An interview I did whilst I was in India. I talk about spirituality, my path as a priestess, views on the Indian diaspora and their links back to India – along with my PhD research on the Indian Parliament. Thought some of you might find it of interest.
There’s been a lot of discussions, media coverage and political controversy surrounding the ban of the documentary known as India’s Daughter. Indian feminists have raised a slew of issues with the film, some of which I fully empathize with. However, despite the ban, the film was tweeted over 40,000 times on Youtube – before it was taken down.
You know I tend not to get into political discussions much, but this relates to what I spent 5 years of my doing intensely focused on. Whilst I see so many sides to the debate and argument, as one who knows the context well – I see a few issues that are being completely missed. So, speak up, I must.
Bear in mind that these comments are not coming from someone who stands for values that objectify women, but rather a scholar of the Indian parliamentary system and the way it handles gendered issues….
(1) There is a real constitutional-legal argument which has led to the ban. The decision itself has been heavily politicized by way of interpretation. Here’s the rationale: The verdict has yet to be delivered by the Supreme Court, and so … taking the accused’s testimony in any form raises questions of validity. It has to do with the due procedure of the Indian legal system, and frankly — I understand why. There are those in the Supreme Court who do not agree and want the documentary to be legally released in the interests of the public – but the legal pickle remains. Moreover, the conditions of the interview required Tihar jail (where the accused was detained) to approve the use of the interview material. It was not approved. They wanted the accused’s interview to be deleted, and so the documentary was circulated in a breach of agreement.
(2) Nevertheless, a discussion has been raised in the Parliamentary Chambers (which, in some sense is India’s ‘national theatre’ or ‘national spectacle – focus of my doctorate) — so anyone who hasn’t heard of it in India, will! Rolling 24-7 media channels broadcast, and re-broadcast, and then broadcast some more … the sound-bytes and excerpts of Parliamentary speeches seen to be especially sensational. Discussion on the legality of banning/airing the documentary is no exception.
(3) Political leaders, from socially conservative parties, have begun speaking of how ‘consent’ can never be taken away from a woman, no matter what she’s wearing. Considering parliamentary discourse in 1996, on the subject of women and their political rights .. the statements issued by conservative members of parliament are … in comparison … extraordinary…. Back then (and this actually happened), MPs actually laughed during speeches that spoke of the plight of women who were raped. 2 lone MPs (out of the chamber that can hold over 500 +) walked out in protest. So for them to be speaking of ‘consent’ and how it cannot be taken away from a woman ‘no matter what she is wearing’ … is a tremendous indicator of how attitudes towards sexual violence have shifted.
That alone is enough grist for the rolling 24-7 media stations to run with. Whether these leaders believe what they’re saying is a different question, but it reflects changes in party attitudes and the perceptions of their electorate. …
In some ways, the ban has actually raised the visibility of the documentary, and, due to the way the media, political parties, parliamentarians create the news cycle in their own ritualistic dance … India’s Daughter will continue to dominate the headlines and public debate.
AUGUST 15, 1947: INDIA’S INDEPENDENCE DAY (Happy Birthday, India!)
Today, over a billion people will be celebrating their independence, and the declaration of their sovereignty as a free republic. It is India’s Independence Day, and she’s celebrating it for the 67th time.
There are so many reasons to celebrate this day, for Indians in India and those of Indian origin living abroad. But, by the same token, there are plenty of reasons to reflect upon what else the nation seeks to accomplish, before all its citizens can be truly declared as ‘free’. For too many are still ensnared by the yoke of poverty, communalism, the fear of violence or degradation, and so on.
August 15th marks the transfer of power from a territory claimed and administered by the British Raj. This ceremony took place at the Red Fort in New Delhi where – at the stroke of Midnight. A day prior, in India’s Constituent Assembly, its first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru delivered his oft-quoted speech: ‘Tryst with Destiny’. Here’s a link:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AzdVKGdZUpQ
But through the celebrations of freedom, one also has to remember that elsewhere, at the borders, the bloody wars of Partition raged on. It was not an easy birthing for the nation as it was born through a dual separation: (1) through the formality of British ceremony and legal codes and (2) through the forced cleavage of a land in the name of communal politics.
As we wave our flags and sing our anthems today, this shadow ought not be forgotten.
India’s political history is a long and multifaceted one, but this much can be said without controversy: Its independence was procured through the efforts of nation-wide struggle, that began with the nationalist movement. In its earliest form, it was a movement led by a ‘microscopic minority’ (to quote a former Viceroy of India) of Western-educated Indians – you could call them the liberal intelligentsia of their time. The movement acquired mass appeal and participation when Mahatma Gandhi entered the scene. Men and women rose in union as part of satyagraha (peaceful struggle), though there were contemporaries seeking to free India from its colonial oppressors through the use of violence as well.
The Constitution, legislative procedures and electoral arrangements of contemporary India bear witness to India’s colonial past. The Indian Parliament retains certain ritual performances and conducts ceremonies in ways strongly reminiscent of the ‘Mother of Parliaments’, i.e. Westminster. It is little wonder as, considering that the body of individuals tasked with drafting the new Republic’s constitution were largely made up of lawyers well versed in the language of British law.
That being said, despite (or perhaps, through) India’s legal inheritance, the Indian political sphere lives, breathes, thrives in displays of colourful authenticity. The performance of politics, as seen in parliament and state assemblies, is becoming increasingly ‘vernacularized’ – that is to say, it reflects certain social customs, mores, norms, and expectations of performance in line with the people of the land itself.
As I argued in my PhD on the Indian Parliament, let us not judge India on the basis of expectations set in a time so heavily influenced by colonial frameworks and standards – and as I awoke to this morning (listening to a professor on TV) – let us not judge it in terms of the accomplishments made by other countries, but by and on its own terms and ideals.
For India -is, was, and always will be – the world’s largest experiment in democracy. That understanding of democracy is deepening, transforming and evolving as we speak – showing us ways that it has matured in 67 years of growth, and areas which it is in dire need of attention.
For all of its economic development, and (relative) political stability, India still lags behind in areas pertaining to sustainable economic development, social equality, gendered equality, violence against women, and other issues – as judged by the ideals of its own Constitution.
Whilst I was not born in India, I am of Southern Indian origin. I’ve lived there with my family and have also conducted research on its political institutions. It is an identity that I am proud to affiliate myself with, but with the recognition – that there are still challenges to tackle, ways to evolve and new milestones to reach.
So here’s to 67 years of growth and many more to come!
Image Montage: Own photo, Bairavee Balasubramaniam, 2010. All rights reserved.
and (the image of the lions & flag) By Mellisa Anthony Jones at en.wikipedia [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
I’ve given much thought to writing this – as honestly, it is a sensitive subject – one that draws upon thousands of years of ideological and other forms of violence, suppression and grandstanding between two different religious and spiritual traditions in India: The Aryan (North) and the Dravidian (South). It‘s honestly a lot more nuanced than that, but there is that invisible line that is drawn across the Indian subcontinent that marks profound differences.
Whilst I love my Southern-Tamil culture and identity, I feel there is so much more to it than asserting whether it is the ‘best’ or the ‘oldest’ – but at the same time I feel deeply uncomfortable when someone does try to put down my identity by claiming cultural-linguistic-ethnic- and other forms of superiority. There is powerful linguistic evidence on both sides, which have equally been used to make such a case – and I honestly find that debate counterproductive.
I worship and integrate different aspects of both traditions, deities and divinities – placing them on par with one another. For those of you who have been following my work, you know that I do the same thing with religions and belief systems for we are all Equals in the Circle.
But what does all this have to do with Namaste?
Namaste is a specific term of – recognizing the divinity within others – that is from the Sanskritic linguistic root – strongly associated with the Hindi language.
Contrary to the kinds of cultural stereotyping that India is often subjected to (that everyone speaks Hindi, or is a Hindu, or loves Bollywood) – not every part of India uses this terminology – even in spiritual contexts.
I’m writing this as I realize that my Indian identity often makes others feel as though they are honoring that identity by saying ‘Namaste’.
I don’t blame anyone for/about it – and I see that the intention is pure.
It’s just that this discussion, or this distinction hasn’t been made in many New Age and spiritual circles. People assume that India is more homogeneous that it actually is, unless information to the contrary is given.
Simply put, it does not mean the same thing for all those who are of Indian origin. Nor do all people of Indian origin use it, even in temples.
Here are other ways that different Indian identities express a similar concept:
Vanakam – Tamil (some Tamil Brahmins use Namaskaram)
Vandanam/Namaskaram – Telugu
Swagatham/Namaskaram – Malayalam
Assamulaikum – Muslim-Indians
There are a lot of other ways that different states/regions and ethnicities express this concept. This list is but a start.
As has been shown in India’s history and politics – Language is key to one’s sense of identity. Words say a lot about who you are, where you come from, where you will go. And not having the right to express one’s self in their mother tongue was seen in India’s history as a severe limitation upon individual freedoms.
That is the reason why India recognizes more than 20 different official languages and provides for simultaneous interpretative services in its Parliament – and why MPs use English if not their mother tongue to speak with others.
The idea of a single identity, be it defined in terms of a language, a region, a belief system, could not take root – as it is a such rich land with a diversity of cultural traditions and ethnicities. Plurality and diversity were favored over imposing a common language – because that would have meant much more than ‘mere words’ to the people of India.
A friend of mine asked me (and he respects both traditions) – well, what is your point as ‘Hindi is the face of India’ (quoted with permission).
My response: Well, it is – and it isn’t.
India has a million faces, and each deserve equal recognition.
Here’s to honoring them all, and staying true to one’s roots. Tolerance and Plurality.