The demands of diversity

Parvati Sharma | Updated on August 30, 2019

Lost in transition; In 1856, the army of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah prevented the demolition of Ayodhya’s Hanumangarhi Temple by a section of people who believed that the shrine was built over a mosque - Aditi Sengupta

The narrative of grand oneness puts a question mark against India’s choice to flow like a hundred bustling streams instead of taking a single, unyielding course

There are some phrases from my early education that have stuck to my brain like burrs to corduroy. ‘Malleable and ductile’ is one, ‘unity in diversity’ another. There was a kind of poetry to the first, a chant-like quality; and the latter occurred so frequently and piously in our textbooks that it began to produce the kind of eye-roll you reserve for your parents’ favourite sayings. “Don’t go to bed angry”, “be honest, be kind”... all the little aphorisms that make up our moral universe.

‘Unity in diversity’ came back to me with a sudden shock the other day, as I was watching an exchange between the former student leader Kanhaiya Kumar and a young woman who introduced herself with a “Jai Shri Ram” and as a “representative” of young people in Mangaluru. Then, in a question that grew more desperate by the second, she made a plea for unity: “Why don’t you stand for one nation,” she asked. “Why don’t you stand for one student power... Why don’t you represent one? Why don’t you represent one India... Why don’t you please say one policy for the entire country?”

Kumar gave the kind of fluent and rousing speech that he excels at, including in it a lovely little riff on the hundreds of traditions that have grown around Sita and Ram across India. There is a tradition of welcoming Ram’s baraat with taunts in Sita’s (and Kumar’s) home, Mithila, he said; there is another in which Sita is Ravana’s daughter. The next time Kumar is asked such questions, he may add the Ramayana of Kerala’s Muslim Mappila community to his list; in this, Ram and Surpanakha debate the Shariat.

The Courtesan, the Mahatma & the Italian Brahmin: Tales from Indian History; Manu S Pillai; Westland/ Contxt; Non-fiction; ₹599


The Mappila Ramayana is among the many sparks that come ablaze in Manu Pillai’s new book, The Courtesan, the Mahatma and the Italian Brahmin: Tales from Indian History — a collection of eclectic, wide-ranging essays, bound by this central theme: That India is large, it contains multitudes. Not too far from Kerala, there is Bukka Raya, one of the founders of the Vijayanagar empire, adopting the vocabulary of conquerors in the north and styling himself Hinduraya Suratrana, “sultan among Hindu kings”. A Delhi sultan also features in a Tamil legend about Tulukka Nachiyar, a Tughlaq or Turkish princess falling in love with a Vaishnava deity.

While many of these essays describe the layered assimilation that has produced what Pillai calls “a civilisation with no single origin”, others narrate the many kinds of dissent that have made India a country with no single point of view. As Pillai puts it, “India has a long tradition of bright minds poking holes in some distinctly un-bright ideas”. From the 12th-century Basava, “a brahmin repulsed by brahminism” to the 19th-century Nageli, who cut off her breasts in “a siren call against caste”; from the fiery Periyar, whom Pillai imagines “leading the ranks of anti-nationals... in contemporary India”, given that he was, in his own time, something even more radical, “the anti-Gandhi”; to the Naga rebel Angami Zapu Phizo, who lost a desperate battle for Naga nationhood against Jawaharlal Nehru’s government. Countless voices across time have stirred up and sustained debates that have become part of what it means to be Indian.

Would it have been better if there had been just one policy for the entire country, if all who disagreed just agreed? Perhaps the question answers itself: Unitary power doesn’t enjoy dissent. This year marks the centenary of both the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh and the infamous Rowlatt Act, which led to it. The Act allowed a colonial government to imprison suspected terrorists without trial, provisions that are echoed, ironically, in the UAPA bill that was amended and approved this month by India’s independent legislature.

Dissent is disruptive, and diversity does not guarantee equanimity. Pillai tells the near-allegorical story of a proposed demolition in Ayodhya — not of a mosque, but of a temple. In 1856, Hanumangarhi, neighbouring the Babri Masjid, had become entangled in a complicated mess of communal and sectarian politics, sprung from the allegation that the temple was built over a mosque; a mob was marching to break it down and it was only swift and severe action by the government — the army of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah under British command — that preserved the shrine.

In his concluding essay, Pillai offers an eloquent meditation on this question, of how India’s sometimes-volatile diversity has long been perceived as either “an asset or a dangerous weakness”. Our tryst with destiny was exactly this: A meeting that might have led us down a single, unyielding path, or let us flow like so many bustling streams. For better or worse, we took the latter course; but now, as we strive to “re-engineer this mature, long-standing policy in black and white”, as we dream of a grand oneness to rule us all, I can only think of my childhood, and how once we were taught that the most malleable and ductile of metals are also the most precious.

Parvati Sharma   -  BLink


Parvati Sharma is a Delhi-based writer and the author, most recently, of Jahangir: An Intimate Portrait of a Great Mughal

Published on August 30, 2019

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