In praise of the rebel

Chandramohan case is a reminder: India needs to embrace its diverse traditions

Written by Yoginder K. Alagh | Updated: February 9, 2018 12:15:40 am
The cabin at MSU head office was set on fire by ex-student Srilamanthula Chandramohan on February 2. (Express Photo: Bhupendra Rana)

The M S University case of Chandramohan has again raked up the question of ideas shaping this century. Are we only going along with the economic powers of the world to sup on the high table with them or are we going to fulfil the role Buddha had envisioned for us to lead the great cultural revival of human civilisation? Down the centuries, we have had fanatical ideas on one side and a larger vision on the other of saints like Guru Nanak, Meerabai, Sant Ravi Dass, Chaitanya and Kabir. As John Stratton Hawley of Columbia University wrote in his introduction to the Songs of the Saints of India, they challenged the ex opera operetta orthodoxy of Brahmanism. Caste is evil because it creates a society which justifies ascriptive inequality.

I do not like Chandramohan’s painting of the Mother Goddess in a vulgar position giving birth to a child. Chandramohan’s professor did not like the painting, yet went along with the external expert who passed it, so it had to be displayed in the exhibition, to which he was entitled. At this point the fanatics took over and vandalised his work. All hell broke loose. I was asked to write a report for the visitor, the governor of the state. MSU chancellor, Mrunalini Puaar, was from the Gaikwad family and she knew me. She was not happy and asked me to do the work. By now, the then MSU vice-chancellor, Manoj Soni, appointed by the then political establishment in Gujarat wanted her to intervene. I knew him because he used to meet me at Vallabh Vidyanagar where I would go to discuss governance of my institute with the late H M Patel. I told him that I would like to do this work from the university. He was very courteous with me but went over my head and told the chancellor to request me to work elsewhere, which I then did from the Circuit House.

Haku Shah, my colleague in the committee, belonged to the faculty of Arts. M S University has always had a tradition of engaging liberal stalwarts, like the late Chan. Chi. Mehta. A great liberal artist, Shah, I do not think was happy with my strong dislike of the painting. My in-laws are in Baroda, so I was staying there. My mother-in-law, who was in her late 70s, was a very cultured Nagar Brahmin lady who had not studied beyond high school. She asked me why I looked so disturbed. I told her this man has vandalised the Mother Goddess. She looked into my eye and asked, how many mothers have given birth to children yesterday in Baroda; it is natural. That shattered me and my report said the professor should not be penalised and Chandramohan is entitled to his degree.

The rest is a history of institutions breaking rules. The benefit I got was a personal copy of a sketch of Bapu made by Haku Shah, in addition to a great photograph of a Gir lion by my wildlife photographer friend, Sulaiman Patel, which are my cherished possessions.

So Chandramohan, after chasing his degree for over a decade, has done a criminal act which setting fire to a university office is. In my days rebels would be trained and pushed to be heroes. They would build a new dawn. We have to absorb the great traditions which are our cultural heritage and lead the world into the new era of cultural revival.

Elections are not just about growth rates and employment numbers. They are about freedom and the right to build a community as a responsible society. Will we do it? As we go towards 2019, I can only remember my favourite singer, Joan Baez, in the University of Pennsylvania college hall in the late 1960s singing, “The answer my friend is blowing in the wind”.

The writer, a former Union minister, is an economist

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