It must be a rather strange, but fortunate coincidence that in the past week, I have been simultaneously exposed to a growing climate of intolerance in my country and to the ideas and thoughts that went into the creation of a sound public sphere during our national movement.
The two concepts – the overwhelming… naïve intolerance of this 21st century and the great ideas of expression in the mid-19th century – are independent of each other.
The top stories of the past week – be it Kamal Haasan’s Vishwaroopam or Ashis Nandy’s caste-corruption comment, scream a face of India that is invisible but buried so deeply in our conscience. It screams of a society that has nurtured intolerance in soul and mind.
What are we so angry about?
The last time our nation was angered, to perhaps a greater extent than this, and definitely for greater cause, our solutions were more channelised. This asks us a very poignant question – Are we defying the laws of evolution by becoming less rational in thought and action, to an extent that can be termed moronic?
So, let’s go back to the roots.
Bengal in the mid-to-late 19th century has been a subject of great study – to the practical historian, the romantic novelist as well as liberal, neorealist film-makers.
This was a time in history, where the movements in Bengal for social, political and economic reform resonated throughout the country.
It was a time when our ‘minds were without fear’, as Tagore would go on to write.
Under the Brahmo Samaj, powerful leaders like Rajaram Mohan Roy championed rights for women and girls, influenced by British modernity.
The role of the Brahmo in reforming our society has been contested by many scholars, when they point out that the reforming and liberalizing, particularly of women, was all under the vast expanse of an undying patriarchy.
Nevertheless, here was a group of intellectuals trying to place their nation on a rational line, devoid of the influences of caste, class and religion and guided purely by reason. This was one of the many faces of modernity at the time.
But, modernity in Bengal, as in the rest of the country, was always viewed with a tinge of black as it was related to colonial rule, to rule that invaded into the private realm of our beliefs and traditions.
The railways are the best example of why a deeply traditional society resisted modernism. The introduction of the railways forced Hindus and Muslims, Brahmin and Shudra, Zamindar and peasant to sit together while traveling.
There couldn’t be greater blasphemy.
The traditionalists held on to their beliefs and customs and resisted any interference as they considered these to be a last bastion of freedom.
This was the first line through our nation. But this line manifested itself positively in the face of a common enemy. Personal agendas were put aside by members of different communities to come out as one strong opposition to British rule.
Mass movements gained immediacy through the press, specifically regional language journals that penetrated society. This gave room to an increasing public sphere.
The press also inspired more sources through which the public could express themselves – theatre being a popular medium. This catered to the illiterate too, generating bazaar discussions – quite literally, topics were being discussed in a commonplace such as the market.
This bazaar culture concept I was exposed to in a class. It was explained as completely contrasting to Habermas’ concept of the public sphere which was mainly concentrated in the coffee houses and concerned just the elite intellectuals.
Here was a stimulating, rational public sphere that was of, by and for the masses, the aam aadmi who went on to become central to our independence struggle.
The same aam aadmi who seems so angered today, without cause – angered by a statement out of context or the supposed tainting of a community – the aam aadmi who uses that precious public sphere to breed more intolerance.
This is the second line through our nation, one that will not just divide but break our country into a million pieces.
What Ashis Nandy said and didn’t mean has been written about. What Kamal Haasan’s Vishwaroopam actually implies but is not evident has also been written about. That Salman Rushdie has always been misunderstood is very well-known.
What is unknown, and not in our public sphere today for debate is why we allow lines of religion and caste to come in the way of expression, art and literature.
It is ironical that a nation which won its freedom by putting aside differences of religion and caste, has adopted it so vigorously today, that we have become our own colonizers.
If only our actions were guided by Tagore’s ideals…
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action —
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake