September 20, 2015

India: The ministry of culture seems to think every organisation is a variant of an RSS Shakha [branch]


Why Mahesh Sharma should stop worrying about Indian culture

The ministry of culture seems to think every organisation is a variant of a Shakha

20-09-2015 Shiv Visvanathan
Shiv Visvanathan

Years ago, Kannada writer UR Ananthamurthy claimed that cultures should not be always looked at as dichotomies or oppositions. Foreign culture should not be seen as alien because it violates the laws of hospitality and translation.
Ananthamurthy suggested that the model of centre and periphery or metropolis versus province condemns one category to perpetual parochiality. Such a model never outgrows the grammar of hegemony.
Indian society, he claimed, had a more benign way of looking at cultures, using the house as a metaphor. It was the idea of the front yard and the backyard. The front yard is official, formal. It was the place where one met strangers and visitors. But the backyard which began with the kitchen was the place of intimacy of gossip. The model of front yard and backyard worked better as a way of handling cultures. One translated them, domesticated them, indigenized them. It was more playful, less aggressively nationalist.
One wishes the BJP’s ministry of culture and its minister Mahesh Sharma had read the great Kannada author. Instead of being Orwellian, Sharma could have been more democratic and plural.
Sharma’s recent ranting during an interview needs to be taken seriously. Sharma sees himself as a chowkidar or custodian who has to defend Indian culture from the encroachment of western culture. He claimed western culture was not good for us. He felt it had no sense of the family. He added a 14-year-old girl wanting a night out is okay elsewhere but not in India. Sharma is not seeking a cultural revolution but is seeking to battle cultural pollution. The task is bureaucratic. It will involve a systematic attempt to rectify institutions. I must confess that Sharma’s project is evocative of Hitler and Stalin. Its pollution rituals have ethnic and racial implications.
Sharma could cite as an example of such activities the renaming of Aurangzeb Road as Abdul Kalam road. Sharma claimed Kalam was a nationalist, despite being a Muslim. The biases are clear. Anyone who is not a Hindu, begins with a handicap as a nationalist. Other religions and ethnicities have to work harder to prove they are patriotic. The lines are clear. Even Kalam, to be Indian, needs a certificate from Sharma.
There is a provinciality to the official utterings of Sharma. He is clear that the Gita, the Mahabharat and the Ramayan are parts of an official syllabus but the holy books of other religions do not have official status. Sharma is clear that they do not quite represent the soul of India. Sharma’s project is a campaign in hygiene. The world cleansing has a double edge. Cleansing invokes cleaning and eliminating that which is regarded as dirt or alien. The site for all this fumigation actually is, as Sharma admits, the 39 institutions of culture under his control. Museums, galleries, schools of drama will now have to work hard to indigenize themselves on official lines.
I am fascinated by the word “pollution”. Pollution indicates a process of contamination. It is built on the classificatory uses of pure and impure. In Sharma’s classificatory world pure is local, indigenous majoritarian while impure is the strange, alien and foreign. Purity belongs to the indigenous, local majority. Pollution rituals thus clean cultural dirt and contamination. Now history, culture, educational institutes will be subject to this cleansing process. It is clear the BJP process of cleansing has gone beyond historical rectification. Now past, present and the future will be subject to this disciplinary exercise.
Cleansing as Sharma explains is purification, distancing, rectification. It is a search for authenticity which is official. The inspirational source is Deen Dayal Upadhyaya. He is the ideologue of cleanliness to accompany Savarkar as the ideologue of patriotism. Sharma is clear that what he is targeting is thought pollution. This project is BJP’s version of thought control. For Sharma, the relation between parents and children is central. He sees this as the authority model for governance as the regime in power decides what is good for citizens. There is a patriarchal model of citizenship as it is going to decide what thought is good for you.
It is old, in fact quaint that a party which talks so proudly of IT and the information revolution has no idea of the knowledge revolution and the role of English in it. In fact ironically it was the middle class knowledge of English, that gave IT in India a comparative advantage over the Chinese. Present in the idea of pollution is a notion of dignity and presentation of the self. For Sharma, there is a sense that an Indian going abroad, who cannot recite a Sanskrit couplet, brings shame to the land. He is seen as uncultured.
Sharma’s project of cultural pollution seems to be beginning with the Nehru museum. He is questioning the appointment of the director Mahesh Rangarajan. What Sharma cannot question is Rangarajan’s competence, the fact that as a professional, the director ran an immaculate and exemplary operation. Sharma might also be surprised that Rangarajan’s command of Hindi is as immaculate as his. In fact, the first casualty of the Sharma reforms is professionalism. It is clear now that an academic cannot be autonomous. What makes him relevant is party loyalty. Directorships, it is clear, will now be made not on professional competence but party loyalty.
It is not only the cultural impositions of the regime one is worried about but its sense of illiteracy about choice, consumerism, the new demand for sexuality, the new access to pornography. The ministry of culture seems to think every organisation is a variant of a Shakha. The violence begins there and one wishes Sharma’s sense of culture was as open as an ordinary citizens.