At the heart of Salman Rushdie’s 1988 novel The Satanic Verses is the central ambiguity of our time: Angels and devils are becoming confused ideas. Is the archangel telling the truth revealed to him by a superior being? Or is he making things up? Or is he, actually, inspired by the devil? And what about the devil himself? Is he really evil, or is there something redeeming about him?
Now, consider the two polar opposites of India’s cultural debate. On the right, the violent tantrums of Pramod Muthalik’s Sri Rama Sene in Mangalore; on the left, the fulminations of the West Bengal government.
Claiming to represent Hindu traditions, Muthalik’s followers—who would otherwise oppose the Taliban’s moral policing—want Indian women in public to behave the way they consider appropriate, including how they might spend their leisure time, where and in whose company.
The Left, which has condemned such fundamentalism in the past, pusillanimously acquiesces when some Muslims protest against an article in The Statesman, and its government even briefly arrests the editor and publisher of the newspaper.
The freedoms the editor in Kolkata seeks are identical to those the women at Mangalore’s pubs want. The Sri Rama Sene would support the editor while beating up the women; the Left would jail the editor while backing the women.
Who is the angel, and who is the devil? And where does that leave us, the majority?
There is an irony about the Sri Rama Sene—how, at one level, the organization is named so appropriately. Its name might sound hypocritical, since Rama is supposed to be maryada purushottam, or the perfect human who understands the limits of behaviour, whereas the Sene’s conduct knows no limits. But then, think of what feminist critics have been pointing out: the misogynistic aspects of Rama’s behaviour.
In Rama’s Ayodhya, when a washerman’s wife returns to him after having left him briefly, he asks her to leave, saying he is not magnanimous like Rama, who’d accepted his wife even though she had lived with Ravana. Instead of standing up for the woman, Rama asks Sita to leave, and makes her undergo a trial by fire. On another occasion, when Surpanakha tries to lure Rama, he does not gently dissuade her and does not mind his brother Lakshmana tormenting her.
This makes Rama more interesting and complex, a character with human traits. But Sri Rama Sene has little time for reinterpreting the past that might reveal the imperfection of heroes, or for the pluralist and syncretic nature of the faith. Its followers are projecting Rama as perfection incarnate; and intriguingly, the greater Hindutva movement goes along with that myth-making, in effect mirroring the faith it claims to be so different from.
By focusing on one god (Rama), one book (the Ramayana) and one location (Ayodhya), foot soldiers of Hindutva are transforming a polytheistic religion, making it look like a monotheistic faith. And in forcibly requiring others to follow their version of acceptable behaviour, they behave exactly like those that they claim to oppose. They claim to speak for ancient values, but they represent their own modern prejudices.
They speak in the name of angels, and do the work of the devil.
The Indian Left, which often criticizes Hindu nationalists, doesn’t come off any better. Its leaders say they represent the voiceless and the minorities, but they blithely ignore the dangers of the minorities’ fundamentalisms. And so it came to pass that last week, after protests by a group of Muslims in Kolkata, the authorities arrested Ravindra Kumar, editor, and Anand Sinha, publisher, of The Statesman, because it had reproduced a column from the British newspaper The Independent, where the columnist, Johann Hari, had disparaged all religions, but specifically mentioned certain Islamic beliefs.
This is not the first time. Tasleema Nasreen, the Bangladeshi author, has sought refuge in India and wants to make Kolkata her home. Nasreen is a refugee under international law, because she has a well-founded fear of persecution if she is to return home. Taking at face value India’s claim of being a free country, she speaks her mind. And the West Bengal government wants her out, caving in to fundamentalist pressure.
In Mangalore, the Left would support women in a pub; in Kolkata, it fails to defend an editor hounded by fundamentalists of a different hue. In Mangalore, the Sri Rama Sene beats up women in a pub; in Kolkata, its partners would champion another woman standing up to fundamentalists.
When vigilantes impose norms, people—editors and pub-going, loose and forward women—have the right to expect the state to protect them. Instead, the state is absent: It fails to defend The Statesman’s editor. And a plucky bunch of women take it upon themselves to shame Muthalik through a Web-based campaign.
Who is the angel here, and who is the devil?
Think of Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet: “A plague o’ both your houses!”
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org