Roses in November: in search of Dharma

November 12, 2009

This was published at

Roses in November: In search of righteousness
Rajeev Srinivasan on why Dharma underlies every act in India
After all the festivities of Navaratri and Deepavali, November arrives with several anniversaries of some significance. These are, in one way or the other, related to the idea of Dharma, and thus closely entwined with the very basis of Indian civilization. As metaphors, they are a good counterpoint to the slaying of the buffalo-demon by the Goddess – an icon that goes back to Indus-Sarasvati times. Clearly, the struggle for Dharma is never wholly won.
First, there is the November 12th anniversary of the Temple Entry Proclamation, whereby an enlightened ruler threw open temples in the princely state of Travancore to all Hindus, regardless of caste. Second, there is the November 18th anniversary of the brave Last Stand of the 13th Kumaon Regiment, C Company, which died almost to the last man in the Battle of Chushul in Ladakh, fending off invading Chinese hordes.
This year, the anniversaries have come even earlier, with the 25th anniversary of the death of Indira Gandhi on November 1st, and the subsequent genocide of Sikhs. This is the worst example of the predatory State and its oppression of the common man in India since 1947 – a reminder that there is a case to be made that the Government of India is a lineal, uncaring descendant of the imperial British. The difference between Jallianwallah Bagh and the genocide of Sikhs in 1984 is minimal – in both cases, we see the triumph of the fascist State and the murderous use of its power.
All three events are so significant that it’s hard for me to prioritize them.
The first, the Temple Entry Proclamation of 1936, demonstrated how Dharma, when it weakens, can be re-established through peaceful struggle and how society could be reformed through non-violent means. We are accustomed to think in terms of violent and bloody revolutions; but in Kerala – decried at one point as a lunatic asylum by none other than Swami Vivekananda – revolution came gently. With a stroke of his pen, the popular and much-loved Sri Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma, Maharaja of Travancore, set right a historical wrong. The edict is as follows, poignant and spiritual:
“Profoundly convinced of the truth and validity of our religion, believing that it is based on divine guidance and on all-comprehending toleration, knowing that in its practice it has throughout the centuries, adapted itself to the needs of the changing times, solicitous that none of our Hindu subjects should, by reason of birth or caste of community, be denied the consolations and the solace of the Hindu faith”.
Because of the efforts of the monk and social reformer Sri Narayana Guru, what had hitherto been the norm – an oppressive caste system – was shown to be wrong and sinful (see my old column, “Guru-varsham 150: the year of Sree Narayana Guru”, Aug 30, 2004). People across the spectrum rallied in support of reform, culminating in mass movements such as the Vaikom Satyagraha. As a result of what the enlightened monarch did on that day, Kerala has become almost certainly the least overtly casteist state in India (although, alas, covert caste and religion based discrimination thrives.) (see my old column, “Of God and Holy Water”, Oct 25, 2000).
This is in ironic and remarkable contrast with severe casteism in neighboring Tamil Nadu, where the loud propaganda about “social justice” has simply meant that new oppressors have arisen from among those who claim they were oppressed before.
The second event, the last stand of Major Shaitan Singh and his brand of brave men in 1962, shows that it is sometimes necessary to fight in the defense of Dharma. (see my old column, “13 Kumaon’s Last Stand”, Nov 19, 2002). In spite of pusillanimous politicians, there is in the minds of common men an Idea of India that they are willing to die for – as the Americans say, a metaphor of the City on the Hill. Much as Spartans at Thermopylae were willing to fight and die for the ideals of the Greek city-state, so were the brave 118 of the Charlie Company, 13th Kumaon Regiment, willing to draw a lakshmana rekha against the invading Chinese.
From a more mundane perspective, respected Indian analysts have suggested that the Chinese – now vastly more powerful – are planning 1962, redux, an assertion of being top dog. Just as the Lord counsels Arjuna on the battlefield in Kurukshetra that he is merely an instrument in the re-establishment of Dharma, when the forces of evil are on the ascendant, it is necessary for each individual to act. China, imperial to the core, has never respected anything other than force and military might – appeasement and compromise will not work, as it did not in the case of the Kauravas.
The third event, from 1984, implies that the forces of Adharma are rampant and need to be fought without quarter. For the Indian State aided and abetted – or, in the most charitable interpretation possible, demonstrated criminal negligence in failing to prevent – the genocide of a small, defenseless minority group. The fact that it was the Sikhs, the most valiant of India’s protectors, is a particularly cruel irony. (see my old column, “Remember Jallianwallah Bagh”, Apr 13, 1998)
The fact that India’s rulers in 1984 actually justified the horror, that they did not deploy the army until three days later, and most remarkably, that several of those who led the pogroms have thrived (one was recently a Central Minister) are nothing short of stunning. Official figures claim 2,733 were massacred in Delhi; several thousand others were killed elsewhere. Given endemic undercounting, it is likely that 10,000 Sikhs were murdered in all.
We need an independent Truth and Reconciliation Commission like in South Africa, or a War Crimes Tribunal as in Rwanda or Cambodia, to investigate this horror: it was a crime against humanity, and the perpetrators must be brought to account. This was a Kristallnacht.
The image that haunts the most is the one of a half-burned body of a man being eaten by a stray dog. It reminds me of the extraordinary images that have troubled us all – the starving child in Africa being stalked by a patient, waiting vulture; or the girl in Vietnam running, screaming, naked, from a aerial napalm attack by Americans that had set her clothes on fire – it is man’s inhumanity to man to the fore.
I have been reading about the pogroms against Sikhs, for instance in a powerful piece by Kanchan Gupta in the Pioneer (“A big tree fell, Sikhs died”, Nov 1) and elsewhere I read about the exceptionally large numbers of Sikh casualties in Delhi’s Old City. The sentiment of “when a mighty tree falls, it is only natural that the the earth around it shake a little” was taken literally as carte blanche by Congress cadres. It is also likely that there was malice aforethought, considering the thoroughness of the attacks – the thugs knew the names and addresses of innocent Sikh citizens.
The remarkable fabulist O V Vijayan captured the sentiments of the era perfectly in his under-appreciated masterpiece, The Path of the Prophet. The narrator asks his friend, the World War II veteran Sujan Singh:
“If the army were to go into the Golden Temple, what would you do, Sujan Singh?”
Sujan Singh’s voice was tremulous. “This country would no longer be mine, sahib.”
“Where would you go?”
“To the desolation of my prophet.”
All three episodes are thus about that singular and uncomfortable idea, especially to those of the post-modern persuasion: righteousness, Dharma. Indian civilization has thrived for millennia because  of the element of Dharma in society, however strong the demons are.
The flame may have burned weakly, and it may have taken unknown people and those in far-off places to kindle it – like Kartar Singh Sarabha and Vishnu Ganesh Pingale of the Gadar Party of San Francisco, who sacrificed themselves for the country a century ago (see my old column, “Across a chasm of 75 years, the eyes of these dead mean speak to today’s Indian American”, Apr 12, 1996). Professor Eachara Warrier upheld it after the Emergency in his unrelenting quest for the truth about this ‘disappeared’ son Rajan. (see my old column, “A hero for our times: Eachara Warrier”, Apr 24 2006).
As much as we see the demons triumph in the short run, it is incumbent upon us all to never give in, as that arch-imperialist Churchill once exhorted his country. In the end, as the semi-forgotten motto of the Indian State suggests, “Satyameva jayate”: the Truth alone shall triumph.
1412 words, November 10th, 2009

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