It has been an extraordinary year. We have had a twice-elected government lose office as easily as one drops a coin. We have had the most controversial politician in India become prime minister with the ease of a heron take wing.
We have had the worst flood in recent memory devastate Jammu & Kashmir; we have had the people of that state turn up in unexpected numbers to vote a new assembly. We have had a popular chief minister with a massive mandate go to jail on corruption charges; we have had her state — Tamil Nadu — return to the business of life untousled by the gale. We have seen a mass anti-corruption crusade catapulted to power in Delhi, only to bite the dust within months of its leader abandoning its Delhi office.
We have seen an Indian, unknown to most of his fellow-citizens, win the Nobel Peace Prize for his work among children in bondage; one out of every three reported rapes in India continuing to be that of a minor.
At 37, an Indian doctor becomes the youngest ever surgeon general in the United States; India remains at one doctor: 2,000 persons, among the lowest in doctor to population density in the world. India bursts upon the fiery world of Mars; it remains frozen at position 135 in the UNDP’s world human development index.
But startling as this list of improbable things is, that is not what has made 2014 an extraordinary year for me.
What made it so is the change I have seen at our — India’s — basic core. The change has been symbolised in statements made by three Union ministers, bless them, all of who are very intelligent, impactful, women.
To take them up in order of their startling power, the first was born in the heat of election campaigns. And it needs to be put on record that she offered an apology for it. All is fair in love, war and elections but even so, as of one year ago I would not have thought that I would hear and see a Union minister borrow a phrase from the dictionary of obscene words. True, she was on an election campaign when emotions rise and taste sinks but for her to have employed a known invective while coining a new one was extraordinary. The original alternation between ‘halal’ and ‘haram’ to distinguish what was unlawful from what was lawful was now replaced by one which distinguished what was Hindu from that which was not, conflating the sacred-in-religion with the sacred-in-law. If a sectarian fanatic had declaimed this, I would have been neither surprised nor disturbed. But here was a Union minister who has subscribed to the secular Constitution speaking. That, for me, was extraordinary in modern India.
The next one came in a comment on the 2013 floods in Rudraprayag caused by the melting of the Chorabari glacier and the bursting of its banks by the river Mandakini. The minister was quoted as saying one of the reasons for the floods was that men had defecated on holy soil. In other words, the floods were a divine chastisement. If a person believing in ritual pollution and purity had said this, I would have been unaffected. But speaking here was a Union minister, part of a government that wants the world to invest in India’s modernisation. That, for me, was extraordinary.
The third startler was about the Gita, the ‘Song Celestial’, as Edwin Arnold has described it in his famous translation of that remarkable segment of the Mahabharata. The book, the minister proposed, should be our national book. Now, like most countries, we have a national animal (tiger), a national bird (peacock), a national flower (lotus). We do not have a national book and it is good we do not because, as I heard Professor Amartya Sen explain recently, only dictatorships that want to cap thought have ‘favoured books’, and we are not a dictatorship yet. The Gita, despite its universal appeal, is indistinguishable from Hinduism. Coming not from a Hindu divine but a Union minister, this idea was extraordinary.
The three statements formed a triptych of religious assertion inconsistent with our Constitution, incompatible with our inner ‘core’ as a secular Republic. They were a shaking of the Indian banyan by its central bole, the loom by its axle-frame. They were extraordinary.
And in tow, as it were, came the suggestion that ‘learning Sanskrit should be made compulsory’. The idea of making Sanskrit compulsory had little to do with Sanskrit and everything to do with the power to make things compulsory for those who may want to resist the compulsion.
If there was any possibility of these ideas being treated as individual wishes, ‘one-off’ ideas, the re-conversion — ‘ghar wapsi’ (returning home) — plan has made it clear they are more than that. The proposals for new legislation on the subject of faith-change have come alongside pictures of persons seated like scolded school children in front of a sanctifying fire, being ‘re-admitted’ to the Hindu ‘fold’. Fold? A wrestling hold in an akhara, more likely, to immobilise the one ‘held’ into abject submission. And we are assured that any caste can be chosen by the ‘returnee’. Annihilation of caste at one go! Extraordinary, how Vivekananda, Phule, Gandhi, Ambedkar and Periyar missed what the Vishwa Hindu Parishad sees with such lucidity.
The most important ‘improbable’, however, came in the shape of adulation for Nathuram Vinayak Godse. “He was a patriot”, it was said, and his murdering an unarmed man of 79 years an act of indomitable courage. He deserves a statue, it was suggested, and the Hindu Mahasabha’s role in the assassination, re-visited.
All this made the year just ended quite extraordinary for our Republic.
May one hope for a less extraordinary ‘new year’?
We must, for a year that marks the centenary of the return from South Africa of a very ordinary man who Subhas Chandra Bose christened ‘father of the nation’.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is senior fellow, Centre for Public Affairs and Critical Theory, Shiv Nadar University
The views expressed by the author are personal