As we celebrate Christmas, the Mayan prediction of an apocalypse is behind us. Hopefully we have calculated the date correctly and they were wrong. However, there is a dark shadow in which we hang our heads in shame. The gangrape of young woman on December 16 in Delhi has lead to a spontaneous outrage, anger and anguish. Worse, the crime is not an isolated incident; reports of criminal sexual assaults on women, including minors, are pouring in from across the country.
The cries for more effective deterrent laws and reforming the pathetic justice delivery system are a natural response. In India, the conviction rate for rape cases is a miserable 29%, while it is 35% for murders. The government must urgently set up fast-track special courts to look into such cases. But there is also an urgent need to introspect on the inherent contradictions in our culture. While the various philosophies that were born in this land speak of ethics and morality, in practice, we often behave like depraved subhuman creatures.
Karl Marx once said, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but in circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” These negative ‘past transmissions’ and their modern-day manifestations reinforced by the culture and policies of neo-liberal globalisation need to be fought to create a better present and future.
In this context, it is important to note the recent loss of one of our finest teachers of history, a foundation pillar of St Stephen’s College, Delhi — Mohammad Amin. Though I had enrolled to read economics, I attended some of Amin’s lectures. I imbibed how he taught history through discussions on food, pickles and wine. The “traditions of the past” was a methodology he adopted to understand and learn from history. He may well be remembered for his secondary contribution of training perhaps the largest number of Indian Foreign Service and Indian Administrative Services officers.
These influences of historical memories were summed up by Jawaharlal Nehru in Discovery of India. He described India as “an ancient palimpsest on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed and yet no succeeding layer had completely hidden or erased what had been written previously”. In that sense, India is a repository of various civilisational confluences that have shaped our modern nation. The need is to sift the good from the bad to create a better modern civil society.
In a way, continuing with this train of thought, Ranjit Hoskote and Ilija Trojanow have given us an enlightening story of connected histories in Confluences. In these times of the dominating “clash of civilisations” and the global “war on terror”, they remind us of the abiding influence of historical confluences that mapped the contours of civilisational advancements.
The Arab thinkers of Al Andalus and Cordoba, they say, did not “return the Aristotelean cat to Christian Europe, plump and content after centuries of pampering in sunnier climes, but to present them with a roaring desert lion they had never known.” They go on to establish that the liberal and secular public space that the West wants us to believe as their contribution was a process where “Al Kindi, Al Razi, Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd prefigured Montesquie, Diderot, Rousseau and Voltaire”. The Arab ‘Falsafa’ was the ancestor of the European ‘Philosephe’.
In today’s world of violent conflict of the Israeli attacks in Palestine, it is important to recollect that Musa bin Maimun al-Qurtubi, known to posterity as Maimonides, codified the Jewish religious law in the Mishne Torah in Hebrew, while he spoke and wrote his philosophical works in Arabic. Strange as it may seem, the cornerstone of Judaic theology was written in Arabic.
Amin Saab, as he was referred to fondly, taught history through such confluences. He was excited to hear that in Bukhara we learnt that its ancient name probably drew from ‘Vihara’. Indeed, it was part of the Kushana empire, which ruled for four centuries when history turned from BC to AD.
Though the name of Emperor Kanishka is popular here, very little work has been done on this empire that officially embraced Buddhism spanning over four centuries from Central Asia to China, across northern India. These traditions of the past that continue to influence us today need to be properly assessed by filling this blank.
Indeed, we are living on lands which were — and are — a churning crucible of civilisational growth. No advance is possible unless the negatives (with their modern-day expressions) are overpowered by the positives. Practices and traditions that ought to have been discarded as anachronistic, unfortunately, continue to persist.
The khap panchayats, the patriarchal values, caste oppression and denial of rights to religious minorities are all legacies of the past that inhibit the evolution of a modern India, with all its rich traditions. Swami Vivekananda concluded his historic Chicago address by asserting that India can only advance by “assimilation and not destruction” of philosophies and religions other than Hinduism and traditions other than those ordained by the so-called custodians of cultural ‘purity’. “Historical memory is an unwelcome guest at the banquet of belief, even in secular societies,” write the authors of Confluences.
Marx further said, “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” It is these nightmares, reinforced in various ways by contemporary neo-liberal values, that need to be banished. We need to wake up to brighter mornings where insaaniyat becomes our talisman, banishing such inhuman crimes.
Sitaram Yechury is CPI(M) Politburo member and Rajya Sabha MP. The views expressed by the author are personal