Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Why Saffron Brigade Hates Pandit Nehru

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru practised yoga. Of course, he was a Kashmiri "pandit". Why does RSS, BJP, and the whole bhakta bandwagon hate him? One reason is that unlike the fanatics, he did not fantasize about an ideal "Hindu" past. For example, unlike a current BJP minister who said journalism began in the Mahabharata, Nehru acknowledged the pioneering role of Serampore missionaries, William Carey, Joshua Marshman and William Ward, in setting up free press in nineteenth-century India. Nehru was a reform-minded, moderate, educated Hindu who was sensible and humble enough to acknowledge historical debts. He did not try to paint Indian history with saffron-soaked brush. Here are some of his thoughts—culled from his masterly The Discovery of India—about the emergence of modern Indian mind. This will be of immense value to the younger generation
"Individual Englishmen, educationists, orientalists, journalists, missionaries, and others played an important part in bringing western culture to India, and in their attempts to do so often came into conflict with their own Government. That Government feared the effects of the spread if modern education and put many obstacles in is way, and yet it was due to the pioneering efforts of able and earnest Englishmen, who gathered enthusiastic groups of Indian students around them, that English thought and literature and political tradition were introduced to India." (Nehru 313).
"Full of the ideal of the patient loving service of the Franciscans of old, and quiet unostentatious, efficient, rather like the Quakers, the members of the Ramakrishna Mission carry on their hospitals and educational establishments and engage in relief work, whenever any calamity occurs, all over India and even outside." (Nehru 315).
"The first private printing press was started by the Baptist missionaries in Serampore, and the first newspaper was started by an Englishman in Calcutta in 1780. All these and other like changes crept in gradually, influencing the Indian mind and giving rise to the 'modern' consciousness." (Nehru 313).
"From 1780 onwards a number of newspapers had been published by Englishmen in India. These were usually very critical of the Government and led to conflict an the establishment of a strict censorship. Among the earliest champions of the freedom of the press in India were Englishmen and one of them, James Silk Buckingham, who is still remembered, was deported from the country. The first Indian owned and edited newspaper was issued (in English) in 1818, and in the same year the Baptist missionaries of Serampore brought out a Bengali monthly and a weekly. Newspapers and periodicals in English and the Indian languages followed in quick succession in Calcutta, Madras, and Bombay" (Nehru 316).
"Serious writing was almost confined to Sanskrit and Persian, and every cultured person was supposed to know one of them. These two classical languages played a dominating role and prevented the growth of the popular provincial languages. The printing of books and newspapers broke the hold of the classics and immediately prose literatures in the provincial languages began to develop. The early Christian missionaries, especially of the Baptist mission at Serampore, helped in this process greatly. The first private printing presses were set up by them and their efforts to translate the Bible into prose versions of the Indian languages met with considerable success.
"There was no difficulty in dealing with the well-known and established languages, but the missionaries went further and tackled some of the minor and undeveloped languages and gave them shape and form, compiling grammars and dictionaries for them. They even laboured at the dialects of the primitive hill and forest tribes and reduced them to writing. The desire of the Christian missionaries to translate the Bible into every possible language thus resulted in the development of many Indian languages. Christian mission work in India has not always been admirable or praise-worthy, but in this respect, as well as in the collection of folklore, it has undoubtedly been of great service to India" (Nehru 317–318).
(Originally shared as an FB post on 31.05.2018)

Saturday, June 09, 2018

The Guiding Philosophy of NDA Government

You may remember the popular mind teaser where they ask you to make a line shorter without erasing it. Do you? You just needed to draw a bigger line! The present government has taken it as their guiding philosophy. In the last four years, the NDA government has created bigger problems, compared to which the former problems fade away. 

Four years ago, in 2014, we asked a question: How do we tackle rampant corruption in India? In the last four years, this question has conveniently been swept under the carpet. Instead a new question has been hurled at us: WHAT IS "INDIA"? The politicians and trolls, including the PM himself, have made it their point to persistently peel off our nation's skin to look for a true, real, genuine India, which according to them is nothing but another name for a particular religion. But they don't realise that while doing this, they have done great harm to the very soul of India. They have bruised it beyond recognition. 

The new India entered a gestation phase after the dissolution of the great Mughal Empire in the eighteenth century. It grew for 250 years in the womb of history's fluid yet defining influences, before being born as a nation in 1947. Last two hundred years have been the most influential, when two most important principles of civilised existence, namely freedom of conscience and education for all, became part of our cultural ideals. Those who lived on the margins of the great Indian civilisation began to crawl and toddle towards the centre. A new India began to stand on its feet. 

The flag bearers would love to throw the baby with the bath water. The problem is that baby is grown and would not be so easily thrown out. Not without a fight, even when bruised.

The trickery would be exposed one day. You can't keep committing bigger blunders to hide the previous imbecility.

(Originally a Facebook post, dated 08 June 2018)

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Phule's "Tritya Ratna": A Tribute to Missionaries

In 1855, the 28-year-old Jotirao Phule of Poona wrote a Marathi play Tritya Ratna (Third Jewel). It was to be sent to a prize committee managed by the British government of the time. The committee had been set up to reward scholars’ accomplishment, which at that time were mostly Brahmins proficient in Sanskrit. Poona’s enlightened citizens had petitioned the government that it must also encourage original Marathi writing among the literati of the Bombay Presidency. The award was called Dakshina Prize.
The original Dakshina Prize had been instituted by the great Shivaji himself. It used to be given to the learned Brahmins who had mastered the Sanskrit religious texts. Later, Peshwa rulers of Maharashtra used it to strengthen their hold over the state power. Peshwa Baji Rao II (r. 1795–1818) reportedly gave Rs 1,00,000 as dakshina to fellow Chitpawan Brahmins.

The British defeated the Peshwas in 1818. As pragmatic rulers do, they continued most of the cultural and socio-religious practices inherited from the Peshwas. This included awarding of Dakshina. Traditionally that meant the gift to the Brahmin priest. The British knew that to perpetuate their rule in India, they must make concessions to the elite class from among their subjects. The support extended by the East India Company to temples, religious practices, rituals and customs of the Hindus led some historians to remark that the “Indian Empire [of the British] was, fundamentally if not formally, a Hindu Raj” (R. E. Frykenberg).

Lord Mountstuart Elphinstone, the governor of Bombay, continued the practice where only Brahmins were considered for Dakshina. He founded a Sanskrit college in Poona in 1821 and spent forty percent of the Dakshina amount there. However, in due course of time, he brought about two changes in this policy. First, he made it possible for non-Brahmins to apply for the prize. Second, he made works not only in Sanskrit but in Marathi to be considered for state support. At that time Marathi was just developing into a modern and respectable literary language. This happened because of the pioneering work done in the field of Marathi lexicography and grammar by missionaries such as William Carey.  He published the first Marathi grammar in 1805 and then a Marathi dictionary in 1810. Later, American and Scottish missionaries brought out number of school text books that prepared a new generation of Marathi readers and writers.

Elphinstone was not the only one interested in giving prizes to non-Brahmins. Reform-minded Brahmins such as Lokhitwadi Gopalrao Deshmukh also collected signatures to pressurise the government to give some of the Dakshina fund to Marathi works. These reformers, however, were threatened by the traditionalist Brahmins. In this case, Jotirao himself provided security to the petitioners.

Coming back to the play, we know that that play was never performed. Dakshina Prize Committee rejected the play. Why? In his most celebrated work Slavery (1873), Phule recounts: “…I had written a play to the Dakshina Prize Committee, too. This was way back in 1855. But even there, the opinions of the bhat [Brahmin] members held sway and the European officers could do nothing. So my play was straightaway rejected.”

The play tells the story of a rural couple. A farmer and his pregnant wife are exploited by the religious trickery of the local Brahmin priest. The shenanigans of the priest, his wife and extended family are laid bare in a great detail. The Vidushak in the play adds humour but also sheds light on the nature and extent of exploitation with his incisive remarks. Vidushak is the traditional drama narrator, often a mouthpiece of the author—and in this play he is the alter ego of Phule. The play concludes that, for the unlettered, “backward” villagers the way out from exploitation is through education. The farmer and his wife decide, by the end of the play, that they would go and enrol themselves in the night school of the Phules, and will create a new future for their unborn child.  

The curious thing about the play, however, is the presence of a Christian padre. During the latter part of the play, Phule makes this unnamed padre almost the central character. It is he who makes the first move to open the Tritya Ratna (Third Jewel or Eye) for this “low-caste” couple. Third jewel is a metaphor for critical, rational thought unrestrained by fear of the socially dominant classes. The jewel is more than mere literacy, or the mere ability to read and write. It is ability to interpret life and what it dishes out to you for yourself, without coercion or deception. The jewel, the proverbial third eye, is flowering of the intellect enthralled for ages by the mythologies and superstitions. It is the life-line for dignified living as a respectable human being.

Phule could have written his play without the padre. The plot for the play would be simple and effective. Lack of education leaves you prone to exploitation: get educated, escape exploitation. But by making a padre the catalyst for the true awakening within the individual as well as the society, Phule was underlining a historical reality. He was documenting a social truth. It was the Christian missionary who brought enlightenment and the knowledge of true God to the masses of India. Phule himself studied in the Scottish missionary school and it is very likely that he developed his own critical acumen and strengthened the courage to question the degrading caste system of India in the company of highly inspirational and dedicated teachers like Murray Mitchell (see Rosalind O’Hanlon).

Phule saw clearly that British had established their rule in Maharashtra with the help of the shetji-bhatji combine (moneylenders and priestly class). They would not risk their government by offending them. British rulers could not be seen as promoting the interests of the “lower castes”. Phule also saw that the only social force that worked for the genuine uplift of marginalized shudras-atishudras of Maharashtra was the missionaries.

Jotirao Phule is considered the first “Indian” to start a school of untouchable girls in 1848 in Poona. He was inspired by another such school he had seen in Ahmednagar the previous year, which was run by a woman missionary Mrs Farrar. Dhananjay Keer, Phule’s biographer tells us that, Phule and his friend Govande had been “impressed by the foreigners’ perseverance in improving [India] and felt for their [fellow]countrymen’s neglect for it”.

It can be said that Phule’s play was not only a battle cry for the education of Indian masses long neglected and exploited by the country’s elite but also a rich tribute to the pioneering and self-less work by unsung heroes of India’s regeneration—the Christian missionaries.


Frykenberg, Robert E. “Christian Missions and the Raj”. Mission and Empire, edited by Norman Ethrington, Oxford UP, 2008.
Keer, Dhananjay. Mahatma Jotirao Phooley: Father of the Indian Revolution. Popular Prakashan, 2005.
O’Hanlon, Rosalind. Caste, Conflict and Ideology: Mahatma Jotirao Phule and Low Caste Protest in Nineteenth-century Western India. Cambridge UP, 2002.