What India can learn from Masada

  • Samar Halarnkar
  • Updated: May 29, 2016 21:34 IST
An Israeli demonstrator stands in front of a section of the Israeli barrier during a Land Day protest by Palestinian and Israeli activists, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem . (Ammar Awad / Reuters file photo)

“I am glad I am out of this profession.”

My mother had just finished her daily pooja and was — with disbelief — reading how the central government had directed all universities to include yoga and related Hindu scriptures in physical therapy programmes, bachelor’s and master’s. “Yoga is fine,” said my mother, a retired physiotherapist who rehabilitated people with injuries and spastic children. “It is akin to what we do (physiotherapy treats disability and disease through physical means instead of drugs), but mantras and bhajans?” The new syllabus includes yogic perspectives from the Bhagvad Gita, Upanishads and other Hindu epics, the Bangalore Mirror reported. The chairman of the syllabus committee is HR Nagendra — chancellor of Bengaluru’s Swami Vivekananda Yoga Anusandhana Samsthana, a deemed university that studies and teaches “yoga and spiritual lore as propounded by Swami Vivekananda” — is better known to India as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s yoga guru.

It is reasonably clear that the BJP and its mothership — the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh — emphasise a rebooting of India’s past, present and future as much as they do development, an attempt to create a new national narrative based on its pre-Islamic Hindu past. So, the efforts to marginalise Emperor Akbar, to de-emphasise Jawaharlal Nehru, to criminalise beef consumption, to teach Sanskrit in schools and IITs and — the latest — the Hindu perspective to physiotherapy education.

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With its victory in Assam, the decimation of the Congress and Modi’s undiminished popularity, the BJP and its extended Hindu family are confident of a growing acceptance of the reworking of history and culture, even science. For instance, many secular liberals — I count myself as one — would not argue with the dismantling of the Gandhi-family hegemony of public institutions and infrastructure nomenclature. It is also hard to contest the creation of new national icons, as the National Implementation Committee headed by the home minister will do.

But as its confidence grows after two years in power, the BJP must consider the effects of a wider, more divisive disruption. The party has a clearly articulated economic plan but no declared cultural agenda; its ministers emphasise as much in interviews to mark two years in government. The problem is the BJP’s once-nutty Hindutva fringes have always had a ready narrative, centred on hate and exclusion. With the fringes increasingly mainstreamed, the demand to mainstream their narrative will grow stronger.

Unchecked, where might this process lead? An answer is speculative, but a warning is available from Israel, where, nine years ago — among the recreated ruins of Masada, a 2,000-year-old, once-impregnable fortress on a table-top mountain with almost vertical flanks — I could not but marvel at the disparate strands meticulously woven into that country’s national narrative.

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When the Romans took Masada in 73 CE, a three-year resistance by 960 Jews ended in a mass suicide by fire. So goes the story of Jewish heroism. Today, Masada is a world heritage site, painstakingly excavated and showcased to visitors as part of an enterprise to create a body of proof that emphasises Israel’s claim that the land is pre-Biblical and pre-Arab and not limited to the country’s violent creation in 1948.

“Masada shall not fall again,” is the oath administered to newly-drafted Israeli soldiers. The slogan is on T-shirts and coffee mugs, an important part of the national narrative, which subsumes within it any and every artefact and historical site with ancient Jewish links. The contours of this narrative were clear to me when, after visiting Masada in 2007, I walked through one of Islam’s holiest sites, Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa mosque, which the Jews call the Temple Mount, their holiest site. A Jewish archaeologist told me with finality that this was the site of two Jewish temples, the first built 3,000 years ago (1000 BC), the second 999 years later (1 BC). Archaeological effort to prove the temples existed coalesced with religious fervour to create a movement to build a third temple on the mount.

The cornerstone of the Israeli narrative is Hebrew, an almost defunct, Biblical language brought back to life in the years after 1948, when Jews scattered across the world, speaking many languages, realised they needed more than military force to preserve the nation of Israel.

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It is no secret that the BJP admires and hopes to emulate Israel, which — as its narrative strengthens — has become less secular. Attitudes towards the Palestinians and its own Arabs, a fifth of the population, have hardened. Parts of the Israeli narrative are familiar to Indians: the anxiousness to rebuild a supposedly lost temple, the desire to revive a lost language, and the conflation of the past with religion and land.

As we contest the idea of India, our ally is roiled by a struggle for the idea of Israel, as “nationalists” demand secular foundations be dismantled and the Muslim minority disenfranchised. “Extremists have taken over this country,” said the defence minister, as he resigned last week, ceding his position to a hardliner who previously advocated the beheading of “disloyal” minorities. Meanwhile, in comments that incensed right-wing nationalists, Yair Golan, the army’s deputy chief, while appearing to compare the atmosphere in modern-day Israel to Nazi Germany, wanted Israelis to “discuss our ability to uproot from among us buds of intolerance, buds of violence, buds of self-destruction on the path to ethical deterioration”.

Israel’s national narrative around shared religion, culture and language has left minorities more alienated — and hate and violence more pervasive — than ever. As India’s new narrative progresses, it is worth pondering that Israel is half the size of Haryana and has fewer people than Bengaluru does.

In any case, Israel needed a narrative to claim its land. India has no such need.

Samar Halarnkar is editor, Indiaspend.org, a data-driven, public-interest journalism non-profit

The views expressed are personal

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