Is BJP still a joke, Rahul?

The night before the election results came and India took a sharp turn to the extreme right, I found myself in the midst of a lovely if similarly helplessness-inducing discussion in Delhi about progressive writers. Passionate writer and Urdu archivist Rakhshanda Jalil had planned the event weeks ahead and may not have known about the ironical timing of releasing her brilliantly researched book — Liking Progress, Loving Changes: A Literary History of Progressive Writers’ Movement (PWM) in Urdu.

As the evening closed with a chorus of communist activists crooning Makhdoom Mohiuddin’s battle-cry for revolution — Ye jang hai jang azadi, azadi ke parcham ke taley — you could be forgiven for thinking you were watching a Samuel Beckett play replete with absurdity and anachronism. The exit polls had indicated an extremely disturbing shift in Indian politics, and here some of the best speakers on Urdu were riveted to a slice of amazing history that progressive literature spawned. My mind, however, had strayed elsewhere.

If the progressive writers thought they had got much of everything right, why were they in a bind today? When they discussed (at the drop of a hat) Ghalib, Faiz, Josh, Firaaq, Majaaz, Manto, Ismat Chughtai, Sardar Jafri, perennially, were they also aware of the shadows of cultural reaction and counter-revolutionary literature always present alongside?

It took Rahul a decade to realise that BJP represented a challenge to secularism.

Was there an awareness of Bharatendu Harishchandra’s revanchist barbs, for example, or an evaluation of why some Indian writers were drifting to the far right? How much of a challenge did the progressives see in the reactionary literature and the culture it touched in India in their time?

Fifty years before Australian Christian missionary Graham Staines and his two sons, of six and 10 years, were burnt alive by a Hindutva mob in Orissa in January 1999, a Hindi movie based on a Bengali novel had anticipated the script. Swayamsiddha was the story of a Hindu bride of a mute husband.

The village purohit has visions that the husband was under the evil spell of Christian missionaries who were working among the poor villagers. The wife rallies militantly. She gets the village to throw out the Christians and the husband becomes well. I saw the movie when L.K. Advani was information minister and Doodarshan telecast it. How could such ideas strike roots in free India and what were the progressive writers doing about it?

There was a time, it seems, when I could recite the Ramcharitmanas fluently. Hinduism was Hinduism, not Hindutva then. Why else would Mrs Puri, the tallest and the burliest among the neighbourhood ‘aunties’, leave me alone with the burden to carry on with the ‘akhand jaap’, the unbroken chant of Ramcharitmanas, all by myself? It didn’t matter where all the devout women of our Nirala Nagar residential cluster in Lucknow disappeared after starting off ambitiously with the unbroken reading of Tulsidas’ epic poem, which describes the trials and tribulations of Lord Ram.

Mrs Puri was kind enough to leave an ample basket of seasonal fruit and sweets, which were possibly meant as an offering, but were also, I presumed, placed there to be shared between the deity and its 10-year old Muslim chanter. There were no rigidities, nor do’s or don’ts. Ab Prabhu kripa karau yahi bhaa’nti/Sab taj bhajan karai’n din raati. (Bless me O Lord that I may desert the worldly lure to chant your name day and night.)  

The standard greetings across Uttar Pradesh were pranam, namaste, aadaab arz, jai Ramji ki. Jai Shri Ram became an aggressive Hindutva innovation, much like Allah Hafiz, which changed from the traditional and more logical Khuda Hafiz, a purely Persian phrase. These are subtle shifts that amount to a lot more than may be visible to the naked eye. Did this bother the partisans of progressive literature?

High on his party’s unexpected victory in 2004, Congress scion Rahul Gandhi had mocked the Bharatiya Janata Party. “The BJP is a joke. They have always abused my family,” he had said. This was barely two years after the Gujarat pogroms, mind you. It took the young leader a full decade to understand, but only after he faced a rout, that the BJP represented a challenge to Nehruvian secularism. Progressive writers on their part were never blind to the communal question though they may have failed to detect other social fault lines.

Dalit temples, for example, were mostly allowed to be built outside the city perimeters. As Lucknow expanded and Nirala Nagar flourished in its ambit, we found ourselves living near Raidas Mandir, built by devotees of the Dalit cobbler-sage Ravidas. It took years for me to see how caste Hindus, some of whom I joined to walk to the Hanuman Mandir a few miles down the road, would never bow their heads at the Raidas Mandir.

Did the progressive intellectuals (other than Premchand) look into the predicament of the Dalits, the vulnerability of the Christian tribals, or the politics of aloofness forced on the Sikhs?

My fear is that our progressive peers unwittingly shunned potential allies and allowed them to be swamped by an entire phenomenon of rightwing culture and the unobtrusively appealing communal street literature that got harnessed into a movement, one which came into its own last week to sideline them ever more. Dawn

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