26 February 2000

The BJP & Deepa Mehta's 'Water': Strife as Diversion and Design

26 February 2000
The Times of India

Saffron Herrings
Strife as Diversion and Design


VARANASI: In his seminal essay on the construction of communalism in colonial India, Gyan Pandey argues that colonialist writings made a distinction ``between the history of local society -- wild, chaotic, liable to unexpected explosions -- and the history of the state'', with the colonial state standing out in contrast to ``the primitive...character of the local society''. The discourse and apparatus of colonialist law and order was erected around the myth of the volatile, combustible Indian, so consumed by primordial religious passions that he could be relied upon to explode in rage at the slightest provocation.

At the same time, colonial administrators were keenly aware of the even greater threat the lack of religious animosity might pose. It was far more dangerous to allow Indian crowds to fraternise with one another on
the streets than to attack each other in their homes. Even as they expressed revulsion at the `excitability' of Hindus and Muslims, therefore, the British did all they could to foster divisions along religious lines. Riots were tolerated, if not encouraged, but any peaceful political or even cultural activity that threatened the
colonial order was always suppressed.

Law and Order

The first instance of a `communal' riot in Varanasi was in 1809. Though Hindus and Muslims allegedly slaughtered each other in large numbers, the riot is known to us only through what British administrators chose to record about it. As Pandey has shown, colonial documents from 1809-1810 put the numbers killed at no more than 30 and the site of the disturbance as Lat Bhairav, outside the city. Over the years -- as the
need to find evidence for the `ancient antagonism' between Hindus and Muslims increased -- the riot description became more fanciful. By 1909, the District Gazetteer was confidently asserting that ``several
hundred'' had been killed. The riot location was also conveniently shifted to the Gyanvapi mosque, site of the old Vishwanath temple and a more volatile -- and durable -- zone of contestation than the Lat Bhairav.

One hundred and one years later, when a mentally disturbed man egged on by the BJP and RSS rowed out to the middle of the Ganga and attempted suicide in order to stop the shooting of the film Water, he was merely
playing out a role that had already been scripted for him by British colonialism. But it was a chronicle of an attempted suicide foretold in more ways than one. The district magistrate had been warned in advance
and local photographers accompanied the would-be suicide at every step.

Even though the number of political activists protesting was no more than a handful, the DM sought refuge in the colonialist myth about the explosive, emotional Benarasi, and externed the film crew in the name
of law and order.

At an impromptu meeting in the Kabir Mutt, activists from various civic, political and cultural organisations -- Nari Ekta, Manavadhikar Jan Nigrani Samiti, Vidyarthi Yuvjan Sabha, Jansanskriti Manch and others -- linked the attack on Ms Mehta's freedom of expression to the greater aggressiveness of the sangh parivar in other spheres. The anti-Christian campaign in various areas; the UP chief minister's statements on Ayodhya; the UP Religious Places Act; BJP state governments allowing their employees to join the RSS, and Prime
Minister Vajpayee himself granting his benediction by describing the organisation as a `social and cultural' one. The latest example of this trend: the attempt by the HRD ministry and the ICHR to suppress the
publication of history books that expose the role of the RSS and Hindu Mahasabha in the freedom struggle.

Strategic Interests

Apart from furthering the strategic interests of the sangh parivar, issues like Water or the constitutional review might also serve a more tactical purpose. Even as the nation at large was debating Ms Mehta's
film, the Vajpayee government sold off Modern Foods -- an asset- and land-rich public sector company worth several hundred crore -- to the multinational Hindustan Lever for a paltry Rs 106 crore. A number of
other privatisations are on the anvil, and while this is not the place to debate the wider question of the `second-wave of reforms', it is vital that valuable public assets not be sold off for a pittance in sweetheart deals. Unfortunately the Opposition, which rightly opposes the Vajpayee government on the RSS issue, has completely failed to nail the BJP on the undervaluation of PSUs. Of course, in its time, the Congress and UF governments did the same. But unless people speak out, Indian Petrochemicals Ltd, Indian Airlines, ITDC and other companies will all be sold for a song. Could it be that the Vajpayee government is deliberately embroiling the nation in divisive issues so as to push through another hidden agenda, that of crony capitalism?

The fomenting of strife by the RSS also helps the government in another way: It diverts attention from the failures of the BJP on the economic and social front. The party came to power making tall claims about
providing education, jobs, drinking water, sanitation and housing for the poor but hasn't the slightest intention of fulfilling any of its campaign promises. If anything, its economic policies will make life
harder for ordinary citizens. How convenient, then, to let them attack each other over cultural and religious issues. To let the thirsty fight over Water, not water.

Gyanvapi mosque

In Varanasi, one of the most pressing concerns is the state of the Ganges. At the point where the Varuna and the Ganga merge, the sacred river is black and huge methane bubbles constantly burst onto the surface. The fecal coliform level is more than 3,000 times the permissible level. Pandit Veerbhadra Mishra, mahant of Sankat Mochan and a tireless campaigner for a clean Ganga, says anyone worried about the culture of Varanasi should be most concerned about the quality of the river's water. ``The VHP says `This is pavitra Ganga jal, Brahmadhrav. How can Deepa Mehta call it water' but they are not in the least bit interested in cleaning the river. If pollution continues at this rate, the day is not far when people in Kashi will stop bathing in the Ganga. That will kill our culture. Not the making of some film''.

So irrational are the arguments of the sangh parivar that it is obvious the movement against Ms Mehta's film is a smokescreen for something else. In fact, RSS and BJP activists in the city openly say that their real target is not Water but the same Gyanvapi mosque mentioned in colonial records as the scene of fearsome riots. After the Babri masjid, this is the next `temple' that saffron hotheads would like to `liberate'. If the political economy of crony capitalism demands it, they might very well have their way. Even if ``several hundred'' had not been killed at the masjid in 1809, there is no reason why historical fiction cannot become future fact. The false colonial dichotomy between an unruly people and an orderly state can then once again be dissolved, with the state itself becoming the vehicle for chaos and disorder.

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