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Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Dharampal, Babri Masjid and the bitter fruit of victimhood

Rajni Bakshi writes: The scholar and Gandhian thinker’s legacy is a reminder of the peril of politics grounded in historical injury.

Written by Rajni Bakshi |
Updated: October 9, 2021 8:42:14 am

Dharampal was born in 1922 in Muzaffarnagar district of Uttar Pradesh. He joined the freedom struggle in 1940 and was actively involved in the Quit India movement. After independence, he joined Mahatma Gandhi’s disciple Mirabehn in founding a cooperative village near Rishikesh. He was also a founding member of the Indian Cooperative Union. From 1966 onwards, he dedicated himself to studying British archives about the social, political and economic systems of pre-colonial India.

This research led to a series of seminal works which documented the vibrancy and creativity of social and economic life in India before the onslaught of British control. Dharampal’s three major books The Beautiful Tree: Indigenous Indian Education in the Eighteenth Century (1983), Indian Science and Technology in the Eighteenth Century (1971) and Civil Disobedience and Indian Tradition (1971) secure his place in the intellectual history of post-Independence India.

It would, therefore, be easy for his birth centenary celebrations, now underway, to focus exclusively on his enormous contributions as a historian. Dharampal did inspire several generations of Indians to do pathbreaking work in various spheres – building upon the insights and practices of diverse knowledge systems of the Indian subcontinent, often by learning from practitioners. Thus, it is understandable that many of Dharampal’s admirers and followers tend to ignore the Ayodhya chapter in his life.

Had events in India, over the last three decades, turned out to be different – it may have been plausible to write off Dharampal’s support of the demolition of the Babri Masjid, in December 1992, as an insignificant error of judgement. But the worst fears of those who opposed the demolition have been confirmed and the situation continues to worsen at an ever-accelerating speed.

It is, therefore, urgent and vital to consider this urgent question. Might it be fatal to pretend that we can separately, as though in a vacuum, celebrate the pre-modern strengths of our multi-faceted samaj while ignoring or overlooking a politics anchored in a sense of victimhood, which then justifies a “need” for some form of retribution, even violence.

Before attempting to address this question, some fragments of relevant memories need to be placed on record.

In January 1993, Mumbai was rocked by communal violence that went on for many weeks. This was a continuation of an earlier spurt of violence which had erupted immediately after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992.

In mid-January that year, even while communal violence raged through parts of Mumbai, I was part of a group that spent four days at an ashram in Vrindavan attempting a dialogue on the issues underlying the dispute in Ayodhya. On one side of this dialogue were activists from the Gandhian-Socialist tradition. On the other were full-time workers, or supporters, of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

The idea of this dialogue had come up because some of the participants on both sides had been in jail together during the Emergency (1975-77) and friendships had endured through the decades. The whole effort was largely driven by Vijay Pratap, co-convenor of the Lokayan group (connected with the Centre for Study of Developing Societies) and an active member of various socialist forums, who had been engaged in dialogue with friends in the RSS at a personal level for many years.

Plans for this meeting, first initiated in mid-1992, had originally included friends from the Left parties or non-party Left groups. But most of them decided to opt out after the demolition, saying that there was now no point in attempting a dialogue.

This is not the place for detailed reporting on that four-day meeting in Vrindavan. Suffice to say that all present were deeply concerned with the future of India’s samaj but there was no agreement on what threatens the samaj and what would enrich it.

I came away from those four days traumatised by the one message that was coming through loud and clear from the RSS workers and supporters. This was that – even if samaj breaks, we can rebuild it but the Sangh and its mission must not break (“samaj toot-ta hai to phir jod leinge, sangh nahin tootna chahiye”).

It is in this context that I was shocked when I heard that Dharampal had lauded the demolition in Ayodhya. Like many of my peers, I admired Dharampal’s archival work and had earlier met him to discuss both history and contemporary issues.

Therefore, at the first possible opportunity, I sought a meeting with Dharampal to learn first-hand about his position. The meeting took place sometime in March or April 1993 at Sevagram Ashram, near Wardha, where Dharampal was staying at that time. With considerable hesitation, ‘sankoch’, and due respect I asked if it was true that he lauded the demolition in Ayodhya.

When Dharampal confirmed that yes he welcomed the demolition, I asked why.

It is the will of the people, he answered. This was long overdue, it is part of the necessary process of bringing down colonial symbols. Eventually, he added, Rashtrapati Bhavan, India Gate and other such colonial era structures should also be brought down. He did not see the event in Ayodhya as specifically anti-Muslim.

Then, I pointed out that the campaign leading up to the demolition has been marked by slogans like “Musalmaan ke do hi sthaan – Pakistan ya kabristan (There are only two places for Muslims — Pakistan or graveyard).” When he appeared unmoved by this, I gave him some details of the horrific violence unleashed as a consequence of the Ayodhya campaign and more so post-demolition.

The conversation meandered about in this vein with Dharampal, at some point, saying that history is full of such incidents with large displacements of populations due to changes in the religion of the state.

By then, I had lost all sense of hesitation or ‘sankoch’ and in a rather agitated manner I pointed to Mahatma Gandhi’s home, the Bapu Kuti, which was visible from where we sat and said that I thought we were all engaged in trying to make new kinds of history not repeating periods of darkness.

Dharampal answered me with silence. The conversation, that day, ended on this tense note. In December 1993, we met again in a group setting at the first conference on India’s Traditional Science and Technologies hosted by the Patriotic and People-oriented Science and Technology (PPST) at IIT, Mumbai. Dharampal was a founding-mentor of the PPST.

On the day after the PPST Congress ended, Uzramma, the founder of Dastakar Andhra, and I went to the IIT guest house to say goodbye to the scientist C V Seshadri, who was then President of PPST. We found him in the midst of a meeting with Dharampal. He invited us to stay and listen. To put it mildly, Seshadri was pleading with Dharampal to “see” the destructive logic of not just his stand on Ayodhya but his support of the protagonists of that campaign. Dharampal was mostly silent but what little he said was essentially to the effect that: “Who am I to support or not, my views don’t matter”.

Seshadri contested this, saying of course what you say matters. Seshadri’s voice trembled with grief and anxiety as he said to Dharampal, in a pleading tone, “Why can’t you see that this path you are on will tear us apart, as a society and as a nation?”

The meeting ended with Dharampal appearing stoic and mostly silent while Seshadri was visibly exhausted and heart-broken.

I invoke these memories here in the hope that they speak more directly, at a human level, than written reasoning behind political positions, which is already available in the public domain.

Seshadri’s anxieties are crucial for understanding what is now at stake in the year 2021 and the near future. I aim to do this in an introspective spirit.

In 1993, my responses were driven by the trauma of observing closely, at the street level and in the villages of Rajasthan, the spread of hatred and cold-blooded murder of Muslims being legitimised as a form of justice for Hindus. For me, it was, at that juncture, a Hindu-Muslim issue as well as a contest between “secularism” and varied notions of a “Hindu rashtra”.

Seshadri’s focus was on a deeper and more fundamental concern. He knew that once a politics of hatred, anchored in victimhood, takes root it will not limit itself to Hindu-Muslim lines. Once toxic means have been justified, they will poison even the worthiest end. This path, these methods, lead unfailingly to a living hell.

Twenty-eight years later, Seshadri’s understanding and his assessment stand fully validated. Today across caste and religion lines, an assortment of identity-based groupings have emerged, which appear to be ready and willing to do battle to either avenge their feelings of victimhood or assert domination over “others”. Following mass violence in Delhi in February 2020, it was social activists who were protesting against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act who were arrested while those who had openly, on camera, given calls for violence roamed free. In particular, it is now widely perceived that the state machinery will mostly look the other way when Muslims are randomly attacked, often fatally.

Nevertheless, before proceeding further it is important to empathically explore the reasoning of those who supported the demolition in 1992.

There were many who saw the entire Ramjanmabhoomi campaign and the demolition as a necessary cathartic event. Some of these people sincerely believed that this political mobilisation would act as a balm to allay the historical burden of hurt Hindu pride. I have vivid memories of conversations with political activists, who insisted that they could find cathartic release in the demolition and yet not be advocates of a politics of revenge and retribution.

Let us, for a moment, consider the claim that there is a constructive, non-hate based, version of the Hindutva project and it is being tarnished by bullies within the fold. After all, this is a problem that afflicts many large movements. Many worthy causes have famously deteriorated into systemic cruelty. For instance, the lofty dream of workers of the world uniting to break their chains degenerated into the violence of Stalin’s Gulags and Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

Similarly, today there is mounting evidence of verbally and physically vicious attacks against all those who question or oppose the Hindutva project which motivated the demolition. Those who identify with either the term Hindutva or are driven by feelings of victimhood and therefore assertion – can no longer dismiss the escalating violence as the work of some lunatic fringe.

If the demolition in Ayodhya was indeed a cathartic experience, why are we now faced with “love jihad” legislation in many states, along with street-level vigilantism, which targets mixed-faith couples? Why is there construction and/or land allocation for CAA-NPR (National Population Register) related detention camps? Why are sections of mass-media, vigilante citizen groups and government equating any dissent as being anti-Hindu and anti-national?

The crux of that painful exchange between Seshadri and Dharampal, back in 1993, was this: Seshadri saw the demolition as a moment for triggering conscience, Dharampal saw it as a necessary balm to the accumulated pain of victimhood.

There was a bitter and tragic irony in this. Dharampal’s life work enabled many of us to know our own society’s precolonial roots and strengths in nuanced detail. Yet on the ground and in the real life of the present, Dharampal seemed unable to see that what his position on Ayodhya did was to endanger sabhya samaj, a civil and open society.

This is why Dharampal’s stand on Ayodhya was morally and politically wrong. As a historical event, both the demolition and Dharampal’s position on it, could possibly be set aside. But the psychological pain of victimhood, which probably drove Dharampal, is a living breathing beast amongst us still.

How can those afflicted by this sense of victimhood overcome it? This is the urgent and crucial question of our times. Bitter feuding over Hindutva vs secular, or right vs left serves almost as a decoy or a distraction – preventing us from addressing this urgent task.

Let us first empathically acknowledge the material basis for the feelings of victimhood.

Anyone who dips into the treasure trove of Dharampal’s archival work is likely to come away feeling enraged by the enormity of what was lost because indigenous knowledge systems were delegitimized by the European colonizers. Many extend this rage to Muslims as the earlier outsiders who took control over large parts of India. All of this causes some people to remain rooted in, or cling to, feelings of victimhood which then circumscribes both their vision and action. This is the easy and lazy way of dealing with the past.

By contrast, it requires hard work and effort to free yourself from the victim identity and instead focus on what actually matters today. Only then can the focus shift to how we might find clues in pre-modern knowledge systems that might enable us to build a better life for all in the 21st century.

Let us focus on just three areas of potential opportunity.

First, India’s indigenous sciences and technologies are deeply anchored in the syncretic culture which is the DNA of this subcontinent. This mixed and fluid culture is now being undermined, and in places physically attacked, both by groups of citizens and agencies of the state. As far as I know, those traditional knowledge systems were possible only because of an overlapping mutuality across caste and religious lines.

Those equations would, in many cases, not conform to current standards of equity and sameness in dignity but we can learn from their nuances without aiming to replicate them in a literal manner. Yet this is only possible if all engaged in the process:

a) acknowledge perceived injustices in the past and present,

b) attempt to address the inequities from a position of inherent dignity rather than unresolvable victimhood, and

c) accept or at least explore the many ways in which India’s struggle for freedom acted as an enriching process that enabled diverse segments of India’s samaj to sublimate the pain of the past and renew itself.

Second, some of the core insights of our knowledge systems and even our multi-layered samaj, can make vital contributions to building relations and production systems that can help us to survive the ecological and economic disaster that now appears to be inevitable. For instance, the mainstream global consensus around the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is an extremely limiting and self-contradictory framing of both the nature of the crisis and possible solutions. There is no escape from interrogating and challenging the re-colonisation of the world through a particular definition of “development”.

In this context, an anti-coloniser focus will be an easy default response. But it is an anti-colonisation focus that will spur creativity, fostering fair and just alternative systems. The difference between these two approaches cannot be over-emphasized.

The anti-coloniser approach is rooted in a seemingly permanent, unsolvable, sense of victimhood and resentment. Those locked into this frame are preoccupied with seeing Muslims/Christians/ Europeans or assorted “outsiders”, as a race or an ethnic group with whom scores have to be settled. In the anti-coloniser discourse, the victims seem to have no way of being freed from a sense of inadequacy and animosity.

By contrast, the anti-colonisation approach is driven by a vision of the good society that works for all. The pain of past and present injustices is fully acknowledged but the focus is on identifying the fundamental flaws underlying the problems we face today. For example, M K Gandhi’s searing critique of modernity in Hind Swaraj.

Therefore, a reactive and anti-coloniser discourse about traditional knowledge has no future – because it doesn’t help us to challenge the dominant definitions of either “development” or “growth”.

Three, the PPST as a group attracted people with both the anti-coloniser and anti-colonialism impulses. This is why the group split on the issue of the demolition in Ayodhya. As a participant in the three large conferences hosted by PPST—Mumbai IIT in 1993, Anna University Chennai in 1995 and Raj Ghat, Varanasi in 1998 – I experienced the PPST platform as being both constructive and creative. Awareness of the damage done by colonial rule was always in the background but this was not the impetus for working on indigenous knowledge systems.

Most of those who flocked to the PPST events came to seek answers and methods for redefining “development”. They sought ways to re-energize grassroots bazaar energies in a time when “the market” threatened to take over all of life under the guise of liberalisation and globalisation. They sought to honor and give due importance to the lok vidya (people’s knowledge) that had been rendered invisible by the juggernaut of modernity. Therefore, many who flocked to these conferences were also engaged with diverse kinds of constructive efforts on the ground, be it in health, water-management, agriculture etc. Others were closely engaged with movements, like Narmada Bachao Andolan, which resisted the destruction and displacement caused by “development” projects. Today, some of this energy is manifest in platforms like National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) and Vikalp Sangam.

Lok vidya cannot be celebrated in the abstract while sections of its practitioners, of any identity group, and those who defy or challenge the Hindutva project, are threatened. The key question now is whether lok vidya is doomed to remain a ‘niche’, a fringe phenomenon struggling to survive? Or can it inspire us to effectively redefine, if not over-throw, currently dominant framing of both “development” and “growth”.

If it is merely a specific area of indigenous knowledge, be it health, textiles or agriculture, that interests someone, then there will be plenty of space to keep them busy for decades – but only as bit players who will have little or no role in shaping the future of samaj or India’s systems of production at a macro level. Even more importantly, there is a risk that the crafts and knowledge of Muslims and other non-Hindus, could be given space while their loss of dignity and loss of belongingness continues unattended.

What is at stake now is the future of India as an open and civil society, a sabhya samaj – one in which inherent or imported flaws and inequities can be tirelessly worked upon. This in turn requires us to interrogate the definition of “patriotic”. A great deal depends on how the new and incoming generations, those now under 35 years of age, define what it means to be patriotic.

It is in this context that Dharampal’s position on Ayodhya has a crucial significance which must be taken into account while celebrating his archival work.

Demolition of artefacts and structures that are associated with “foreigners”, “outsiders” and “colonizers” is approved of and celebrated by those who equate patriotism with geography-based and genealogy-based loyalties. Neither a geographical sense of belonging nor genealogical loyalty are in themselves problematic. But they do become toxic when accompanied by feelings of resentment, with a gnawing sense of inadequacy, which in turn gives rise to a seemingly perennial competition with some real or imagined “other” – be it Muslims, Europeans, other castes or just random “outsiders”. This has proven to be true not only in India but in numerous situations across the world.

What then of those who seem unable or unwilling to let go of their long-held sense of historical victimhood?

This is a complex and difficult question. One of the many valid answers is to cultivate a sense of patriotism that is profoundly and deeply anchored in loyalty to foundational moral values. Such a patriotism recognizes the pain of historical events and related injustices but is not shaped by or locked-into that past. Instead, this version of patriotism is driven by the quest for a good society, a samaj whose structures and processes are aimed at facilitating well-being for all – with unqualified and equal dignity for all. Being patriotic in this sense is certainly more demanding because it is a ceaseless inward effort, even a struggle, for swa-raj, self-rule as in true command over one’s self, one’s passions – in ways that frees us from our insecurities and anxieties. But this more strenuous effort is eminently worthwhile because it makes us more capable of compassion, cooperation and thus fraternity. This positive is what frees us from the negativity of a perpetual contest with those who are not “us”.

Then any lingering burdens of victimhood might fall off, like the yellowing leaf floats down from a tree, with an implicit sense of a completed life-cycle and liberation.

This column first appeared in the print edition on October 8, 2021 under the title ‘The bitter fruit of victimhood’. Rajni Bakshi is a journalist, author and founder of the online platform ‘Ahimsa Conversations’.

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