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Temple tantrums

india Updated: Nov 22, 2008 22:11 IST
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There’s a delightful short story by the Bengali writer Shibram Chakrabarty called ‘Debotar Jonmo’ ( ‘The Birth of A Deity’). In the story, the narrator talks about a piece of stone ‘a large kind of pebble’ sticking out of the ground on the street that he passes every day. Quite often, the narrator stumbles on it making his day start on a tiring, irritating note. So one day, armed with a shovel, he decides to dig out the blasted stone out and rid himself of the possibility of a nasty accident.

A crowd gathers while he’s taking the stone out and one gent asks him whether he’s digging the stone out because of ‘some dream’. The narrator’s explanation doesn’t convince the man, who later is found ‘guarding’ the stone that has now been placed in a corner of the street out of any pedestrian’s way. The narrator is bemused by the man putting so much value in an ordinary piece of stone. But the next day, the narrator finds the stone has vanished. Days later, he comes across the stone, now under a tree at the mouth of the road, placed in such a manner that it now resembles a Shiv ling. Happy at the stone’s ‘promotion’, the narrator realises that the irritating piece of stone that he used to trip on has really been anointed as a Shiv ling with the curious gent also having changed into a bona fide sadhu tending to a flock of devotees who come seeking blessings from the stone. The story ends with the narrator himself ludicrously believing in the divinity of the stone.

I was reminded of this story when I read about the howls of protests against Narendra Modi’s drive to demolish encroaching temples in Gandhinagar. The bulk of the protests came from those who were horrified that Modi, the man they had pinned their hopes to raze mosques to the ground, was throwing the law book at illegal roadside temples. The moment was as horrific, if not worse than, as the time when folk music fans were appalled to hear Bob Dylan ‘going electric’ and playing ‘rock music’.

But along with the shouts against ‘Judas’ Modi from the Hindutva quarters, there was another section of people who were upset by Narendra-bhai playing Jagmohan: the secular blokes. Now, I’m no pal of the Gujarat Chief Minister, but I would have reckoned that his orders to demolish illegal temples would make people who like the law — especially the version that doesn’t care about religious affinities — to let out a smile, if not an applause. But nope. The problem the secular chaps had with this latest action from the man who was responsible for the 2002 Gujarat carnage was that he was razing illegal temples as a pre-election gimmick, trying to pick up some quick ‘secular’ brownie points so that he can become ‘acceptable’ by folks who don’t go around thinking that spearing and burning Muslims can be a jolly good thing.

So you have the curious business of Narendra Modi being lambasted by a core group of his old cheerleaders — some of whom were, to be honest, chucked out from the Gujarat BJP last year for rebelling against the Chief Minister — and also being heckled for trying to be ‘secular’. That’s like Hitler (how this name still sticks rather easily with the other) being criticised for hanging out at bar mitzvah parties by his Aryan flock as well as getting a bad rap for trying to correct his old anti-semitic street cred.

Sure, Narendra-bhai may be ‘doing a Babri’ on illegal temples as part of a larger public relations exercise that includes throwing lavish iftar parties, locking up psychotically violent Bajrang Dal goons and saying yes to a photo-op with Medha Patkar. But if he is up to something that happens to be a good thing — and I certainly can’t see too many political leaders from any party having the gumption to start razing roadside temples — let’s not knock that. He certainly has enough real blots on his file to answer for.