One Minister used a speech apparently made in 40 BC to back government action against JNU students in 2016 and another mistook the title of a poignant poem for hard seditious prose.
If Union HRD Minister Smriti Irani quoted from a speech attributed to Cicero in the Roman Parliament in 40 BC, Union Urban Development Minister Venkaiah Naidu mistook Agha Shahid Ali’s collection of poems titled ‘The Country without a Post Office,’ for an indictment against Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Shahid brought Kashmir’s conflict to international literary attention through his poems.
Noting that the country faces bigger threat from the enemy within, Irani quoted Marcus Tullius Cicero: “A nation can survive its fools, and even the ambitious. But it cannot survive treason from within. An enemy at the gates is less formidable, for he is known and carries his banner openly.
“But the traitor moves amongst those within the gate freely, his sly whispers rustling through all the alleys, heard in the very halls of government itself. For the traitor appears not a traitor; he speaks in accents familiar to his victims, and he wears their face and their arguments, he appeals to the baseness that lies deep in the hearts of all men. He rots the soul of a nation, he works secretly and unknown in the night to undermine the pillars of the city, he infects the body politic so that it can no longer resist. A murderer is less to fear,” she said.
This widely quoted statement of Cicero was perhaps made in the Roman parliament around 40 BC in response to the attempts of Roman senator Lucicus Catiline to overthrow the Republic.
Earlier in the day, Naidu, while responding to the debate, said of the JNU protest that was organised on February 9: “The heading of the poster says: ‘A country without a post office’. Is India without post office? The entire world is looking towards India under the great leadership of Shri Narendra Modiji today.”
‘The Country Without a Post Office’ was a poem by Kashmiri writer Agha Shahid Ali published in 1997. With others from a collection, it portrays Kashmir through the turbulent 90s in the Valley. An excerpt from the poem:
“I must force silence to be a mirror/to see his voice again for directions. Fire runs in waves/Should I cross that river?/Each post office is boarded up/Who will deliver,/parchment cut in paisleys/my news to prisons?/Only silence can now trace my letters/ to him./Or in a dead office the dark panes.” Ali died in the United States in 2001.
Venkaiah continued, “The world wants to invest in India. I am a Minister of Urban Development and I can tell you that 36 countries have approached me in the recent past saying that they want to invest in India because this is the best place and also it is a hope for investment. That is the mood. The world is respecting India and some people are putting up posters saying: ‘A country without a post office’, ‘against the judicial killing of Afzal Guru and Maqbool Butt, in solidarity with the struggle of Kashmiri people, etc.”
Incidentally, Ali’s house in Srinagar was submerged in the floods of September 2014. His wooden desk, a rocking chair, books and papers were under the waters of the Jhelum, a river that he flowed in his poetry too. “When I return, the colours won’t be so brilliant, the Jhelum’s waters so clean, so ultramarine. My love so overexposed,” he wrote.