Religious Culture and Ordinary Evil in Telangana
It is for us to decide
The Holocaust Memorial Museum and Genocide Watch have warned of an impending genocide of Muslims in India, where most of the 10 processes of genocide are already underway. Both organisations have correctly predicted many genocides years ahead including the Hutus’ massacre of Tutsis in Rwanda.
When I read the news I was not surprised, as the communal scenario in our country has given us enough warning bells the past few years. But I couldn’t digest that India, which used to embrace plurality and diversity, could be nearing genocide. When I was discussing this with my friend, she pointed out that a country that has witnessed the bloodiest partition and double exodus should ideally not be leaning towards communal unrest.
Still, we handled the aftermath of the Partition differently than Europe dealt with the Holocaust of Jews. Europeans ensured that they taught their kids about the horrors of the holocaust so they wouldn’t repeat it. Indians started to join an organization that admired Hitler and Mussolini. They spoke about the holocaust loud and clear; we adopted a strategy of silence to cover the ‘shame’ inflicted on all the survivors of partition.
Pondering this, I recalled comedian Vir Das’Two Indias monologue that created quite a stir on social media. My experiences from childhood flashed in front of my eyes as a contrast to the communalised violence our country is witnessing daily.
While growing up in Kadapa district in Andhra Pradesh and Vellore in Tamil Nadu, I had several Muslim friends. I studied in a school run by a Muslim. It was situated next to the biggest mosque in town. Our classmates from all religions would go to the mosque to attend Friday prayers. We would also go to the local dharga, which attracts Hindus and Muslims alike.
Our Muslim friends accompany us on Saturdays to the Hanuman temple on the bank of the Penna river. Come to our home for pooja and participate in Hindu religious festivities. We would eagerly wait for the invitation during Ramdan to have biryani with them. The local urs celebrating the pirs of various dargas was an occasion for all of us to enjoy the giant wheels and other carnival vibes.
The Pirla Pandaga was celebrated by both Muslims and Hindus. Pilgrimage to the famous dhargas such as Ameen Peer Dargah in Kadapa, Gugudu Kullai Swamy in Anantapur, Kasumuru Mastan Dargah in Nellore was so common that the worship of pirs was inseparable from the Hindu pantheon. People also name their children after the Sufi pirs, such as Mastan Reddy. One of the famous myths/stories about Lord Venkateswara (Vishnu) being married to a Muslim woman called Bibi Nanchari is so prevalent in the Rayalaseema region of Andhra Pradesh.
After a few years, my parents moved back to Vellore in Tamil Nadu. Our house is right opposite one of the oldest mosques in our village. One day, my mom called me to ask my opinion about selling the small plot to the mosque. The mosque also houses a madrasa/school. I asked my mom what she was planning to do. She said they had asked for an extension for the madarsa library. It will benefit the children. I was happy with how she put it and said I agreed.
Once, I was home during the month of Ramzan, and the mosque opposite our house was offering special prayers. It also happened that one of the village goddess festivals was being celebrated at that time. My mom dragged me to offer coconut to the goddess. When the procession of the goddess entered our street, the mosque stopped its speaker only to resume after the procession had moved on to the next street. I asked my mom if it is common for the mosque to stop the speakers when such a procession comes. She said yes. She also added that any death procession of the Hindus (which is carried out with firecrackers and drumbeats) would stop the drums and dancing and cross the mosque in silence so as not to disturb those who might be offering prayers.
Being an anthropology student, I was thrilled to learn how communities develop practices that will allow them to live in harmony. When I introspected further, there is no function or get together that happens without Subban Bhai coming and making biryani for us. Hussain Bhai is like one of our family members. Yes, we call all the Muslims ‘bhai’ (a practice that can be found across Tamil Nadu) without much realizing the term means brother, and it has become synonymous with Muslims.
These anecdotes make us believe that the religious boundaries were blurred and erased by the people of two ‘different’ religions. But when I moved to Hyderabad for my higher education, I witnessed Ganesh Chaturthi being celebrated with much grandeur. The anthropological concept of ‘historical particularism’ by Franz Boas teaches us to question the historical significance of any and all cultural traits. But I could not find any significant reason to celebrate Ganesh Chaturthi on this scale in Hyderabad, except that he is one of Hinduism’s prominent gods.
But Ganesh is also prominent across India. Why such fervour only in Hyderabad and Maharashtra? We also know that Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations as public celebrations were initiated by the Lokamanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak. The Peshwa rulers in Maharashtra also worshipped Ganesh. There are several popular Ganesh temples in Maharashtra, making Ganesh a religiously and historically significant deity.
Ganesh Pandals in Hyderabad have been witnessing exponential growth in recent years. From 50,000 idols in 2013 to 75,000 idols by 2021. As well as the Khairatabad Ganesh, ever growing from a one-foot idol in the year 1954 to becoming the largest idol in the country. Not to mention the Nimmarjan at the end of the Ganesh Utsav that brings the city to a halt. This raises the question why Ganesh is loved so much by Hyderabad. Here Ganesh may not have religious or historical significance, but organizing Ganesh Chaturthi definitely serves the purpose of mobilization.
In addition to Ganesh Chaturthi, Rama Navami and Hanuman Jayanthi celebrations are turning into processions, and the number of people participating in them is increasing by the year. The recent images published in The Hindu daily should be enough to scare the wits out of anyone with some common sense.
Hyderabad (as Telangana was earlier known) has always been a target for Right-wing forces. Moreover, Hyderabad (Telangana) shares borders with Maharashtra, where the Right-wing ideology thrived, and the cultural flow is inevitable, especially when there is a considerable Muslim population and former Nizam rule in Hyderabad.
The right wing’s presence is undeniable to the extent that Kachiguda Crossroads now has a statue of VD Savarkar (my first encounter with a Savarkar statue). The Sunderlal Committee report in 1948 estimated between 27,000 to 40,000 people were killed after Operation Polo in Hyderabad, with Hindu paramilitary groups mainly leading the pogrom.
Be it mobilizing people in the name of Ganesh, Ram and Hanuman or organizing RSS Sakhas, or trying to conquer the virtual space with their robust IT cell or putting up fights electorally or turning any and every issue into communal, Hindutva forces are not leaving any stone unturned. The relentless efforts by these forces to communally polarise Telangana were brought out through recent reports by Charan, Paul Oomen and Bala in The News Minute.
It is also important to note that Telangana has a rich culture of the two religious communities coming together in celebrating pirla pandaga across villages in the state, creating Ganga-Jamuni Tehzeeb. But the Right wing is pushing this culture towards an abyss, and building a narrative to polarise our society on caste and religious lines.
BJP’s electoral victory in four parliamentary constituencies in 2019 or taking their number of MLAs to three in the current legislative assembly or winning 48 seats in the 2020 GHMC elections surely made the current TRS government aware of BJP’s rising influence. Right after the formation of Telangana, the TRS government was toeing the line with soft Hindutva by performing the biggest yagam, and spending public money exuberantly on temple constructions and renovations. These proved not enough to match the BJP’s agenda of stoking the religious sentiment.
The TRS teaming with Prasanth Kishore’s I-PAC or the vehement attacks by CM KCR, KTR and Kavitha on BJP and its policies is a recent trend in efforts to create a counter narrative to the BJP in the state. KCR also made strong statements against the CAA-NRC. With BJP eyeing the 2023 elections in Telangana, KCR would want to put up a strong defence against the attack from BJP. One should wait and watch how far TRS can succeed in these efforts.
The scenario of religious culture in Telangana is quite in contrast to my childhood experiences. When I remember communal harmony, I don’t mean to over-romanticize it. It is also prevalent for different religions to have animosity and stereotypes against one another, commonly expressed through common sayings used daily. However, we don’t want the state machinery or violent Right-wing organizations to fuel the fire and turn communities against each other so that they can enjoy political power.
Where do we stand, especially with the questions raised by Hannah Arendt on ‘The Banality of Evil’? Should an individual obey the state and system and be a pawn in its hand, or should we consciously make a decision to do the right thing according to our conscience?
With the repeated calls of ‘Hindus must speak up’ I too completely agree that the onus falls on Hindus at large to resist the onslaught being carried out against non-Hindus and Hindu dissenters. Civil society and other political parties must make efforts to neutralize the religious polarization. People must remain informed about the implicit or explicit agenda of the Right. A culture of tolerance and plurality must be inculcated again to turn us back from this insanity, which is looming over our generation and on future generations as well. Anthropologists Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead tell us that our culture shapes our personality and vice versa. It is for us to decide - do we allow our next generation to be hate mongers or those who share and spread love?
Dr Sipoy Sarveswar is assistant professor of anthropology at Visva Bharati, Santiniketan