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For years, as Nigeria reeled under economic crisis, its film industry haemorrhaged. That is when Bollywood entered the scene and kindled Nollywood. Sonia Sarkar reports on the vibrant Nigerian film industry and its India connect

 
actor Stephanie Linus;

Kenneth Nnebue, who helped make the first video film;When Shashi Kapoor died last year, Nigerian film websites paid moving tributes to him. And why not? Generations of Nigerians had grown up watching his films. In the news website, Daily Trust, the obituary by Gambo Dori read: “Whenever I watch films produced from Kano-Kaduna axis I clearly see the enactment of the motions of Shashi Kapoor and the like. Many productions particularly the soyayya (love story) films are heavily indebted to the golden era of the Indian cinema.”

The West African republic, the continent’s most populous and prosperous nation, may have a thriving 1,500-films-a-year industry – worth $3.3 billion – today, but it wasn’t like this always.

In the early 1920s and 30s, Syrian and Lebanese entrepreneurs built chains of open-air cinema houses across Nigerian cities. People made a beeline to watch Chinese and Hollywood movies even though they were far removed from African society and culture. And then, in the 1960s, Indian cinema entered the Nigerian market.

Lebanese businessmen decided to import Bollywood films. They were cheaper than American ones and made better business sense. Indian hits such as Mother India, Bombay to Goa, The Burning Train, Deewarbecame wildly popular with Nigerian cine-goers.

“How much we recounted Amitabh Bachchan hanging from trains and fighting the bad guy as a policeman,” says Nigerian director and screenwriter Femi Odugbemi.

Nigerians of that generation even coined nicknames for their favourite Bollywood stars in the local Hausa language. Dharmendra was ” sarkin karfi” or king of strength, Rishi Kapoor, “mace”, meaning woman, and the name for Sanjay Dutt was ” dan daba mai lasin” or hooligan with a licence. This trend continued right through the 1980s.

Over time, Nigerians also came to be exposed to indigenous films such as Ossie Davis’s Kongi’s Harvest (1970), Ola Balogun’s A Deusa Negra (1978) and Orun Mooru (1982), but the oil doom and flailing economy across Africa meant local filmmakers couldn’t afford to keep up their efforts.

The Nigerian film industry in its present form was born in the 1990s. In 1992, a Lagos-based VHS tape and electronic gadgets’ merchant, Kenneth Nnebue, sponsored the shooting of a video film titled Living in Bondage. Shot on a budget of $12,000, it defined the path for the new industry that came to be known as Nollywood.

The video boom, apart from powering a sleeping industry, was also crucial socially. It kept Nigerian youth away from drugs and alcohol.

“The Nigerian film industry is formed around the digital cinema technology. It started out as a straight-to-video process but has now settled into mostly working with advanced digital imaging technologies. Most films are shot with professional digital cinema cameras and very few are on celluloid,” says Odugbemi.

But the Bollywood connect persists.

Celebrated Nigerian actor Stephanie Okereke Linus, who has starred in films such as Dry, Boonville Redemption and Through The Glass, tells The Telegraph in an email that during her growing up years, cinema meant nothing but Bollywood. She says, “I have vivid memories of dancing to the songs. Bollywood was one of the biggest influences that spurred my interest in acting.”

Incidentally, when Akon sang Chammak Challo to SRK’s Ra.One in 2011, it was said that singing a Hindi song came easy to the American singer as he had spent his childhood years in Senegal – another west African country – where Bollywood was venerated.

Films in Nollywood are made in English, Yoruba, Hausa and Igbo, among other Nigerian languages, often borrow plots, styles and music from Bollywood cinema and rework them in local settings. Among them, Hausa-language films from northern Nigeria (the Kano-Kaduna area referred to by Gambo Dori) made in Kannywood – the sub-film industry within Nollywood – are most influenced by Bollywood music. Elements of Bollywood in terms of storytelling and plot were also seen in Yoruba-language movies such as Ola Balogun’s Ajani Ogun (1976) and Adeyemi Afolayan’s Kadara (1980).

Says Femi Odugbemi whose Gidi Blues (2016), travelled to many international festivals, “The strength and narrative style of Indian cinema inspires many films in Nigeria, especially in the northern cities.” He adds, “The biggest inspiration for Nollywood has been the strength of cultural assertion in Bollywood films.”

In “Bollywood comes to Nigeria”, Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University Brian Larkin, writes, “After Maine Pyar Kiya was released, one friend told me it was his favourite movie: ‘I liked the film’ he said, ‘because it taught me about the world’… The style of the movies and plots deal with the problem of how to modernise while preserving traditional values – not usually a narrative theme in a Jean-Claude Van Damme or Steven Spielberg movie.”

What Nigerian actor-director-producer Kunle Afolayan says, builds on Larkin’s friend’s sentiment. Says Afolayan, “The USP of Nollywood is to create Cinema Verite [truthful cinema]. Films that are true to who we are and reflect our culture around the world.”

The new films out of Nollywood are slices of African life and culture. For example, Tunde Kelani’s Thunderbolt focuses on the disunity among Africans, sexual politics in Nigerian society and conflict between modernity and African traditions. Daniel Oriahi’s Taxi Driver: Oko Ashewo is a dark comedy thriller about Lagos at night. The industry has experimented with themes such as occult, prostitution and child abuse. Social issues such as the kidnapping of Chibok girls by Boko Haram militants and Ebola also featured in films such as The Missing Girls (2015) and 93 Days (2016), respectively. And Chukwuma Osakwe’s J.U.D.E. hinted at the racial discrimination Africans face in India.

Osakwe, who learnt acting at the Mohali-based Mad Arts, the late Jaspal Bhatti’s film school, says, “In the film, a young Nigerian advertising professional is shown travelling from Lagos to Chandigarh to chase his dream of filmmaking. He faces hurdles but doesn’t give up.”

Nollywood is now the world’s second largest film industry in terms of number of films produced every year after Bollywood, and the third largest in terms of revenues, after Hollywood and Bollywood. If it had at some point drawn inspiration from Bollywood, it is now looking to collaborate with it.

Director Odugbemi talks about the professionalism of Bollywood and the strength of its infrastructure and value-chain globally as the ambitions of Nollywood in the foreseeable future.

US-based journalist Emily Witt is more prescriptive. In an email to The Telegraph, she says, “Nigeria could also benefit from learning how Bollywood has maintained a thriving cinema-going culture while possibly facing some of the same infrastructural challenges, and how to bring cinema not only to middle class audiences but to lower-income populations as well.”

An average Nollywood film with a budget of around $50,000 is shot in three to four weeks. There has been a universal complaint about the quality and standards of these films but some have made their mark internationally. Films such as The Wedding Party (2016), Taxi Driver: Oko Ashewo (2015), 30 Days in Atlanta (2014) and Thunderbolt (2000) were showcased in various film festivals including the Toronto International Film festival. Afolayan’s October 1 and Robert Peter’s 30 Days in Atlanta have found international audience on Netflix too. African digital content start-ups are also giving a financial boost to the industry.

According to Nigerian filmmakers, after oil and agriculture, Nollywood is one of the thriving industries, creating over a million jobs every year.

In 2015, India’s acting high commissioner to Nigeria, Kaisar Alam, said the commission would facilitate collaboration between Nollywood and Bollywood. Lagos-based film regulatory consultant Obiora Chukwumba says, “Alam’s vision of collaboration reflects some of the desires in Nollywood. Authorities within Nollywood have severally reached out to platforms within Bollywood for sharing knowledge.”

Once again in 2015, when the former managing director of the Nigerian Film Corporation, Danjuma Wurim Dadu, visited the 46th International Film Festival of India in Goa, he urged Indian filmmakers to shoot in Nigeria and co-produce films with Nollywood. Not long ago, the Nigerian government provided a grant to the film industry to send about 300 actors and producers to Bollywood for technical training.

Last year, Indian film financers participated at the Creative Industries Summit in Lagos to examine the Nigerian film market. And more recently, Linus participated in the Global Entrepreneurship Summit at Hyderabad, where she discussed a few joint projects with a leading Indian media magnate.

Anthropology professor Larkin points out that the Nigerian audience is not happy with the contemporary “westernised content” of Hindi films. The general sentiment that pervades is that it is against the Indian traditional societal values they were exposed to in the Hindi films of the past. But none of this has come in the way of the evolving partnership. Nollywood sure knows how to leverage Bollywood’s strengths.

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Little did the Bangladeshi journalist, Abdul Latif Morol, know that writing about a dead goat on Facebook would land him in jail. Last year, Morol, a local journalist from Khulna, over 200 kilometres south of Dhaka, posted, “Goat given by state minister in the morning dies in the evening.” Morol was put behind bars for a day under Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act.

But things can go worse for journalists in this country, which ranks 146 out of 180 countries in the press freedom barometer, Reporters Sans Frontières’ ‘2017 World Press Freedom Index’. If the Digital Security Act, recently approved by the country’s cabinet to tackle cybercrime and protect national security, gets a nod in Parliament, journalists could also be convicted of espionage.

Various sections of this law impinge upon the right to freedom of speech and expression, thereby preventing journalists from gathering information against the government. For example, Section 32 of this proposed law says that secret recording of any information at any government, semi-government or autonomous institution would be considered spying, leading to 14 years in jail or a fine of 25 lakh taka (Rs 19,24,395) or both. These days, reporters collect information in various ways digitally – they take pictures, make videos and record interviews – all on their smartphones. A law like this will create hurdles for objective reporting, local journalists allege.

After journalists came out in large numbers on the streets of Dhaka to protest against this assault on press freedom, ministers of the ruling Awami League government reassured them that Section 32, a non-bailable offence, would not interfere with their work and all stakeholders would be consulted before the law is passed. But journalists are not convinced because they have witnessed the high-handedness of the State earlier. At least, 25 journalists including Morol were booked under Section 57 of the ICT Act last year alone. After a huge uproar by the media, the government proposed to revoke Section 57 but ironically, provisions of this section have now been included in the newly proposed law.

For example, hurting religious sentiments and tarnishing the image of the State are punishable in this proposed law, just as they were considered to be offences in Section 57 of the ICT Act. As per Section 28 of the proposed law, one would face the maximum punishment of 10 years in jail or a fine up to 20 lakh taka (Rs 15,46,936) or both for hurting religious sentiments; and Section 25 of the law prescribes a maximum punishment of five years in jail or a fine of up to 10 lakh taka (Rs 7,70,220) or both for tarnishing the image of the State.

 

The irony is, such penalties are likely to be imposed on the press, which is already pro-Sheikh Hasina Wajed, the prime minister. The mainstream Bangladeshi media give wide coverage to her press conferences bashing the Khaleda Zia-led Opposition, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, but it seldom asks tough questions on the increasing number of random enforced disappearances of journalists, activists and former diplomats who are critical of the government, and the arbitrary arrests and detention of political opponents.

In spite of enjoying such a pro-government approach of the press, Wajed, the self-proclaimed saviour of Bangladesh’s democracy, has made several attempts to curb its freedom in the past few years. Last year, The Jessore-based journalist and rights activist, Binoy Krishna Mallik, was arrested for holding a press conference to expose the alleged corruption of the local superintendent of police. In 2016, the senior journalist, Shafik Rehman, was arrested for allegedly plotting to abduct and kill Sajeeb Wazed Joy, the prime minister’s son. In 2014, the cabinet approved the national broadcasting policy, which prohibits electronic media from disseminating news, photographs, or videos that could tarnish the image of law enforcement agencies and armed forces or counter the government or impede national security.

Besides national security, Wajed is also trying to control freedom of speech in the name of nationalism. For example, Section 21 of the proposed Digital Security Act carries a life sentence or fine of up to three crore taka (Rs 23,568,607) or both for anyone spreading negative propaganda against the 1971 Liberation War or the Father of the Nation, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, digitally, for a second time. Criticizing this provision, the United Nations treaty, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Bangladesh is a party, stated that the laws that penalize the expression of opinions about historical facts are “incompatible” with the country’s obligations to respect the “freedom of opinion and expression”.

With the parliamentary elections scheduled in December this year, Wajed is leaving no stone unturned to remain in power for the third consecutive term. Her main Opposition, the BNP chairperson, Khaleda Zia, has been sentenced to five years in jail for graft. There are additional charges of arson and violence against her, which could mean more years in jail and no elections for her. Scores of BNP workers have been arbitrarily arrested by the police for demanding Zia’s release. If Wajed manages to bully the press too, it is certainly a clear victory for her. But this year’s elections could be a repeat of 2014 polls, which were widely condemned by the international community for not being “free and fair”.

A question which many liberal thinkers are asking now is, in this desperation to remain in power, has Wajed forgotten, Bangladesh was built upon the ‘liberal ethos’ by none other than her own father?

Sonia Sarkar travels to South Africa, the land where Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi came into his own, and stumbles upon an unpleasant reality.

” You gave us Mohandas Gandhi, we returned him to you as Mahatma Gandhi” – Nelson Mandela

When Durban resident Thabi Myeni was nine, she learnt that Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was a peace-loving freedom fighter and one of South Africa’s struggle icons. Says Myeni, a student of KwaZulu-Natal University, “That Gandhi was anti-Black, I discovered only now.” Since the discovery, the 20-year-old’s list of national heroes – Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko, Robert Sobukwe and Teboho “Tsietsi” MacDonald Mashinini – has grown shorter by a name.

As an Indian visiting South Africa, one would like to believe that Gandhi is widely celebrated here. In recent times, the Indian government has also enforced that narrative.

In 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi took the train from Pentrich to Pietermaritzburg, the same one that the young Gandhi was thrown out of in 1893. He also launched a permanent exhibition showcasing the lives of Gandhi and Nelson Mandela at the Old Fort in Johannesburg’s Constitution Hill, former prison complex and currently seat of the Constitutional Court of South Africa. Last year, minister of state for defence, V.K. Singh, inaugurated a Gandhi museum in Durban.

But interactions with locals reveal a growing resentment against Gandhi. In 2015, Gandhi’s statue at Johannesburg was painted white by a man who was part of the larger campaign against Gandhi. Protesters demonstrated with placards reading “Racist Gandhi must fall”. Around that time the hashtag #Ghandimustfall took Twitter by storm. (Ghandi is a popular way of spelling Gandhi in South Africa.)

In 2012, the African grassroots organisation, Mazibuye African Forum, rejected the suggestion that Gandhi should be respected as an anti-colonial figure in South Africa’s history. And even before that, in 2007, several thousand copies of US-based Indian academic Velu Annamalai’s Gandhi: A Stooge of the White South African Government, which depicts Gandhi’s proximity to the Whites, were circulated in Durban.

Many believe that fuelling the Gandhi hatred further was the 2015 book, The South African Gandhi. Written by South Africa-based professors Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed, one of the points the book makes is that Gandhi’s South African avatar was an Empire loyalist. The writers dwell on how Gandhi regarded the Boer-Brit war (1899-1902) as an opportunity to demonstrate his loyalty to the Empire.

The other grouse – and perhaps a bigger one – against Gandhi is voiced by Vahed. He says, “While he was in South Africa, his concern was solely with the Indian minority.”

Indeed, historically, there is no evidence to show that Gandhi had any links with Black leaders of South Africa such as Solomon Plaatje, John Langalibalele Dube and John Tengo Jabavu or their fight against racism.

Founder of the revolutionary socialist party, Black First Land First, Andile Mngxitama says present-day Blacks regard “Ghandi” as a tool of colonialism. “He is no hero of ours,” says Mngxitama. “He supported more taxes on the impoverished African people and turned a blind eye to the brutality of the Empire on Africans,” he adds.

Lawyer Princewill Ubani, who runs a blog called Facts About Africa, is well acquainted with Gandhi’s racial speeches. He tells The Telegraph, how at a speech in Mumbai in 1896, Gandhi stated that the Europeans in Natal wished to degrade Indians to the level of the “raw kaffir“, whose occupation was hunting and whose sole ambition “to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife with, and then, pass his life in indolence and nakedness”.

Says Ubani, “He [Gandhi] used the racial slur ‘ kaffir‘ repeatedly to refer to native Blacks. That’s the equivalent of a White calling an African-American ‘nigger’ in the US.”

When Ubani posted Gandhi’s racist comments on Twitter in 2015, comments poured in from fellow South Africans. One wrote, “I wish he was alive so I could shoot him again.” Another person commented, “This is why I’m always complaining about other Indians not caring about Black rights.”

In 1893, at the request of a wealthy Gujarati merchant, the 24-year-old barrister, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, arrived in South Africa to resolve a commercial dispute with a family member. Eventually, he started raising concerns of the Indians who lived there – mostly indentured labourers, passenger migrants, traders, moneylenders and petty shopkeepers.

One of the main concerns of Indians was the bill that sought to disenfranchise them – the Natives Legislative Assembly Bill of 1894. In their petitions against it, the Indians, with Gandhi as their spokesman, complained that it would “rank the Indian lower than the rawest Native”.

In the paper “Gandhi and the Black People of South Africa”, James D. Hunt writes: “When his civil disobedience began Indians were jailed with the Natives, and Gandhi led protests over being given the Native diet and about having to share cells with them.”

Ela Gandhi is the granddaughter of the Mahatma and the caretaker of the Gandhi museum at Durban’s Phoenix settlement, which is also considered the birthplace of Satyagraha. When asked about Gandhi’s discriminatory ways, she says, “His views were a result of his lack of contact with the African people in the early years of his stay in South Africa. His later experiences made him understand things differently and his views changed.”

Adds Arun Gandhi, Gandhi’s grandson, “Gandhi was not born a Mahatma. He was born an ordinary person but had the innate desire to become a better person. As a young barrister he was full of arrogance and British culture.”

Gandhi might be a much debated, even disliked figure in present-day South Africa, but loved or hated, he has always been part of the popular discourse of the country.

“Many of those fighting apartheid did take lessons from Gandhi. His philosophy remains embedded in the culture of South Africa as it does globally,” says Sello Hatang, the CEO of Nelson Mandela Foundation, a Johannesburg-based non-profit organisation. Mandela himself was inspired by Gandhi and his ideas of non-violence.

The small and big Gandhi memorials all over South Africa are proof of the embeddedness Hatang talks about. Johannesburg’s central business district, where Gandhi appeared at the courthouse, is called Gandhi Square. There is a Gandhi Memorial in Johannesburg’s Fordsburg to commemorate the protests by the Indian community in 1908, when the anti-Asian Black Act came into existence. There is also a Mahatma Gandhi Memorial hospital in Durban.

A lot of these memorials came up during the Mandela years, when the idea of a multicultural or Rainbow nation was still popular. “But that Rainbow faded as economic problems and race tensions surfaced,” says Vahed.

Other social scientists also point out that the tension between Indians and native South Africans is not new. There are reasons enough for this. During the apartheid era (1948-1991), Indians managed to build their own institutions of education and trade networks, while the Blacks enjoyed minimum rights. Even after apartheid ended, a significant portion of Indians was well placed to take up new opportunities – economic and political – but a large section of Blacks was still doing menial jobs. This animosity has only intensified over the years.

Blacks believe that like Gandhi, Indians are also influenced by colonial conditioning. Last July, South African revolutionary socialist political party Economic Freedom Fighters’ commander-in-chief, Julius Malema, said the success of Indian businesses in KwaZulu Natal was based on their strategies of exploitation and monopolisation of the economy. Educated unemployed Blacks believe Indians are being given preference for jobs and government tenders. Many young Blacks have, in fact, resorted to violence to press forth their demands.

In this climate, it has become easier to project a racial hostility stemming from political, social and economic inequalities onto a representative figure. Hence, the altered reading of Gandhi. Says Hatang, “Gandhi and his statues have become sights of contention over the hierarchy of inequality that apartheid sowed and its continued manifestations in democratic South Africa.”

In “Gandhi And The Black People Of South Africa”, Hunt puts things in perspective. He speaks of the general tendency to wish that heroes would have been consistently heroic throughout their lives. And then drawing attention to the reality of Gandhi, he writes, “Gandhi began as a perfectly ordinary intelligent lawyer trying to establish a career. In time he transformed himself into something else. It is that transformation which should interest us.”

 

 

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.

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Ahead of Swami Vivekananda’s 155th birth anniversary, Sonia Sarkar reports on Hindutva’s concerted bid to co-opt him and how unfitting that effort is

Last February a group of students congregated at the foot of the life-size statue of Swami Vivekananda in Delhi University’s Arts Faculty complex. The black sculpture of the 19th century sage-philosopher is modelled on the famed Chicago pose – turban on head, buttoned up robe, sash around waist, head at an angle, square jaw and bulky frame creating an aura of confidence and composure, folded arms suggest a stolid defence, and making benign the overall effect, a pair of soulful eyes. One T.J. Desai, who was associated with the establishment of the early Vedanta circle in London and had attended Vivekananda’s lectures, had commented – he looked more prince and less sadhu.

That day at Delhi Univer-sity (DU), slogans such as “Hindustan me rehna hoga, Vande Mataram kehna hoga” and “Bharat ke gaddaron ko, goli maaro saalon ko” filled the air. The next thing you knew, a scuffle had broken out between the ABVP crowd and the Left-wing students’ organisation of DU’s Ramjas College. The issue: JNU student leader Umar Khalid, a virulent opponent of the RSS-BJP led Right-wing, had been invited to speak at a literary event in the college.

The invitation to Khalid was cancelled, but a year hence, ABVP’s national media convener Saket Bahuguna tells The Telegraph, “Vivekananda stood for unity and integrity of the country. We were protesting against someone who believes in breaking up India.”

A comparison of the original 1893 Thomas Harrison photograph of Vivekananda taken at Chicago and DU’s stone rendition reveals a difference. The eyes of the statue are narrowed, the brows a wee bit more angular. Is the mouth also a bit too firm? Is this Vivekananda more warrior than sadhu?

Icons are supposed to help beam onto the masses a particular ideology, emblazon in people’s minds the dominant thought of the times, also checkmate icons of the previous regime. Ever since it assumed power in 2014, the BJP government has been working to create its own iconography.

But not many Indians are aware what V.D. Savarkar or Deendayal Upadhyaya or M.S. Golwalkar look like. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel is not invisible, but not visible enough. After Ram perhaps, Vivekananda is the only other icon in the BJP-RSS quiver with an already accepted visual identity and a recall value.

Besides, there is that ready-made saffron hue; the famed Chicago story – the 1893 Parliament of the World’s Religions and a dashing Hindu rep; and, of course, the echo of a name. In 2016, BJP’s national general secretary Ram Madhav said, “Narendras tend to be courageous,” drawing a parallel between the PM Narendra Modi and Vivekananda, who was born Narendranath Dutta.

As professor of Religion and Asian Studies at Pennsylvania’s Elizabethtown College, Jeffery D. Long, puts it, “It is convenient for the Right-wingers to invoke Vivekananda because he is universally accepted. It is easier to convince people about your agenda or ideology if you cite him in favour of the point of view you propagate.”

Not one to miss an opportunity that might gain traction, yield more votes, the BJP does just that. Today, Vivekananda’s face powers countless campaigns – Swachh Bharat, women’s empowerment… References to him abound in the PM’s speeches – be it at the US Congress or in his radio show, Mann Ki Baat. Three years ago, a webpage was launched by the Centre to mark the 152nd Birth Anniversary of Vivekananda on January 12, which is also celebrated as National Youth Day. Some will recall how way back in 2012, Modi did a “Vivekananda Yuva Vikas Yatra” before the Gujarat Assembly elections, wherein a statue of Vivekananda was rolled out atop a chariot. In 2014, a comic book titled Bal Narendra was released – it also features stories of the “fearless” young Narendra reading books on Vivekananda.

In truth, though, it was Rajiv Gandhi who declared Vivekananda’s birthday as National Youth Day in 1984; there are extensive writings on him by Jawaharlal Nehru; Mahatma Gandhi spoke extensively about him, even visited Belur Math, the headquarters of the Ramakrishna Mission. But all of these are conscious and deliberate omissions by Right-wingers who have decided to foist Vivekananda on the general Indian consciousness as the flagbearer of Hindutva ideology.

And that’s problematic because?

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Because they are half-truths, extrapolations. Because they are merely imposing their brand of Hindutva onto him.

The appropriation of Vivekananda did not happen overnight. The RSS’s first mega Vivekananda project was the construction of the Vivekananda Rock Memorial in 1970 at Kanyakumari. It was the initiative of RSS heavyweight Eknath Ranade. The Vivekananda statue in DU was set up in 1978, when BJP leader Vijay Goel was the Delhi University Students’ Union president. In 1993, during the centenary celebrations for Vivekananda’s Chicago speech, Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Ashok Singhal had said that the demolition of Babri Masjid would be recorded in “letters of gold” and Hindus would not rest till the Ram Mandir was built.

This yolking of man, agenda and event was grossly unfair, but there it was. In 2009, a Right-wing think tank, Vivekananda International Foundation, was established in Delhi under the aegis of the charitable organisation, Vivekananda Kendra, run by Ranade. Among its lead cast used to be Ajit Doval, currently the national security adviser.

 A pose, a speech, a robe, a name, some quotes – it is possible to reduce Vivekananda to tropes, except that the man was much more. The evidence is in his upbringing and education. The evidence lies in his written and spoken word.According to a bio-sketch in the Dictionary of National Biography, 1974, Vivekananda’s home atmosphere was a blend of modernism and orthodoxy. His brother, Bhupendranath, has written about how their father “was a respecter of the Bible and the Diwan-i-Hafiz”, for which he was criticised by many. He writes, “If it be a sin to be a student of comparative religion and to respect all cults, then Biswanath [Vivekananda’s father] had undoubtedly committed that sin.” Their mother, Bhuvaneswari Devi, who made an abiding impression on Vivekananda, was a devout Hindu.

So far as formal education goes, Narendranath did BA from Scottish Church College, and thereafter studied Law – he did not take the final examinations, though. He was widely read, hugely invested in social reforms and knowledgeable about the Vedas. “He was a reformer and criticised prevalent practices of Hindu religion just as he might be critical of Christian or Islamic religious practices,” says historian Mridula Mukherjee.

Did Vivekananda put a premium on Hindusim? Yes, he did. According to Jeffery Long, Vivekananda was convinced that if Hindus could awaken to their past greatness, they could live with dignity and pride in their traditions. But Long also makes it clear that this did not translate into hatred for other traditions.

Vivekananda did say of Islam that it was a religion that had “shed so much blood” and “been cruel to other men”, but he also said this – “For our own motherland a junction of the two great systems, Hinduism and Islam – Vedanta brain and Islam body – is the only hope. I see in my mind’s eye the future perfect India rising out of this…”

And when Vivekananda spoke about Hinduism, he did not use the word “Hindutva” – that was a coinage of Savarkar. “Vivekananda warned against the forces of sectarianism and bigotry and invoked the Bhagavad Gita to emphasise the message of universal acceptance. But not many understand it,” says Veena Howard, a trustee member of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, a global interfaith body.

In recent times, Hindu groups have been using Vivekananda to force-feed their neo-nationalism. The way it works is, they proceed by negation. They define things that are considered anti-national, such as denouncing Western culture, beef eating… And every time, they push down people’s throats a theory, they invoke Vivekananda. “Vivekananda realised that Western culture was not good for him.” (He actually spoke against Western Imperialism.) “Vivekananda said eating beef is disgusting.” (He actually conceded that Brahmins at some point ate beef; he also said it was allowable for people who work hard, but not for those who are going to be bhaktas.)

Long points out that the word “nationalism” is used only once in Swami Vivekananda’s Complete Works, and that too in reference to European nationalism; but there are a number of references to “patriotism” – not surprising given the immediate context was the freedom movement.

In Bengal, the BJP has turned Vivekananda into a people bait. In 2013, Modi meditated in Vivekananda’s room in Belur Math. In 2017, BJP president Amit Shah went to Vivekananda’s north Calcutta house to pay tribute. The RSS organised a film festival in Calcutta titled “Manush Chai” to promote “nationalism and Indian ethos”. The posters had on them Vivekananda’s image and a famous quote – “Give me hundred energetic young men and I shall transform India.” The saffron forces are actually body-shopping.

Of course, Bengal state general secretary of the RSS, Jisnu Basu, says, “Our mission is man-making. We want the youth to make this country prosperous just as Vivekananda wanted. That was the essence of the festival too.”

And while there are murmurs of protest, there has been no concentrated effort, no strong voice objecting to this misappropriation of Vivekananda. Internationally, however, there have been stray efforts to resuscitate his teachings of acceptance and inclusiveness.

In 2013, on the occasion of his 150th birth anniversary, Australian playwright and director Alex Broun’s play, Oneness – Voice without form, was staged at the Sydney Opera House. He tells The Telegraph over email, “The play carried the message of Vedanta that all religions in essence are same.”

Actors from nine countries including Sri Lanka and Palestine came together to perform. Calcutta-based actor-singer Shaheb Chattopadhyay played the lead. He speaks about how Vivekananda’s idea of oneness was reflected in the play as it had actors of different nationalities and faiths “coming under one roof for one purpose”. He adds, “Each one of us brought in his idea of love, peace and acceptance.”

Chattopadhyay makes another observation. He tells us how the play was staged in Australia and Dubai, but did not find any sponsors in Calcutta. He says, “It is so unfortunate that nobody is keen to sponsor a play on Vivekananda in his birthplace. That clearly reflects the apathy of the people.”

Indeed, it is one thing for the forces of Hindutva to misappropriate Vivekananda, quite another thing to let them do so.

Or, eventually, for them to be able to.

(This story was published in The Telegraph, January 7, 2018 — https://www.telegraphindia.com/india/narendra-s-grab-on-narendra-199108)

 

Here are the interviews of Calcutta-based actor-singer Shaheb Chattopadhyay and Australian playwright and director Alex Broun.

Shaheb Chattopadhyay played the lead in Broun’s “Oneness — voice without form”, a play based on the life of Swami Vivekananda. Chattopadhyay, who received standing ovation from the audience at the historic Sydney Opera House and at Brisbane for his impressive performance in September 2013, calls it the most memorable experience of his acting career so far. Broun says, Chattopadhyay’s resemblance to Vivekananda in voice, stature and appearance is truly remarkable. A marvellous singer, Chattopadhyay also sang two songs in the play.  Many would know, Vivekananda himself was a very good singer.

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Pic: Shaheb Chattopadhyay with Dana Dajani, a Palestinian actor who played Sister Nivedita in the play at Sydney Opera House (September 2013).

Excerpts from Shaheb Chattopadhyay’s telephonic interview.

Q. What was so special about performing in ‘Oneness’?

A. It was an experience of a lifetime for me. It would always remain special for me, personally and professionally.

I was going through a personal crisis when I had to leave for Australia for nearly two months for the play in 2013. My father was suffering from a terminal illness; I was in two minds — whether to go or not. But my father said, the show must go on and I must perform. He promised, he will be there for me when I am back and he did keep his promise. When I came back, I showed him the recording of our performance at Brisbane; he was thrilled. It was a highly emotional moment for both of us.

(His father passed away in January the next year).

Professionally, I would say, this has been one of the most significant works of my career, so far. Working with actors from nine different countries — playing Vivekananda at the Sydney Opera House in front of international audience — receiving huge applause from them — it was a fantastic experience.

Q. How did the play bring in Vivekananda’s idea of oneness? How did your co-artists see him?

A. The idea of Vivekananda’s “oneness” was reflected in the play as actors of different nationalities, culture and religious beliefs came under one roof for one purpose. Each one of us brought in Vivekananda’s idea of love, peace, tolerance and acceptance. Also, all the co-artists looked prepared. They read his teachings extensively, they knew what he stood for.

 Q. How do you see the relevance of Vivekananda and his “oneness” in today’s divisive India?

A. Vivekananda spoke about acceptance but we have failed to understand what he stood for. In India, we are becoming extremely divisive and intolerant. It is unfortunate that what we are witnessing today is what Vivekananda had feared India will become, more than 100 years ago.

Q.How do you see the appropriation of Vivekananda by certain political parties in our country?

A. Politicians are using Vivekananda’s name and image for pocket interests. It’s nothing but a political gimmick.  I am not sure how many of them actually understand Vivekananda in true sense.

Q. Do you plan to stage the play in India?

A. I have been trying to get sponsorship for the play in Calcutta but failed. It clearly shows the apathy of the people. It is one thing to invoke Vivekananda in speeches or use his image in political events and it is another thing to actually make an effort to understand him through a genuine piece of work on him.

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Interview with Alex Broun

Fifty-two-year-old Australian playwright and screenwriter, Alex Broun has worked extensively with short and sweet, a series of theatre festivals for productions of ten minutes or less. Born in Sydney, Australia, he has been referred to as “the Shakespeare of short plays.” Oneness – Voice without form was commissioned by the Vedanta Society of New South Wales in honour of the 150th birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda.

(Excerpts from the E-mail interview with Alex Broun

Q. Why did you write this play? What influenced you to explore Swami Vivekananda?

A. Oneness – Voice without form was commissioned by the Vedanta Society of New South Wales in honour of the 150th birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda. The play was designed to be the centerpiece of celebrations in Australia.

The play was extremely challenging to write as the Vedanta Society wanted the play to not only tell the extraordinary story of Vivekananda’s life but also encapsulate his teachings. The play also had to address his spiritual journey, which is something very unusual in Australian theatre, though more common place in Indian theatre. Vivekananda was also a renowned singer, so the play also had to give focus to that facet of his character.

After numerous consultations with the Swamis (monks) and Pravrajikas (nuns) and considerable research I decided to break the play up into four parts or acts: Vivekanandas early life as Naren; his meeting with Ramakrishna and spiritual awakening; his travels to the west, including his history making speech at the Parliament of Religions; and his return to India, where he set up the Ramakrishna Mission.

Along the way the play charted the important moments, relationships and events of his life. Although naturalistic in form the play also encompasses visual elements of movement and dance, traditional in Indian theatre, that needed to be considered when writing the play.

The play was developed through readings and workshops over a 12-month period between July 2012 and June 2013. Devotees, Swamis and Pravrajikas attended workshops of the play to give their input and feedback on the script.

It was a joyous and wonderful process to work on the play and definitely one of the highlights of my career in the theatre. It was such an important story to tell and I’m honoured I got the chance to tell it.

The play enjoyed sold out performances when it was presented at the Sydney Opera House in Sydney and at BEMAC in Brisbane. It also had a very successful season in Dubai in 2015. We hope to re-mount it again in the future.

My play is not the definitive story of Vivekananda. Hopefully many different versions of this story will be continued to be told throughout the ages.

Q.  How do you see the relevance of Vivekananda in today’s world where there is an overall rise of right-wing? Do you think creative artists and academic experts need to explore Vivekananda more in such troubled times?

A. The story of Swami Vivekananda is a truly remarkable one – and his message of oneness still as powerful as ever. How can this brilliant young man from Kolkata have affected the world and our lives so deeply? It is something everyone involved in our production was touched with since they began working on the play. Is it because his words carry such basic human truths, expressed in such heart felt lyrical phrases? Vivekananda offers us a path to peace – we simply need to open our arms and embrace it.

It was a great challenge to portray the character of Swami Vivekananda and I spent many hours reading through his complete works for many months. One man’s struggle to search for enlightenment – his life was really quite extraordinary.

He is a great character someone who wanted to find God and how he struggled to spread the message of his Guru Swami Ramakrishna. How he impressed people like John D Rockfeller and Sara Bernhardt in those days, who became his disciples. He is a great character on stage.

It took a lot of time and thought to put his life into a script, something that will carry the message of Vedanta – that all religions in essence are same though their paths may be different, with the aim to ultimately find spiritual enlightenment. Especially in today’s world which is full of tension due only to religions.

Vivekananda swept away the division and tensions between different sects and faiths. His was a doctrine of tolerance, inclusivity and compassion.

I think everyone in life – artist, teacher, politician, academic – can draw something from the teachings of Vivekananda, especially in these complex and difficult times.

There is so much friction in the world due to the concept of ‘otherness’ – Vivekananda was all about tearing down those barriers

 Q. There is a growing intolerance towards Islam – do you think Vivekananda’s teachings on religion is important to remember to fight such intolerance?

A. Absolutely. In Oneness his feisty US supporter Kate Sanborn asks him: “What is the best religion?” To which Vivekananda replies: “Choose whichever you wish – but please don’t presume to be wise enough to say that your choice is good and all others are bad.”

Such perfect and simple words which ring true now as much as they did when he uttered them over a century ago. How much more peaceful and prosperous the world would be if everyone could just embrace this message?

There is also another story where Vivekananda acknowledges and praises an Islamic holy man, much to the surprise of his fellow monks.

Vivekananda saw all religions as one – different pathways to the same destination. This vision is a treasure we must hold in our hearts on a daily basis.

Q. Would you like to stage the play in India?

A. Absolutely. We would love to stage the play in India and it would be great to see Shaheb’s portrayal come to life in Vivekananda’s homeland.

The play relates to all Hindu and Indian communities as well as all followers of Vivekananda, as well as all those interested in Vedantic principles and beliefs – so I’m sure there would be a great demand.

I hope we get a chance to re-stage it across India.

Q.  The lady who played Nivedita was a Palestinian actor Dana Dajani. what a wonderful choice- I would say. I am sure her religion was certainly not a problem to cast her. Did you think twice of her religion before casting her?

A. It was important when we staged the play that the cast represented many nationalities and beliefs – to reflect the universality of Vivekananda’s teachings and life.

When we staged the play in Australia it was performed by a mixture of professional actors, including leading Bengali actor Shaheb Chattopadhyay (who was brought in to play the older Vivekananda) and Dana Dajani (who was brought in to play Sister Nivedita), and local devotees of Vivekananda and members of the local Hindu community.

Dana is a Dubai based Muslim actress, who played the role of sister Nivedita. The Holy mother was played by Isaro Kayitsi while a South African actor Robert Rhode played Swami Ramakrishna.

The play has such a varied and multicultural cast, which was special as they were all deeply touched by the life story of this great man who changed the world through his message.”

It was a life changing experience for us all who are involved in the project.

Q. How was it working with Shaheb Chattopadhyay?

A. It was great to work with Shaheb whose resemblance to Vivekananda in voice, stature and appearance is truly remarkable. He also reprised the role in Dubai where again he was extraordinary.

ENDS

Swami Vivekananda was a man of many parts. It’s impossible to understand him in totality by reading a few selected quotes or just his much celebrated speech at the Parliament of World’s Religions at Chicago in 1893. The more you read him, the more you realise, it is not enough. Indians, largely know, Vivekananda through various interpretations, and misinterpretations of his teachings, letters and speeches.

Hindu groups such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) do quote Vivekananda every time they want to emphasise their “Hindutva” ideology. He is being seen as the champion of Hindu nationalism but the fact is the word ‘nationalism’ is only used once in Swami Vivekananda’s Complete Works, and that in reference to European nationalism.

“There are a number of references to ‘patriotism’ in his works, some positive and some negative. The positive references all relate to the Indian independence movement, still in its early stages in his time. The negative one’s relate to patriotism’s limitedness and partiality,” says Professor Jeffery D. Long, Professor of Religion and Asian Studies
Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania.

“The big issue in regard to Hindu nationalism today, it seems, relates to fear and hatred of other religious communities. This issue, Vivekananda addresses very strongly throughout his works, emphasizing the unity and harmony of religions, and the ideal not only of tolerance, which he says is insufficient, but of acceptance,” Long who is writing a book titled, ‘Arise! Awake! Swami Vivekananda Speaks to the Twenty-first Century,’ adds.

Long says Vivekananda’s teaching is far too complex, profound, and expansive to be fit easily into any political party, program, or slogan.  Given his emphasis on restoring Hindu pride specifically (and Indian pride more generally) during the period of British imperial rule, it is quite understandable that adherents of Hindutva, who also want to assert Hindu pride, would find a champion in him.  But simply to equate his teaching with Hindutva is, in my opinion, simplistic, whether this is being done by adherents of Hindutva or by their critics.

Many adherents of Hindutva who admire Swami Vivekananda are deeply critical of Mahatma Gandhi.  Yet there is much overlap between their ideals, and Vivekananda was a direct and strong inspiration and influence on Gandhi, who even tried to meet with Vivekananda when Vivekananda was on his deathbed.  The same Swami Vivekananda who sought to inspire pride in Hindus also said, “My master [Sri Ramakrishna] used to say that these names, as Hindu, Christian, etc., stand as great bars to all brotherly feelings between man and man. We must try to break them down first. They have lost all their good powers and now only stand as baneful influences under whose black magic even the best of us behave like demons.”

Here are some more examples where Vivekananda’s views have been distorted by the Hindu groups.

Religion

Hindu groups do invoke Vivekananda when they talk about nationalism. Let’s see what Vivekananda said: “…true nationalism in India can only be based on unity of religion. The problems in India are more complicated, more momentous, than the problems in any other country. Race, religion, language, government – all these together make a nation. The one common ground that we have is our sacred tradition, our religion. That is the only common ground….”

“The unity of religion is therefore absolutely necessary as the first condition of the future of India. There must be the recognition of one religion throughout the length and breadth of this land. What do I mean by one religion? Not in the sense of one religion as held among the Christians or the Mohammedans or the Buddhists… We know that our religion has certain common ground, common to all our sects, however, varying their consciousness may be , however different their claims may be. So there are certain common grounds; and within their limitations this religion of ours admits of a marvelous variation , an infinite amount of liberty to think and live our own lives.”

In today’s India, Hindu parties have been only using the religion to divide the country. But for him, Hinduism is a religion which accepted others. He said, “our watchword will be acceptance and not exclusion.” He added, “Not only toleration  but also acceptance. Toleration means that I think that you are wrong and I am just allowing you to live.I believe in acceptance. I accept all religions that were in the past and worship them all.

I worship God with every one of them in whatever form they worship Him. I shall go to the mosque of the Mohammedans; I shall enter the Christian’s Church and kneel before the Crucifix. I shall take refuge in a Buddhist temple where I shall take refuge in Buddha and in his law. I shall go into the forest and sit down in meditation with the Hindu, who is trying to see the Light which enlightens the heart of everyone.”

Beef

The Hindu groups have unleashed their goons on the road to kill Dalits and Muslims for allegedly skinning cows and eating beef. And on several national platforms, the Hindu leaders would invoke Vivekananda to defend how eating beef is not permissible in India.

But read what exactly Vivekananda said on beef-eating :

“The Brahmins at one time ate beef and married Sudras…calf was killed to please a guest. Sudras cooked for Brahmins.”

“You will be astonished if I tell you that, according to the old ceremonials, he is not a good Hindu who does not eat beef. On certain occasions he must sacrifice a bull and eat it. That is disgusting now. However they may differ from each other in India, in that they are all one — they never eat beef. The ancient sacrifices and the ancient gods, they are all gone; modern India belongs to the spiritual part of the Vedas.”

“If we did not eat beef and mutton, there would be no butchers. Eating meat is only allowable for people who do very hard work, and who are not going to be Bhaktas; but if you are going to be Bhaktas, you should avoid meat.” — So beef-eating is a no-no for Bhaktas!

Sita – the ideal woman

For example, it is true that Vivekananda held Sita as an ideal woman, a fact that Hindu groups love to acknowledge because they too think Sita was ideal and all Indian women should be like her. But they don’t tell the world that , Vivekananda also said, he would not impose any idea on the educated women leaving them to make their own decisions.  He writes, “With such education women will solve their own problems. They have all the time been trained in helpless, servile dependence on others and so they are good only to weep at the slightest approach of a mishap or danger. Along with other things, they should acquire the spirit of valour and heroism. In the present day it has become necessary for them also to learn self-defence.

Western culture

One would often hear the RSS ideologues asking Indian youth to denounce Western culture; here again, they invoke Vivekananda for this to make a stronger argument. But read what Vivekananda had to say about the West. In his various teachings, Vivekananda has expressed his gratitude to the British for giving India a centralized administration, for helping to destroy caste privilege for opening our eyes to the wonders of the world outside; for introducing material science and philosophy for bringing us out of the narrow shell in which we had confined ourselves.

“Make a European society with India’s religion” – is what he said, former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru writes.

He had no mercy for exploitative trader and the “ruthless bureaucrat who had starved us and impoverished the country and from his philosophic heights he cursed the blood-suckers who one day have to face the Vengeance of History (Source : Vivekananda and Aurobindo  in Swami Vivekananda and Indian Nationalism– by SC Sen Gupta).

How critics misconstrued Vivekananda’s teachings —

As Long says, just like Hindu groups, the anti-Hindu groups have also failed to understand Vivekananda.

Caste system

Vivekananda’s critics say, he was a great defender of caste-system.  It is true that Vivekananda said, castes should not go.  But he also said, “Human society is in turn governed by the four castes, the priests, the soldiers, the traders and the labourers… the first three had their day. Now is the time for the last – they must have it—none can resist it.”Vivekananda, in one of his letters written in 1896, declared himself as a  socialist. “I am a socialist,” said he, “not because I think it is  a perfect system but half a loaf id better than no bread.”

Islam

It is quite easy for his critics to call him communal because he spoke against Islam by calling it a religion which “has shed so much blood” and “been cruel to other men.” But it is important to note that he also said,  “Hinduism and Islam — Vedanta brain and Islam body — is the only hope.”

He said :

“For our own motherland a junction of the two great systems, Hinduism and Islam – Vedanta brain and Islam body – is the only hope. …we want to lead mankind to the place where there is neither the Vedas, not the Bible, or the Koran, yet this has to be done by harmonizing the Vedas, the Bible and the Koran. Mankind ought to be taught that religions are but the varied expressions of The Religion which is Oneness, so that each may choose the path that suits him best.”

The moral of the story is neither believe the Hindutva forces who claim to be the real inheritors of Vivekananda’s legacy, nor believe his critics who outrightly reject his writings by labelling him as “communal”. Visit a nearby library to read his teachings instead!

ENDS

His daughter is 13; her son is 12. When darkness closes in on them, they are uppermost in their mind. Behind a locked cell, former central minister Andimuthu Raja thinks of his daughter. Now out of jail — where son Aditya was always in her thoughts — Rajya Sabha member M.K. Kanimozhi makes sure that he travels with her to Delhi, even though it’s a city he’s not greatly fond of.

Jail is not something that the parliamentarians from the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party want to talk about. For Kanimozhi, party strongman M. Karunanidhi’s much-loved daughter, the experience is too raw to recount. For Raja, Karunanidhi’s close lieutenant, the ordeal is far from over.

“Loneliness is hard to beat inside the jail,” says the former telecom minister.

His day in jail No. 1 at the Tihar Central Jail starts at five in the morning. He takes a walk on the grounds, watches the news on his 14-inch colour television set — the one source of entertainment that’s been provided to him — and then reads papers and books connected to his case.

In the evenings he often plays a game of badminton with other “celebrity” inmates housed in Tihar. When the clock strikes 11, Raja has to call it a day. The former telecom minister sleeps on the cemented floor, to wake up again before dawn.

When The Telegraph catches up with him, he is at the Central Bureau of Investigation court at Delhi’s Patiala House, where his case is up for a hearing. Dressed in a pristine white starched shirt with long sleeves and a pair of black trousers, he looks relaxed. When the court breaks for 30 minutes, he moves around the visitors’ corner outside the courtroom, attending to party members who have gathered to meet him with a big smile. He offers them coffee and biscuits.

Raja is not eager to talk about his time in jail, but opens up bit by bit. His wife, M.A. Parameswari, is by his side, and he plays with her sleek gold bangles as he speaks. “She is the source of all positive energy,” he says, patting her back.

Kanimozhi, on the other hand, stresses that she is still not ready to talk about her jail days. She is sitting in her sixth floor apartment — part of a residential complex for parliamentarians in Luytens’s Delhi — 20km yet light years away from Tihar jail. Dressed in an off-white embroidered kurta matched with cream pyjamas and dupatta, she sits on a black leather sofa in her living room.

Her son is in an adjoining room. Most of her afternoons are spent with Aditya, who studies at a Chennai school. “He hates Delhi but he will be here for a week with me,” she smiles. Clearly, she is making up for her all the days lost.

Raja and Kanimozhi are the two most high-profile accused in the multi-crore-rupee 2G spectrum scam. They have been charged with criminal conspiracy, cheating and forgery under the Prevention of Corruption Act. Kanimozhi, jailed last May, has been on bail for the past five months. Raja has been in jail since he was arrested in February last year. “This is a learning experience for me,” he says. “I have to overcome this challenge.”

Kanimozhi’s time in jail was filled with “lonely” moments, says an associate. She took long walks on the campus every morning and evening. “By now, she must be aware of every brick in the walls of the jail,” the associate adds.

While Kanimozhi mostly kept to herself, Raja likes to have people around him. “He loves to interact with people,” says a jail source. Occasionally, he even insists that his party members be allowed to meet him when visitors are not allowed. “We also get calls from the office of Mr Karunanidhi asking us to grant him permission to meet his party members at odd hours. But we cannot entertain such requests,” says the source. The ailing Karunanidhi went to visit his 44-year-old daughter thrice when she was in jail. Every time, it was an emotional reunion. But being kept away from her son was what upset her the most.

Raja too shares a strong bond with his daughter. Their birthdays fall on the same day — October 26 — and his wife points out that they have spent every birthday together. “Though he often fails to remember our wedding anniversary in February, he can never forget to be with his daughter on her birthday. Usually, we throw a party or go out for a good dinner to celebrate the two birthdays together,” she says.

Last year was different. There was no celebration with Raja in jail. “Our daughter made a special card for him and gifted it to him in jail. He was overjoyed but was quite emotional,” Parameswari says.

But Raja, a follower of E.V. Ramaswamy — the leader of the Dravidian movement — calls himself a fighter. “I am a born fighter. Injustice has happened to me and I will fight till the end. Only fighting gives me the ultimate strength,” says Raja. Parameswari adds that Raja has always been inspired by Tamil superstar Sivaji Ganesan’s Deiva Magan — a film about a man with a scarred face who fights all odd.

For Kanimozhi, on the other hand, strength came from the epic Mahabharata. “I finished reading the Mahabharata in jail. It gave me a lot of strength,” Kanimozhi says, measuring every word as she speaks.

She also spent many evenings going through parliamentary proceedings. “She would religiously follow every event in Parliament, especially during the Anna Hazare episode last August,” says the jail source.

The problems of women inmates concerned her too. “In most cases, women have been forced by their family members to accept charges of crime they haven’t committed. I want to do something for them but that is possible only after my case gets over,” she says.

Like with Raja, language was a problem for Kanimozhi. Both speak English and Tamil but are not fluent in Hindi, which made it difficult for her — and continues to pose problems for him — during interactions with Hindi-speaking inmates. “But Kanimozhi’s Hindi improved in those six months. From five words, her vocabulary went up to 20,” one of her associates says.

Since both are from Tamil Nadu, they are accustomed to their regional cuisine and found it difficult to get used to north Indian food. Raja has been given permission to get food from home on health grounds. His wife provides him with home-cooked sambarsabziroti and curd rice thrice a day. “He loves pepper mutton but he is not allowed to eat non-vegetarian food in jail,” his wife rues.

Kanimozhi was served home-cooked food — usually sambar rice and curd rice — twice a week. “She is not a fussy eater. She managed with whatever was served inside the jail. If she wanted anything else, she bought it from the jail canteen,” says the jail source.

Kanimozhi seldom drew attention to herself. Even now, when she is in court where her case is being heard, she sits quietly in the back, leaving her lawyers to fight out the legal battle for her.

Raja, on the other hand, is in the thick of the proceedings. He is also fighting his own case — along with his lawyers — and intervenes every now and then. “It is my case and I have to follow every bit of it,” says Raja, a qualified lawyer.

Raja may file for bail once former telecom secretary Siddarth Behura, also in jail, gets bail. We have to get rid of the case,” Parmeswari says with grim determination. “I religiously visit the Sai Baba and Shani temples twice a week.”

The family is not planning anything to mark his homecoming though. “Our last holiday was in Russia two years ago. Maybe we will plan a holiday after he is out. But now we are just keeping our fingers crossed,” she says.

This story was published in The Telegraph, April 22, 2012

 

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  • ranginee09: It is clear, justice eludes many but to imprison a man for his humanitarian deeds in a civilised society leaves an permanent blotch in our criminal ju
  • ranginee09: The article points-out a very pertinent social ill. Social ostracisation in childhood may have unwanted results later in life. A child victim is not a
  • Seeker and her search: Thanks for reading, Anne. Yes, I know what you are saying.