The Enemies of History

by Gautam Pemmaraju

Haram aur dayr key jhagdey, kahan tak koi suljhayey

Jisey har tarah fursath ho, voh is maidaan mey aayey.

(Till when can we unravel what is sacred, what is profane?

He, who has nothing else to do, let him enter that battlefield.)

—Habib Painter Qawal

Over twenty years ago, if memory serves me well, travelling in Zaheerabad district of rural Telangana in central India, a group of us, all students on a college project, stopped to watch a folk performance at a local village fair, or jatra, as they are popularly known. The chitukulaata was to be performed by thirty odd men arranged in two concentric circles. In the dead centre sat two musicians and in between the two circles, the sutradhar, or narrator, pranced about animatedly, punctuating his vivid storytelling with a stick and a shrill whistle. The whole night affair, with a eager crowd huddled in blankets, for it was a chilly February night, was to be a long narration of stories of the gods from the Bhagavata Purana, in all likelihood from the regional saint Pothana's vernacular Telugu language version, Bhagavatamu. Before the performance, the troupe raised an invocation: “Yesu murthi ki jai“, they sang, “Hail the Lord Jesus”, for the men were lower caste converts, who in all likelihood, would have converted during the colonial era. Many such people over the centuries have chosen alternate identities through a variety of social mechanisms and for a varied set of motivations and provocations, but a common desire for social justice and dignity has broadly informed the breaking free from an exclusionary, exploitative and often brutal, social hierarchy. Some have retained certain acts of popular ritual, of culture and tradition, (perhaps linked to employment), and their process of repudiation is often a complex, graded act over generations. The histories of such complex social and religious life demonstrating a dense synthesis of identities, deftly conflating diverse strands through equally diverse influences and interlocutors, are numerous to say the least. While such syncretic identities can certainly be looked at with a degree of surprise and anthropological curiosity, the pitfalls of syncretism are also numerous; it is a bad word in contemporary humanities and scholars such as Peter van der Veer, Carl Ernst amongst others have alerted us to the traps that the casual usage of such ideas may present, for the proposition of a simple, benign, humanistic blending is generally a false one, often viewed with a ‘Hindu' lens, and in egregious ways, deployed towards an opportunistic polemical gain.

An immediate danger here is presented by people such as Dina Nath Batra, the serial right-wing litigant, whose strident advocacy has forced the publisher Penguin India, to cravenly capitulate and agree to withdraw Wendy Doniger's The Hindus: An Alternate History, and pulp the existing stock. For many, and one can safely assume that his ilk will no doubt agree, such converted Christians singing stories of the ‘Hindu' gods is evidence of the greatness, ‘plurality' and enduring continuance of an ancient three thousand year old tradition, of an essential, undying ‘Hindu' character belonging to the nation-state. This ‘Hinduism' of the political arena, a fierce, militant, puritanical, anti-erotic, ahistorical force is quick to attack heterodox ideas that challenge its centralizing agenda. This ‘Hinduism' of the political arena is in deep conflict with the ‘Hinduism' of the scholarly arena and the current disturbance with Doniger's book brings this conflict to the fore yet again, igniting a wide range of debates. Some apportion blame, some analyse it in the light of the current political climate, some critique the ‘brahmanical' bias of the commentary and point to dubious claims of 'Hindu plurality', others decry and lament, and most others discuss the principle of free speech. Beyond these debates lies the realm of history itself, and in particular, religious history of this land.

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On the Areopagitica: Why Milton’s Defence of Free Speech Remains Almost Unsurpassed but Not Secular

by Tauriq Moosa

As per various stories emerging concerning censorship, I thought it a good time to consider one of the greatest documents defending free speech.

ScreenHunter_10 Jan. 16 12.17In 1643, the English Parliament instituted the Licensing Order. This meant pre-publication censorship on all printed writings, including and aiming mostly at newspapers. This followed the abolishing, two years earlier, of the Star Chamber, which according to Kevin Marsh, “had been the monarchy's most potent tool of repression for centuries: a court that held secret sessions, without juries, and produced arbitrary judgments… all to please the king.” This blanket censorship, however, disappeared, requiring Parliament to take some action, thus the Licensing Order. But the next quilt of authority was simply knitted from the frayed threads of the previous.

Arrests, search and seizure of books, book burnings and all other classical depictions of authoritarian hatred were the outcome of this Order. The Stationer’s Company, a guild of booksellers, printers and so on, and established by Queen Mary in 1557, was put in charge of dealing out this Order. Hindsight makes those fires brighter and stupidity greater and fear lesser; curled pages to us invite anger at oppression, but in the eyes of the moralisers, it meant something called order.

The great poet, John Milton, delivered a speech in 1644, called Areopagitica (or, its full title Areopagitica: A speech of Mr. John Milton for the liberty of unlicensed printing to the Parliament of England). In it, he made an impassioned plea that rings out today, calling for free thought, speech and reason, for “when complaints are freely heard, deeply considered and speedily reformed, then is the utmost bound of civil liberty attained, that wise men look for.”

His most powerful argument is encapsulated in what is surely one of the most beautiful sentences ever written:

A man may be a heretic in the truth, and if he believe things only because his pastor says so, or the assembly so determines, without knowing other reason, though his belief be true, yet the very truth he holds becomes his heresy.

Here, Milton cut to the heart of the problem.

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