Categories
Review

What is the idea of India?

 

On the first anniversary of a movement that seems to be a reaffirmation of democratic processes in a nation torn with angst, Meenakshi Malhotra reviews Shaheen Bagh and the Idea of India

Title: Shaheen Bagh and the Idea of India: Writings on a Movement for Justice, Liberty and Equality

Editor: Seema Mustafa

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books, 2020

Shaheen Bagh is a compendium of writings that document and comment on a watershed moment in India’s history, evoking memories of that other flashpoint in India’s history, the Partition. For Nayantara Sahgal, the nonagenarian writer, it is all too reminiscent of that other critical event in Indian history. Narrated and recounted by journalists, writers, social and political activists, it represents both the uniqueness of that moment when a movement propelled by one of the most dispossessed groups in Indian history took up cudgels on behalf of their communities, the men in their communities. It was a registering of both solidarity and political awareness, capturing moments of protest in a tone that was at times exhilarating, at times despairing.

The narrative incorporates the accounts of various women protestors who recount that significant moment when they were catapulted into assuming  unexpected and unlikely roles as torchbearers of democracy and custodians of democratic rights of citizenship. Shaheen Bagh, a Muslim neighbourhood in the capital city of Delhi in India became the epicentre of an unprecedented protest, an unbroken continuous sitting for over 70 days by citizens with Muslim women coming out in large numbers against the Citizenship Amendment Act adopted with a huge majority by the national parliament in December 2019 and also the National Register of Citizens, a notified national population register perceived rightly or wrongly to be hugely discriminatory against the Muslims and some marginalised groups. The CAA or the Citizenship Amendment Act is also perceived and presented by sections of the population as violating the spirit of the Indian Constitution adopted in 1950 as a sovereign democratic republic with the preamble adding the word ‘secular’, distinguishing it from a theocracy in 1976. The government however has refuted these claims and fears and with the counter claim that the CAA is only intended to grant citizenship to migrants, read as persecuted minorities, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Christian and Parsi communities who came to the country from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan on or before December 31st, 2014. Clearly the Muslims of all sects have been kept out of this particular dispensation. Just to remind us all, India has 11% of the world’s Muslim population around 16% of the Indian population , at least 226million of one billion population are Muslim. Interestingly the Supreme Court of India has refused to order a stay on its implementation which has been requested by about 144 petitioners and has granted the government time to come up with a response. It has also restrained other courts, the high courts for example from hearing please against the CAA till it arrives at a decision to take it forward.

Shaheen Bagh captured the imagination of the youth in India and of women’s groups in particular. India is still a young country, 50% of its population is below the age of 25, 65% below 35 years of age. The people that converge here everyday in large numbers are young women. Shaheen Bagh evokes memories of earlier resistances that the world has witnessed or known. US campuses against the Vietnam war, Occupy Wall Street, Tiananmen Square, Ken State University, Tahrir Square, the student uprising in Paris in the 60’s closer home to the US Montgomery March and Nashville Tennessee. But this was all that and more as many women  in burkhas and  hijabs crossed several boundaries, broke several barriers and some even stepped out of conservative homes and conventional customs and taboos for the first time in a civil disobedience vigil to uphold the values of equality and freedoms enshrined in articles 15 and 19 of the Indian Constitution. Placards that these women used often said: ‘Don’t be silent but don’t be violent’.

As the Introduction to the book Shaheen Bagh and the Idea of India pithily states: Shaheen Bagh became a “first in living memory. As the days passed, Shaheen Bagh acquired greater strength, for the women ,” brought no malice, no anger, no abuse into their protest, and countered every allegation hurled at them with a smile and an honest and forthright response. Moreover, “the idea of Shaheen Bagh ignited, and became, the idea of India for hundreds, because the women sitting in protest spoke a language that came from the compassion of the matriarch.   It was born of the love for children, and brought with it a smile and an embrace for the youth who spent the nights sitting and singing with the women.”

In the process, the protest empowered women. They played an agential role in the proceedings and the experience helped to develop their confidence in their own abilities, in their judgment and their decisions.  There was never any doubt that the women were in the lead. They were sitting on protest, they commanded the stage, they spoke to the media.

Shaheen Bagh became the site of a major exercise in the dance of democracy. It became a site which enabled and catalysed a kind of consciousness-raising for both the participants and the witnesses. While I would stop short of calling it a great leveller, it offered a kind of space for forging solidarities, of experiencing community and of practising democracy. Shaheen Bagh assumed a unique significance since it presented a vignette of inclusiveness from the start. “There was no religion or caste here. “

In a somewhat romanticised vein, a scholar who had spent a substantial chunk of time in Delhi , described it as a  “pilgrimage’’ for many Delhiites. A young professor from Delhi University  who spent time at the protest site said that “I come to Shaheen Bagh whenever the world outside depresses me. I find solace and peace here.” Whether to seek social salvation or rub shoulders with the Delhi literati, who were also here  from time to time, Shaheen Bagh represented an experience of democracy that few had imagined possible in the gloom and doom of our recent history. Many privileged youngsters also joined the milling groups around the protest site, preferring to savour this experience over their usual modes of entertainment. Some sat with the women as they collectively , and in solidarity, sang Faiz’s song, “Hum Dekhenge” ( “We shall see” in Urdu and Hindi) a stirring anthem raising a flag to unity and harmony .  All axes of identity — religion, castes, class — seemed to recede and fade in this space that helped  “Delhi find its conscience”. The moment seemed to resonate with other similar moments in the course of the freedom struggle. This laying claim to democracy and its variegated symbols by lower and lower middle class Muslim women, people  who were probably among the most dispossessed and marginalised groups, and among the most disaffiliated from the lineages of class and economic power, struck a chord. The question that had come up here was an enormously significant one: to whom does the nation belong?
The book captures the mood-defiant yet resolute-of the protest told in a racy journalistic idiom, conveying both its political implications and its historical significance. The mood of the nation — which was simmering with rabble — rousing hate speeches the order of the day and condoned and overlooked by the ruling dispensation, was brought to a boil by the unlikely protestors of Shaheen Bagh. Wearing their hijabs and burkhas in February 2020, the unlikely political actors of this moment were also making “history” or “herstory”. It was a unique moment of historical significance, as the women fought their numerous fears and limitations. It was also a moment of political and feminist assertion with women occupying the centre, not huddling on the margins or periphery.

The segment, ‘Timeline’ , covers the chronology and clarifies that it was the deliberately rigged  Delhi riots and then the lockdown in March 2020 that brought the gathering of crowds to a grinding halt. Seema Pasha’s chapter on ‘Women , Violence and Democracy’ presents witness and participant accounts as “Ground Reports from a Protest. “This engagement with people  and facts on the ground, the micro-histories of the protest constitutes one of the features which add to the readability of the book . Instead of an academic or theoretical approach, the book takes a lively “ankhon dekhi” (a vividly visual and engaging account, translated from Hindi) approach and this works well. In addition to this is the fact that the book brings in voices and narrative accounts  of some sane voices like that of Harsh Mander — of writers and activists– who represent a holistic and secular, democratic and not divisive, vision of Indian history and democracy. Collectively, these voices maybe said to articulate a vision which upholds an “idea of India” which is not idealised or utopic but reflects the vision of many of its founding fathers. It is in that vein that Seemi Pasha writes, that in spite of the terror unleashed in the run-up to the Delhi Assembly elections, “Shaheen Bagh endured, and continued to showcase the best of India’s tradition of secularism, liberalism and ethical, non-violent resistance.” It was a reminder that the idea of India was premised on a vision of democracy and freedom, which stands threatened  today. Shaheen Bagh was an attempt at reclaiming some of these affirmations which are in grave danger of erosion and violation.

Moving and poignant,the book is both a testimony and paean  to a beleaguered  idea  of India, as it is to the courage of  some of its marginalised citizens. It is also an interrogation of the protectors and ‘custodians’ of India and the idea of India.Till we all wake up to an awareness of our roles as active citizens, the idea of India continues to be a threatened and endangered  one.

Acknowledgements

The discussion of the CAA-NRC is drawn from Dr Meenakshi Gopinath’s observations as part of a feminist conversation on Shaheen Bagh and Citizenship, conducted under the aegis of the “International Feminist Journal of Politics.”

Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor in English at Hansraj College, University of Delhi. She  has edited two books on Women and Lifewriting, Representing the Self and Claiming the I, in addition  to numerous published articles on gender and/in literature and feminist theory. Some of her recent publications include articles on lifewriting as an archive for GWSS, Women and Gender Studies in  India: Crossings (Routledge,2019),on ‘’The Engendering of Hurt’’  in The State of Hurt, (Sage,2016) ,on Kali in Unveiling Desire,(Rutgers University Press,2018) and ‘Ecofeminism and its Discontents’ (Primus,2018). She has been a part of the curriculum framing team for masters programme in Women and gender Studies at Indira Gandhi National Open University(IGNOU) and in Ambedkar University, Delhi and has also been an editorial consultant for ICSE textbooks (Grades1-8) with Pearson publishers. She has recently taught a course as a visiting fellow in Grinnell College, Iowa. She has bylines in Kitaab and Book review.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.             

Categories
Essay

How a Dark Goddess Lights up a Fallen World

Dr Meenakshi Malhotra delves into the relevance, history and iconography of Kali as we draw nearer the date of Diwali and Kali Puja

Kali sculpted into the Ellora Caves

Kali Puja, a festival that celebrates the defeat of a demon in the hands of a dark goddess Kali,  is celebrated in Bengal and some other parts of India on the new moon day of the Hindu month of Kartik, and coincides with one of the biggest Hindu festivals in India, Diwali. It usually falls around end of October or early November, though this year it falls on 14th November. Kali Puja is performed to signify the victory of good over evil, and the celebration is geared to seek the help of the goddess in destroying evil. Although Kali was present in mythology and some scriptures, she was on the margins of the spectrum of Hindu goddesses. Kali-worship was popularised by Raja Krishnachandra of Krishnanagar in Nadia(Bengal), only  around the 18th century or so. By 19th century the family and community worship of Kali became an annual event, much like the event of Durga-worship under the patronage of elite and wealthy families. It coincided with a resurgence of Hindu revivalism in 19th century Bengal, which was fuelled in part by a perceived threat to Hinduism by imperialism and colonialism. 

Kali is perhaps the most mystifying in the Hindu pantheon of gods and goddess. Evoking deep devotion in her devotees, she represents a vision and spectacle which is truly terrifying. Kali represents an eternal puzzle and an enigma to scholars and rationalists. Represented as standing upon Shiva and wearing a necklace of human heads, she represents the image of the divine mother as dark and destructive, cruel and cannibalistic.

Perhaps we need to recapitulate the history of the goddess’s representation in various religious texts that she appears in. The Agni-and Garuda Puranas record that her worshippers petition Kali for success in war. In the 5th segment of the Bhagavata Purana, Kali is represented as the patron saint of outlaws, who invoke her in fertility rites that involve human sacrifice, according to David Kinsley in his book on the Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition.

Banabhatta’s 7th century drama Kadambari contains a similar story featuring a goddess named Chandi, an epithet used for both Durga and Kali. A tribe of hunters worship Kali, plying her with ‘’blood offerings”. According to David Kinsley, this pattern of representation appears in numerous other texts. In Vakpati’s Gaudavaho, a historical poem of the late 7th and early 8th century, Kali is portrayed as clothed in leaves and as one who accepts/receives human sacrifice.

In Bhavabhuti’s Malatimadhava, a drama of early 8th century, a female devotee of Chamunda, often identified with Kali, captures the female protagonist, Malati, with the intention of sacrificing her to the goddess. Like Kali, Chamunda is depicted as a terrible goddess, a maternal dentate, “a mother goddess with a gaping mouth and bloody fangs”. One hymn praising Chamunda describes her as “dancing wildly and making the earth shake” just as Kali did while defeating the demons who threatened to destroy the cosmos. Another text is Somadeva’s Yasatalika (11th-12th century)which describes a goddess Candamari whose iconography seems remarkably similar to Kali’s. Candamari is described in the 11th century text referred to above as a goddess who adorns herself with pieces of human corpses, uses oozings from corpses for cosmetics, bathes in rivers of blood, sports in cremation grounds and uses human skulls as drinking vessels. Bizarre and fanatical devotees gather at her temple and undertake forms of ascetic self-torture.

In the pantheon of Hindu goddesses, Kali represents a force that is disruptive, wild and uncontrollable. She threatens stability and order and when she kills and subdues demons, she becomes frenzied and drunk on her victims’ blood.  Untameable and liminal, Kali is cast in the image of a mother goddess who resolutely resists domestication.

We notice a resurgence of Kali worship in 19th century Bengal. While Kali and other Shakti goddesses are worshipped in some parts of India like Bengal and Himachal and  in Nepal which borders India on the north east side, many of the Hindus of northern  India worship the gods of Vaishnavism, like Krishna. In the south, the sects of Vaishnavism and Shaivism accord primacy to Krishna and Shiva, respectively.

The British had colonised most of India by the second half of the 18th century. By late to mid-19th century, imperialism had led to a burgeoning critique of colonialism and the beginnings of nationalism, catalysed by waves  of  social reform, particularly in Bengal, Maharashtra and Punjab. While the worship of the fair, refulgent, glorious and most significantly, domesticated, figure of the goddess Durga was started and encouraged  to provide a platform for the Bengali community to come together — a similar function was performed by the worship of  Lord Ganesha in Maharashtra — Kali worship came to be practised by more subordinated social groups. She acquired respectability and recognition among educated middle-class Bengalis when she became the central figure in Hindu revivalism led by Ramakrishna Paramahansa (1835-1885).  One  reason for this  phenomenon that promoted and made Kali worship respectable in the late 19th century, was the emergence of a new sect that, merging classical Hinduism and other forms of worship like Tantrism (a school of Hinduism which believes in the practice of some secret rituals to gain knowledge and freedom), rejected dualism.

Ramakrishna Paramahansa who was at the forefront of this phenomenon was a mystic and ascetic who was dedicated to Kali-worship, and whose devout practices offered devotees a space outside the domain of colonialism, which in turn helped trigger a Hindu revival. For the middle class Bengali functionaries who were in the lower rungs of colonial service, their subservience might have proved emasculating, a thesis argued by  Sumit Sarkar, Mrinalini Sinha and others. In this context, it could be speculated that Kali’s fierceness, her performance of virile masculinity might have helped her devotees reclaim a sense of manliness by associating themselves with her masterfulness.

Another reason Kali worship  became especially popular among militant nationalists, criminals and outlaws, forest dwellers and tribal populations, and emerging fringe groups was because they discovered in Kali a powerful resource for protesting against their impoverishment and downtrodden status. Kali was also seen as a way of articulating their aspirations  for political empowerment.  As a mother goddess associated with fertility, birth, creativity as well as violence and martial prowess and anger, Kali offered the nationalist movement an apt narrative and iconography. It is a well documented fact that Kali-worship increased in Bengal in the 1890s and the first decade of the 20th century, along with the rise of extremist and militant nationalisms.

One of the first novelists in India and the foremost novelist of late 19th century Bengal who was instrumental in the rise of the novel in India , Bankim Chandra Chattopadhay (1838-1894) describes Kali in his novels is a signifier of Hindu cultural nationalism. In his political novel, Anandamath, he uses Kali to signify ‘time’(Kala)and political change. According to critics like Jasodhara Bagchi, Bankim departs from classical and medieval Indian literary conventions. They see Bankim’s use of the iconography of Kali as reflective of a modern, secular, rationalist sensibility. However, Bankim did not believe that Indians would rally behind a secular independence movement. Instead he felt that a sense of nationalism could best be cultivated through religion in the Indian context.

Bankim also believed that women and the feminine principle are particularly powerful forces  for social change. He equated the nation with the divine maternal and asserted that the homeland or motherland should be the object of devotion. This adaptation of Shakti’s mythology to the Indian nationalist project lent the figure of the mother goddess a new militancy. 

In the novel Anandamath (literally meaning ‘abode of joy’) Kali’s darkness signifies India’s degradation at the present time. In ancient times, the ‘mother’ was glorious and resplendent. In the present, Satyanand , one of the characters in the novel, says, “look what the mother has come to…Kali, the dark mother. Kali is naked ,” he adds , “because the country is impoverished, the country is now turned into a cremation ground, so the mother is garlanded with skulls.” This is however a temporary state because the monk believes that the goddess and motherland will be restored to its previous glory, rescued by her brave sons.

Bankim develops the idea of linear time, past-present-future, which is tied up with his idea of writing a history of Bengal. Kali gets linked to evil, to political action but also to the idea of temporality–‘kala’, which literally means an epoch- and more importantly, the idea of apocalypse. Kali’s stepping on Shiva is seen as a reversal, a turning upside down of the accepted order of things. For Bankim who was a functionary in the colonial government, this vision of a world upside down had its use in restoring one’s self-respect.

 In the late 20th century, Kali was again invoked as a  vital part of  right wing assertion and the rise of Hindu nationalism of the 1990s.The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) called its women’s wing ‘Durga Vahini’ (the carriers of Durga’s lore), which was established in 1991,invoking the names of Durga and Kali to signify cultural assertion of Hindu womanhood. However, the women’s movement in the 1990s found that the “ ‘Shakti of the modern Durga’, was not directed against violence in the home and community but was directed externally to the Muslims-both men and  women…the myth that all women are equal and could be mobilised around a common issue on a common platform lay shattered” (Sarkar and Butalia,1995)a point that gets reinforced time and again. Flavia Agnes, a lawyer who works on issues of women’s rights, indicates her discomfort with Kali as an emancipatory trope for all Indian women as it remains essentially Hindu and does not accommodate women from other religions and communities. Kali or the dark goddess as a pan-Indian figure of empowerment for all women remains problematic, as it is too exclusionary and mired in violence.

Where there might be a tiny sliver of a possibility of reclaiming Kali as an emancipatory idea or a figure of emancipation might possibly be in two areas. One is to break the deadlock of ‘fair and beautiful’ in Indian culture, the prevalence of gender stereotyping of a reductive kind. Here, dark skinned girls carry a sense of social stigma and  are often, in media representations, encouraged to use products that would lighten the effects of dark skin, both to improve their prospects of a glamorous career and a decent marriage. The other maybe to do with the idea of motherhood which is made more complex. While Durga rather than Kali is associated with motherhood, Kali as mother maybe reclaimed as a mother who does not necessarily shield her children by sugar-coating reality, but introduces them to death, destruction and the existence of ultimate reality. That is the significant moment in the iconography of Kali — the moment when she steps on Shiva, her consort, who is also the Lord who presides over destruction, in the Hindu trinity of Brahma-Vishnu-Maheshwar(another name for Shiva). Her tongue pops out as she is caught in this stance of utter surprise, frozen in eternity(in her representations) even as she presides over time(kala).

References:
Bagchi, Jasodhara(2008) Positivism and Nationalism:Womanhood and Crisis in Nationalist Fiction-Bankim Chandra’s ‘Anandamath’ Women’s Studies in India: A Reader ed Mary E.John, Penguin, pp124-131.

Chattopadhyay, Bankim Chandra(2005)Anandamath or The Sacred Brotherhood, translated by Julius Lipner, OUP

Kinsley, David(1986) Hindu Goddesses:Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition, Motilal Banarsi Das

Sarkar, Sumit(1998) Renaissance and Kaliyuga:Time, Myth and History in Colonial Bengal in Writing Social History. OUP,186-215.

Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor in English at Hansraj College, University of Delhi. She  has edited two books on Women and Lifewriting, Representing the Self and Claiming the I, in addition  to numerous published articles on gender and/in literature and feminist theory. Some of her recent publications include articles on lifewriting as an archive for GWSS, Women and Gender Studies in  India: Crossings (Routledge,2019),on ‘’The Engendering of Hurt’’  in The State of Hurt, (Sage,2016) ,on Kali in Unveiling Desire,(Rutgers University Press,2018) and ‘Ecofeminism and its Discontents’ (Primus,2018). She has been a part of the curriculum framing team for masters programme in Women and gender Studies at Indira Gandhi National Open University(IGNOU) and in Ambedkar University, Delhi and has also been an editorial consultant for ICSE textbooks (Grades1-8) with Pearson publishers. She has recently taught a course as a visiting fellow in Grinnell College, Iowa. She has bylines in Kitaab and Book review.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.