A lesson from the Mahabharata

The two most catastrophic moves leading up to the Mahabharata War were the rolling of the dice and the stripping of Draupadi. Many outrages had taken place earlier which could have led to a war between the clans and kingdoms of the time. Warriors had been insulted, cows had been plundered, cities had been destroyed, and curses had been uttered over the generations, from Pratipa’s to Duryodhana’s. A drunken fight, gambling and violation of a woman’s dignity, in those days, were probably not uncommon. Yet, combined with the long buildup, they were enough to cause a war leading to the end of an era, Yuganta, as Irawati Karve calls it. It is feared that India could once again be projected towards such a moment.

It’s hard to say if the term “undressing” can be used to describe the act of a mob forcing a girl to remove her hijab. Dress codes, whether to signify uniqueness or for uniformity, are not a new idea. Clerics, nurses and judges, workers in the hospitality industry, factory workers, soldiers all over the world followed dress codes. Various religious groups have used turbans, caps, walks, tattoos, vermilion marks, talismans, mangalsutra, and necklaces to signify their clan, caste, ethnicity, marital status, and theological identity. Members of these groups often had to negotiate conflicting dress codes or cosmetics when faced with a mix of identities.

A well-meaning friend who is a legal luminary said that India should deal with the issue of student uniforms with the firmness that France has shown on the matter. I asked him if the French constitution had recognized France as a “Union of States” with diversity positioned at its center. His response was that while the Fifth Republic wants to be semi-presidential, the French mindset is still largely presidential. I asked him if banning the hijab would eventually allow authorities to ban the wearing of the mangalsutra, holy cross, bindi and turban in public places. He quickly dropped the subject of the hijab. The answers to these questions are not easy and are not entirely within the realm of law. To achieve this, one must enter into devious and inconclusive debates about an individual’s autonomy versus the legitimate scope of legislation.

The question of the hijab is no longer just a question of choosing a uniform or a question of individual freedom. Nor is it just about protecting or denying diversity. It’s not just a matter of community animosity anymore. All these elements, without a doubt, are the obviously visible elements. But the most important and disturbing element is its political significance. There is a well-established theory in linguistics: no signifier has the capacity to produce meaning in isolation. Its signifying capacity is determined by its place among all the other signifiers.

In the range of political signifiers of the time, where and how is the question of the hijab situated? In the immediate vicinity of the lonely girl running in terror is the crowd of young men, not all students of the same college, euphorically chanting the name “maryada-purush”. The mobs became authority, replacing institutional authority, the judiciary and law enforcement. Their enthronement as surrogates of the institutions constituting the pillars of democracy is strongly signaled by the Prime Minister who has decided not to answer questions flagged in Parliament but to ramble on endlessly about his version of India’s history since Independence. Other political signifiers help to better understand the statements. We are told of the perception that independence was achieved as a handout and that Jawaharlal Nehru was not the first prime minister. We are told that the history of India since Ashoka as written by historians is not history but a conspiracy to slander Aryavarta.

With the revision of history and the deliberate destruction of all institutions necessary to uphold the Constitution or legitimized by democratic conventions, there is frenzy and mob action. The demolition of the Babri Masjid and post-Godhra communal violence defined the grammar of mob rule. Create a problem, stir up strong emotions of contempt and hatred, spread rumors to terrify the majority community, provide a flashpoint for action, and then let the mobs take over.

The judiciary, which has so much experience and wisdom in dealing with individual crimes or the conspiracies of small groups, has not shown the same ability to deal with the lawlessness of large crowds. I tend to think that Indians, with their millennial history of civilization, have enough depth and wisdom to deal with such precarious turns in history. However, when an entire system created on the basis of principles enshrined in the Constitution is reduced to rubble and mobs begin to roam the streets as legislators of public and private morality, the situation can easily escalate into civil war. The elections in West Bengal have shown us a fleeting teaser of how deadly this can be.

Civil wars, unlike revolutions, are not short affairs. They spanned years, even decades. They leave both sides charred and exhausted. No civil war ever ends with the triumph of one side. All they do is set a country back a century or two on its way to becoming a civilized nation. The RSS and the BJP have clearly forgotten that the idea of ​​creating a Hindu Rashtra and creating the rule of marauding mobs are not the same.

Hinduism is best known for the virtue of self-control, saiyama, and therefore regards Rama as the god deserving of universal worship. In the Mahabharata, when no one is able to save the dignity of a shamed woman by forced undressing, Krishna stands by her side. Bharat has so much to learn from Mahabharata, especially, that when the dharma fades, a new emanation of righteousness arises. And, as the late Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee said so well, rajdharma matters at a time when anarchy threatens and leaders forget why they are there. This is indeed the case.

This column first appeared in the print edition of February 16, 2022 under the title “The Besieged Dharma”. The writer is a cultural activist

Comments are closed.