Forced Homogenization

Jai Sreeram! What this is all about?

Bhaskar Majumder

Of late one chant has been creating havoc in some regions of India, particularly in West Bengal. This chant seems to be cultural understood as both spiritual and religious. Most of the people lived with it during British India when they were exported as indentured labourers to colonies of Britain. The chant kept them alive in spite of the work environment that was hostile for them in the colonies. They were shipped to reach countries like Suriname which many of them heard wrongly as Sreeram. Audibility had its own consequences. But then what was heard by them also helped them in their survival.

People in India are very faithful and unsuspecting. They live and die for Sreeram even without questioning the very physical existence of Bhagwan Ram. Who questions the physical existence of God/Goddess? Not only the more innocent but also the less innocent with some extent of education does not believe that Bhagwan Ram played Holi for it was the prerogative of Lord Krishna. Sreeram thus is not a matter of joke—it reflected life and living of the people in the heartland in India over centuries.

Most of the literate people in the Hindi heartland keep a copy of Ramcharitmanas and chant it probably regularly at home and outside. Those who are illiterate listen to those who read out selected portions of Ramcharitmanas. Most of them do not keep Bhagavat Gita with them for it is delinked from Bhagwan Ram. It is a different story that Ram and Krishna are Avatars of the same person/God in different era. Precisely, Bhagwan Ram is a culture—He is chanted for men to follow him—He is Purushottam.

Unless the issue is a problem, social scientists abstain from discussing it in the public domain. So, we came to know through print media the comments of Prof. Amartya Sen very recently in Kolkata on this issue and right-wing reaction to it. My purpose is neither to react to Sen nor to respond to the right-wing reaction. As I observed the whole of my country during past six decades and people loving that country over centuries, my understanding is there is nothing wrong if one chants Jai Sreeram, Jai Mata Di, Jai Hind, and Jai Bhim and so on in families to maintain their family culture. So far as public domain is concerned, and I would like to exclude polity from this domain for the time being, the chant hardly has any linguistic consequence. One may add some more like VandeMataram, Bharat Mata ki Jai, Mera Bharat Mahan, Gau Mata ki Jai and so on.

One is engaged in education, formal or informal, one is self-engaged in works for survival, one is self-employed at the bottom of the labour market, or one is hired on regular pay; the social arrangement of the economy in its embryonic stage is to protect all the workers and their children and dependent section. Thus, what are needed are education, health care and jobs. If chanting any of what mentioned above helps in forming a strong pedestal to ensure that plus social security, it is welcome.

Social science, however, is more complex than what social reality is; the latter is often not visualized, often partially visualized or truncated, often postponed to be visualized, often distorted. It is, thus, not reality as such but how that reality is manufactured or projected that matters more for people in India, may be elsewhere, for these people are innocent—they live in belief in different centuries like in pre-history and pre-Newtonian with exceptions. Documented social science, and by stretch of imagination, print media and electronic media, reflect partial-biased-fractured dimensions of what is understood as ground reality. The location/position of the viewer and hence the angle of vision matter.

Culture as Economy: While India has chequered cultural pluralism, the major force that binds most of the population particularly in Hindi heartland is Ramayana a component of which is chanting Sreeram. The associated statues of Vajrangbali (Lord Hanuman who was the disciple of Bhagwan Ram and a great warrior as portrayed in epic Ramayana) and tiny/small enterprises manufacturing those statues that reflect both economy and culture are observed at several locations in the heartland. Hanuman-chalisha is a household sacred book to be read by components for safety of the members of the household in the heartland and for those who originated from the heartland but later relocated them for different reasons. One cannot abruptly wish away that. If economy is restored by Vajrangbali enterprises that is more welcome rather than doing no enterprise.

Culture as Hegemony: The problem is capturing political power through culture. Earlier the economists believed that all economic answers were political questions and then accused the politicians for failure of their prescriptions on the ground. Now the two-dimensional space (political economy) needs expansion by cultural dimension to make it three-dimensional. If culture is a reflection of trust-faith-belief, it is invisible; hence, questions may come on its hegemonic character. But if that culture is in praxis in the public real life then the character is clear. Some violation of basic human values by the faithful-believers in the public domain may reveal the praxis or the hegemonic character of culture.

Culture as Crises: "You become as I am'', if not, you are against us and hence, face the consequence. This drawing of the line at the bottom imagined as nationalism or its proxy may bring about crises in public life. One may be incapacitated to be like others—one may be dumb to chant, one may be deaf to hear what is to be chanted, one may stammer, one may hesitate in uttering and so on. Even many Hindi-speaking persons, for the word probably originated in the heartland, utter Sreeram as Siaram. Many of the less understood terms led probably to invented names like Serampore in lieu of Sreerampur in Hooghly district of West Bengal. Even with rectification of names by the competent authority, the institutions remain like Serampore College. It is not to be read as (West) Bengal crises—it may permeate the whole nation. The manifestations of those crises may be different by forced homogenization, parochialism, linguistic domination, arrogance and all that. The desired national integration through cultural code then may be a far cry.

I imagine my country to remain far from draconian culture that diminishes human values.

[Professor of Economics, G B Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad—211019]
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Vol. 52, No. 7, Aug 18 - 24, 2019