Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A Dangerous Blend of Culture Industry and State Sponsored Religion

THINKING ABOUT public broadcasters,we can't avoid a critical evaluation of how far they have been able to uphold the nation's fundamental principles of secularism, equality of opportunities and respect for all faiths and social groups in our country.

Watching the programmes of Doordarshan and listening to All India Radio over the past many years, I have always felt the secularism they have in mind is an eclectic collection of all religious faiths -- often most decadent, obscurantist practices that are purported to be religious practices. Religions have always been explained as a set of beliefs and practices,which are promoted by the most conservative and most oppressive sections in a community. If one keeps an eye on the various religious programmes that are aired on our pubic and private channels one may come to the safe conclusion that religion as an institution is for the elite, upper class and upper caste sections in our society. It is not only for them, but is by them and of them, as Abraham Lincoln said in a different context.

I cannot complain about private channels airing the most apprehensive, most negative, most retrograde programmes because they are not funded by public exchequer. Their negative campaign need to be challenged and rebuffed, but they need to be rebuffed in the public sphere as part of a larger campaign for a substantially different, people oriented, concept of secularism. Secularism, as our nation-state defined it in its formative years and in its Constitution, need some thorough re-examination because when we say respect for all faiths, no discrimination on the basis of faith, etc, what we mean is the established forms of religion and not the ever changing, ever evolving, people oriented nature of these faiths. Faith, as we know from experience, is not a dead entity. It is constantly evolving and changing, as every new generation tries to locate answers for their deeper existential, human and philosophical questions in them.

That is why Bhagavat Gita becomes a revolutionary text in the hands of Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi,who sought new meanings in the text that would give strength to a new nationalism rising in this country. Similarly, the Christian and Islamic faiths and their books have given rise to a series of profound reinterpretations that have given rise to many new movements, which have challenged the status quoist religious beliefs and practices and establishments from the roots. We cannot say that they are not part of religion; they are indeed part of an ever widening, ever changing ever vibrant organic system called religion.

But our statist understanding of religion and faith cannot accept this most revolutionary aspect of religion. For the state and its establishments, faith means a static system, another establishment, a system of rituals and practices, an oppressive and casteist mechanism that effectively prevents any social change.

When our cultural industry that is promoted and financed by the state exchequer like our Doordarshan dabbles in faith matters developing and airing programmes they often serve a most negative and anti-people platform, even promoting most fundamentalist, communal and obscurantist streams of social consciousness.

I would like you to think about the eighties when Doordarshan was the one and only platform of visual communication when our epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata made a triumphant entry to to our drawing rooms. I have seen many families who, in the most ritualistic manner, getting themselves ready, for the airing of the programme in the early afternoon in a curious blend of faith, entertainment, business and communication which was a unique experience in those days. Nobody noticed the kind of ideology that was slowly emanating out of it, spreading like noxious fumes all over the country, spoiling our social life which later developed into a political turmoil that shook the fundamentals of our nation-state. The transmigration of some of these epic characters like Diipika Chikalia from mini-screen to the political platform is a known fact; also known is the fact that the rath-yatras of the eighties were choreographed in the same way as the epic raths and characters were choreographed, bringing a new kind political idiom to our pubic life. That was dangerous.

I remember a speech made by our former president K R Narayanan in the late eighties in which he spoke about the serious implications of the weekly dose of soft Hindutva to our social psyche. He felt it would spell doom for our future and now watching young female sanyasins turning experts in bomb making to destroy imagined enemies within and without, we do realize that what he predicted has come true. These dress operas had a political schema: An idol of a hero, an epic idol who seeks out his enemy and destroys him, like a Rama destroying a Ravana. The stereotypes they promoted helped evolve a decadent and dangerous political culture in the eighties. We have paid a huge price for this and even our future generations will have to pay an enormous price for our blind and potentially harmful interpretations of our own past and culture.

But let me point out that unlike this statist and puerile interpretation of our epics that we were fed on Doordarshan,there were much more nuanced, more creative and more sensitive treatment of the same subject in our cultural domain. I do not wish to go in detail to this aspect but I would like you to remember a movie like Kancahana Sita by Aravindan which gave us a Rama and a Sita who are fundamentally different from the grand characters Doordarshan gave us. hey were more human, closer to the life and times of our epics when a Sambuka had to lose his head for the sacrilege of sanyasa, and hence more truthful to the real Indian tradition. But who cares?

Here I am not arguing for a particular reading of the history or our epics, though it is possible and necessary to read and reinterpret all these texts that make our national cultural assets from the point of view of sections who had hitherto remained subaltern or sidelined. The nation needs to accept that our national tradition cannot be one-sided or partisan. It has to widen its scope to accept and celebrate the varied strands in our social and political life whether it be the the lives of our tribal people, the women, dalits or the minorities and untouchables, who were denied the rightful place in our history. But when we accept and follow a static historical and cultural model, we are sure to fall prey to more partisan, parochial and inherently counter-productive tendencies in the name of nationalism. Hence I do believe we need to think about a more comprehensive, more accommodative and more tolerant variant of nationalism and national tradition when we think of cultural products in the contemporary Indian context. The pubic broadcasters do have a major role to play here; they have failed to uphold this role in the past. Hope they will not in future.

(A note prepared for the editors conclave held in Thiruvananthapuram as part of Public Broadcasters Day, November12, 2008.)


Unknown said...

I have my doubts about the idea of secularism as we generally understand by the word.And the european idea of state and religion as two distinct entities kept apart is not the only ideal way of relation among the two.East's way of thinking on their engagements and the multiple models available on this regard other than the only european model of secular practice demand a compelling perusal.Is it possible and desirable to mechanically divide human mind into two distinct chambers?When you touch ballot switch off religion in your mind and when you think of god switch of politics.Is this possible?

Unknown said...

Apropos the comment above, I have no doubt that religion and politics cannot be kept separate, that they belong to water-tight compartments that do not mix. They can't be. History says so and our own experience says this.

But my argument here in this piece has been that our state's understanding of religion was faulty; it never attempted a mature approach to religion and its possibilities. Hence it helped a retrograde concept of religion and not a progressive, or an inclusive,one.

That should change and if it does no change,we would be helping promote negative and harmful tendencies that will ultimately destroy our nation.

N P Chekkutty