It is time we woke up to the alarming u-turn we have taken in the path of liberalism and inclusivism that had once marked our culture. The Hindu right, in fact, have come so far away from our philosophy of cultural tolerance, that even Mohan Bhagwat, chief of the brazenly right Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), is complaining about some political parties "converting India's diversity into discrimination for political gains". Sadly, the proponents of Hindutva have been doing this for years, with cultural chauvinism ruling religious, linguistic and regional identities.
Only a pathological fantasist would believe that India never had discrimination and that its pluralism never faced problems. The greatness of our culture lies in the ability to overcome these differences and thrive as a pluralistic country. And when we started out as an independent nation, we chose this as the way forward. This resolve was stamped into not just our Constitution and laws, but also in the cultural institutions established around that time -- like the Sahitya Akademi and the National Book Trust -- that would promote multiculturalism through the many language literatures of the country. Close on their heels came cultural institutions from overseas.
Take the Goethe Institute, known here as the Max Mueller Bhavan, which is now celebrating 50 years in India with a flourish of art, theatre, films and literature. But maybe we should step back for a moment and think of what Goethe and Max Mueller stand for. They were great German thinkers and writers, certainly, but to me their primary importance lies in their ability to think beyond borders. Whatever their respective flaws, they could reach out and feel at home in the world.
"Self knowledge comes from knowing other men," said Goethe, whose idea of Weltliteratur or world literature triggered the concept of literature without borders. About 200 years ago, he had put cultural xenophobia firmly in its place: "You will find the most pronounced hatred of other nations on the lowest cultural levels."
And Max Mueller, who triggered an interest in Indian studies and comparative religion about 150 years ago, talked of how he found the greatest peace and joy in Indian philosophy. He had translated the Upanishads and the Rig Veda and was disturbed by the narrowness that had crept into the interpretation of Hinduism. He hoped for a reformation. "It is the root of their religion," he said of the Rig Veda, "and to show them what the root is, I feel sure, is the only way of uprooting all that has sprung from it during the last 3,000 years." For his efforts, he was criticised furiously by Christian chauvinists then and by Hindu chauvinists later.
We also tend to forget our own glorious tradition of free thinkers. About 350 years ago, Dara Shikoh translated the Upanishads into Persian, taking it out of the confines of Sanskrit and Hinduism and giving it a wide international readership. In modern India, Rabindranath Tagore established Visva Bharati, or the University of the World, in Bengal almost 90 years ago. The thirst for other cultures has consistently been part of our pluralistic tradition.
Front Page > Opinion > FROM DREAM TO REALITY - BENGAL’S CRISIS HIDES IN IT THE POTENTIAL FOR CHANGE N.K. Singh The Telegraph, Thursday, November 19, 2009
There is no denying the fact that Bengal is at a crossroads. This is because, on the one hand, economic opportunities are enormous if the transition is successful and orderly. The price of failure, on the other hand, is inordinately high. And yet, because there is change in the air and because the foundation has already been laid, the prospect of a resurgence is much brighter than at any time in the past. The present crisis embeds in itself the opportunity of change. India cannot prosper without a prosperous Bengal. And a prosperous Bengal will make for a prosperous India. THE AUTHOR IS A MEMBER OF THE RAJYA SABHA