Autumn Number 2019

Saffron Or Yankee?

Culture that suits India

Bibekananda Ray

India's present civilisation is an amalgam—of native, British and American. India's native civilisation is predominantly Hindu, with sprinkling of Muslim, Buddhist, Jain, Persian and aboriginal legacies. It is a seamless fabric that Rabindranath Tagore praised in a poem, Bharat Tirtha in 1910. He noted: "the West has opened its door and everybody is bringing gifts from there". He might have had in mind Swami Viveka-nanda's two eventful visits to the USA (1893-1897 & 1899-1902) and of scores of visits by Bengalis and other Indians before and after, who study in US and European universities. He added, "this give- and- take between the East and the West would continue and cannot be reversed."

No wonder, more than seven decades after Britain granted Independence to India, the hangovers of British colonial civilisation persist in civil and military administration, the judiciary, health care, formal education and the parliamentary system of governance derived largely from the Westminster model. English literature is still a favourite study in colleges and universities and the English language is written and spoken by an ever-increasing large number of people. Expensive English-medium schools are preferred by parents for their children; examinations and interviews for higher study and jobs are conducted in English.

The American civilisation is dislodging the parent British by virtue of a global momentum that made it sweep the non-communist world; several communist countries like China and Vietnam, are forging strong trade and commercial ties with the USA, laying aside their hatred of capitalism. India values relations with the USA on top of others' and has no qualm to let its culture and way of life sweep the sub-continent in return for strong ties to ameliorate her trade, commerce, higher education, research and employment. Among the commercial and cultural conquests by the USA, India is foremost with her huge consumer market of 125 crore people. President Donald Trump announced after the NDA's return to power in June, this year that India under Mr Modi will continue to be its 'great ally'.

Ideologically and culturally, the USA has always been close to Indians' heart, next to the British who ruled India for 190 years (1757-1947). American movies, made in Hollywood entertain people and inspired many Indian movie-makers, right from the Silent Era (1912-1934). American literature—the novels of W H Hudson, William Faulkner, Earnest Hemingway and Mark Twain, the poetry of Robert Frost and Walt Whitman and essays of R W Emerson and John Dewey—was as avidly read and written on as English. America's pop music of Paul Robeson, Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra is dear to youngsters and has been imitated and inspired a new genre singers and several orchestral Bands. US sculpture, paintings, plays etc. are well-known to Indian cognoscenti. Two American companies—Amazon India is sweeping the subcontinent with ever-increasing clients and commodities; online trade is booming in urban India with fast and efficient home delivery of nearly everything from cereals to computers. To lay imagination, 'America' stands for user-friendly and high-quality goods and services; educated youngsters pine for study and jobs in its universities, colleges and for study, jobs and creature comforts, unavailable in India and are loath to return. No other race has a spirit of enquiry and research comparable to the American natives and immigrants who get maximum Nobel prizes in science, medicine and technology. The USA has indeed caused a 'brain drain' in India and saved young brains from perishing in drains at home.

The social media giant, Facebook has become an obsession with leisured people; even semi-literate and idle housewives indulge in it and if they cannot write 'posts' or reply to them, they see their names by just 'liking'. Computer games keep leisured adults and children away from outdoor sports. Abnormal boys die, while simulating, or being goaded by, online games; drug addiction is a menace in schools, colleges and hostels, or wherever they meet. Such addiction takes so much time and energy that many educated adults read nothing but newspapers; a retired mechanical engineer boasts of having read no book in 30 years. The hold of western civilisation is so strong on ambitious families that many of them discourage learning, writing and speaking of mother tongues by their wards, because that will not fetch good jobs, or academic opportunities abroad, as English does. They read little of their regional literature, or sing native songs. In fact, their elders live in an alien island with no bridges. It is pathetic to see old and infirm elders consigned to old-age homes, as they have none to look after in nuclear families. This was alien to Indian civilisation where parents were treated like gods and an indirect fallout of Western civilisation.

The machine-dependence of Indians' everyday life has been a fallout of the inroad of western civilisation in every sphere of life. This dependence is enhancing so fast and irreversibly that elders are unable to keep pace with it. Many of them cannot operate mobile and smart phones, computers, music systems and sundry sophisticated electrical and mechanical apparatus; they blame them as 'miseries of the machine age'. The Yankee civilisation is entangling India in many other subtle ways! Look at garments and fashions. Fifty years ago, youngsters used to buy, or have tailored, garments like those worn by movie artistes, e.g., KananBala blouse and Uttam hair-cut; these days, they ape garments and jewelry worn by Hollywood stars- nighties, tops, frocks, brassieres, lingerie and Tee-shirts; the last flaunt brand names and strange pop slogans on chests and backs. This writer saw a young girl in Delhi wearing a top on which was written "Come, hug me!" In 1962, a boy in Kolkata's Free School Street, wearing a Tee-shirt on which was written that his male organ was strong. The Western civilisation appeals to hedonism, i.e., desire for sensory pleasures and is more user-friendly than Indian; therefore, it attracts the young and outgoing in a busy and competitive world. Urban youngsters utter abusive words like ****ing, 'shit' and; bullshit' to mean 'bogus' or 'nonsense'. Hindu civilisation did not have very many ugly, sexy abuses. The computer is of U S origin, invented and first used during the World War-II; from the size of a room it has shrunk to that of a palm with many more features. So was mobile phone, first analogue, then android. Much more than computer, they are ubiquitous now, some people owning and using several. Addiction to laptop, tablet and mobile phone has no cure; with the spread of social media platforms like 'Facebook' they keep many idle people engaged and chatting. Even governments are scared about phenomenal spread of social media on which political messages and 'posts' go viral in seconds. They have taken the place of addas, letters and land phones. Computer and mobile phone games entertain adults and children alike, affecting eyes and making lives sedentary. Mechanisation has of course plus points; it makes life easier and saves time that was otherwise wasted in pre-machine age. Before phones, the only mode of distant communication was letters and before the British set up post offices, horses and pigeons or personal visits which used to take enormous money and time. It might have taken warmth in relations but made all sorts of communication fast and efficient.

Howsoever elders may be ill at ease and revivalists resist, they cannot go back on board a 'time machine' to pristine Aryan or Hindu civilisation, no legislation or Tughlakifiat can halt the march of this technology-driven Western tom-tom. If Rip Van Winkle had fallen asleep in an Indian city in the 1950's and woken up early this century, he would have been no less at a loss to adapt to modern India than he did in New York city in Washington Irving's 1819 story. Politics of every country, affected as much as India by this sweet silent onslaught, has not only accepted it as a reality but are preaching its pros and wanting it more. Only Islamic and Hindu fundamentalists and revivalists want to reverse it. Muslim terrorist organisations abhor Yankee culture, as Osama Bin Laden observed after having New York's Twin Towers erased on 11th September, 2001, to which George Bush (Junior) retorted that America was "proud of its way of life".

Into this three-millennium old civilisation, another is tip-toeing to be born and barge in- the saffron which itself is an amalgam of the ideas and ideals of the Hindu Mahasabha, Jan Sangh, the RSS and the VHP. The Jan Sangh, or Akhil Bharatiya Jana Sanghis the political arm of the RSS; in 1977, it merged with several other leftist and rightist parties that were opposed to the Indian National Congress and formed the Janata Party. After it split in 1980, the former Jan Sanghre-emerged as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)that led by Morarji Desai ousted Indira Gandhi in 1977 general election but could not survive long because of infighting. All these rightist Hindu nationalist parties were deemed communal by the Congress and left parties but they cleverly exploited the Hindu dislike of Muslims and desire for a Hindu Rashtra. Islamic culture and civilisation.

Since the BJP was born from the ashes of the Janata Party in 1980s, it and its two piggy-back riders—the RSS and the VHP—bandied about Hindutwa but it did not try to usher it in the governance for 13 days, 13 months and two terms for ten years. In fact, Hindutwa is still a virgin and academic political concept; it has not been tried anywhere. Veteran L K Advani used to mock India's Constitutional secularism as 'pseudo-secularism' (implying that the State need not be 'secular') but neither he as Deputy PM, nor his guru, late A B Vajpayee or their successor, Narendra Modi has not yet done anything to push Hindutwa into the administration. Before the 2019 General Election, Mr Modi lay low and muted the demands by the RSS and the VHP to have a Ram Mandir built on disputed Babri mosque site, or elsewhere in Ayodhya. His party's and the RSS's cadres, of course, are pushing in the RSS agenda of cow protection by stopping beef-eating and lynching, or even killing those who ate or stored it, beating up and getting critics of the BJP or RSS arrested and tried, rather intolerantly. After return to power with an incredibly huge mandate in June '19, the trio have begun to tout Savarkar's through a militant drive to make people, Muslims in particular, to chant Jai Shri Ram. Those who refuse, or dilly-dally, are being maimed or even killed. It has become like the Hindu slogan of Jai Ma Kali that devotees chant before sceptre falls on goats and buffalos before goddess Kali. As Dr Amartya Sen recently remarked: Jai Shri Ram is alien to Bengali culture but is being forced on reluctant Hindus and Muslims. It has become a red rag to Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee who sees in it a sinister call to oust her. The ambience of intolerance of critics seems to be returning with more vehemence. It is feared that once Ram Mandir is built on Babri mosque site or elsewhere in Ayodhya, Mr Modi and Amit Shah will bulldoze all opposition to usher in Hindutwa and a saffron civilisation.

The two BJP-led NDA regimes, set apart by a decade, (1999-2004 & 2014-2019) tried to 'saffronise' history and amend text-books; they argued even in Science Congresses that many of the Western inventions had existed in ancient Aryan India and cite examples, like Pushpak Vimana being an ante type of aero plane, agniban of missile, Seeta being born in test-tube (pumpkin) and Lord Ganesha's elephant head affixed by plastic surgery.

The word Hindutwa was coined by a Hindu zealot, Chandranath Basu but first used by Vinayak Damodar (Veer) Savarkar (1883-1966) around 1923; it was a vision to both, like Thomas More's Utopia,which had not been in application anywhere. In response to Muslim League's demand for Pakistan, Savarkar, a Marathi and former employee of India House, London who had joined the Hindu Mahasabha(the right-wing Hindu nationalist party formed to protect the rights of the Hindu community in British India)used the word in a book that he wrote while in cellular jail in Port Blair; by it he meant "a collective Hindu identity as an essence of Bharat (India)". It was later picked up by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Hindu Sena.Savarkar advocated validation of Hindu religious myths and beliefs, questioned by modern science. He included among Hindus "all people descended of Hindu culture" including Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs. He argued that the words- Hindu and Muslim- were used by the British Raj to mean religions, followed by the two communities in 1872 census report, replacing the word Hindi which was the term used earlier to describe all people from India. (Hind).

An ultra-modern Yankee civilisation, continuation of the British, is sweeping India- another, a bee in Savarkar's bonnet- is waiting to be born. Can both co-exist, or complement each other? No, they cannot, in their present forms, just as oil and water do not mix! It is not possible to go back to pre-digital and pre-computer milieu, nor surrender or cease to enjoy the creature comforts the civilisation has brought. If the rulers ram down their version of the Hindutwa culture, they will make a mess. To usher it in, the Constitutional secularism has to be jettisoned, or amended. A clash of civilisation as Samuel P Huntington predicted in 1992 has to be avoided. The American political scientist argued that future wars would be fought not between countries, but between cultures.

Be that as it may, atavism, a biological phenomenon, is alien to human history. A neo-Hindu (like neo-Nazi) civilisation will put a brake to India's progress and alienate it from rest of the world. India is truly at a cross-roads but until it makes a plunge into rabble-rousing Hindutwa, more a populist goal than a civilisation; let the Yankee civilisation stay and thrive.

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Autumn Number 2019
Vol. 52, No. 13 - 16, Sep 29 - October 26, 2019