Badri Raina 


India is a land of deities and new ones created as needed.


I recall remarking once to a colleague that if we as citizens were given a choice of belonging only to one or the other theocratic state, my vote would be for a Hindu Rashtra.


And for the simple reason that whereas a Christian or Islamic State would give me no more than a handful of holidays a year, a Hindu Rashtra would give me many more. Indeed, the Hindu archive being chokeful of gods and goddesses, even a full working year may not do justice to them all.


Furthermore, since holy icons within Hinduism are less hard historical entities and more manifestations of the subjective-divine, we may create yet new gods and goddesses, depending on our personal, cultural, or political need. After all, who had heard of Santoshi Maa before she was created?


And, lo and behold, we now have a new deity. In the village of Banika in Lakhimpur Kheri district of Uttar Pradesh, a private institute is busy building a regular temple to a new goddess. She is to be called “English Devi” ( Hindustan Times, October 28)


This installation is a Dalit initiative: “Religion in any form binds people and we thought that if people are religiously associated with learning English, it would prove much more beneficial for them,” says Nisha Paul Jauhar, who runs the Nalanda Public Shiksha Niketan Inter College.


Three rather sad and startling ironies seem to inform this context, and all three underscore how in the history and career of oppressions, those at the receiving end often end up invoking the terms of the very narrative which oppresses them in the first place.


First, there is the creation of a new deity and a new temple; oppressed and excluded by both, it is remarkable that a section of Dalit intellectuals in contemporary India should still find uses for such concepts of the sacred that find their sanction in dominant forms of Hinduism.


Secondly, how deeply ironic that religion should be referred to as a “binding” force by any Dalit intellectual, given that the most abiding and inerasable warrant for the practice of untouchability and for the varna vyavastha (caste system) lies embedded in Hindu religious texts (X Mandla of the RigVeda, Manusmriti, and sundry Dharama Shastras.) The sort of perfidy which was to oblige a Dalit intellectual such as Kancha Ilaiah to write a little book, titled Why I Am Not a Hindu. Kancha therein was to list a string of deities home to a Dalit boy, none of which ever found any place in either school textbooks or on the Hindu pantheon generally, although Dalits are continuously reminded how they are Hindus and must never venture to think otherwise or to convert to other religions.


And then the question related to English. The celebration of the English language was after all a very Brahminical initiative. It was Ram Mohan Roy who travelled all the way to England in the late 1820s to demand that English be introduced in India. It is of course true that the language has been sought to be owned for diverse purposes by diverse sections of the colonised. In Roy’s day, its incorporation was clearly seen to further a greater assimilation of the then Indian elites into the possibilities of colonial governance, and the fruits thereof — even as the colonisers found it desirable to groom such elites into “brown sahibs” who would do colonial bidding, and aspire in time to the commerce of colonial commodity and culture. Contrarily, from the time of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar himself, Dalit vanguards saw in English education not merely the prospect of economic advancement but enhanced social standing and, thereby, the possibility of breaching the humiliations of caste oppression which were so entrenched in the everyday transactions of the vernaculars and of Sanskrit.


But for Dalit intellectuals now to name the English language a deity and to build her a temple at a time when some 5 per cent or less English-using elites have come to be the strangulating instrument of social, economic, and cultural democracy countrywide might seem a trifle odd, and more than a trifle replicative of the times which first embraced the language as a ladder to class aggrandisement.


“Sanskritization” at its crassiest? Or is there still a good case that emancipation within the vernaculars remains a hopeless thought?




(The Hindu;  Online edition, Nov 07, 2010)

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