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Dictatorship of culture: An open letter to culture minister Mahesh Sharma | Shuma Raha

23 September 2015

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via Shuma Raha’s Website

Published in TOI Online on September 21, 2015

Dear Mahesh Sharmaji,

Congratulations on your dhamakedaar debut as a central minister, Sirji. Even a month ago few were aware that you were our respected minister for culture. Although you have been in office since September 2014, you chose to keep a low profile for a year before bursting on the national scene with suitable fanfare.

And what a spectacular show it has been since then! In the last few weeks you have come out with one inflammatory statement after another. You started out by saying that the Quran and The Bible were not part of the soul of India – even though we are a secular country. Then, not only did you welcome the controversial meat ban in some states during the Jain festival of Paryushan, you went on to say that it should be extended to the Hindu festival of Navratri. In other words, you signaled that meat bans could be invoked regularly – our freedom of choice to eat what we want and when be damned.

You dropped another bombshell when you stated that night outs by girls were contrary to “Indian culture”. And last, but certainly not the least, you remarked that the late President APJ Abdul Kalam was a nationalist and a humanist “despite” being a Muslim. The subtext was clear – that in your view Muslims, who account for some 14 per cent of our population, are usually not nationalists.

Union Minister for Culture Mahesh Sharma addressing the gathering after launching the logo for CBSE State Kalolsav 2015, at Trivandrum Press Club in Thiruvananthapuram on Sunday

These statements are SIGNIFICANT, Sirji. And believe me, the country is taking due note of them. Earlier, when a Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti or a Yogi Adityanath belittled Muslims or spewed vitriol against them there was disquiet. But we could, at a pinch, dismiss them as demented rants from rabid elements of the Sangh Parivar.

Again, we have outraged briefly over the regular rash of anti-women remarks from our political class. Whether it is Congress MP (and son and heir of President Pranab Mukherjee) Abhijit Mukherjee’s “dented and painted women” remark, or SP supremo Mulayam Singh’s frequent rape-related anti-women zingers, or indeed, the plethora of regressive and daft comments about women emanating from our learned elected representatives, we have winced in disgust over them and moved on.

But when you, as India’s culture minister, come out and say women go against our national “culture” if they stay out late into the night, it packs a mighty punch. Yes, yes, Sirji, we know you said your words had been distorted. But, you know what, once a statement like that has been lobbed into the public discourse, it tends to stay there, muddying the terms of what is or is not our culture.

More importantly, it suggests that the state is now hellbent on defining the contours of Indian culture and making a billion Indians belonging to multiple faiths, habits, cultural and linguistic practices, stick to them.

This is nothing short of cultural fascism, Sharmaji. If the state – as Union minister you are a representative of the state – wants to determine what we eat, how we dress, whom we go to bed with, what books we read, what texts we study or what films we watch, if it wants to make pronouncements on what is or is not a part of our national “soul” or “culture”, it begins to sound more and more like a cultural dictatorship.

The question is, are you just a loose cannon shooting your mouth off for your 15 minutes of fame? Or are you acting on orders from on high? Could you, as a rookie minister, be so bold as to issue statements on your own that are not just explosive, but also drive a stark Hindutva agenda?

You are of course known to be close to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. And of course the RSS has been exerting a fairly overt influence on our political system lately. Early this month BJP ministers, including such heavyweights as Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj, Manohar Parrikar, Venkaiah Naidu and others, attended a three-day meet in Delhi presided over by RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat. Apparently, issues related to the economy, culture and education were discussed, with the Hindutva brass giving its own inputs on them.

Mr Sharma, you have been known to say that your government was committed to defending Indian culture from encroachment and pollution by Western culture. You have said that the commitment was based on the mandate the electorate had given your party. “If at all saffronisation has been done, it has been done by 125 crore people of the country who gave us a huge mandate. They knew what is RSS, what is BJP. They have given us a mandate to run the country,” you told one newspaper.

But let me, a humble citizen of India, tell you one thing. Your government would make a grave mistake if it assumed that the massive mandate with which the NDA came to power was a sanction for imposing Hindutva-led culture strictures on our food and behaviour.

The mandate was for Narendra Modi, for his vision of a progressive India which would be quickly and decisively set on the path to economic recovery. The mandate was for his compelling slogan of “achchhe din aanewala hai”; it was for his promise that he was “sabka saath” and that he was going to work for “sabka vikaas”. Your hit-and-run regressive and communal statements are a direct negation of that promise. You’re playing with political dynamite here. And the sooner you – and your bosses – understand that the better.

The real Indian culture is emphatically pluralistic. In its essence, even Hindu culture, which you and your ilk hold so dear, is gloriously liberal and admits a multiplicity of micro-faiths and habits.

Let us figure out the kind of lifestyle we wish to adopt and practise, Mr Sharma. You may be India’s minister for culture – but you are not, and never will be, the arbiter of Indian culture.


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