It is hard to think of a time when India has been more ready for an Indian-style cultural revolution. The political party that gave us socialist feudalism is in the throes of defeatism. Leftist parties who gave Congress intellectual and moral support are in disarray. And a new political order has replaced the old in Delhi. In every sense, the time has come to talk of many things, and one of these things should be the cultural desert that young Indians grow up in today.
The realms of high culture that in more civilised countries resonate with literature, music and art are occupied in India by Bollywood and trashy TV serials. Inevitable, since mass education is such a mess that most children leave school without learning to read a storybook. Reading is so out of fashion that most small towns in India have no bookshops, most villages have no libraries and, in our bigger cities, bookshops stock mostly books and magazines written in English.
So when the RSS leaders turned up in Delhi last week to tell the Minister of Human Resource Development that they wanted changes in school education, they had a point. Unfortunately, because the RSS is led by doddering old bigots and provincial intellectuals, this ‘cultural’ organisation is in no position to give the HRD Minister worthwhile advice. The RSS leaders who met the minister reportedly confined their concerns to history books that they claim portray a ‘Western’ view of history. They demanded that these books be replaced by those written by historians with an Indian view of history. They have a point, but they make it badly.
It is true that in the decades in which India was ruled imperiously by the Congress, the task of writing history textbooks was allotted to Leftist historians who chose to view India’s past through a distorted lens. The most celebrated of these historians, Romila Thapar, has gone so far as to deny that Muslim invaders destroyed the temples of us idolatrous infidels. Undoubtedly, if she were writing about more recent history, she would deny that the Taliban blew up the Buddhas of Bamiyan — and would say that they fell to pieces of their own accord.
In the interests of ‘secularism’, most Indian schools and colleges provide only limited courses for the study of ancient India, Vedic Hinduism and Sanskrit literature. So the vast majority of Indian children grow up with a sense of being Indian that is restricted to a religious identity. When this gets infused with a toxic sort of nationalism, as happens in RSS educational institutions, the result is bigotry of a lethal kind.
If this ‘cultural’ organisation could find itself better leaders, it would realise that the way for Indian children to grow up being proud of their heritage is to provide them a real way of seeing what this heritage is. This can only happen when we build institutes of classical studies, museums, art galleries, libraries and halfway decent schools. Not just in our metropolises, but in small towns and even villages.
The solution lies not just in altering history books, but certainly there should be new historians and scholars given the task of examining Indian history with new eyes. This is a monumental task and can only been done by trained scholars, not by prejudiced pamphleteers from the RSS stables. These gentlemen (no ladies!) have not even been able to understand the importance of Indian religious thought in today’s troubled times. We live in an age when prophets and the certainties of received wisdom are being questioned. An age in which journalists are beheaded and women stoned in the name of religion. If Hinduism and Buddhism seem increasingly attractive, it is because the fundamental principle of the Indic religions is the right to question all fundamentals.
Even here the RSS misses the point. So its religious ideologues believe that our ‘sanatana dharma’ needs to become Islamised. The RSS is a font of bad ideas, so in their talks with ministers last week there were reportedly noises made about ‘swadeshi’ economics at a time when the Prime Minister asks foreign investors to come ‘make in India’.
With such obsolete ideas about life, love, economics and religion, it is no surprise that in recent years the RSS morning ‘shakhas’ have been running almost empty. Now that India is led by a powerful BJP prime minister who has never denied his links with the RSS, we are suddenly seeing more khaki knickers in the public square than we have for a long while. Can we hope that among this plethora of Hindu nationalists there will be one or two who may understand how vital a real cultural revolution has become at this point in Indian history? One or two who will see that this has to embrace Indians of all castes and creed?
Follow Tavleen Singh on Twitter @ tavleen_singh