Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Those Days and These Days

Two books that I have been reading lately ;both written by the well known Bengali writer Sunil Gangopadhyay –Those Days and its sequel First Light have made me wonder whether it is at all possible or even desirable to remove the influence of those two supposed banes of India – religion and caste from the political process. Will it work? After all, religion is the lodestar of society – any society and never in human history has the effect of religion in particular, ever disappeared from day to day life.

The nineteenth century was the time in recent Indian history when reason and rationality tried to overcome the barriers posed by obscurantist religion and caste driven practices. At that time people thought that it might actually happen –that religion would be banished to the uttermost ends of the earth and its attendant manifestation like caste would also soon disappear. Rationalists of the likes of Henry Vivian Derozio (the bi centennial of his birth was recently celebrated on April 18th), John Elliot Drinkwater Bethune as well as reformers from India like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Ishvar Chandra Vidyasagar and others tried to turn the established order on its head and a large part of that meant challenging the established religious order and ridding its over arching influence on society and politics.

Did they succeed ? The location of Derozio’s grave in Kolkata gives some pointers. When he died at the age of 22 of cholera in 1831, he was buried not inside the cemetery which was considered sacred ground but just outside the cemetery walls as an unbeliever. The grave still stands and its location is now even more prominent – the main cemetery now is walled off leaving Derozio’s grave on the pavement crowded out by innumerable Kolkata pedestrians. Derozio and his colleagues – be they reformers or rationalist brought about unparallel changes in their times but there are lessons to be learnt from those times as indeed there are lessons to be leant for these times.

Hopping to more modern times , Jawaharlal Nehru was one who earnestly and passionately wanted a political order that was above the dictates of caste and creed and through out his long innings as a leader both before and after independence, he sought to lay its foundations, often by battling it out with other conservative ideas. But as in the nineteenth century ; so too in the twentieth century – Nehru’s charisma in his time ; the same as the charisma of the nineteenth century aristocracy in their time ensured that their thoughts reigned for a time and then after they were gone ; caste and religion based politics slowly gained re entry and even have come to occupy centre stage. The communist parties are supposed to be above caste, class and religion but this commitment perhaps is as best seen in the uppermost echelons. And as for the Dravidian parties, every one knows how after the old guard passes on, there would be very little left of Periyar’s (again charisma driven) legacy of rationalism.

Religion is too deeply etched on the human psyche ; and for any one to pretend that politics or any other social activity can be carried out by ignoring this interface is sheer naiveté. The experience of Swami Vivekananda and his turn around is a case in point. An avowed agnostic and rationalist with little to with matters of religion, an encounter with the illiterate and rustic Ramakrishna Paramhansa changed his destiny and the contour of Indian society at the turn of the century exactly a hundred years ago.

Politics in India cannot be ever divorced from issues of religion and caste. It wasn’t then in Those Days and it isn’t possible These Days. What history teaches us though is that it can be harnessed and controlled so that the forces of fanaticism, bigotry and intolerance do not ever hold sway. That much is possible. That much is what a man of Mahatma Gandhi’s stature was able to achieve. We may expect no more than this or we live in a fool’s paradise.


Nixon said...

cool man... my vote is with you... and for your information, it will happen... sooner than later... wanna take a bet? :)

For said...

You have to decide whether religion and caste are banes or not. If they are banes (i.e if they prevent man from reaching his full potentiality by being against his nature) then it is both possible and desirable to remove their influence. If they are not (if religion and/or caste is an essential part of human nature), then it is neither possible nor desirable to remove their influence. Which do you think it is?