Amitabh Bachchan's 'innocuous' question to a Magsaysay Award winner contestant, who had come up in life from the marginalised stratum of society, has stirred up a hornet's nest. The question was, 'Which book was burnt by Dr Ambedkar along with his followers on December 25, 1927? ' All the four options (Vishnu Purana, Bhagvad Gita, Rigved and Manusmriti) were from Hindu pantheon and scriptures and the correct answer was Manusmriti.
Alas, it was really naive of the quiz show organisers and Bachchan to ask a potentially volcanic question in these terribly polarised times when Hindus have become extremely bellicose and caste has become a very sensitive issue.
Somewhere, we all seem to have lost our collective sense of sanity and propriety. People have pounced on the show and Bachchan for asking this question, as though they had been on the prowl. Both sides are being puerile and utterly myopic.
The Guardian, London, very cogently stated in one of its recent editorials, 'All over the world, people have suddenly fallen for totems, group-created specified 'icons' and 'religious shibboleths.' Very true. This is obvious in neo-Hindu India where any statement, question or an innocuous comment can be religiously coloured and ethnically distorted.
Oxford University's Spalding professor of Eastern Religions and Ethics, Dr Bimal Krishna Matilal's seminal Oxford-series essay, ' Signs and Science of an Intolerant Society' (1972), tries to explain this phenomenon. He wrote, 'A society is intolerant on two counts: Religion and Ethnicity. Both go hand in hand. Religious (not spiritual) consciousness and ethnic assertiveness emerge when a society often thinks rather erroneously that it's been persecuted a lot for ages on these scores. It's often an imaginary state of wallowing in self-condemnation and perceived wrongdoings of others to inflict upon oneself in order to settle the scores with other oppressive groups. It's a kind of a fallaciously judgmental vindictiveness. '
The resurgence of Hindu consciousness is the outcome of a wrongly held belief of being wronged by Muslims and the valid grievances of Dalits for being oppressed by the upper-caste Hindus for centuries. This is a heady, nay a fatal mixture of religious and ethnic obstinacy. This deadly amalgam is besmirching the escutcheon of an otherwise tolerant Indian society.
Moreover, religio-ethnic totems are easy to manipulate in a godfearing and faith-driven country like India. When religious sentiments are riding high among a large group of people ready to take umbrage at anything, it's always advisable to parry issues that might trigger something unpleasant and lead to depredation.
Look at France. Despite knowing that a big chunk of people has certain sacrosanct symbols and ancient totems, 'modern totems' (Carl W Ernst's phrase from 'It's not just academic') of so-called liberalism are being juxtaposed with the old ones, to create an explosive scenario.
The same is happening in India. Neo-Hindus and neo-liberals are fighting in the names of religion, caste and ethnicity. That's why, anything related to religion and caste is wreaking havoc in the country. But for TV news and entertainment channels, this is the most opportune time to garner brownie points and mindless TRPs.
It is, therefore, time to gauge the collective mood of the people, already battered by the ongoing pandemic, before putting such questions and issues on any public forum. Remember, when the Black Widow (Plague) was sweeping through Europe, Christianity was also creating havoc through sectarian skirmishes that claimed innumerable lives! Today's 'liberal' France itself was witnessing the bloodshed between Catholics and Huguenots (Reformed/Calvinist Protestants) when plague was claiming lives! Somewhere, endemics and pandemics are related to religious frenzy! Hope, the quiz programmers and Bachchan will be wiser after this lesson. Don't we all learn the hard way?
The writer is an advanced research scholar of Semitic languages, civilisations and cultures.