Abhishek G Bhaya
Union HRD Minister Smriti Irani, while making an impassioned speech during the Lok Sabha debate on JNU row and Rohith Vemula suicide case on Wednesday, made an intriguing reference to Goddess Durga and Mahishasura.
However, in invoking Hindu mythology to prove a point on ‘anti-national’ activity, she confirmed precisely what the BJP government is being accused of – 1) Majoritarianism 2) Intolerance and 3) Muzzling dissent.
Here’s what happened…
To bolster her government’s case against ‘anti-national’ activities on the JNU campus, Ms Irani cited how pamphlets for an event to mark ‘Mahishasura Martyrdom’s Day’ were circulated in the university and that the notice bore the name of, among others, JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar who is facing sedition charges.
To elaborate on the matter, Ms Irani went on to quote from a 2014 statement allegedly by some SC, ST and minority students of JNU:
“Durga Puja is the most controversial racial festival, where a fair-skinned beautiful goddess Durga is depicted brutally killing a dark-skinned native called Mahishasur. Mahishasur, a brave self-respecting leader, tricked into marriage by Aryans. They hired a sex worker called Durga, who enticed Mahishasur into marriage and killed him after nine nights of honeymooning during sleep.”
A visibly outraged Ms Irani then roared: “Freedom of speech, ladies and gentleman. Who wants to have this discussion on the streets of Kolkata? I want to know. Will [Congress Vice President] Rahul Gandhi stand for this freedom? I want to know… What is this depraved mentality? I have no answers for it.”
She also dared the Trinamool Congress on the subject. “I miss today [Trinamool MPs] Sugata Bose and Saugata Roy in the House – champions of free speech, because I want to know if they will discuss this particular topic… on the streets of Kolkata. I dare them this.”
Accusing the Communists of using students as weapons against state, she asserted that anti-national slogans cannot be allowed under the garb of freedom of speech.
‘Descendants of Mahishasur’
It is not clear if Rahul Gandhi or the Trinamool and Communist leaders will take up Ms Irani’s challenge, but let me make an attempt to put things in perspective.
According to popular Hindu mythology, Mahishasura was a demon king who posed a major challenge to the Devas (gods). Armed with a boon from Brahma that no man will be able to kill him, Mahishasura considered himself immortal. He waged a war against the Devas and defeated their king Indra.
Humiliated and frightened, the Devas approached the trinity of Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu requesting help. Goddess Durga manifested from the combined tejas (aura) of the trinity and the Devas. Durga eventually led a battle against Mahishasura and slayed him, fulfilling the prophecy that the demon king would meet his death only at the hands of a woman.
This is the Hindu majoritarian view and the day of Mahishasura’s death is marked as the festival of Vijaya Dashami or Dussehra across India.
But there is a small tribal adivasi community in the Santhal region of Jharkhand, West Bengal and parts of Orissa, who have traditionally held a contrarian view about the Durga-Mahishasur mythology.
The Asur tribe, named so due to their belief that they are the descendants of Mahishasura, offer a different narrative.
They believe Mahishasura to be a strong but benevolent king. He would never lift arms against a woman. So the Devas used a woman, Durga, to plot Mahishasur’s assassination. When the whole of India celebrates Vijaya Dashami – the day that marks the slaying of two Asura kings: Mahishasura by Durga as well as Ravana by Lord Rama, members of the Asur tribe mourn the death of their ancestors.
Read this and this.
Contrarian view isn’t anti-national
So the concept of ‘Mahishasur Martyrdom Day’ is nothing new and certainly not alarming or ‘anti-national’ as Ms Irani would have us believe.
What has happened is that this contrarian narrative, in recent years, has gained traction with other Dalit and minority communities, who want to use the occasion as a symbolic protest against the majoritarian view. Can hosting such an event be considered anti-national?
Lately, some studies have equated the mythological tale with a battle between Aryans (Devas) and natives (Asuras). In these narratives Devas or Aryans are painted negative and therefore Durga, as the agent of Aryans, is also described in shades of grey. Do we really need to get worked up about this?
Look at the danger of the argument forwarded by Smriti Irani. Will she and her party now declare the entire adivasi tribe of Asur as anti-national?
Even Ravana is worshipped
India has had a tradition of accepting all kind of divergent views and providing adequate room for different narratives to exist, even if it is held by a handful of people.
Does Ms Irani know that there are several temples in India, where Ravana is worshipped? Will the ruling party, that swears by the name of Lord Rama, declare Kanyakubj Brahmins as anti-nationals too for they worship Ravana every Dussehra and a special festivity is organised in Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh?
Read this and this.
I am not even getting into Zoroastrian sacred texts Avesta, where the entire dynamics of Deva (Daeva) and Asura (Ahura) are inverted. Ahuras epitomize the good while Daevas denote evil. That may render the entire Parsi community as anti-nationals, if Ms Irani’s logic is applied.
The HRD Minister’s diatribe against ‘Mahishasur Martyrdom Day’ as an anti-national idea is on predictable lines of the intolerant right-wing ideologue. It’s a warning that only the predominant or the majoritarian view that have the approval of RSS and its front organization would be accepted. Any divergence or dissent and you could be marked as anti-national.
(The author is a Gulf-based journalist with a keen interest in Indian politics)