Only the culturally rooted can effectively answer people like Dinanath Batra
An 85 year old man, who for 30 years was an anonymous teacher of Hindi and English in small towns of Punjab and Haryana, has become an influential, controversial and threatening force on the intellectual and literary landscape of India.
His name is Dinanath Batra, and he heads an organisation called the Shiksha Bachao Andolan. Batra was earlier also the general secretary of an organization called Vidya Bharati, the school network run by RSS.
From his point of view, Batra’s recent ‘achievements’ have been quite formidable. In 2006 he filed a PIL against NCERT for misrepresenting history. In 2007 he carried out a campaign against sex education in schools, and the BJP government in Madhya Pradesh removed this subject from the school syllabus. In 2008 he petitioned the Delhi High Court to remove A K Ramanujan’s insightful essay ’300 Ramayanas’ from Delhi University’s history syllabus.
In 2010 he sent a legal notice to Penguin Books to withdraw Wendy Doniger’s book, ‘Hinduism: An Alternative History’ and Penguin capitulated by 2014. That same year another publisher, Orient Blackswan, shelved the book by scholar Megha Kumar titled ‘Communalism and Sexual Violence: Ahmedabad since 1969′, after receiving a legal notice from him. Soon thereafter he sent a legal notice to the magazine Frontline against a cover story entitled ‘Shortcut to Hindu Rashtra’. And on June 30, 2014, six text books written by him were made part of the supplementary reading for schools by the government of Gujarat.
Given this record, it is important to seriously analyse what the angst and agenda of Dinanath Batra is. Part of the angst is understandably directed against a culturally rootless, overly anglicised elite which has often undeservedly ruled the roost for too long in our country. This upper crust claims to be liberal, and possibly is, but many of its members cannot write the alphabet in Hindi or their mother tongue, cannot count to 100 in anything but English, know more about Shakespeare than Kalidasa, and cannot give a line by line translation even of our national anthem!
Several of the rituals which they have adopted are often a plain mimicry of the West, and surprise even westerners themselves. The Delhi correspondent of the Sunday Times of the UK once told me that he found it incomprehensible why schoolchildren in India, a country with such a rich repertoire of folk and children’s literature of its own, should dress up like Noddy — discredited even in the West — in birthday parties in the capital of the nation. When housing colonies in our cities are proudly named Mayfair or Regency Park or Princeton Apartments, what are we projecting?
Why do our leaders end their speeches by raising a toast to a visiting dignitary? Indian government norms do not allow for the serving of alcohol on such occasions. A toast with a glass full of apple juice is, to say the least, unnecessary — since the practice is neither ours nor universal. Public rituals should reflect one’s own culture and history. It would be perfectly in order if a formal banquet speech ends with a prayer for the long life and prosperity of the guests.
Even in sports, the privileged position of cricket and the corresponding neglect of almost every other sport is directly a product of our colonised past. In fact, there is, as Bimol Akoijam, a scholar from Africa writes, “an uncanny similarity between the consolidation of colonial power and the growth of cricket in South Asia”.
These are but random examples. But the truth is that only the culturally rooted, and not anglicised photocopies as many of us are, can be an effective answer to the angst of people like Dinanath Batra for whom Bhartiyata or Indianness is the goal.
More than their angst, it is their agenda which is far more insidious and dangerous. This agenda seeks to impose a certain form of Hindu practice as the only valid one, and is militantly hostile to anyone who differs. Hinduism is a dialogic faith, as is amply illustrated in the Vedas and Upanishads. In its lofty metaphysics and outlook it welcomes dissent and nurtures eclectic thought. It has no one Pope, no one church, no one deity and no one prescribed text. It is quintessentially a way of life.
The likes of Batra seek to prescriptively constrict this glorious legacy to fit their own preconceived predilections and — by not being firmly questioned either by the judiciary or by pusillanimous publishing houses — have now assumed an intimidating posture.
Moreover, in my view, their reductionist zeal to reduce the entire canvas of Indian history to only the undoubtedly great achievements of the Hindu period distorts our plural past by selectively over-romanticising only one part and ignoring the rest, thereby encouraging the communalisation of history.
The real danger is that the unwarranted evangelism of such people seems to have the blessings of our current ruling dispensation. Adoption of Batra’s books by the Gujarat government certainly suggests that. God forbid, if a time comes when what we wear, what we read, what we think, how we pray, and how we behave will be ruled by the diktats of the Shiksha Bachao Andolan.
The writer, an author and former diplomat, is currently adviser to the Bihar chief minister.