Slaying demons, raising others


Smriti Irani’s official references to Durga and to Mahishasur worship — which amplifies the original Delhi police report — was expunged from Rajya Sabha records yesterday.

Per official rules (the clip below relates to the LS but is the same for the RS as well):

The effect in law of an order of the Speaker expunging words, remarks or a portion of the proceedings is as if those words/remarks or that portion of the proceedings had not been spoken. Publication of expunged portions by the Press may involve a question of breach of privilege of the House or contempt of the House arising out of such publication.

Removal of expunged portions from video-tapes

Apart from preparing the typed version of the proceedings, the entire proceedings of the Lok Sabha are also tele-filmed. Recording of proceedings is done by LSTV Channel on video tapes which are preserved in the Audio-Visual Unit of the Lok Sabha Secretariat.

So now the bell is unrung, but the damage is done — the red meat Ms Irani was throwing to the base has been consumed, digested, and will remain part of the collective consciousness. ‘JNU is a place where they eat meat, use up more than one condom per person every day, blaspheme Durga and celebrate Mahishasur as a martyr — the police says so, the minister said so…’

Ms Irani’s cynical sleight of hand should have been questioned, not expunged. (The opposition did have a chance, but whiffed it by going way out on a dissonant limb and invoking “blasphemy” instead of asking far more pertinent questions.)

As, for example, this: The debate in Parliament was about Rohit Vemula’s suicide and, by extension, the police action against Kanhaiya Kumar and others on charges of anti-national and seditious utterances.

Nowhere in her speech does she refer to the police action against Kanhaiya Kumar — instead, she drags in Durga, and textbooks that have not been in use for over 12 years, in a torrent of sound and fury signifying nothing more than her intent to paint all of JNU as a den of inequity. What has either Durga, or Mahishasur, or Don Bosco’s unused textbooks, to do with the charge of sedition and anti-national activities against Kumar and others?

That simple, basic question remained unasked — but, IMO, should have been the point of the Opposition’s response.

Equally, the Opposition could have pointed to the presence of JNU alum and BJP MP Udit Raj’s presence at the Mahishasur event, and asked Ms Irani to explain why, if the event was seditious/anti-national/anti-Hindu, no action had been taken against Raj? The MP’s explanation was:

“I attended the Mahishasur festival because I believe that caste discrimination is bad. But I also attend other seminars at JNU. I am an alumnus of JNU,” ABP news quoted Raj as saying.

Meanwhile, Raj told ANI: “I was an activist that time but I changed. Only fools and dead men don’t change their views”.

So Raj, being neither a fool nor dead, changed. Good for him — but it sort of underlines the JNU point of view that debate and discussion, even of extreme viewpoints, do not leave permanent scars on the intellect. People argue, talk, discuss, debate, oppose — and formulate their own worldviews, as Raj seems to have done. So what is the problem?

More to the point, Raj says he has changed — but, how? Does he now believe that caste discrimination (which, from his own words, was the point of the event) is good? (That is the probblem with putting politics ahead of common-sense — it sometimes pushes you way out on a very fragile limb.)

Again, Ms Irani is either unaware of — or deliberately ignores — the fact that this self-same debate has happened in Parliament before. In that sense, she is no crusader tilting at newly-discovered windmills; she merely roots through the trashcan of the past to regurgitate an old, tired trope. As old as 2006.

The matter came up in course of a calling attention motion moved by a number of BJP MPs led by deputy leader of opposition V.K. Malhotra on “the use of derogatory and insulting language about Hindu deities” in MA History textbooks of the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU).

The question is drawn from the same playbook Irani used with reference to Don Bosco — create a fuss about something that had already reached its use-by date.

In his statement, HRD Minister Arjun Singh informed the House that the university had already decided to discontinue the course and set up an expert committee to review the syllabi. IGNOU had also written to all students who have already cleared the course asking them to ignore the earlier version of the study material.

But the fact that the debate was moot did not stop the BJP then. At which point this happened:

That failed to satisfy the Opposition benches. Attacking the textbooks, Malhotra said they contained derogatory references such as claims that Hindu goddesses like Durga consumed alcohol.

At this point, Pranab Mukherjee rose to point out that the information itself was not incorrect. He then proceeded to read out Sanskrit stanzas from the third chapter (adhyaya) of the Sri Durga Saptashati — famous in Bengal as the Chandi Path — on the battle between Goddess Durga and the demon Mahishasura. The shlokas describe how the goddess drank once, and then again and again, in the midst of battle, her eyes bloodshot — as red as the rays of the rising sun.

His intervention did not go down well with the BJP benches although no saffron MP could counter the scripture or question its authenticity. They continued shouting about the UPA government’s disregard for religious sentiments and the House was adjourned.

The BJP’s charge cut little ice with Mukherjee who comes from a family of priests. “If these people do not know their religious scriptures, it is not my fault,” Mukherjee told this reporter later. There was no need, he agreed, to incorporate these facts in college textbooks but to question the authenticity of the scriptures smacked of ignorance.

There is much the Opposition could have done to counter Ms Irani on fact — not merely with ref her Durga diatribe, now expunged, but across the entire content and context of her speech. But one characteristic of the politician, whether in power or out of it, is that he never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

In passing, note that little mention, in the report above, of how the BJP banged on about “religious sentiment”, all oblivious of irony — effectively, they were saying that religious scriptures hurt religious sentiment.

In passing, a couple of pieces relating to Mahishasur that I came across yesterday: Facing Demons, in Caravan and The day Mahishasur visited the Rajya Sabha, via FirstPost. (Embedded links in both stories are also worth your time). There’s also this personal recollection I’d first posted a couple of days ago.