Anwesha Bhattacharya-Arya writes an open letter to the President on the sorry state of affairs in India.
Where the mind is fulsome with fear
Where the mind is fulsome with fear and our heads never high
Where knowledge is captive to fundamentalist fear-mongers
Where our world has been snapped into fraught fragments
By narrow suspicious, divisive thinking
Where words flow from the depth of untruth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection hopelessly
Where the clear stream of reason has lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead thought
Where the mind is led forward by fear of diversity and intellectual interpretation
Into ever-widening doubt and in-action
Into that misery has my unfortunate blind country been enslaved
Anwesha Bhattacharya-Arya (2014) with apologies to Tagore’s Where the mind is without fear
In 1900-1903, when Rabindranath Tagore held his head high dreaming for a new, hopeful dawn he imagined an India we can no longer see. Those words are here re-imagined to truly reflect what has now befallen our country well-known for its secular understanding and diversity in the not so distant past. Included here are the original words, for those who may not know them.
To the President of India,
I imagine an India not unlike the one in the original poem. I thought it existed. In recent days I have had to swallow my dream, my idealistic imaginings.
India, the liberal, lovely, complex, unquenchable, intellectually interpretative, secularly serene and powerful, no longer is. She has been enslaved, shackled, and disempowered like the Devi before her. India has been married off to an unsuitable partner, with keys at her waist that she has no control to wield. She is trapped. Like Durga the ten-armed goddess she must always be tamed.
I imagine hopelessly. Perhaps it is the lot of us born of Bangla genes to be doomed to this sort of idealistic imagining. My Bangla genes will not allow me to bite my tongue back, no and I refuse to apologise anymore for being a thinking woman, an unashamed daughter of a historic past that does not need un-educated guardians to re-write our text books with some revisionist history of their own making.
If our system of education requires rescuing, it is from people like what-ever his name pretend-principal of his pretend school calling for pulping orders on academic versions of one interpreter’s view of one sliver of our past.
Interpretation enriches learning. Any one threatened by diversity is surely insecure in their own version of knowledge. Honestly! History is more magnificent and meaningful than us all. It needs no band of bandits to restore or rescue it. Please can we call these people by their rightful name? They are wrong. Please can we stop calling them the Hindu right? It is so tiring, and misleading, as well.
There is place for all views, that is what true education is, not literacy. India remains one region in the world that allows students in the field of arts to develop their own ability to think, reason, question and create. Are we really going to let it be shackled like this?
From several linked and un-linked current events in recent months it is clear that India, on the brink of general elections, is now in the grip of religio-political fear. So strong that publishers as powerful as Penguin have retracted, and issued a pulping order on a harmless academic version of a Hindu past, that for those who know Sanskrit and are real students of history, will know there are as many Hinduisms as there are Hindus (even if we wish to call ourselves by a name created for us by mediaeval Arabs who could not pronounce the ‘S’ in the name Sindhu, the river beyond which those who came to be as Hindus came).
The past needs no protectors, but we desperately need interpreters. No one in India is encouraged to study the past, with an open interpretive mind, rather we are constantly coerced to give in the version of truth and history garbed as golden. There are no golden beginnings, only murky roots. We must research re-examine and remember not to repeat the nonsense, which India seems bent on, since her hands are being shackled by the Hindu right (who really are so wrong).
So to be clear Indian students cannot and must not study or read what they can. Penguin in 1960 upheld the right of a dead writer, decades after the first edition of his book was published. They undertook an expensive legal battle to represent the right of ‘everyone’ to read an easily accessible paperback version of what some people would have us believe that servants and base-minded people could not read without becoming highly agitated and perhaps resort to all sorts of base activity.
Today the same publishers have furled up their offices in our health and safety conscious world to ‘protect’ their employees from bandits brandishing cricket bats. The Indian government turns a blind eye. Penguin really should re-name its Indian operation Ostrich, and remain an imprint of the American Random House, who recently bought the entire operation. Random corporate rejection of the right to interpret the past, wonder what Penguin’s founder Allen Lane would have said?
A country, who so many idealists among us imagined was a more intellectually agile creature slumbers. But oh, I am hoping that my rant will re-awaken some among you to your own words of anger. Be it against the shameful bigoted-ness of ordering Tamils who live in Noida back to Tamil Nadu, the pulping of Wendy Doniger’s work by Penguin (India), the re-criminalisation of homosexuality or just the ability of some self-styled revisionists to re-tell history as it never was.
The country Rabindranath Tagore imagined over a hundred years ago and the one I believed I was born into and imagine still exists, I call on Mr President to exercise your executive rights to stall this enslavement of our minds, our intellect, to the numbing effects of religio-political-pandering.
Allow the three arms of the Constitution to function as they should, let not the judiciary be wrung into wrongdoing by the others. And please allow our system of education to remain what it was imagined to be, a tool of education, not mere literacy. Please when my young children grow to maturity let them read the original words Tagore wrote and be proud citizens of a wide-embracing wealthy, wide-eyed country always welcoming of diversity, and open to change.
I was always proud to be Indian. I have lived abroad seeking an open, interpretative view of our ancient past, and have got it. But in these recent days too many times I have been ashamed. Our sex-ratios of men out-numbering women by more than 300 in some districts, our rates of rape, female infanticide and foeticide, dowry and domestic violence related murder, now the backtracking of liberal society. Enough.
Treat this as a rant, a petition, or start one. But I imagine Indians, and those of Indian origin feel no differently than I do. Please let yourselves be heard. Let us not be fulsome with fear, but rather free of it. Please, please our future, and that of those to come depends on it. Let them not have to re-cast my pidgin version of Tagore’s glorious words. Please, let the original once more ring true.
Should you choose to ignore this open letter, I revoke my Indian citizenship, because as it stands today, I am ashamed of having to imagine an India that is not being allowed to exist. Perhaps it will not count as much. But it is the only power I have as a citizen. If my country no longer stands for its own beliefs or rejects one by one each one… I must act. I do not want to be left imaging India. I no longer want to imagine my India, I want it to live.
The writer is a PhD from the School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London)