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Multiculturalism Alive In India

By Barnita Bagchi

When I was small, in winter we would sometimes go to my father's ancestral village in Murshidabad, a northern, Muslim-majority district of West Bengal in India. I remember sugar-cane juice drunk in front of 'Hazarduari', the thousandwindowed nineteenth-century Nawabi edifice, and rides in bullock carts. I also remember, in my father's village, playing on the ruins of the fancifully-named Buddhist 'Raktamrittikavihara', to dig up which a budding archaeologist cousin of mine had gone to the village, only to be delighted with the pickles and 'murki' (sweet puffed rice) that she was plied with regularly by our aunt.

Unselfconsciously, my sister and I accepted what I now realise was a strikingly multicultural Indian heritage from my father's side of the family. A universalist, atheist intellectual, he draws the strengths of his conviction from having been brought up in a Muslim-majority agrarian village, as the son of a Brahmin who earned a living by being a small landholding farmer, and, as a subsidiary, by having low-caste disciples or 'yajmans', many derived from the 'goala' or dairy caste. My grandfather did not read or speak Sanskrit. His religion was intensely rooted in the vernacular, in the world of the Bengali 'krittibasi ramayana', and the oral 'panchalis'. He lived in an agrarian economy where cash exchange hardly figured. He was a practical farmer, struggling with the upkeep and maintenance of a large extended family, in no way ending with his own immediate one. He felt no affinity with neo-Hindu revivalism, and was immensely relieved when his son chose to leave, after rebelling against constrictive dogma, a famous educational institution run by such neo-revivalist missionaries, foregoing its lucrative scholarship. My grandfather feared that such institutions tried to create ascetics or 'sanyasis', whereas his own model of the religious was intensely rooted in the quotidian world where one responsibly accepted the yoke of 'sansar', our mundane world.

The cultural worlds and material practices of men like my grandfather demonstrate how many different, conflicting kinds of multicultural elite, as much as heterogeneous subalterns, have shaped the history of Bengal. Neither the preachings of the Ramakrishna Mission, nor the genteel squabbles of the metropolitan 'bhadralok' or bourgeosie made an impact on my grandfather. He had his own devoted brand of 'vaishnavism,' (a pacifist sub-sect of Hinduism), ate fish, but not meat or eggs or onions, according to the quirky tenets of Bengali vegetarianism, and spent most of his time worrying about whether enough rice or 'dal' would be produced on the land to feed the burgeoning kin, from cousins-in-law to first cousins.

The eroded red earth of Murshidabad has its own unforgettable gaunt harshness, and in the 'pahari' or hilly area in our village, far down below flows the Bhagirathi, leaving wistful memories of a time when, before it moved away, it actually fed the village. When I was in Murshidabad last year, conducting field interviews on girls' education, my grandmother remembered that a single well in the low area on the trough of the upland had been the only source of water in the village, and she remembered in particular a woman servant, fond stories about whom have been handed down to us, who struggled in the rainy seasons to cart water up slippery, muddy, near-impossible terrain. The Brahmin widow, with her own memories of hours of arduous work feeding and managing a bustling, teeming household (including the 'munish', or the landless labourers), clearly felt great affection and solidarity with the loved and exploited household labour.

Why invoke these memories now? For me, Murshidabad became a vivid, living reality, and could not be relegated any more to the cupboard of memories, last year. I had recently returned to India and joined a research institute for development studies, after finishing a doctorate from Cambridge. Eager to do fieldbased work from a universalist, cosmopolitan perspective, I found that Murshidabad's combination of low female literacy and multicultural amity made it a good choice, together with the contours of a feminist journey of revisiting and rediscovering. I was going to interview ten to fourteen year olds on the narratives and aspirations of their education.

Something happened, though, between planning and making the trip. That was Gujarat, Godhra, and post-Godhra: riot, carnage, and pogrom. Friends from a courageous, tireless activist non-governmental organization focusing on multicultural initiatives, Majlis, requested volunteers to go and do relief work there. Terrified, I went, and found a whole lot of other young, braver people, among them a Catholic filmmaker originally from Goa, now from Delhi, who came to Gujarat just as readily as he went to work in Kashmiri Pandit camps. Yes, such Indians do exist today, and are living testaments to the compassion, sensitivity, and vibrancy of the unsectarian Indian multifaith ethos that the religious fundamentalists are seeking to deny the existence of.
The children of Daryah Khan 'gummat' (camp) in Ahmedabad made my palms ache with their eagerness to shake and hold hands with me, and the ache remains as a testament to the cordiality and humanity of the violence-affected human beings, and the near-absolute sense of inadequacy I was left with. Meanwhile, even now advocates from the aforementioned activist organization are patiently, painfully, camping out in Ahmedabad so that for the quasi-legal records of the Human Rights Commission, the truth remains recorded for posterity.

The trip to Murshidabad brought new life and recovery after trauma. Here, girls of all faiths cycle about freely. At the 'bolan' festivals, people of all beliefs sing, bringing to life the rich folk syncretism that is part of the ethos of the place. Some of the beautiful Nawabi buildings are being refurbished, and in all the 'bags' or gardens, there is peace. There is endemic poverty, beyond imagining. But Reena, Phulsura, Moushumi, Hawa, and the other girls I spoke to about their education all had powerful aspirations. Those aspirations are thwarted by a host of deterrents, including the growing menace of dowry, lack of grassroots-disseminated information about government schemes for women's empowerment and education, and the powerful increase of Hindu and Muslim fundamentalisms with a huge array of funds that appear by magic.
It is a fragile peace, and vigilance is required in maintaining it. And such peace vigilantes are there in legions, such as the Hindu teachers I interviewed in a 99% Muslim village, and those villagers themselves, who are working together to create a beautiful school, with its own proud library, or the young Muslim woman Reena, struggling through college by making 'beedis', who trawls the Hindu 'padas' taking stock of village welfare measures such as the public latrines.

In my father's Muslim-majority village, villagers are requesting help in setting up a high school for girls. Perhaps this would be sited somewhere near the medieval Buddhist 'vihara', and the girls would be taught perhaps by a woman such as the present teacher of the primary school, a Hindu, whose journey back every day to her home in the nearest town is an unpredictable adventure on the backs of lorries.

And yes, my grandfather was a non-Sanskrit-knowing farming Brahmin who lived all his life working competently and peacefully with Muslims and lower castes, his son is a universalist atheist, and his granddaughter went back to record rich narratives of girls' education in the poverty and multicultural richness of her ancestors' district. My young Catholic filmmaker comrade has millions more such active, peaceloving fellow-Indians. Let the religious-political fanatics take heed.

Dr Barnita Bagchi,
Indira Gandhi Institute of
Development Research,
General Vaidya Marg,
Goregaon E,
Bombay 400065
Telephone nos +91 22
28400919/ 20/ 21, Extension
554 (Office), 254 (Home)
Fax +91 22 28402752

The author is a feminist academic at Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, Mumbai, India.