluralist and inclusive ideas of India itself.

Blatant myth-making continues full steam. In one of the DU sessions titled “Indian Thoughts and Thinkers”, Mahesh Chandra Sharma, a former BJP MP, brings up Ram Mandir. He also asks, “But what about Luvpur [present day Lahore] that Ram’s son, Luv, had created?”

Kumar talks about banished Chinese forces from Doklam and how Kailash-Mansarovar in Tibet was never China’s. “We should get it back,” he thunders. It is a different matter that over 1,600 Chinese troops are still camping in Bhutan’s Doklam area and that historians say there is no evidence that Mount Kailash was part of India. And then suddenly he is talking economics. “I will say, ‘Chinese goods’, you will say, ‘Talaq, talaq, talaq’.” It is all about bombast and marking the enemy to rouse the dormant Hindu in everyone.

At one of these sessions, Ram Madhav, says, “The future of this country depends on whether the last man on this country’s soil has love for it or not.” ” Mitron,” he intones after a fashion that is by now well-known to every Indian. Such is the power of repetition.

A Muslim teacher from the South who attended the CPDHE session says, “The guests tell us lies, they are propagating RSS ideology. This is dangerous.” But voices of protest are rare, most people are aware that the wise thing to do is acquiesce. Gurpreet Kaur, who is from Shri Ram College of Commerce, says, “It is okay to learn these things. We often tend to ignore our past and our culture.”

But veteran academicians are extremely worried. They can see what some of the others are too close to fathom. Says Mridula Mukherjee, “This is not a public space where political leaders can come and speak; this is a platform where subject experts of eminence come to interact with teachers. That’s the norm set by the University Grants Commission.”

“Teachers are being given regressive, and bigoted information, rather misinformation is masquerading as knowledge,” says Upinder Singh, who teaches History at DU. “There is absolutely no connection with what we are supposed to do to become world-class universities and what is happening on the ground.”

CPDHE director Geeta Singh, however, defends her agenda as an exercise in “Indianness”. She says, “Keeping in mind the recent developments in the universities – the JNU episode and the agitation over Rohith Vemula’s death – we need to keep our campuses sanitised; hence these sessions.”

And so it all boils down to sanitisation. Swachh Bharat.