Saturday, October 02, 2010

Two Minutes Older: Ayodhya and Savanur

As I’m writing this, the Babri Masjid verdict is yet to be delivered. By the time you read this, we will already know what its effect was on the country. The aftershocks of the 6 December 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid are still being felt.

The Sangh Parivar has always held that the issue cannot be decided by the courts because it is a question of religious sentiment and faith. If enough people feel that Ram was born right on that particular spot (though no one can as accurately say when he was born), their ‘feelings’ ought to be respected and the land handed over for the construction of a temple.

Most civil movements that began after the widespread riots in 1992 talked about a return to the values of secularism, of which Indians have a pretty wide and inclusive definition. Unlike other countries (such as France), in India secularism means the freedom that all religions have to live by their religious creeds and the neutrality of the state in relation to these practices. It is what Mukul Kesavan calls, in his book Secular Common Sense, an ‘all-are-welcome secularism’ that was born of the need to bring every kind of Indian on board the anti-colonial, national movement.

One position taken by a politician after the demolition of Babri Masjid had nothing to do with rights or religions. It ought to have counted as a valid and very secular reaction. Yet, not even the secular civil movements that wanted to heal the wounds of ’92 took Kanshi Ram’s statement as anything more than a badly-timed piece of irreverence.

I’d like to examine Kanshi Ram’s suggestion that “the best solution for the Ayodhya dispute is to build a public toilet on the disputed site”.

If this horrifies people, as I’m sure it did and will continue to, let’s consider what constitutes the sacred for any religion. With most religions, sanctity resides in several locations: in the word of god, in an idol, a book, a place of worship or diverse symbols. But the sacred never includes gross physical processes, because somehow, the body (being mortal, I suppose) always has to be mortified or transcended to reach the divine.

Toilets are never, ever, sacred spots, even though all kinds of other places – such as beauty parlours – are now described as temples to the body. If anything, in our country, the presence of gods is supposed to repel bodily functions – consider the tiles depicting deities that are meant to discourage people from spitting and peeing in the corners of stairwells and other public places not designated as bathrooms or spittoons.

Why are toilets so unmentionable? Why are they so outside the pale of sacred discourse? Why are the necessary functions of the body supposed to be disrespectful of the divine?

What the exclusion of the functions of the body from the sacred hides is something Kanshi Ram brought up but which never entered the debate around secularism post-1992: that to allow the sacred to exist one has to cast out from public notice the large numbers of people who help us keep our bodies and sacred spaces ‘pure’.

Manual scavengers are not supposed to exist according to our laws. But they do – every time the drains overflow, it is these manual scavengers who are found waist deep in manholes, clearing up blocked sewage systems. The rest of us could not be ‘clean’ if we didn’t have someone whom we could consider ‘filthy’.

It says something (not very flattering) about us as a country that we’re more easily shocked and traumatised by the demolition of a place of worship than about the existence of manual scavengers. Recently, in Savanur in Karnataka, a Bhangi community that was facing eviction from their homes protested by pouring excreta on themselves. It didn’t impinge on our national consciousness in any way, did it?

That protest was as potent a political comment as Kanshi Ram’s statement that a toilet ought to be built on the site of the demolished mosque. But it will probably never have the impact it ought to until we take our toilets as seriously as we do our places of worship. Or until we find a god of toilets.

An edited version of this in Zeitgeist, the Saturday edition of The New Indian Express.

And thanks to Paro for inputs. 


Banno said...

Very, very well said, D. Toilets are something that MUST be brought into public consciousness. And of course, no one wants to see them or the scavengers.

Ludwig said...

The Japanese aesthete, OTOH, does not seem to flinch from waxing eloquent on toilets and the pleasures thereof.

That apart, this verdict has succeeded in making my gorge rise quite spectacularly. I mean w-h-a-t t-h-e f-u-c-k types. These courts have lost it.

sumana001 said...

Very very well written, Dala. Thanks. (I've always wondered about the discourse of the 'rude' in our literature too. Some other day; when we meet :)

km said...

I was going to say something about the verdict and Kanshi Ram's statement but I take it that this is not really about that subject :)

But it will probably never have the impact it ought to until we take our toilets as seriously as we do our places of worship.

Ah, so never.

//I'm sure you've read a cover story that Tehelka ran a couple years ago on the "scavenger community"? Heart-breaking, when you think of how we (you know who I mean by "we") have rendered entire sections of the society invisible and powerless (till the sewer overflows, that is).

Asimov said...

The problem with your article is, it tries to compare 2 social tragedies and judge that one is more significant than the other. I beg to differ.

I believe all social tragedies need to be resolved and to the extent where all aggrieved parties are sufficiently redressed. I doubt that a knee jerk solution like yours would solve the problem, in very much the same way if I try to solve the other tragedy, by offering the Bhangi community place to stay and 1 Lakh rupees on top of it on the condition that they continue to wear excreta on their body as a badge of honor.

The uniqueness of Ayodhya situation is that both the parties (Hindus & Muslims) are both aggressors and aggrieved at the same time. Hindus have a just grievance when they say that one of the most sacred place in their religion was forcefully destroyed and a mosque created by a Muslim ruler. Muslims on the other hand have a just grievance that their mosque was forcefully destroyed (in very much the same way as the muslim ruler) when a more peaceful means of addressing the grievance could have been sought. I believe the court has done a fair job of addressing the concerns of both the parties.

But, the problem is that the politicians and media houses are not happy. Both these "pillars" of democracy have forgotten that they are just supposed to facilitate a solution and NOT order everyone around. And when both the parties had already said that they are ok with whatever judgement is passed, who the fu** is anybody else to tell them OTHERWISE.

Hari Batti said...

most excellent, this.

Space Bar said...

Banno: Maybe we should go live in Japan.

Luddo-san: Many thanks for that link. And yes; it's a good thing I didn't write this after the judgement.

Sumana: And likewise, re your Himal piece. Will mail.

km: I don't remember the Tehelka piece. Send link?

Asimov: Not at all. For one thing, I wasn't suggesting that we should build a public toilet there; just examining Kanshi Ram's suggestion that we should.

The two issues are not unrelated. Most assertions of the sacred leave out a significant number of people in whose name they presume to speak. A little less public pandering to the 'sentiments' of religion will be good.

But that apart. You say 'if I try to solve the other tragedy, by offering the Bhangi community place to stay and 1 Lakh rupees on top of it on the condition that they continue to wear excreta on their body as a badge of honor.'

That should appear absurd to me, shouldn't it? It does.

As absurd as rewarding the suggestion that Ram was born in that exact same spot under the dome; as absurd as dividing a piece of land that would not have been divided like this if the mosque had not been destroyed in the first place.

Just a final note: when I wrote this, I didn't know what the judgement would be. So do keep that in mind while you read this, because the column is not on the comment on the judgement at all.

Space Bar said...

HB: Thanks.