Sunday, March 29, 2015

Mangal Pandey: Drug-Crazed Fanatic or Canny Revolutionary?

Mangal Pandey revolted agin the British on this day 158 years back. The Raj English term for mutineer soon became Pandy in fact.

The British, however, portrayed him as a drug-crazed fanatic who did what he did in the grip of bhang and opium intoxication. On the other hand, popular Indian history has portrayed him as a freedom fighter, struggling against a colonial power. The Aamir Khan-starrer movie on his life took this to its extreme and made him into republican crusader for democracy.

For better clarity, read this lovely paper from the the Columbia Undergraduate Journal of South Asian Studies. It discusses both narratives and comes down somewhat on the Indian side. Yay!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

How the RSS ghar wapsi programme actually hurts Hindu Dalits

The Sangh Parivar’s ghar wapsi programme to convert members of minority communities to Hinduism is driven by anxieties of Hindus being lured away in droves from the faith of their ancestors by Abrahamic missionaries. While the fears of an exodus from Hinduism are greatly exaggerated, news broke on the weekend of a person converting from Hinduism to Islam in Meerut.

Contrary to the Hindutva narrative, there were no missionaries involved. Shyam Singh, a Dalit of the Valmiki caste, had converted to Islam because he and his community members had been denied the right to perform a puja at a local temple. Infuriated by the constant harassment of law and order authorities, who supported the dominant Yadav caste in denying Singh’s Dalit Valmiki caste their religious rights, Singh decided to change his faith altogether. For this act of religious conversion, Singh was booked for “disturbing peace and communal harmony”.

Terrified by the repercussions of his act, the Valmiki community of the area is thinking of migrating to some other part of the country. Singh is reported to be thinking of leaving the country altogether and migrating to Nepal.

Empowering strategy for Dalits

This incident is a sharp case study of conversions in India and how they act as an empowering strategy for Dalits. It also illustrates how measures to stop conversion, both by the state and powerful political forces, cause a great deal of harm to Dalits within Hinduism.

This is, of course, hardly the first instance of such a conversion. In the 60-odd years since Independence, Dalits across the country have used conversion to protest caste atrocities several times. A prominent example is the Meenakshipuram conversions of 1981, when more than a 1,000 Dalits in a Tamil Nadu village converted to Islam as a means to escape oppression from the landed Marava caste.

The incident had sent shock waves through the country. In response, Tamil Nadu enacted an anti-conversion law. Though the law was later repealed, five other states ‒ Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh ‒ still have similar provisions on their books.

In 2002, in Jhajjar, Haryana, after a mob beat five Dalits to death on suspicion that they were hiding a dead cow, hundreds of Dalits converted to Buddhism, Islam and Christianity as a protest. More recently, in September 2014, four Dalits converted to Islam in Shivpuri, Madhya Pradesh as a reaction to caste discrimination. However, they reverted to Hinduism after the police booked them under the state's draconian anti-conversion law and Sangh Parivar organisations, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal, threatened to punish them by destroying their crops and dispossess them of their land.

The first and largest conversion of Dalits, though, was in 1956 in Nagpur led by BR Ambedkar, the architect of India's Constitution. Almost four lakh Dalits converted to Buddhism along with Ambedkar. It was this act that started the process of Dalits employing conversion as a tool to gain more rights within Indian society.

Ambedkarite conversion strategy

Ambedkar was very clear that conversion was vital for Dalits to improve their lot. In 1935, he declared that he would not die a Hindu. In a speech to the Bombay Presidency Mahar Conference in 1936, he laid out his philosophy and strategy for religious conversion. He declared that the “caste system among the Hindus has the foundation of religion”, so long as the Dalits “remain Hindus, you will have to struggle for social intercourse, for food and water, and for inter-caste marriages”. Hinduism, Ambedkar argued, had assigned Dalits “the role of the slave”. He exhorted them: “If you want to be free, you must change your religion."

The roots of the Dalit movement to convert in order to gain better rights go all the way back to the original Dalit reformer, Jyotirao Phule. Sociologist Gail Omvedt writes: “To Phule, the conversion efforts of both Islam and Christianity were at least initially emancipatory; he had written a long ballad, for example, on Muhammad, and made statements of the sort that ‘Muslims forcibly converted the Shudras and Ati-Shudras and freed them from the bonds of slavery to the Bhat-Brahmans.’”

The state and conservative elements of caste Hindu society have, of course, not reacted too well to this Ambedkarite plan. Dalits who convert are not allowed to benefit from reservation quotas.  Five states have anti-conversion laws to prevent a change of faith. Even in states that do not have this law, the police comes down hard on Dalits and adivasis converting, as was seen in Meerut a few days ago, with Shyam Singh being farcically booked for “disturbing peace and communal harmony”.

Ghar wapsi programme

The most recent reaction from the Sangh Parivar though is the ghar wapsi campaign. Though this programme hit the headlines after Narendra Modi came to power, attempts by the Sangh to convert mainly Christian adivasis and Dalits to Hinduism are decades old. Most of this consists of offering education and healthcare facilities, though in places like Kandhamal in Orissa and the Dangs in Gujarat, it has also resulted in mass violence.

While it is generally assumed that ghar wapsi will adversely affect religious minorities, squeezing their freedom of religion, a major area of impact is forgotten: caste emancipation. The Ambedkarite strategy of using conversion as a stick to fight casteism has been quite successful, even without mass conversions taking place or the fact that caste, in varying degrees, still exists across all religions in India. The mere threat of Dalit conversions has resulted in significant reform within Hinduism (and the pace of reform since Ambedkar converted has not been insignificant). In the present case, for instance, until these Valmikis in Meerut decided to convert, the media ignored the caste apartheid against them.

By restricting the freedom to convert, however, the ghar wapsi issue undermines this Ambedarike strategy. In fact, for the Sangh Parivar, the final aim of ghar wapsi is quite clear: a national anti-conversion law. Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief, Mohan Bhagwat had suggested in December that “there be a legislation in Parliament to stop this practice [conversion]”. By removing the stick of conversion, the pace of reform within Hindu society will slow down.

A short history of bhang in India

First published on

What coffee was to the American television sitcom, Friends, the cannabis drink bhang was to Hindi’s greatest satirical novel, Raag Darbari. Set in an Uttar Pradesh village during the 1960s, bhang is ubiquitous in the novel and even the children of the village, some of whom are too poor to even know what milk tastes like, are familiar with it. So central is the cannabis drink to the rural world of Raag Darbari that it raises even the making of it to a high art:
For bhang drinkers, grinding bhang is an art, a poem, a great work, a craft, a ritual. Even if you chew half an anna's worth of the cannabis leaf and then have a drink of water, you get fairly high, but this is cheap inebriation. Ideally almonds, pistachios, rose-petal conserve, milk, cream and so on should be used with the cannabis leaf. The bhang should be ground to the point where the grinding stones stick together and become one, before it is drunk, verses in praise of Lord Shiva should be recited, and the whole exercise should be a community, not an individual event.

The author of the novel, Shrilal Shukla, explains: “Although Thakurs have always taken liquor, alcohol was taboo for Brahmins and Banias. Bhang was the only sort of socially permitted intoxication and was important as a major source of relaxation and entertainment. As a boy in my village, the bhang-making used to start at five every evening. Now norms are changing as a result of closer contact between towns and villages and other factors, and people are not horrified by drink as they once were.”

Indeed, if we ignore the Western taboo against cannabis that a section of upper-class Indians have imbibed, bhang, and more generally, cannabis, is ubiquitous in India. Not only that, cannabis has a long history of use in India, stretching right back to the Vedic age.

Cannabis history

The Atharva Veda mentions cannabis as one the five most sacred plants on Earth and says that a guardian angel resides in its leaves. It also refers to it as a "source of happiness," a "joy-giver" and a "liberator". Ayurveda considers the cannabis plant to be of medicinal value and in the Sushruta Samhita (6 BCE) it is used to aid digestion and appetite. So common is it in Ayurveda that the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission in 1894 called it that “penicillin of Ayurvedic medicine”. The Unani system of medicine practised by Muslims in medieval India also used cannabis as a cure for diseases of the nervous system and as an antispasmodic and anticonvulsive.

Although orthodox Islam forbids the use of intoxicants, cannabis has been quite commonly used by Muslims in India. Mughal emperor, Humayan was particularly fond of ma’jun, a sweet cannabis confectionary, the hash brownie of the medieval age. It could very well be possible that that his fatal fall down a flight of stairs was under the spell of a cannabis high.

Sikh fighters often took bhang while in battle to help them fight better and numb their sense of pain. A remnant of this tradition exists till this day with the Nihang, a Sikh order, who ritually consume the narcotic.

It is also probable that Mangal Pandey’s doomed-to-fail mutiny in 1857 was driven by bhang intoxication. During his trial, he admitted to “taking bhang and opium of late” and claimed that he was “not aware” of what he was doing when he mutinied.

Widespread consumption

The British, when they came to India, were astonished by how widespread the consumption of cannabis was in the country. At the time, it was thought that cannabis might be responsible for insanity and to determine whether this was true as well as document the use of cannabis in general, the colonial government started work on the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission Report. The report was to look into the cultivation of the cannabis plant, preparation of drugs from it, trade in those drugs, the social and moral impact of its consumption, and possible prohibition. Over 1,000 standardised interviews were conducted throughout India by medical experts. The commission was systematic and thorough and sampled a large and diverse group of people in a range of situations.

The conclusion of the report was surprisingly positive: far from causing insanity, cannabis was deemed to be harmless in moderation; in fact, alcohol was determined to be worse. There was therefore no reason to prohibit the use of cannabis. “To forbid or even seriously to restrict the use of so gracious an herb as cannabis would cause widespread suffering and annoyance,” concluded the report.

Cultural and religious use 

The report also noted the widespread cultural and religious use of cannabis in the country. It remarked that it is “chiefly in connection with the worship of Shiva, the Mahadeo or great god of the Hindu trinity, that the cannabis plant, and more especially perhaps ganja, is associated. The cannabis plant is popularly believed to have been a great favourite of Shiva, and there is a great deal of evidence before the Commission to show that the drug in some form or other is now extensively used in the exercise of the religious practices connected with this form of worship.”

Cannabis’ greatest use as per the report though seemed to be during Holi: “there is overwhelming evidence to establish the almost universal use by the people of bhang at the Holi festival”.

Most of urban India has given up the extensive use of cannabis as practiced earlier and taken to more Western forms of intoxication: alcohol and tobacco (even as the West, ironically, slowly sheds its cannabis inhibitions). However, it seems safe to say that in the matter of Holi, things are pretty much the same as how they were described in the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission Report: the spring festival is still linked with bhang, an association that doesn’t seem like it’s ending any time soon.

Maharashtra’s beef ban shows how politicians manipulate Hindu sentiments around cow slaughter

First published on

Beef has been banned in Maharashtra. The Union government has given its assent to the Maharashtra Animal Preservation (Amendment) Bill, almost two decades after the state assembly had passed it under the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party government in 1995.

Maharashtra had always banned the slaughter of cows but allowed the slaughter of bulls, bullocks and water buffalo. The new act will ban the slaughter of all cattle with the exception of water buffaloes. In fact, the very possession of beef – much like, say, cocaine – is now punishable with a prison sentence.

While this is a particularly harsh law, legal provisions for restricting or banning cow slaughter are rather common: 26 states in India have laws which either regulate or ban cow slaughter.

Livewire political topic

Clearly then, the cow is a livewire political topic. In his prime ministerial campaign, Narendra Modi used the emotive power of the cow to attack the United Progressive Alliance government. “It saddens me,” he wrote on his blog, “that present UPA Government led by Congress is promoting slaughtering of cows and exporting beef to bring ‘Pink Revolution’”.

Of course, the “beef” that India exports is mostly buffalo and not cow meat but Modi couldn’t be bothered with such pedantic nuances (ironically, beef exports have risen since Modi came to power). The cow here was just a dog whistle with which to attack the Congress’ supposed "minority-appeasement", exploiting the age-old communal stereotype of associating Muslims with beef consumption.

Later on, Maneka Gandhi, a minister in Modi’s cabinet, would dispense with even the dog whistle and, in a remarkable leap of logic, claim that the profits from the beef industry were directly funding terrorism. The Rajasthan Bharatiya Janata Party government went beyond just talk and set up a separate ministry dedicated to bovine affairs. Even the Congress is not really all that different: remember, most of the state laws against cow slaughter were passed by Congress governments.

Historical roots

The political relevance of the cow has deep historical roots, an obvious outcome of the animal’s importance in Hinduism since the medieval age. Babur is supposed to have advised his son and crown-prince Humayun to ensure that cow slaughter was banned in Mughal territories. Akbar continued this tradition with a firman in 1586. Cow slaughter was also banned in the Sikh and Maratha empires and Haider Ali of Mysore threatened to chop of anyone’s hands as punishment. During the Rebellion of 1857, in a surprising show of spine, the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar made cow slaughter a crime punishable by death in order to present a united Hindu-Muslim front while facing the British sieging Delhi.

However, cow protection as a political issue really came into its own during the colonial period as Indians started to develop a collective consciousness based on their religious identity. “Hindu” and “Muslim” now became political groups. In this period of churning, Dayanand Saraswati, the grandfather of Hindu nationalism and the founder of the Arya Samaj, decided to take up cow protection as a core part of his agenda. In 1881, Saraswati published a pamphlet, Gokarunanidhi denouncing cow slaughter as an attack on Hinduism. The political mobilisation of people in favour of the cause was achieved via the formation of cow protection societies which were particularly active in current-day UP, Bihar, Haryana and Punjab. The situation was worsened by a ruling of a court in Allahabad, which held that cows were not sacred and killing them for meat was legal. All this culminated in India’s first large-scale riot driven by the issue of cow protection on Bakri Eid day in 1893 in Azamgarh, Uttar Pradesh. So fierce was the violence that the British lost control of the area entirely for a few days.

After that, cow protection became a mainstream part of the Indian freedom movement. Gandhi took up the cause of cow protection but, characteristically, took great care to direct it against the British and not Muslims. The colonialists, Gandhi taunted, “cannot do without it [beef] for a single day”. In an essay in 1927, he advised untouchables to do away with “serious defects” such as uncleanliness, liquor, adultery and beef eating since “cow protection is the outward form of Hinduism”.

As a result, after Independence, cow protection found its way into the Constitution itself, as a Directive Principle of State Policy. Soon, states started to enact laws banning cow slaughter, overturning two centuries of colonial policy. Driven by religious passions, some of these laws were excessively harsh, even draconian. In Gujarat, the punishment for cow slaughter carries a seven-year jail sentence. Even more alarmingly, a number of states have laws that place the burden of proof on the accused. In the states of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Delhi, among others, if you are arrested for cow slaughter, you are automatically held guilty until proven innocent, overturning a fundamental principle of criminal law. The law is more lenient if you happen to kill a human being, though: you are presumed innocent till you are proven you guilty.

Kafkaesque approach

Even more oddly, the only time the state or politicians get involved in the cattle value chain is at the time of slaughter. In Ahmedabad, where the police worked itself into a frenzy during Eid last year over cow slaughter – they even shot a man dead – the manufacture of cow leather takes place without incident. Like Maharashtra, Delhi also has strict provisions against all cow slaughter but posh restaurants in the city openly display what they call “beef” on their menus. Last year in Madhya Pradesh, the Bharatiya Janata Party voted against a bill which sought to ban the sale of cow bones and fat. In a state where cow slaughter is banned, it takes a special Kafkaesque sense of the surreal to digest that trading in the animal’s body parts, however, is protected by law. And, of course, as the cherry on the cake: India’s favourite sport features a ball that is necessarily made out of the hide of the cow.

The special status of the cow in current-day Hindu culture and religion cannot be disputed. Given the large number of people who are affected by it, it is almost inevitable that a democratic state would take cognisance of the issue in some form or the other. However, it is also paradoxical that the state targets cow protection somewhat patchily, attacking only the act of slaughter when it is quite obvious that steak houses, tanneries or cricket ball manufacturers are as much to blame ‒ after all these industries, by definition, necessitate the killing of the cow.

This contradictory approach to the issue of cow protection shows that it is treated more as a political rather than religious matter. Cow protection sentiments are exploited by the state and politicians to mobilise people and catch votes, targeting poor Muslims and Dalits by accusing them of cow slaughter. Of course, since other factors are clean ignored (as a result of economic considerations), these laws do nothing to actually improve the lot of cattle in the country.