Monday, February 22, 2016
Yaksha asked: "What is ignorance?" Yudhishtira replied: "Not knowing one's duty". That was a perfect answer in the days of Sanatana Dharma when good was good, bad was bad and all were agreed on what was duty. Sanatata Dharma is no longer practised in our country. So what is good is bad for some, what some see as duty is seen by others as abuse of duty. As a result, things that should never happen in a civilised nation -- and has never happened in India before -- are happening now.
A lawyer shouted slogans inside a court that was in session in the Supreme Court. No doubt he considered it his duty to violate his professional oath. Some two dozen lawyers inside the High Court premises in Delhi attacked students and journalists. Despite nationwide condemnation, the same lawyers repeated their violence the next day, this time throwing stones even at the eminent lawyers deputed by the Supreme Court to report on the situation. No doubt these lawyers considered it their duty to behave like street rowdies. On both days of violence, the police decided that their duty was to do nothing. Lawyers and policemen turned political partisans in what was obviously a planned ideological showdown. In today's India Yudhishtira would not have got away with his generic reference to duty.
Out country is in turmoil. Headlines are all about disturbances and violence, lynchings and suicides, about politicians speaking without restraint; one MLA, after belabouring a student outside the court premises in Delhi, said that it would be proper to kill anyone who mouthed "anti-national" slogans. The word "national" has become, like duty, a freewheeling term, its meaning changing with the politics of the user. Outfits with differing definitions of patriotism, such as Maoists, Kashmiri separatists, Bhajrang Dal and Hindu Parishat have entered the fray with menacing moves.
Extremism often scares its own children. Three leaders of the Hindutva student union, ABVP, have resigned from their union posts in Jawaharlal Nehru University in protest against the Government's policy of "oppression" against students. Their letter said: "Every day we see people assemble at the front gate of JNU with the Indian flag to beat up students. This is hooliganism, not nationalism".
JNU turning into a war zone is a blow to higher education in India. The basic role of universities is to develop the spirit of inquiry in young minds, to foster dissent and debate. But things have been moving in the opposite direction in our universities lately. Ugly controversies, triggered by political interference, marked the recent history of the Madras Institute of Technology, Punjab University, Banares Hindu University and even Shantiniketan. Sedition charges are freely employed to silence critics. As the Supreme Court put it: "Something extraordinary is going on in this country".
The real tragedy is that we cannot discuss these issues in a rational and mature way. Partisan politics does not welcome reasoning; a lone lawyer who supported JNU students was surrounded, beaten up and thrown out of the court compound by the activist lawyers. How then can reason prevail? British novelist Julian Barnes once said that "the greatest patriotism is to tell your country when it is behaving dishonourably". He was not dubbed anti-national in his country. We are different, we honour manufactured nationalism. And we enforce it without mercy.
A healthy mixture of nationalism and mercy would have cleansed our penal code by removing, or at least amending the colonial era law on sedition. Britain itself abolished it in 2009. But both the Congress and the BJP want to keep it in the statute books because it provides an easy way to shackle inconvenient people. As we fight and attack one another and turn universities into battlegrounds and courtrooms into slogan-shouters' arenas, we jeopardise our plans to progress economically. A disunited people cannot provide the environment for progress, economic or otherwise. The world wonders about our efforts to become a global powerhouse.
Yaksha asked: What enemy is invincible? What is the incurable disease? What sort of man is noble and what sort ignoble? Yudhishtira answered: Anger is the invincible enemy. Covetousness is the incurable disease. He is noble who desires the wellbeing of all creatures, and he is ignoble who is without mercy.