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Stoking embers of literary discord

Political parties there are jousting over three chaupais (quatrains) in the text that purportedly show Shudras and women in a poor light.

Stoking embers of literary discord
Representative image

NEW DELHI: Had Shakespeare written Othello in this millennium, he would have been summarily cancelled. And The Merchant of Venice would never have made it to a major studio. Chances are, in fact, his entire body of work would be put to the woke torch. Yet, we are all okay with Shakespeare today, and he rests safe in his 16th century crypt, his works left to be enjoyed, or ignored, as we wish. Which is as it should be.

So too ought to be our attitude to Tulsidas, a contemporary of Shakespeare, whose Awadhi magnum opus Ramcharitmanas is at the centre of a fractious debate in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Political parties there are jousting over three chaupais (quatrains) in the text that purportedly show Shudras and women in a poor light.

The fuse for this fire was lit by Bihar education minister Chandra Shekhar, a former professor of zoology, who said at a convocation last month that a recurring theme in Manusmriti and Ramcharitmanas is denial of education to Shudras and women. In Uttar Pradesh, Samajwadi Party leader Swami Prasad Maurya took up the refrain and elaborated on the questionable quatrains: one speaks about educated Shudras and poisonous snakes, another names several castes as lowly, and another advises, “one should honour a Brahmin even if he is illiterate and not respect a Shudra no matter how intelligent.”

Predictably, the BJP sees this demand for scrubbing the Ramcharitmanas as an assault on one of Hinduism’s sacred texts. Aided by cooperative Hindi TV channels, it has fielded a raucous array of spokesmen, babas, minority cells and interest groups, all trying to steer the debate towards its pet project of making Hindu religious works texts of the State, immutable in letter and spirit, to be obeyed without question. Somewhat like the books of the Abrahamic religions it so frequently critiques.

The way to respond to all literary controversies is to leave the text alone, and keep the author, if not dead, alive. The right to alter a writer’s words rests with him alone and does not legate to anyone upon his passing. The Ramcharitmanas kerfuffle we are witnessing in the Gangetic States is the result of the BJP’s grand electoral stratagem of splintering the Dalit, Muslim and Other Backward Class voting blocs with the aim of winning over some of the splinters and reducing the strength of their main adversaries at the same time. In the past two elections in UP, the party successfully prised non-Jatav caste groups away from the Jatav-dominated BSP and also succeeded in alienating the non-Yadav jatis from the Yadav-dominated Samajwadi Party.

There are signs the BJP is working to orchestrate a religious crescendo in the year or so to the next Lok Sabha election. A date has been announced for the inauguration of a Ram temple in Ayodhya. The import of two monoliths from Nepal from which the temple idols are to be carved, has been the subject of much fanfare. New godmen are cropping up with war cries of Sanatan Dharma every week.

But two can play the polarisation game. It explains why the Samajwadi Party in UP and the RJD-JD(U) combine in Bihar are trying to stoke the Ramcharitmanas issue to consolidate the OBC and Dalit vote bank. It also explains why they are keen to get caste surveys done so as to know the exact numerical composition of these social groups and tailor their pitch accordingly.

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