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Archive for the ‘Religion and Conflict’ Category

Hasina’s government introduced religious education in state schools, edited out literature that conservative Islamists deemed atheistic and recognised Qawmi Madrasa degrees


Dhaka’s historic Suhrawardy Park was quite the set of a spectacle last month. The smiling Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, sat comfortably on the dais, her neatly pinned golden pallu covering half her head. The man seated beside her had his entire head and face covered with a white scarf. Maulana Shah Ahmad Shafi is the leader of the radical Islamist group, Hefajote Islam, and talking to women or even looking at them is against Hefajote’s code of conduct. In a first, though, he was sharing stage with a woman. What is more, he even bestowed on her an honorific — Qawmi Janani or mother of the qaum (in this case, the Islamic collective as well as the nation).

Qawmi Madrasas are Islamic seminaries. There are around 14,000 of them in Bangladesh and their teachings are considered orthodox, nudging the country’s youth towards a radical path. Hasina had announced last year that the Dawra-e-Hadith, the highest qaumi degree, will now be recognised as a postgraduation degree in Islamic Studies and Arabic. That day in November, the chairman of the Qawmi Madrasah Education Board said: “You are the ‘Mother of Qawmi’. If you were not there… people who are the Jamaat, pro-Moududis would not let it happen.”

In the run-up to the December 30 general elections, Bangladesh has witnessed an ideological flip-flop of sorts. The secular ruling party, Awami League, has been cosying up to the Islamists, while the main Opposition led by Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), has joined hands with the secular alliance, Jatiya Oikya Front.

“Indeed, this election has thrown up big surprises. The two big parties have made a major shift in their political ideologies,” says Jatiya Oikya Front head Kamal Hossain, who is a freedom fighter and former Awami League leader. He asserts it is the Awami League’s changing political ideology that has forced secular parties to form an alliance against Hasina. Hossain adds, “If she were committed to the secular, liberal and socialist ethos of Bangladesh, and not pandering to the Islamists, we would have had no need to form this front.”

Indeed, Hasina’s proximity to the Islamists has increased during her last two terms as prime minister. In 2011, the Bangladeshi Parliament passed a bill seeking retention of Islam as the state religion, as well as the phrase “Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim” in the Constitution, both legacies of the military regime of 1988. In 2017, Hasina’s government introduced religious education in government schools, edited out poems and stories that conservative Islamists deemed atheistic and, most recently, recognised the Qawmi Madrasa degrees.

Hasina also gave in to the demand of the Hefajote Islam to remove the Statue of Justice outside the Supreme Court building — a blindfolded woman dressed in a sari — on the grounds that it was idolatry and, therefore, un-Islamic. And when Islamist forces threatened and killed atheist bloggers, she said nothing. “The muted reactions to the blogger killings in 2015 and warnings to bloggers to restrain themselves instead of protecting them, indicate how her government tries to appease radical Islamists,” says Bangladeshi journalist and blogger Supriti Dhar.

Typically, it was the BNP that courted the Islamists. To be more specific, the Islamist religious and political party, Jamaat-e-Islami. In 1991, Jamaat had bagged 18 seats and emerged as a power player. It had extended support to the BNP to form government. In the 1996 elections, it nominated 300 candidates but won only three seats. But in 2001 it once again bagged 17 seats.

So how would one explain the BNP’s current altered stance? Former Election Commissioner, Brigadier M. Sakhawat Hossain, puts it all down to poll strategy. Says Maruf Mallick, political analyst and visiting research fellow at the University of Bonn, Germany, “The BNP was never interested in an alliance with the secularists… It was compelled to do so because party chief Khaleda Zia is in jail and there is a leadership crisis.”

Mallick asserts that the Awami League too has used religion in election campaigns before this. During the 1996 elections, the Awami League used a part of the Islamic Kalma, La Ilaha Illallah and rhymed it with Noukar Malik Tui Allah (Allah is the owner of boat) for its election slogan. (The boat is the election symbol of the Awami League.) In that campaign, a portrait of Hasina wearing a headscarf and holding a tasbih — a string of holy beads — was widely used in posters. According to Brigadier Hossain, the Awami League started to woo the anti-Jamaat Islamist groups in right earnest from 2001.

Political scientist Ali Riaz points out that the Awami League is indulging Hefajote Islam because it wants to bring the Islamist forces into its fold and deprive the Opposition of their support. Also, the party doesn’t want to look un-Islamic in a bid to be secular. “Hasina wants to bank on these Islamists who have the capacity to mobilise people especially Qawmi Madrasa students and teachers in large numbers,” says Riaz, who is also distinguished professor of Political Science at the United States’ Illinois State University.

There have been rumours that some members of Hefajote Islam wanted to contest elections but it didn’t happen because of a conflict between two factions of the group. Hefajote’s secretary-general Junaid Babunagri tells The Telegraph, “We are an apolitical organisation. We have no role to play in the elections.”

An Awami League supporter carries a photograph of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina during an election rally in Dhaka.
An Awami League supporter carries a photograph of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina during an election rally in Dhaka. (AP)

No matter what the official line, there can be no denying that Hefajote has benefited from having a sympathetic ruling party. To begin with, the government stopped pursuing cases against Qawmi Madrasa leaders — many of them had been accused of organising religious clashes, giving hate speeches against bloggers, threatening bloggers and molesting minors. Liberal thinkers, political opponents and human rights activists were targeted instead. Lawyer Sara Hossain stresses how even after a landslide victory in 2009 and initial pledges of zero tolerance for rights violations, the government didn’t live up to the principles of the Constitution. There were several cases of abuse of human rights; Hasina also resorted to regressive laws such as the Digital Security Act to attack free speech. Says Sara, “The government tried to segregate the country into two parts — people who are for the government and those against it. People who are against Hasina were labelled enemies of the state.” According to her, even now, the official narrative is — if you don’t support the Awami League, you don’t love your country and you are anti-Liberation.”

It must be understood that in Bangladesh, politics is always being played on the basis of who supported the Liberation movement of 1971 and who didn’t. Jamaat being an anti-Liberation force was always kept at an arm’s length by Hasina.

Jamaat had won two out of the 300 parliamentary seats in the 2008 elections. But its registration as a political party was cancelled in 2013. This time, some Jamaat members are fighting on the BNP symbol — the paddy sheaf — but by and large the BNP seems to be distancing itself from Islamists.

Nagorik Oikya is part of the 20-party alliance that includes the BNP. Says convener Mahmudur Rahman Manna, “In the past years, the BNP has been banking on its alliance with Jamaat to bring its Islamist supporters to the polls, but in doing so, it ignored the votes of non-Islamist constituents. This time, it was its strategy to join hands with our secular front to gain maximum advantage because nobody can ignore that there is an anti-incumbency factor against the Awami League and the next big political party is the BNP.”

“If you are talking about the BNP-Jamaat alliance, you are holding the wrong end of the stick,” says BNP leader Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir. “There is a strong anti-Awami League sentiment among the people and we are only giving them a democratic alternative,” he tells The Telegraph over phone.

Both the Jamaat and Hefajote are problematic for Bangladesh, according to political scientist Riaz. “Hefajote Islam is more fanatic than Jamaat, even though there is no denial of the latter’s role in heinous war crimes,” he says. Then adds, “Jamaat is an opportunist Islamist party. It wants a political fight by staying within the secular democracy, unlike Hefajote, which is a regressive party and does not believe in the Constitution.”

Senior Awami League leader Amir Hossain Amu, says, “Hefajote Islam had no role to play in the Liberation War unlike Jamaat, which is internationally known for its role in war crimes.” He asks, “Also, one party [BNP] practiced communal politics for more than 21 years while in power, why don’t you talk about that?” He emphasises that none of the Islamic parties are part of “our grand alliance”. An Islamic Democratic Alliance, however, has been formed to support the Awami League .

No matter how Amu would like to explain away his party’s affiliations, it is evident that, on the one hand, Hasina waged a war against home-grown terror outfits, while on the other, she curried favour with the radicals. “One doesn’t need to organise terrorist attacks if one can radicalise society and Hefajote is doing it by interfering in policy-making,” says Manna of Nagorik Oikya.

Many local observers believe that Hasina’s survival tactics pose a threat to Bangladesh’s secular values and to freedom of religion and belief. Says journalist Dhar, “There is no space left for critical comments about religion. It is the radical Islamists who are shaping public discourse.”

Dhar and many others are afraid the country will be made to pay for this.

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Far away from home in the United States, the former Chief Justice of Bangladesh, Surendra Kumar Sinha, stays abreast of all news related to the home elections scheduled for December 30. He reads Bangla dailies online, meets Bangladeshis from the neighbourhood and holds political discussions fearlessly. In a tiny apartment in New Jersey’s Paterson, Sinha has found his lost freedom.

In October 2017, the 67-year-old was ousted by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed for not toeing the government line. Over phone from Paterson, he says, “Here, I am able to speak freely. Nobody is recording my conversation with you.” Indeed, in the US, there is no Directorate General of Forces Intelligence, the military intelligence agency of Bangladesh, tapping phone calls or sniffing around one’s inbox.

In his autobiography, A Broken Dream: Rule of Law, Human Rights and Democracy, Sinha has written in detail about the intimidation and threats he faced in Bangladesh from the Awami League government led by Hasina. In the book, which he self-published this year, he shares how he was forced to go on leave first and then resign at the Singapore airport en route Canada.

After staying with his daughter in Canada for a while, he sought political asylum in the US and shifted to his brother’s house in Paterson.

Sinha’s political persecution intensified in 2017, after he upheld a high court verdict that declared the 16th Amendment to the Constitution of Bangladesh “illegal”. The amendment, introduced in 2014, had granted the Parliament sweeping powers to remove Supreme Court judges for misbehaviour and incapacity. The high court verdict came in May 2016. In January 2017, the government challenged the verdict by filing an appeal with the appellate division, and in July a Supreme Court bench headed by Sinha unanimously rejected the appeal.

Sinha had allegedly been pressurised by Hasina to pass the order in her government’s favour. Recalling the meeting organised at Bangabhaban, the official residence of the President of Bangladesh, a day before the judgment, he tells The Telegraph, “On July 1, 2017, I got a call from a person who identified himself as the military secretary to the President. He requested me to attend a meeting with the President on the same day at 7.30 pm. When I reached there, I was stunned to see the Prime Minister, law minister Anisul Huque and attorney-general Mahbubey Alam, alongside President Abdul Hamid.”

Sinha told Hasina that the amended Article 116 — it allows the President control over postings and promotions of district magistrates and judges in the lower courts — had already led to political interference in the judiciary. He made the point that the Supreme Court should be spared. He also urged her to restore Article 116 to its original form, wherein the control of the lower judiciary rested with the Supreme Court.

Says Sinha, “But she told me Article 116 cannot be touched because her father changed it through the Fourth Amendment. And she requested me to give the verdict on the 16th Amendment in favour of her government.”

That, of course, did not happen. Sinha scrapped the 16th Amendment, but even that was not the only reason why Hasina was irked. It seems Sinha made a reference to the contribution of the “founding fathers” while delivering his 16th Amendment judgment. And this, Hasina considered unpardonable. Why? Because she apparently doesn’t encourage talk of the sacrifices of other leaders during the 1971 War (referred to in Bangladesh as the Liberation War), other than her own father, the first President of Bangladesh, Mujibur Rahman. Points out Sinha, “Mujibur Rahman is known as the Father of the Nation. But there are many founding fathers — Kamal Hossain, Barrister M. Amir-ul Islam…”

Sinha is not a great fan of Mujibur Rahman, who is commonly referred to as Bangabandu or Mujib. According to him, the seeds of autocracy in Bangladesh were sown by him in the form of the Fourth Amendment. He also tells me how Mujib, besides diluting Article 116, also altered Article 11. “In its original form, it stated that Bangladesh as a republic would ensure democratic values, freedom and dignity of human person, and elections at all state affairs. But the Fourth Amendment removed the election system from this guideline, thus abolishing democratic philosophy from the Constitution.”

Sinha believes Mujib, who served as both President and Prime Minister, was power hungry. “He never tried to strengthen democracy or minimise racial differences and establish peace in the country as stalwarts elsewhere in the world such as Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela did.”

In 1974, Mujib allowed only a select few national dailies to operate. Arrest warrants were issued against journalists of newspapers critical of him. Sinha says Hasina’s way of functioning is not entirely dissimilar to her father’s. He talks about how she too tries to control the press and enumerates the cases of enforced disappearances of journalists, arbitrary arrests and so on.

The most recent case is that of photographer and artist Shahidul Alam. Alam, who openly opposes Hasina’s autocratic ways, was arrested this August. He got bail only last month. Says Sinha, “Hasina is a megalomaniac. She doesn’t want anyone to criticise her. Her idea is, praise (me) or perish.”

Sinha enjoyed Hasina’s confidence so long as his judgments made her happy. For instance, his judgment on the assassination of Mujib. In 2015, she appointed him the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court — in fact, he is the first Hindu to hold this post. But after the verdict on the 16th Amendment, the benefactor turned chief detractor. Sinha accuses Hasina of using military intelligence to harass him and finally forcing him to leave the country.

Many allege that Hasina is using the judiciary to settle scores with Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). There are two graft cases against Zia. The BNP-led 20-party alliance has demanded their leader be released before the polls — she has been charged with corruption and has been in prison since February this year — but that hasn’t happened yet.

There are allegations that the Election Commission (EC) is also under Hasina’s control. Despite repeated appeals by opposition political parties to delay polls for another three months, the EC set the December 30 date. Many say this will be a farcical election just like the one in 2014. Sinha agrees: “Elections can never be free and fair in the current circumstances.”

During our conversation, Sinha often refers to constitutions of different countries, especially of the US, and famous judgments — to explain how a democracy should function. He also tells me how he wrote his autobiography after being inspired by the Glimpses of World History by Jawaharlal Nehru, My Life: Law and Other Things by M.C. Setalvad and The Idea of Justice by Amartya Sen.

Pirated copies of his self-published book are available in Bangladesh but nobody can sell his book openly there. The government has levelled against him 11 allegations related to money laundering and financial irregularities. “Corruption is the tool she [Hasina] is using to harass me,” Sinha says. He talks about the rampant corruption in the Bangladeshi government. And adds, “But anyone who questions her government is an anti-national.”

I tell him that we in India are familiar with such things, but Sinha says that Indian public offices are not as compromised as their Bangladeshi counterparts. “I feel Bangladesh is the mirror image of Pakistan. No matter how much Hasina hates Pakistan, she is actually turning Bangladesh into a Pakistan in every possible way — by stifling free speech, giving unnecessary powers to the army and making it a police state.”

According to him, the Prime Minister’s recent appeasement of the radical Islamist group, Hefajote Islam, is another indication of how Bangladesh is slowly transforming into a “fundamentalist” state like Pakistan.

Hasina loyalists, however, allege that it is Sinha who has strong links with Jamaat-e-Islami, the other radical group. “This is cooked up by Hasina’s sycophants to erode my image,” retorts Sinha.

We are far from done but it’s 1pm in Paterson, time for Sinha’s lunch — his favourite dish is shorshey ilish or hilsa cooked in mustard. Finding ilish in the US is not a problem, he tells me, what is elusive is the Bangaliana or Bengaliness typical to Dhaka and Calcutta.

Going back to Dhaka seems impossible for now, but Sinha wants to get political asylum in Calcutta. He had intimated the Indian ambassador to Bangladesh, Harsh V. Shringla, expressing his wish, but hasn’t heard from him yet.

Sinha says, “Calcutta is my dream city. I enjoy everything there — the shingara, the long walks on the grounds of the Victoria Memorial, shopping for books in College Street.” Then adds, “It’s a liberal space.”

 

https://www.telegraphindia.com/culture/why-bangladesh-is-the-mirror-image-of-pakistan/cid/1679626?fbclid=IwAR1yqiMhsBcf8e9Q7gXSF7kk8i-LvwVNC6RyuAdkQljQOK6wOSH9MW3IMzc

There is a trend among some Buddhist monks to rage against Muslims on social media

By Sonia Sarkar

Radical rage: Bodu Bala Sena monks clash with police while calling for the release of Gnanasara Thero

Lately, Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka have been losing their temper a little too often. There was that incident from March this year, when a young monk raised a battle cry against Muslim Sri Lankans. “The sword at home is no longer to cut jackfruit; so, kindly sharpen it and go,” he exhorted. In September, when three men bared their bottoms at the sacred Buddhist site of Pidurangala Rock, had pictures taken and posted them on Facebook, the Buddhist clergy erupted. The flashers were eventually arrested. In the first case, the violent message was put out on YouTube and Whats-App. In the second, social media seethed with hate and threats.

Many violent posts by the monks have been reported in the past one year. These related to national politics, loss of Sinhalese lives in the civil war against Tamilians and anti-Muslim rants. The last category is probably the most rampant and robust. (The Sinhalese are the ethnic group native to Sri Lanka.)

One Facebook post said, “Kill all Muslims, don’t even save an infant.” A photograph of some makeshift weapons against a list of targets was circulated on WhatsApp by a monk. It read: “Thennekumbura mosque and the mosque in Muruthalawa tonight. Tomorrow, supposedly Pilimathalawa and Kandy.” Another YouTube video shows the high-profile monk, Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, roaring, “They (Muslims) have destroyed Buddhist countries like Afghanistan, now they have come here to pray. They say this is close to their culture. They want to claim that their faith is like ours…”

Earlier this year, monks also circulated posts on Facebook accusing Muslim shopkeepers of mixing sterilisation pills in food meant for Buddhist customers. Around the same time, a truck driver at Medamahanuwara in Kandy was beaten up over some petty traffic dispute, but monks spread the fake news that Muslims had killed him. Reason cited: apparently it was part of their larger strategy to wipe out the country’s Buddhist majority.

That as many as 25 Buddhist monks are in jail for committing some hate crime or the other is proof that not all is well between Sri Lanka’s communities.

Most of the radical posts have come from monks who believe in the extremist ideology of Buddhist groups such as Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), Ravana Balaya, Sinhala Ravaya and Mahasohon Balakaya.

Buddhist monks have set out on a mission to “protect” the motherland and they are trying to enlist mostly uneducated and unemployed youth from the lower middle classes into their fold. A senior Sinhalese monk tellsThe Telegraphover phone from Colombo, “Inn ko jawani ka josh hai… These monks are young and hot-blooded.” He does not sound appreciative at all.

In March, soon after violence instigated by social media posts went out of control, the Sri Lankan government declared a state of Emergency and temporarily blocked access to social media platforms. Facebook, which has over 55,00,000 users in Sri Lanka, was also asked to introduce more filters on Sinhalese content and hire Sinhalese-speaking content screeners besides instituting a direct point of contact with local authorities.

Post crackdown, some Facebook pages have become dormant. Messages to the Facebook pages maintained under the BBS name remain unanswered. According to those in the know, BBS is one of the most violent groups.

Amalini De Saryah of the Colombo-based civil society group, Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), studies these groups and their activities on social media. She says, “While we can’t be sure which of the dedicated hate pages and groups have been created by the monks themselves, we’ve seen both public profile and personal profile pages in monks’ names, sometimes sharing posts with violence or hate speech and commenting in support of other posts that do the same.”

Researchers who have been studying changes in Sri Lankan society point out that “religious confrontation” has started to supersede ethnic confrontation post-2009 — when the Sri Lanka Armed Forces defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

In fact, a paper titled “Self, Religion, Identity and Politics” by the Colombo-based International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) states, “What was considered to be ‘radical’ in the 1980s was no longer valid twenty years later. There are also certain kinds of “radicalism”, which the Buddhist public may find acceptable… For some sections of the Buddhist polity, even the actions of the BBS were legitimate and valid, and the BBS activism was a justifiable intervention to prevent what they saw as the erosion of Buddhist values and the place of Buddhists and Buddhism in our country.”

Some regard the involvement of Buddhist monks in hate politics as a recent development and a response to Islamist fundamentalism. These people allege that Muslims are attacking pagodas, destroying Buddhist colonies, cutting their sacred peepal trees and constructing mosques everywhere.

But traditionally, Muslims in Sri Lanka have been accommodative and maintained cordial links with Sinhalese Buddhists.

From time to time, Sinhalese Buddhists have argued that they are the majority in Sri Lanka and therefore they must rule. They also say that there is no other country for Sinhalese Buddhists, and hold that they are a minority in the world and must protect their race. It seems, in this fight to protect their kind, some monks are going to extremes and are unprepared to heed saner voices even from within the community.

Social scientist Pathiraja explains, “Earlier, monks played a significant role in the village temples. They were considered leaders of villages. With time, temples have become irrelevant. But the monks wanted to get back their lost recognition in society. How else could they do it other than by using religion as a tool? And that is why they created the notion of an ‘enemy’ by showing people that the growing Muslim population is trying to eliminate the Buddhists from their own land, by extremism.”

YouTube video shows the high-profile monk, Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, roaring, “They (Muslims) have destroyed Buddhist countries like Afghanistan, now they have come here to pray.
YouTube video shows the high-profile monk, Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, roaring, “They (Muslims) have destroyed Buddhist countries like Afghanistan, now they have come here to pray.”Image: Facebook

Recalling a conversation he had had with the hardliner, Gnanasara Thero, a professor of Buddhism at Colombo’s Buddhist and Pali University, he says, “When I asked him to change his way of speaking, he used cuss words I have never heard before.” Gnanasara Thero is currently languishing in jail on charges of contempt of court. Adds the professor who does not want to be identified, “They (radical monks) are doing it in the name of nationalism.”

That’s not a new phenomenon. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Anagarika Dharmapala, the father of Buddhist Protestantism in Sri Lanka, founded Buddhist schools and strengthened the Sinhala language and Buddhism. When the Sri Lankan Constitution was framed in 1972, it said Buddhism has the foremost place and, accordingly, it shall be the duty of the state to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana. A Sinhala army song, said to be composed by a Buddhist monk, goes thus: “Linked by love of the religion and protected by the Motherland, brave soldiers, you should go hand in hand.”

Mario Gomez, executive director at the Colombo-based research group, International Centre for Ethnic Studies, talks about how these violent monks enjoyed tacit support of the State under Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidentship — especially between 2009 and 2015. Rajapaksa’s brother and former defence minister, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, is considered close to the BBS monks. He was also the chief guest at the opening of Meth Sevana, the Buddhist Leadership Academy of the BBS, in 2013.

With the political equations fast changing in Sri Lanka, the fear is that radical monks will get a new lease of life. Some reports suggest that an appeal has been submitted to the government by hardline monks to release Gnanasara Thero on bail. “It’s a lull so far as violence by monks is concerned, but it might be unleashed the moment he is out,” says the professor from Pali University.

A young monk, Ratana Nanda Bhante, who has chosen to separate himself from his violent peers, says, “BBS is bringing a bad name to the entire community. People think all Buddhist monks are violent. The problem is some monks apply their intellect to save the nation, some adopt militancy. But in Buddhism, there is no place for militancy.”

Published in The Telegraph, November 25, 2018

Link: https://www.telegraphindia.com/culture/sinhalese-monks-unleash-a-new-brand-of-nationalism-in-sri-lanka/cid/1676393

Interview of Mario Gomez on State’s relationship with Buddhist monks:

Q.  Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka have always participated in the national politics and charted hate politics in Sri Lanka. What are the recent changes noticeable in their conduct?

 

A. Buddhist monks have always played a role in politics: they were involved in the assassination of a Prime Minister in the 1950s and have been Members of Parliament! Yet, it would be incorrect to say that they have always advocated ‘hate politics’.  There are many political opinions within the Buddhist sangha. Some have been vocal, violent and have advocated strong nationalist positions. Others have been moderate and have advocated for more tolerant views and the celebration of diversity, more in line with the Buddha’s precepts and teachings. Unfortunately, the more extreme views have dominated the public discourse and the media, especially in recent times. In recent times, mainly because of tacit support from the State (especially between 2009 and 2015) the more radical groups have engaged in hate speech and other violent  activities against other ethnic and religious groups. There was impunity till very recently: the Buddhist clergy were seen as being above the law. However, recently the courts have become more independent and robust. There was a particularly important judgement in August 2018 where a well-known radical Buddhist monk was convicted of contempt of court under the Constitution. This is probably a ‘first of its kind’. There was also a recent case (July 2018) where a religious minority (the Jehovah’s Witnesses) succeeded in a fundamental rights case on the grounds of illegal arrest and the violation of equal protection of the law. One of the problems in Sri Lanka has been the lack of law enforcement, especially in the case of anti-Muslim violence. Police have stood by and let mobs attack Muslims. In some case they have actively participated in the violence. Law enforcement officers need to enforce the law, and the Attorney General’s Department needs to prosecute violations of the law, if ethno-religious relations in Sri Lanka are to improve. 

Q. Are they using social media as a tool to spread hatred as their target is the youth because youth shapes the nation?

A. Radical Sinhala Buddhist groups are increasingly using social media to spread hatred. In the recent riots in Digana, Kandy, social media was used to incite people to commit violence. They are targeting youth and other groups that may subscribe to their ideology of ‘hate’. Building a counter-narrative to hate speech is important, both in the social media and other domains.

Q.  Are  these radical monks taken seriously by the youth of Sri Lanka? Do they have enough followers? What impact do they have on the youth?
A. Some radical monks have a following. It is unclear however, to what extent. In recent times, many of the radical monks received prominence because of tacit support from the State.  While radical monks will continue to advocate for their extreme positions, support from the state exaggerates the influence they have and their importance.  My sense is that most Sri Lankans favour moderation. Yet sometimes the space for moderate voices to speak is missing.  All institutions of the state need to celebrate diversity and promote a culture of tolerance for ethnic and religious diversity. The Police and the Attorney-General’s Department need to act impartially and ensure that law and order is maintained, and that perpetrators of hate speech and religious violence are prosecuted, irrespective of whether they are members of the clergy or not. 

 

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..

Tripura CM Biplab Deb skirts a foot-in-the-mouth moment and tells Sonia Sarkar what he is doing to undo all that the Left did

Picture Credit: Suman Choudhury

As I step into Tripura chief minister (CM) Biplab Kumar Deb’s office, I expect to witness a few foot-in-the-mouth moments. I am at the Secretariat in Agartala. Deb, however, disappoints me. He is extraordinarily reticent. His eyes look tired, sleep-deprived. Indeed, there is lot of work ahead for Deb, who has just completed six months in office.

The biggest challenge of all is to “fix” everything that he claims the CPI(M) has destroyed. Deb tells me: “When I say everything, it means everything – economy, agriculture, employment, education and corruption.”

It’s a brand new Tripura Deb wants to build. And, he claims, small changes are already visible. “Earlier, when I’d meet people, they were mostly poker-faced. Now, when I go around, I see only happy faces,” he says with pride.

I get a different picture though during my conversations with various sections of society – drivers, rickshaw-pullers, artistes, government officials, teachers – as I traipse around Agartala. People have already started questioning Deb’s governance. There are murmurs of discontent. Some of the things one gets to hear often are – “We didn’t expect this”, “BJP has changed Tripura in no time, and all for worse” and “It was a mistake to have elected the BJP”.

Breaking the 25-year reign of CPI(M) in March this year, BJP won 35 seats; its partner, the Indigenous Peoples Front of Tripura, which has a substantial base among the tribals, won eight. Their combined strength is 43 in the 60-seat Assembly. Upon winning the Assam Assembly elections in 2016, Tripura was BJP’s next target in the Northeast. A band of 52 Union ministers was sent to campaign to overthrow the Left. Big BJP men made big promises.

The party promised to change people’s fortunes by giving free education to the girl child right up to graduation, pay parity for 2.15 lakh state government officials courtesy the Seventh Pay Commission, one job for every family, free smartphones for the youth, housing for all, regularisation of services of contractual government employees, doubling of farmers’ incomes in the next five years, enhanced minimum wages under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), enhancement of social security pension to Rs 2,000, a whole range of things.

The daily wagers under MGNREGA allege that they barely got 10 days of work in the past five months and the wages haven’t gone up either. No new jobs have been created, but there has been another promise to “streamline the recruitment process” for unemployed youth. Those joining government service in Tripura on or after July 1 this year have been told that they will not be entitled to the general provident fund. The Seventh Pay Commission is yet to be implemented, though Deb says, “The P.P. Verma Committee is looking into it.”

Deb also shares his grand plans to promote Tripura. He will be setting up a rubber industry – the annual rubber production in the state is 50,000-plus tonnes; Tripura tea will be branded and sold outside the state; bamboo and green pineapple, the indigenous produce of the state, will get a fresh market impetus.

All of six feet and three inches – at some point he had wanted to join the police force – Deb sits straight in his chair, unperturbed by the list of complaints. I ask him about the three people who were lynched to death in July over a rumour about “child-lifting” and allegations about his education minister Ratan Lal Nath instigating the masses. He replies, “The Communists have coined the word, mob lynching. The biggest insurgency in Tripura was in the late 1980s, 1990s and 2000s when the Communists were in power.”

That’s Deb’s way of convincing me that Tripura was more violent during the Left rule. Deb, like Mamata Banerjee, tends to blame the Left for everything. When I ask him what the logic is behind blaming the Left always, his answer is prompt and vague: “Manik Sarkar (his predecessor) encouraged people to grow marijuana. We have arrested over 200 people dealing with marijuana, most of them turned out to be CPI(M) men.”

The week before, Tripura police claimed they had seized over 2,100 kilos of marijuana worth Rs 1.5 crore from an oil tanker at Dharamnagar in the northern parts. Over the past six months, the police have seized over 20,000 kilograms of marijuana. Most of these seizures have taken place from the Sepahijala district, the constituency of the former CM. But these arrests over drugs are mostly political, Left leaders allege. The CPI(M) also alleges that government officials have been bulldozing their office-buildings on the outskirts of Agartala. The government, however, maintains that these offices were built on government-owned land and must be taken over.

Deb’s other attack on the Left is through textbooks. Despite having a literacy rate of 94.65 per cent, the quality of education in the state has been poor, he claims. So he doesn’t want children in Tripura to study the Russian revolution, Lenin and Karl Marx anymore. He wants NCERT textbooks to reach state-run schools from next year. “The Communists have highlighted only people they hail as heroes, what about our heroes – Ashoka, Syama Prasad Mookherjee, Mahatma Gandhi. Are they not great enough?” he asks.

We are a good way into the interview, and he is keen to talk some more. The conversation that started in Hindi has long moved to Bengali. But there hasn’t been any foot-in-the-mouth moment as yet. Nothing in the league of what he said about Internet existing during the times of the Mahabharata or that Civil Engineering students should opt for the Civil Services.

I ask him why he courts controversy so often and he shows me his “cultural” and “intellectual” side by invoking Tagore. He says, “When you and I look at dew drops, we would just find them mundane and ordinary, but when Tagore looked at them, he was moved to compose poems. What people make out of what I say is up to them.”

But Deb has tripped on his general knowledge about Tagore in the past. Earlier this year, he spoke about how Tagore rejected the Nobel Prize in protest against the British government and got the Biswasrestho or the world’s best award for Gitanjali. Tagore had renounced his knighthood and got the Nobel Prize for Gitanjali. The CM’s words interrupt my flashback. He is saying, “Every other community knows, Bengalis dimaag ka khata hai. Amader kachhe achhe… Bengalis have great intellect. We Bengalis have it.”

Deb is dressed in a white kurta and pyjama with a red-and-white Manipuri risa or scarf. He tells me he has a huge collection of risas representing the various tribes of the state. “My concern for tribals is not mere posturing, I take everyone along. This is an inclusive government,” he says.

During election rallies, he spoke in Kokborok, the state’s second official language. But after he assumed power he proposed to ban its use on all news channels and introduce Hindi instead. As in most BJP-ruled states, Hindi supremacy continues here too. At the time of this interview, Tripura University, a central varsity, is observing the Hindi Fortnight.

Deb is an obedient foot soldier of the BJP. But his views on implementation of National Register of Citizens (NRC) is different from his party’s. He says, “There isn’t any need for NRC here, we don’t have the problem of infiltration.”

Could it be that being from Bangladesh himself, Deb has a soft corner for the people of opar Bangla or the other side? His defences are up almost immediately. “But I was born here. Yes, my father came from Chandpur in Chittagong in 1967 and my mother in 1971.”

His detractors, however, are not having any of this. They have already labelled him a Bangladeshi for not implementing the NRC in the state. After the interview, his aide, a former journalist, calls me to say, “Mother wala point thoda downplay kijiyega…” A day before the interview, the same man tells me over phone, “Positive likhiyega.” Clearly, there is worry within the BJP camp that the Bangladeshi tag should not stick or the outsider label for that matter. Deb spent over a decade in Delhi after finishing his graduation from Udaipur College in Tripura; returned only in 2015.

By way of changing perceptions, Deb has now gone and done the ultimate. He has pulled his children out from their Delhi schools and has had them join schools in Agartala. He can’t emphasise this enough: “If the children of the CM don’t study in the state, why would anyone want their children to study here?”

Point. Deb, it seems, wants to lead by example. But one must be careful before taking cue. Remember, he tends to put his foot in his mouth much too often.

This interview appeared in The Telegraph, September 16, 2018

https://www.telegraphindia.com/states/north-east/there-is-no-need-for-nrc-in-our-state-no-infiltration-problem-here-259544

Illustration: Suman Choudhury

Swedish author and Sino-India specialist, Bertil Lintner, chats with Sonia Sarkar about hawks and doves

Last week, at the New Delhi launch of Bertil Lintner’s book, China’s India War, one of the panelists joked that India feels gratified whenever the West takes a pro-India stance in the ongoing India-China rift, because international opinion is still shaped by writers from that part of the world. Sitting on the dais, the Swedish journalist and author laughed.

Lintner’s narrative on the Sino-Indian war of 1962 is the antithesis of British journalist Neville Maxwell’s 1970 book, India’s China War. Maxwell had argued that it was India that provoked China in 1962 and China had fallen prey to Jawaharlal Nehru’s hostile policies.

Later that week, when Lintner and I meet in a noisy café at the India International Centre, he tells me, “I think, he [Nehru] had too much faith in China; he didn’t realise that the Chinese were not of the same wavelength.”

Dressed in a deep brown pullover and a pair of jeans, Lintner speaks softly. He tends to explain things in great detail too. The pair of thick, square-shaped glasses he has on adds to the general impression of gravitas. But what is most startling perhaps, off-dais, is the impassive expression on his face.

Inevitably, Doklam comes up. Recent media reports claim that over 1,600 Chinese troops are still present in this region of Bhutan. Most other years, they leave by November. Says the 64-year-old, “Doklam was not about a road. It was the Chinese attempt to create a wedge between Bhutan and India. Bhutan also wanted to show that they are independent of India; they thought India should not get involved as it is about Bhutan and China.”

But there is a view among a section of Indian security experts that New Delhi has irked China several times ever since Narendra Modi assumed power. The invitation extended to the “Prime Minister” of the Tibetan government-in-exile, Lobsang Sangay, for Modi’s swearing-in ceremony in 2014 did not go down well. Then again, this year, India allowed the Dalai Lama to visit Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, a territory China claims.

Lintner starts to say something and then stops midway. The words that finally emanate from his mouth, “That’s not my subject.” I find it strangely cautious, if not surprising, coming from one who is known to be vocal about issues such as human rights violations by the Myanmar Army, has questioned disappearances and imprisonment of politicians and civilians alike in Myanmar and has written extensively on organised crime in the Asia Pacific. He is known to be a champion of Press freedom, too.

And while Lintner makes it abundantly clear that he is not interested in antagonising the Modi government, he does remember to warn India about China’s intrusion into the Indian Ocean. He says, “Most of China’s oil supplies come through the Indian Ocean, most of its minerals sourced from Africa pass through it and most of its exports, which go through Europe, to Africa pass through this ocean, which India considers as its own lake. When China enters this area in a big way, there is concern – what is China up to?”

Lintner also talks about how China’s presence in South Asia – it is building ports in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh – is a cause for concern. “It’s part of China’s global strategy and India happens to be in the way,” he adds.

China’s influence on the Northeast is also huge. In his book, Lintner writes that China has not ceased to support the rebels. “These groups buy weapons on what is euphemistically called ‘the black market’ in China.”

He even claims that The United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) chief Paresh Barua, who still evades arrest, stays in Chinese towns and travels freely across the country.  Lintner has met Barua thrice – Myanmar (1985), Bangkok (1992) and Dhaka (2010).

In his book, Linter writes,  China is providing Barua a safe haven because it argues that it is only “reciprocating India’s act of providing sanctuary for the Dalai Lama, allowing the enemy of one country to stay in the other.” India’s decision to give shelter to Dalai Lama in 1959 certainly did establish that “India is China’s enemy,” Lintner, who met Dalai Lama twice, stresses.

Lintner first met Dalai Lama at McLeodganj in Himachal Pradesh  in 1984 when he was touring India as a correspondent for a Danish daily.

Lintner’s India ties date back to 1975. That is also the year he visited Calcutta for the first time. Lintner’s mother is Swedish, his father an Austrian refugee from Nazi Germany. He was a political prisoner before he managed to escape to Sweden and, thereafter, left for Brazil. Lintner was six months old at the time.

“When I was 19, I managed to track him [his father] to a New Zealand address, where he had moved with his new family. It was to meet him that I left Sweden for the first time, in 1975, to travel to New Zealand, overland,” he says.

Lintner explored India by train and bus. He recalls how he stayed in a dormitory at the Salvation Army Red Shield Guest House on Calcutta’s Sudder Street for Rs 8 per night. He also suffered three bouts of dysentery and lost more than 20 kilos.

During that trip he caught another bug. Lintner claims it was Calcutta that inspired his 22-year-old self to become a writer.

“My favourite part of Calcutta is College Street with all its bookstores and the Indian Coffee House,” says the veteran journalist who has travelled the world before choosing for his home, Chiang Mai in Thailand, three decades ago. He is married to Hseng Noung, a Shan or ethnic person from Myanmar.

And that is not the only Myanmar connection he is known for. Globally, Lintner is known for his relentless reporting from Myanmar (erstwhile Burma). The military junta blacklisted him for 23 years, beginning 1989. He started visiting Myanmar again only recently, since 2013.

While it is easy to understand Lintner’s take on the Sino-India face-off, his views on Myanmar and the ousted Rohingyas are more layered, somewhat difficult to grasp and to process, thereafter.

For one, he does not seem outraged at the recent killings and exodus of Rohingyas from the Rakhine state of Myanmar. He does not even blame the National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who runs the Myanmar government, for failing to contain the sectarian violence unleashed against the Muslims by the Buddhists.

“There is a democratically elected government in Myanmar but three most important ministries – defence, home and border affairs – are controlled by the military. Suu Kyi has a very limited role to play,” says Lintner, who is the author of Outrage: Burma’s Struggle for Democracy.

But yes, he concedes, she could have visited the victims of violence, along with other elected representatives, to show the military there is also a civilian space in the country. So far, so good.

But prod him further and you learn that Lintner is not willing to dub the Rohingya situation a “religious” conflict at all.

The real problem is, he says, is that the Rohingyas live close to Bangladesh and they have many similarities with the natives of Chittagong there. “Rohingyas comprise only five per cent of the Muslim population in Myanmar. Most Muslims are in the cities; they are merchants, shopkeepers, professionals- they have Burmese names, they speak Burmese and they are Burmese citizens. Rohingyas are a rural community and they live in an area next to an overpopulated country, (where they have) exactly the same people on the other side of the border. They speak Bengali in Chittagong dialect, they don’t speak Burmese. Other Muslims (in Myanmar) see it like this — we have a small Rakhine state with 3.5 million people whereas next door, there is a country with 180 million people. It is a completely different story,” he explains.

And what, in his opinion, triggered the recent violence that led to the exodus of an estimated seven lakh people from Myanmar to Bangladesh?

Lintner now launches into an elaborate explanation of how on the night the Kofi Annan Commission Report came out this August – the same that asked Myanmar to scrap restrictions on movement and citizenship of the Rohingyas – the armed radical group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa) attacked 30 police stations and one army base at Rakhine. “This triggered enormous backlash. Thousands of people have suffered because of this, but nobody is questioning the Arsa,” he says.

The insinuation is obvious – the Rohingyas are responsible for their own situation. And if there is any doubt about his stance in this debate, the next statement makes things clear as daylight. To a question about whether there will be a guaranteed safe passage for the Rohingyas to Rakhine state following the pact between Myanmar and Bangladesh, Lintner says, “First of all, they don’t want to come back. Plus, in order to return, they have to prove they are residents of Myanmar and not Bangladeshis. And they cannot prove that.” This last is a reference to the fact that in 2015, in Myanmar’s first census in 30 years, Rohingyas were not considered an ethnic group of the country.

I have heard him the first time and the second, and both arguments seem at variance with his professional persona. I keep talking to hide any apparent disappointment on my part.

Some Rohingyas have also come to India for shelter, but the Indian government doesn’t want them. India regards Rohingya Muslims a national security threat. I am yet to frame the question, but he is already dodging it, laughing. “Well, ask the Indian security agencies…”

This time, I cannot help but say it out aloud – so he is hell-bent on being politically correct when it comes to India? Is that it? “No, no… I am not here to talk about contemporary Indian politics. It is beyond the scope of my coverage… maybe, I will write about it in a book in future…”

Getting answers from journalists isn’t easy at all, but books are fair game.

tétevitae

1953: Lintner is born in Sweden and then in 1975 leaves for Asia

1980: Starts working as a journalist; is the Burma correspondent for the Hong Kong-based weekly, Far Eastern Economic Review

1984: Visits India as a correspondent for a Danish daily; covers the stand-off at the Golden Temple in Amritsar and also interviews Dalai Lama in McLeodganj

1985: Undertakes an 18-month, 2,275-kilometre trek from northeastern India across Burma’s northern rebel-held areas to China. Codifies this expe-rience in the 1996 book, Land of Jade: A journey from India through Northern Burma to China

Has written 17 books to date, including Bloodbrothers: Crime, Business and Politics in Asia and Aung San Suu Syi and Burma’s struggle for Democracy

A shorter version of the story has appeared in The Telegraph. December 17, 2017.

https://www.telegraphindia.com/world/doklam-was-not-about-a-road-it-was-the-chinese-attempt-to-create-a-wedg-194070

 ENDS

 

– Historian Upinder Singh talks to Sonia Sarkar about her new book, an engaging exploration of our consistently violent past
Illustration: Suman Choudhury

Professor of History at Delhi University, and daughter of the former Prime Minister of India Manmohan Singh, Upinder Singh is just out with her new book, Political Violence in Ancient India (Harvard University Press). The book examines the representation of kingship and political violence in epics, religious texts and treatises between 600 BCE and 600 CE. But it rings with relevance to our present. Over green tea and kaju barfi at her campus home in North Delhi, Singh chats about her father whom she doesn’t see “leaping headlong into hectic political activity” in future; her next possible writing project — about the religious and cultural connect between India, Sri Lanka and the rest of Southeast Asia; but mostly about her new book, its revelations about India’s violent past and the need to read history for what it is, instead of trying to appropriate it. Excerpts:

The essential question that comes to mind upon reading Political Violence in Ancient Indiais: have we been living in a bubble all this while? Are Indians, actually, inherently non-violent in nature?

Many Indians have a perception of their early history as being exceptionally non-violent. I was aware of the violent details, the wars between different kingdoms and the oligarchies, the class and caste conflicts, but I had not made note of it as a historian. Then one day, I saw The Nitisara by Kamandaka, written between 500 and 700 CE, lying on my shelf. It was about political violence. One thing led to another, I looked at Ashoka’s inscriptions, I read Kalidas, all these texts said a lot about this issue. Violence was so pervasive in ancient India that it was not possible for me to tackle violence in general. So I decided to focus on the political domain.

The book has a contemporary relevance, coinciding as it does with the ongoing instances of political violence across the country.

When I was writing the book, I was not consciously thinking of the present, but now that it is out, I am much more aware about the contemporary relevance of this issue. People have become aware and worried about it and that makes them interested in finding out what was happening hundreds of years ago.

QThe chapter, The Wilderness, goes into the very harsh punishments prescribed in ancient India for those violating royal herds. It notes that anyone who killed or stole cattle from the king’s herd, or incited someone else to do so, was put to death. Were there no juridical methods to deal with crimes then?

That bit is from the Arthashastra, wherein Kautilya is describing an ideal state and how justice should be delivered. This included capital punishment, especially for crimes that involved the property of the king. We don’t know to what extent such justice was administered. Kautilya talks about a judicial apparatus when it comes to deciding civil and criminal crimes. But he also sees the king as someone who holds the power in the administration of justice. It is important to remember that these texts – Arthashastra, Manusmriti – are theoretical works; actual practice must have varied.

QRamayan and Mahabharat are war-centric. What do they tell us about our past? Was any of it real?

Many people want to know if these things actually happened. Whether Ram and Sita, the Pandavs and the Kauravs existed, if the wars at all happened and when. It’s impossible to prove if they happened or they didn’t. But there is some historical basis to these epics. There were some characters and events and then over time, these literary epics came to be woven around them. But you cannot read them literally; there is poetic imagination at work. It’s not really important to try to fix the exact date when the events may have taken place. Even if they have no historical basis, that does not take away the great cultural importance they have.

Q The book talks about how Ram’s story became part of BJP’s Hindutva agenda and communal polarisation tactics. Does this epic cast a shadow on contemporary Indian politics?

Of course, it does. There is a continuing close relationship between the past and the present. But many of our current political platforms are based on the distorted presentation of the past. The popular discourse continues to be impacted by the political propaganda and dubious historical interpretations. We need to distinguish between what politicians are saying about Indian history and what Indian history is all about.

So you are saying there are deliberate attempts to distort Indian history?

Yes. History has always been political. But the past few years, there has been an alarming rise in distortion and manipulation of history – whether it is an attempt to rewrite history texts at the school level or police university syllabi.

Q You have observed that Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru helped create the myth of a non-violent ancient India while building an Independence movement on the principle of non-violence. Was this required?

There were several factors that led to the creation of this impression that non-violence is somehow deeply rooted in the Indian psyche. Both Gandhi and Nehru had an understanding of the diversity of Indian history. Gandhi was aware of the element of violence in texts such as the Mahabharat, but he considered the Bhagwad Gita a work about non-violence. Nehru spoke about how Indian history is marked by a great degree of social harmony. By choosing the Lion Capital that originally graced the Ashoka Pillar at Sarnath as the official emblem of independent India, both connected modern India with Ashoka and Buddhism. So at the time of national movement, it is not surprising Gandhi and Nehru were trying to emphasise values they thought were important for Indians of their own time and for future. I think, there is an emphasis on non-violence – what they were trying to do was to create a source of inspiration rather than a deliberate falsifying of India’s past.

Q And this idea of non-violence, as you see it, is now being consciously and systematically challenged by a new politically inspired aggressive idea of Indian-ness, which is more in line with (Vinay Damodar) Savarkar’s thought?

If you look at Savarkar’s Six Glorious Epochs Of Indian History, you’ll see he has no admiration for Ashoka. There is no emphasis on non-violence as a positive value in the entire discourse. He seems to think non-violence is a weakness in the face of foreign aggression. I am connecting all this with present-day Hindutva. There is aggressive Hindutva, an attempt to build an idea of aggressive Indian-ness. I don’t see this as an answer; it is part of the problem.

Q Why is it important to admire or even know of King Ashoka?

Ashoka is an important historical figure to engage with in the atmosphere of potential communal violence that we live in. He was a Buddhist ruler living in a multi-religious empire. He laid emphasis on religious dialogue and how people of different religions should respect each other, which is relevant in our times.

Q You write that war is an important metaphor in Buddhism and Jainism. How do we connect this with the violence that Buddhist monks have unleashed in Myanmar and Sri Lanka?

If you look at the early history of Buddhism, there is an extreme emphasis on non-violence. No religion remains true to its original principles. When Buddhism becomes associated with the state, there is violence. Also, Buddhist texts talk about persecution of monks, but religious conflict was not rampant in the period I am talking about because no religion had succeeded in capturing the state.

There is an impression that Islam, which expands on the basis of proselytisation, is the harbinger of violence in India. What is your analysis?

My book illustrates a great deal of political violence in ancient times, even before Islam came in. It’s not that violence made its appearance in India with the Turkish invasion.

Q And now BJP leaders are saying the Taj Mahal was built by “traitors”.

All these controversies are based on chauvinistic ideas and Hindu-Muslim polarisation. For a historian, this increasing appropriation of his-tory and using history to fuel one’s own political agenda is distressing. A lot of these controversies are about those who want to propagate the Hindutva way of Indian history. Historians have to find ways of effectively challenging these views.

 

(https://www.telegraphindia.com/india/we-need-to-distinguish-betweenwhatpoliticianssay-about-our-history-and-185271 )


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