Prime Minister Narendra Modi may be trying to drag India, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century, but India isn’t quite ready for it thanks to individuals and organisations that still believe in medievalism as a way of modern life. Together they continue to ensure that the country’s future is unextractably entwined with the past. Some recent examples.
Honour killings: It’s the kind of love to die for. The Capital is the latest witness to an honour killing, of a girl who got married in defiance of her family to a boy outside her caste. Her wedding gift: being strangled by her own parents. There are estimated to be over 1,000 ‘honour killings’ in India every year. That’s more than victims of terrorism. Here’s the tragedy; most honour killings take place in Haryana, where khap panchayats still continue a practice that is as barbaric as it is criminal, sanctioning a social evil that makes the phrase ‘modern society’ sound offensive. They also make the Klu Klux Klan look like the Missionaries of Charity.
Language lessons: First, the facts. Sanskrit dates back to a time in ancient India when it was the main language used by scholars. It is now spoken by less than 1 per cent of Indians, mostly Hindu priests during religious ceremonies. The last census tell us that 14,000 people described Sanskrit as their primary language, with almost no speakers in several states including Gujarat. Now, we have an aggressive campaign by an RSS-backed organisation and HRD Minister Smriti Irani, wanting to make learning Sanskrit compulsory in all schools, instead of languages more appropriate for a globalised world. The pro-Sanskrit organisation’s head informs us that those who learn Sanskrit will never commit suicide. He needs to go back in history, to 1965, when close to 100 people died in Tamil Nadu during riots to protest imposition of Hindi, the official language. Clearly, no lessons learned.
Religious cults: It boggles the mind how millions still believe in miracles, but no one seems to mind, or care, when they are promised a cure for cancer through prayer and prasad. Or healing through milk that has bathed the body of a guru. Ignore the guns and the goons, be awed by the palatial surroundings and the swimming pools — and donate. How cults like the one created by self-styled sant Rampal emerge and rise above the law — in his case in a throne-like lift — is an ancient curse on modern society.
Mindless politicians: They couldn’t care less, and mind less, but politicians like Jitan Ram Manjhi, currently Chief Minister of Bihar, belong to another era and give us nightmares just thinking of how he got there. He equates upper-class people with foreigners and descendants of Aryans. He threatened to chop off the hands of doctors who are negligent in treating the poor. He advocated eating rat meat and defended his son’s right to have a girlfriend, and admitted to paying a bribe to bring down his electricity bill. He has certainly brought down the office of the Chief Minister and here’s the scariest part. He claims that he could be Prime Minister some day.
Dynasties: In India, dynasties live on, however anachronistic their existence, despite the last one, the Mughals, having sunk without much trace in 1858. We now have Syed Bukhari, Shahi Imam of Delhi’s ancient Jama Masjid, anointing his son as successor, a move challenged in the courts as having no legal or religious sanctity. Reminding us all of another dynasty where the son’s anointment has been challenged politically, for being politically challenged.