From the Buddha to Periyar, alternative histories have always been around us. It is only in India that a minority, a brahminical one, decides to parade their myths as history and imposes them on the dalits and bahujans. They only reality the dalit-bahujans seek to project is one of possibility—the possibility of social transformation, as Gail Omvedt makes a case in Seeking Begumpura: The Social Vision of Anticaste Intellectuals. The new BJP government can only be expected to be intolerant when dalit-bahujans celebrate their festivals and histories and not merely dance to the garbas (where, again, Muslims are not to be allowed).
Every year, instead of celebrating Durga Puja or Dusshera, a larger number of dalit-bahujans have been celebrating Mahishasur Martyrdom Day. The Gonds of Central India, in fact, worship Ravana, as a recent article in Outlook reminded us. The Forward Press—a pioneering English–Hindi bilingual magazine—offers us a clear rationale for their October cover story entitled, ‘When the Asuras were gods, devas Demons’: “Mahishasura, an asura king was assassinated by Durga, an Aryan. Celebrating year after year the brutal killing of a Bahujan by a woman of an upper caste is only a form of valorizing the tradition that oppresses them. Celebrating the Mahishasur Martyrdom Day provides for the renewal of both identity and hope for the Dalitbahujans. Such counter-cultural commemorations reconstruct and empower the identity of today’s oppressed Indian Asuras.”
An FIR against this article led to the Forward Press office being vandalized on 10 October. The All India Backward Students Forum (AIBSF) was one of the organizations that called for the celebration of the Mahishasur Shahadat Divas the previous evening (9 October) at the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus. In 2011, AIBSF students were issued show-cause notices by the university and subsequently rusticated for conducting the festival. Not much seems to have changed as members of BJP’s youth wing, Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parsihad (ABVP) disrupted this year’s gathering at JNU. Four of the Forward Press staff present were detained by the police on charges of hurting “religious sentiments”. The next day, copies of the magazine were confiscated without explanation and the office was attacked.
Pramod Ranjan, the Consulting Editor of Forward Press who has been forced to go into hiding, said in a statement: “The October 2014 issue was a special number devoted to ‘Bahujan-Shraman tradition’ and carries well-researched articles of leading writers and professors of prestigious universities. Bahujan renditions of popular texts have a long tradition, starting from Jotiba Phule and going up to Ambedkar and Periyar.”
We wonder what the ABVP and Delhi Police will have to say of Phule’s 1873 classic Gulamgiri (reworked by Aparajita Ninan and Srividya Natarajan as The Gardener in the Wasteland, a graphic narrative, which according to one reviewer is “not just a book, but a declaration of war”). Premkumar Mani in his book Mahishasura, meant to be released at the JNU event, says, “The current PM gifts the Gita to everyone. The Gita believes in the varna system. We also have Buddhacharita and the tripitakas. We are talking of an equal society. You are doing the politics of domination and inequality in the name of religion whereas our struggle is for equality.”
The inability to accept the celebration of Mahishasura or Ravana is of a piece with the Sangh Parivar organisations’ squeamishness over meats that are consumed by India’s labouring castes and classes. A majority of students in campuses across India have been demanding the inclusion of beef in their hostel menus. In 2012, a beef festival at Osmania University, Hyderabad, saw ABVP volunteers incite violence. Anand Teltumbe says, “Those who object to beef-eating are in fact a minority. All Dalits, tribals, Christians and Muslims are surely beef-eaters.” (The latest issue of Outlook offers a documentation of the many efforts of the Sangh outfits to stigmatise meat-eaters, who even by conservative estimates constitute 60 percent of the population.)
Well, many of those who defended Wendy Doniger’s book are now nowhere to be seen or heard.