A puzzling silence, and the way to achche din

To be pro-British was to be anti-Indian, obliging potential national leaders to collect evidence of the government's disapproval.

Update: 2017-06-05 19:18 GMT
File photo of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya (Photo: PTI/File)

Most people are baffled by the modesty of Hindutva stalwarts like Lal Krishna Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Uma Bharti and others facing trial in Lucknow in the Babri Masjid case. Whether or not they are guilty of the charges against them, Indians expected Sangh Parivar leaders proudly to proclaim that, yes, they destroyed the mosque to cleanse Hinduism’s sacred spaces of the invaders’ encroachment. Denial suggests an uncharacteristic reluctance to claim credit for an epochal achievement. It’s also an intriguing betrayal of the BJP’s 2014 electoral success, which recalled Surendranath Banerjea’s analysis nearly a century ago: “Scratch a Hindu and you will find him a conservative”.

A second reason why their stance is so puzzling takes me back to a conversation many years ago with Jack Preger, the Oxford- and Dublin-trained British doctor and social worker who was named “Philanthropist of the Year” at a recent stellar ceremony in London. He is the first living person, not of Asian origin, to be honoured with an award that Mother Teresa received posthumously. Dr Preger founded the Calcutta Rescue charity which has helped over half a million people in the past 38 years. When I first met him in the early 1970s, he had just been thrown out of Bangladesh for inquiring too closely into the fate of slum hildren whom European — Dutch, I seem to remember — agencies took away ostensibly for adoption but who were never heard of again. I found him sitting on the pavement under a tree outside the Bangladesh deputy high commission in Calcutta, surrounded by handwritten posters, protests and petitions against what he was convinced was an international child trafficking racket hand in glove with key Bangladeshis.

Over the years, Dr Preger had his problems with the Indian authorities too. His visa wasn’t right. He needed a work permit. His impressive medical degrees alone didn’t entitle him to practise in India. When I asked why he didn’t complete the paperwork properly so that a satisfied bureaucracy allowed him to tend to India’s poor and ailing, his unexpected reply was he wanted to be arrested. “The history of the subcontinent shows,” he explained, “that to do any good one must see the inside of a jail!” He trotted off the names of heroes like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and the rest who had all served prison sentences.

We haven’t been in touch for some years. I don’t know if Dr Preger, who will be 87 on July 25 (he is two years younger than Mr Advani, but four years older than Mr Joshi), has managed to get himself imprisoned since our last meeting. While it would be cruel of fate to deny him that chance if that’s what he really wants, his tremendous service to humanity certainly doesn’t need the accolade of a prison sentence. Gandhi, Nehru and the others did. They had to establish their patriotic credentials in British India. Gandhi had to try specially hard since the Crown had decorated him for helping its 1914-18 war effort. Nehru may have felt obliged to live down his father turning up in full English court rig — gaiters, pumps and sword included — at King George V’s Delhi Durbar. To be pro-British was to be anti-Indian, obliging potential national leaders to collect evidence of the government’s disapproval.

The activities of Mr Advani, Mr Joshi, Ms Bharti and others bear no comparison with Dr Preger’s service to the long and ragged queues of men, women and children in Middleton Row and the banks of the Hooghly near Howrah Bridge. But, then, which politician bothers to cite public service as justification for public reward? With Prime Minister Narendra Modi preening himself on holding hands with the French President — far more visibly gratifying than having to tell sceptical audiences he calls Barack Obama “Barack” even if the US President never missed an opportunity to say “Mr Prime Minister” or “Prime Minister Modi” — the poor are of little account. With joblessness rising and the growth rate falling, Mr Advani, Mr Joshi, Ms Bharti and company don’t have to go to a BJP jail to prove they are steeped in saffron. But one didn’t expect them to relinquish credit for the single-most important achievement of saffron triumphalism — proving that while others erect, the Sangh Parivar pulls down.

They could have argued that the act of demolition promised to restore the Elysium when, defying the logic of time and reason, Dayananda Saraswati claimed that “everything worth knowing, even in the most recent inventions of modern science, was alluded to in the Vedas”, and that the ancients knew all about steam engines, railways and steamboats. They could also have argued that the Prime Minister has extended Vedic bliss to include genetic scientists who can bring legions of Karnas to life outside the maternal womb and plastic surgeons able deftly to chop and paste to produce armies of Ganeshas. A retiring Rajasthan judge goes farther to claim the peacock is a lifelong “brahmachari” whose tears the asexual peahen swallows to become pregnant.

A possible explanation for their reticence could lie in the origin of Narendra Modi’s winning slogan. It was Manmohan Singh who told a Pravasi Bharatiya Divas gathering on January 8, 2014 that things might be looking bad but achhe din aane wale hain. Addressing the same crowd the next day, Mr Modi said: “I need not say anything as the Prime Minister had said enough in his speech yesterday, but I would like to repeat one of his statements ‘Achhe din aane waale hain’.”

While Dr Singh must be chuckling away, Mr Advani, Mr Joshi, Ms Bharti and the others are probably reluctant to acknowledge that their handiwork precipitated the realisation of his promise.


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