Between Mir, Ambedkar & Guruvayur


MIR ke deen o mazhab ko kya poochhtey ho tum unney to

Qashqa khaincha, dair mein baitha, kab ka tark Islam kiya. 

(What do you wish to ask about Mir’s religion and his belief/Ensconced in a temple, a Hindu symbol on forehead, away from his faith with the look of relief.)

Mir Taqi Mir in the late 18th century is often cited as the benchmark for the cultural give and take that occurred between Hindu and Muslim thought in India. Generations of poets between Ghalib and Iqbal, from Majaz to Kaifi, have celebrated Hindu heroes though they were faithfully or notionally Muslim.

As I visited the highly revered Guruvayur temple to Lord Krishna in Kerala last week, I found myself smiling at Mir’s cosy lines about his celebration of Hinduism. He would not be allowed near the temple, leave alone squatting inside in meditation. Entry of non-Hindus is strictly prohibited, a plaque in Malayalam and English informs us. High-caste Brahmin priests keep an eagle eye on the throng.

There are of course other Hindu temples too where non-Hindus are not allowed in India. For example, legend has it that Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, Indira Gandhi as well as the 16th-century bhakti poet Kabir were refused entry to Puri’s Jagannath temple in Orissa.

Indira Gandhi was denied entry as she had married a non-Hindu, Tagore since he followed Brahmo Samaj, Kabir because he was dressed like a Muslim when he came to the temple and Mahatma Gandhi because he tried to enter the precincts with Dalits whom he called Harijans.

In keeping with Mir Taqi Mir’s romantic views about cross cultural revolving doors, Indian seminar rooms are swirling with snippets about women in burqas pulling the rath in Bangladesh and how Hindus and Muslims together celebrate Rathyatra in Baruipur.

There’s also the story of Maqbul Islam, a professor at Kolkata’s St Paul’s Cathedral Mission College, who thought certain mosques in India were just as discriminatory. “I have been refused entry at mosques in Kashmir and Chennai because they do not consider Muslims of West Bengal to be proper Muslims,” the professor told a seminar.

While Mir may not have been aware of the exclusionist temple in Kerala, the story of K.J. Yesudas would be instructive. The legendary singer from the south and the poet from the north were kindred spirits for they would both revel in their eclectic fondness of Hindu temples. Yesudas belongs to Kerala’s Christian community but his more popular songs are about Guruvayur and Krishna.

Orthodox Christians have slammed him for it while Hindu priests at the heart of the matter would not allow the crooner close to the sanctum sanctorum.

Remember we are talking about Kerala where India’s communists formed an elected government in 1957. That’s when millions of comrades left the fold with disbelief having been informed by Nikita Khrushchev about the horrors of Stalin’s iron rule. Though they have been in and out of power in Kerala, the state is regarded as a communist bastion.

While Mir talks about Hinduism he sounds romantic. But when a communist seeks a deity’s blessings to do well in the world it is reason to wonder. Put it to the flavour of the day, a kind of religious revivalism is stalking much of the world so much so that even a Marxist party is not immune to its influence.

Recently, during a celebration of the Ganpati festival transported to Kerala by strategically inclined Hindutva pushers, the communists could not but become a part of the show. A quaint video on YouTube shows cheering cadres carrying an idol of Lord Ganesh atop a vehicle. On the back of the procession is the picture of a clench-fisted Che Guevara. Once the communists lost power in West Bengal, a large contingent of their cadre walked over to the Bharatiya Janata Party. This was despite (or perhaps because of) the frenetic communist celebration of Durga Puja year after year. It also revealed years of power without the party’s core ideas catching the interest of youth.

Underscoring its unusual juggling of religion with politics in Kerala, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) finds itself on the same side of the Guruvayur debate as the revivalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. They both want temples to ease restrictions on people like Mir Taqi Mir and Yesudas. The RSS seems to be in a fix because an inordinately large number of Kerala Hindus eat beef, which is not how the Guruvayur Brahmins would want them.

This is where the young student leader Kanhaiya Kumar’s recent speech upon release from jail assumes significance. He spoke of fighting capitalism and Brahminism together, something we have not known Indian communists to say. Kanhaiya idolises Rohith Vemula, the Dalit student from Hyderabad who committed suicide after being hounded by a Hindutva establishment. Vemula’s last words in his suicide note were ‘Jai Bhim’, a reference to his Dalit hero Bhim Rao Ambedkar.

Had Mir Taqi Mir or Yesudas or Indian communist ideologues met Ambedkar he would have given them a bit of gyan missing from upper caste discourse. When Gandhi tried to enlist Ambedkar’s support for a bill to allow the entry of Dalits into Hindu temples he flatly refused.

The Hindu religion does not recognise the principle of equality of social status, he told Gandhi. “On the other hand it fosters inequality by insisting upon grading people as Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras, which now stand toward one another in an ascending scale of hatred and descending scale of contempt. If the Hindu religion is to be a religion of social equality then an amendment of its code to provide temple entry is not enough. What is required is to purge it of the doctrine of chaturvarna.”

Wonder what Mir would have thought of Ambedkar. Will Indian communists make him mandatory reading for their cadres?   


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