Thursday, September 3, 2015

A dissenting voice silenced, again

Damodar Dharmanand Kosambi died in 1966. He was both a formidable mathematician and an unparalleled historian. His remarkable scholarship, his reading of ancient Sanskrit texts aside, he also had a very caustic, irreverent style. His Myth and Reality should be required reading for every believing Hindu. I would say also for every atheist but I suspect that Indian atheists of the educated variety are already very well acquainted with D D Kosambi. He is a star in the galaxy of Maharashtra’s fine traditions of scholarship and writing. Through his work he cut through several myths and exposed our many realities.

Mourners follow the funeral procession for scholar MM Kalburgi as he is taken to be buried at Karnataka University in Dharwad on August 31. Pic/AFP
Mourners follow the funeral procession for scholar MM Kalburgi as he is taken to be buried at Karnataka University in Dharwad on August 31. Pic/AFP

I think about Kosambi in the aftermath of the murder of writer and scholar M M Kalburgi in the Karnataka town of Dharwad on August 30, shot down by gunmen who rang his doorbell. Kalburgi was what we like to call a “rationalist”. That is, he was not religious and had written against idol worship and superstition. For this, his life was under threat from members of organisations which hold allegiance to the Sangh Parivar and related Hindutva outfits. He had only recently asked the government to withdraw police protection. Perhaps neither fear nor giving in to threats was part of his character.

As the news of his death broke, a Bajrang Dal activist tweeted words to the effect that people like Kulbargi who mock Hinduism will die a “dog’s death” and suggested K S Bhagwan, another Kannada writer, was next. The tweet and account were soon deleted. The activist was arrested and then let out on bail even before he was produced before a magistrate. He has been involved in three earlier cases of assault.

It is tempting to blame the BJP government at the Centre for the rise of Hindutva right-wing bravado and audacity. But the problem runs deeper than one election result. Karnataka is a Congress-ruled state but is no less a simmering communal cauldron for all that. Moreover, atheist and anti-superstition activist Narendra Dhabolkar was shot in Pune, while on a morning walk in 2013, in what was then a Congress-NCP-ruled state. Veteran communist leader and rationalist Govind Pansare was shot in Kolhapur in February 2015, before the general elections and the state Assembly elections.

The suspects for all three murders are the same, however — Hindutva outfits. The undertone is chilling: if you are seen to oppose Hindu practices, death will be your reward. It is dangerous to dismiss this as the thinking of kooks, nutcases and fringe elements. We are talking about more insidious and fearless elements of our society, who obviously feel they can get away with murder. And we are also talking about tacit acceptance from larger sections of society. In spite of being around 80 per cent of the population, there are Hindus in India who are riven with insecurity about their numbers and an imminent threat from religious minorities. I have heard gentle arguments about how you should not criticise Hinduism or this is what will happen, with a small aside that murder is not correct.

Interestingly, the same people were very quick to come out in support of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the horrific attack on it by Islamists. They possibly do not see the irony in condemning violence by those who believe Islam has been “abused” while saluting those who murder when Hinduism is “insulted”.

Some people will argue that it is best not to challenge such murderous ideologies and thus remain safe from attack. But how far will that get us? Must we all look askance at the atrocities committed by IS and then pretend that Kalburgi, Pansare and Dhabolkar were not murdered for threatening the status quo? Is there space left in India for argument or is a “dog’s death” now an acceptable response?

Many years ago, Minoo Masani told me about a conversation he had many many years earlier with C Rajagopalachari. Rajaji asked him, “Do you believe in mumbo-jumbo?” Masani answered, “No.” Rajaji’s reply: “Then you will find life very difficult in India.”

So what would we make of Rajaji and Masani in today’s India? And if it comes to that, DD Kosambi? I am re-reading Kosambi’s Myth and Reality while you ponder on that.

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist.  You can follow her on Twitter @ranjona

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