Culture and identity under Hindutva

Published : Apr 27, 2002 00:00 IST

Look who are the ones that feel they have the power to decide who 'true Indians' are.

TWO recent news items - although on very different matters - have brought into focus the ways in which the notions of culture and identity are being mauled and misinterpreted by the self-proclaimed votaries of "Hindutva".

The first is the desecration and attempted destruction of the tomb of Ustad Faiyaz Khan Saheb, one of the most eminent Hindustani classical musicians of the past century, in Vadodara in Gujarat, by hooligans claiming to be "Hindu". This act had a symbolic significance far beyond the physical impact of the vandalism itself. Historically, fascist or proto-fascist movements typically have chosen to attack certain symbols of culture, as part of a more general statement against tolerance. But this particular attack on Faiyaz Khan's tomb was not just an assault on tolerance. Rather, it probably reflected a deeper frustration at the very ethos represented by the finest practitioners of such music, including Khan Saheb himself, because it represents a spirituality that greatly transcends the practice of any particular religion.

Many of the people who have been shocked by this particular act have articulated their sadness also at the ignorance and stupidity expressed in this violent gesture. After all, Faiyaz Khan - whose lineage went back to Tansen himself - was not just one of the greatest musicians modern India has produced, with a mastery over both dhrupad and khayal singing. He was also (under the pseudonym "Prempiya") a highly original composer of songs (cheej), many of which are now inseparable from the celebration of Hindu religious festivals. In the court of Maharaja Sayajirao of Baroda, where he was the court singer from 1912 until his death in 1950, festivals like Holi could not be celebrated without the music of Faiyaz Khan, especially his hori geet.

But perhaps it was not just stupidity and ignorance that motivated such vandalism. It is possible that some of the anger was directed in this manner precisely because Faiyaz Khan, like some other finest musicians of this country, exemplified a musical culture that did much more than simply transcend religious differences. The best elements of the musical traditions of our country integrate various religious and other spiritual tendencies into a common civilisational coherence. Therefore such music implies a deeper recognition of basic unity across religious and even linguistic divides.

Such a sense of integration is of course completely repugnant to those who want to base people's identities in terms of "the other" as enemy. And it contradicts the notion that is sought to be purveyed, of one section of our population as somehow alien and not part of the supposed mainstream. So this may explain the degree of aggression towards even those who are long dead, simply because they remain potent symbols of the assimilation, intermingling and harmony.

Let us be clear: while these particular acts may be perpetrated by a small number of hooligans, the fact that such people can operate with apparent abandon reflects much broader social, political and economic forces. Quite apart from the appalling role played by the State government and its agencies in all this, there are the social effects of a prolonged process of indoctrination by the agents of belligerent "Hindutva". This raises the important question of where the financing of such indoctrination, and of the social groups that have engaged in it, has come from.

In fact, it turns out that in the recent past, a significant part of the resources for the various more violent and revanchist elements of the Sangh Parivar, as well as for the more mainstream political party it has bred, has come from abroad, in particular from non-resident Indians (NRIs) based in North America. The Bharatiya Janata Party, for one, has clearly recognised its debt to such sources of funds, and has proposed a range of measures to reward those Persons of Indian Origin who have contributed so much financially to the strengthening of right-wing forces in India.

THIS is what leads to the question of the other news item, which brings out clearly what is the basic notion of identity of such NRIs. Last year the Vajpayee government announced with much fanfare a range of measures to celebrate and reward Persons of Indian Origin. One of the decisions was to create the post of "Ambassador at Large" for NRIs and PIOs based in the United States. This post was awarded to a gentleman resident in the U.S., who had been a stalwart of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh for many years. He was given the personal rank of Ambassador.

Unfortunately for this gentleman, the U.S. government decided that such an appointment meant that this chosen Ambassador would in turn have to choose his true loyalties. He has been told that in order to take up this position, he would have to give up his "Green Card" status, which gives him permanent resident rights in the U.S.

This has led to much frantic lobbying by the Indian government requesting the U.S. government to change its decision. The reason: obviously, when faced with such a choice, there is no doubt what the "Ambassador" would choose. There is in fact no question of this gentleman even thinking about agreeing to give up his Green Card, so if the U.S. government holds on to its position he would definitely drop his much-hyped accreditation as "Ambassador". This obviously would turn out to be quite an embarrassment for the BJP-led government, since it is such a clear statement of where the basic loyalty lies.

Of course such a dilemma has its amusing side. But it is also appalling that it is such people - and the government and locally based right-wing forces that promote them and benefit from them financially - who then feel that they have the power to decide who "true" Indians are, and that they can dare to tell those whom they decide to treat as minorities that they continue to exist in this country only because of the "benevolence" of the supposed "majority".

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