September 21, 2015

India: Fumigation of culture - Why BJP's cultural hygiene project is futile & with dangerous effects (Shiv Visvanathan)

The Economic Times - 20 Sep, 2015

The BJP is an innovative organisation, proactive in realising its ideas. If Bosnia and Rwanda gave you ethnic cleansing, the party at the Centre came up with a new project of civic cleaning.

Civic cleansing takes politics for granted. It assumes a majoritarian consensus that culture needs to be cleaned up. Yet its concept of culture extends to environments like the river Ganges, to institutions which are corrupt or alien, to the very physical idea of dirt as its attempts to sanitise the city. Whether it is culture, environment, the city or sexuality, it seeks to impose its own stamp on them. It wants to erase the alien, destroy history which it sees as false or misleading. It is obsessively nationalist and therefore wishes to curb what it sees as foreign. Civic cleansing is governance as an act of fumigation or spring cleansing where what is officially defined as foreign, as outside and therefore as dirt is subject to change. The project brings to it the zeal of a cultural commissar, the excitement of a boy scout, adding to it the violence and intolerance of a fascist brown shirt.

When the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) regime came to power, this act of cleansing began as a rumour caught in the warnings of a Sakshi Maharaj.

One felt it was the opinion of the fringe element, threats which would be seen as noise by the more stable parts of the BJP. Now one realises it is a systematic project, a fumigation of culture which the BJP sees as its herculean equivalent of cleansing the stables of governance and culture.

Guns and Culture

One can sense it in the words of Mahesh Sharma, Union minister for culture. Sharma is the new Goebbels who claimed that when he heard the word culture he reached for his gun. Sharma emphasised that when he hears the word culture, he reached for his broom or an injection that would immunise India of alien influences.

Sharma promised recently that the government's aims were crystal clear, that it would "cleanse every area of public discourse that has been westernised, and where Indian culture and civilisation needs to be restored". His promissory note covered history, education, in fact the whole range of institutions. As he clarified, "We have 39 institutions under the culture ministry, including grand museums and the National School of Drama." He felt that these institutions had not been effective in presenting or representing cultural heritage.

Sharma's words evoked not the newspeak of George Orwell's 1984, but the culturespeak of Modi Era of 2015. Fundamental to this 'office-speak' is a set of three assumptions. Firstly that culture is not authentic if it carries the seeds of the foreign or the alien. Secondly, that culture can be immunised of the alien through acts of exorcism.

Thirdly, that culture is official and can be officially cleaned up.

One realised that Sharma's project is an act of cultural hygiene, a ritual of sanitisation which goes against the syncretism and pluralism of our ethos. It waxes on the tyrannical and reminds one of the bully boy attempts to ban Valentine's Day or ban intimacy on beaches. The hoarding on Manipal beach says it all: "Be educated, do not hold hands".

The line between what is Indian and foreign is difficult to draw. In fact the idea of Hinduism itself is foreign as it is the British who created the unity called Hinduism. Thousands of our youth want to learn English. Can one ban it because some claim it is an alien language?

May be the BJP elite can begin by sending their children to regional language schools. One has to ask is the new consumerism alien or the new sexuality foreign? How does the BJP hope to curb such desire and consumerism? Does it plan to ban malls?

Does it intend to "Make in India" by ironically saying it in English.

The Case of Cultural Hygiene Project

Such a cultural hygiene project makes no sense not even to the diaspora which does not feel successful unless it says it in English. The BJP idea of ban and censorship cannot be effective because ideas have a sense of hospitality that ideologues do not understand.

The project is futile, the effects dangerous.

It is a candid representation of BJP's inferiority complex presented as an official project.

It expresses the illiteracy of an official nation state which in its urge to standardise and render uniformity destroys the diversity which is the basis of the idea of India. It is a Stalinist history that merely disfigures memory. We have absorbed the ideas of Francis Bacon, James Mill and John Locke, the works of Shakespeare, the Magna Carta; destroying such a memory will be difficult and the BJP will realise that. Culture is more than a monument. Paradoxically, BJP's attempt to exorcise the West may prove the finest tribute to the impact of the West in India. It will be the last great irony of colonialism.

Sharma's project is a symptom of a declining culture, a symptom of a disease rather than a symbol of a creative culture. It reflects a peculiar illness that is self-inflicted and futile. Knowledge, culture and democracy operate as plurality.

Every dictatorship eventually understands the wisdom of that. Only the costs of such illiteracy can be high.

The BJP's destruction of English or foreign culture can be a greater act of vandalism than the destruction of Buddhist monuments in Afghanistan. The word culture is an oxymoron in BJP hands. Civic cleansing may be as destructive of choice and democracy as ethnic cleansing. ..