A lesson from the Mahabharata

  • Ganesh N Devy

The two most catastrophic moves leading to the Mahabharata war were the throwing of dice and the disrobing of Draupadi. Many outrages had taken place earlier that could have led to a war among the clans and kingdoms of the day. Warriors had been insulted, cows had been looted, cities had been destroyed and curses had been uttered over generations, from that of Pratipa to the one on Duryodhana. A drunken brawl, gambling and violation of a woman’s dignity, in those times, were probably not uncommon. Yet, combined with the long build-up, they were sufficient to cause a war leading to the end of an era, Yuganta, as IrawatiKarve calls it. One fears that India is fast getting hurled towards such a moment again.

It is difficult to say if the term “disrobing” can be used to describe the act of a mob forcing a girl to take off her hijab. Dress codes, either for signifying uniqueness or for uniformity, are no new idea. Clerics, nurses and judges, hospitality industry workers, factory workers, soldiers all over the world have followed dress codes. Various religious groups have used turbans, caps, strolls, tattoos, vermillion marks, talismans, mangalsutra and necklaces to signify their clan, caste, ethnicity, marital status and theological identity. Members of these groups have often had to negotiate clashes of sartorial or cosmetic codes when dealing with a mix of identities.

A well-meaning friend who is a legal luminary said that India must deal with the question of uniform for students with the firmness that France showed in the matter. I asked him if the French constitution had recognized France as a “Union of States” with diversity positioned at its centre. His answer was that though the Fifth Republic is intended to be semi-presidential, the French mindset is still largely presidential. I asked him if banning the hijab would eventually enable authorities to ban the wearing of the mangalsutra, the holy cross, bindi and turban in public places. He quickly dropped the hijab topic. The answers to these questions are not easy, and not entirely in the domain of law. To get them there, one has to enter circuitous and inconclusive debates on an individual’s autonomy versus the legitimate scope of legislation.

The hijab issue is no longer merely a question of deciding on a uniform or a question of individual freedom. It is also not just a matter of protecting or denying diversity. It is no longer just a matter of communal animosity. All of these, no doubt, are the obviously visible elements in it. But the most important and unnerving element in it is its political signification. There is a well-set theory in linguistics: No signifier has the ability to produce meaning in isolation. Its signifying capability is determined by its place among all of other signifiers.

Within the range of political signifiers of the day, where and how is the hijab issue placed? In the immediate vicinity of the lonely girl running in terror is the mob of young men, not all of whom are students of the same college, euphorically chanting the name of the “maryada–purush”. Mobs have become the authority, replacing the institutional authority, the judiciary and the law enforcing agencies. Their induction as substitutes for the institutions forming the pillars of democracy is strongly signaled by the Prime Minister who decided not to respond to the issues flagged in Parliament but to ramble endlessly on about his version of the history of India since Independence. Other political signifiers help understand the statements better. We are told about the perception that Independence was got as alms and that Jawaharlal Nehru was not the first Prime Minister. We are told that the history of India since Ashoka as written by historians is not history but a conspiracy to malign the Aryavarta.

Together with the revision of history and the deliberate destruction of all institutions that are necessary for the upkeep of the Constitution or legitimized by democratic conventions, is mob frenzy and mob action. The demolition of the Babri Masjid and the post-Godhra communal violence set the grammar of the rule of the mobs. Create an issue, fan strong emotions of scorn and hatred, spread rumours to terrify the majority community, provide a flashpoint for action and then let the mobs take over.

The judiciary, which has so much experience and wisdom in dealing with individual crimes or small group conspiracies, has not shown the same capability in dealing with the lawlessness of large mobs. I tend to think that Indian people, with their millennia-long history of civilization, have enough depth and wisdom in them to deal with such precarious turns of history. However, when an entire system created on the basis of principles embedded in the Constitution is reduced to ruins and mobs start roaming in the street as legislators of public and private morality, the situation can easily degenerate into a civil war. The West Bengal elections have shown us a fleeting trailer of how murderous it can be.

Civil wars, unlike revolutions, are no short affairs. They spread over years, even decades. They leave both sides charred and exhausted. No civil war ever ends in the triumph of any single side. All that they do is take a country back by a century or two on its road to becoming a civilized nation. The RSS and the BJP have clearly forgotten that the idea of creating a Hindu Rashtra and creating the rule of marauding mobs are not identical.

Hinduism is best known for the virtue of self-restraint, saiyama, and therefore thinks of Rama as the god deserving of universal worship. In the Mahabharata, when no one is able to save the dignity of a woman shamed by forced undressing, Krishna stands with her. Bharat has so much to learn from the Mahabharata, most of all, that when dharma is fading, a new emanation of righteousness surges up. And, as the late Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee famously said, rajdharma matters in times when anarchy looms large and the rulers forget why they are there. It, indeed, does.

The writer is a cultural activist.

Courtesy: The Indian Express