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A Dummy’s Guide To Despotism

The fanfare over Teachers' Day underlines how a Modi Raj is now steadily replacing the Congress Raj, one despotism following another.

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A Dummy’s Guide To Despotism
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Now that the fanfare accompanying Prime Minister Modi’s Teachers' Day speech has subsided, let us dwell briefly on a curious remark made by the BJP spokesperson Meenakshi Lekhi: “Former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru's birth anniversary is celebrated as Children's Day in India. If that is not considered politics, then why is Modi's Teachers' Day speech being considered as one?”

It is not clear whether Ms. Lekhi believes that the celebration of Nehru’s birthday as Children’s Day is not politics. But if she or anyone else genuinely does, it is time we disabused ourselves of such innocent presumptions. The Congress Raj, inaugurated by Jawaharlal Nehru and perpetuated by his progeny, made it mandatory for the public to worship its icons, whose pictures and statues were prominently displayed in government buildings and public places. For over six decades, Congress propaganda was shoved down people’s throats remorselessly as the country lurched from a one-party regime through the complete suspension of democracy during the Emergency to the quarter century of multi-party coalition governments. Court historians such as P. Sitaramayya, S. Gopal, and Bipan Chandra enjoyed extraordinary access to the Congress Raj and its archives in exchange for an unwholesome partisanship in their writings. During this period, Children’s Day was a key aspect of the Congress’ propaganda, targeting the country’s boys and girls before they came of age. Yet, despite its profession of “socialism,” the Congress Raj’s record of educating India’s youth remained abysmal, whether in comparison with the four Asian Tigers or even Sri Lanka. An illiterate, ignorant population was well-suited to the making of the Nehru and Indira cults until, of course, the genie of economic liberalization came to be unleashed in 1991. If this wasn’t politics, what is? 

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Teachers' Day is hardly apolitical either. Celebrating 5 September as Teachers' Day commemorates the birthday of a reactionary Tamil Brahmin who allegedly plagiarized excerpts of a bright student’s thesis [1]. The origins of Teachers' Day in India are usually traced back to Sarvapelli Radhakrishnan’s tenure as President of India, when in response to students and friends keen to celebrate his birthday, he is believed to have replied: “Instead of celebrating my birthday, it would be my proud privilege if September 5 is observed as Teacher's Day.” If this story of origins is indeed correct, it points to an extraordinary arrogance on the speaker’s part. Such arrogance, of a peculiarly brahminical sort, puts it alongside Dronacharya’s desire for Eklavya’s thumb. The teacher here is a Brahmin guru who can make any claims on his students, whether in the form of a body part or immortality in the form of Teachers' Day. The teacher here is not a professional who is responsible for ensuring learning outcomes. It is an absolute shame that a democratic country can reproduce brahminism in this most unsubtle of ways by celebrating gurudom even as universal education for its citizens remains a pipedream even today. 

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Prime Minister Modi’s Teachers' Day speech to schoolchildren combines the worst elements of Congress personality cults and brahminical attitudes to educating youth. Schools were compelled to switch their timings because Mr  Modi could not apparently speak during regular hours nor take the risk of letting schoolchildren watch his speech on television sets at home. This kind of top-down approach to children’s education is, of course, perfectly in line with the traditional guru-shishya institution. Underlying such authoritarianism was a simple fear: his speech would be too insipid and unappealing to schoolchildren with more exciting viewing options on television. So, it had to be somehow shoved down their throats in schools. Far from breaking with the stratagems of the Congress Raj, Mr  Modi seems to believe that emulation is the finest form of flattery. We now have a Modi cult-in-the-making to match the Nehru and Indira cults we thought we had discarded in the dustbin of history. Ms. Lekhi does not see any of this as politics, but then again, there are none so blind as those who will not see. 

A Modi Raj is now steadily replacing the Congress Raj, one despotism following another. From comparing 1984 with 2002 during the election campaigns, we have moved to comparing 1947 or 1971 with 2014. But as the politics over Mr  Modi’s speech shows, the comparisons do not end there. Nehru’s distrust of the imperialist West and his overtures to Asian neighbours is being replicated by Modi now. The triumphalism of Indira Gandhi’s victory in 1971 is more than matched by the fanfare over Modi’s outright victory in this year’s elections. Much like his Congress predecessors, Modi, too, has proposed nothing of substance as a national education policy. The minister responsible for education policy, a former star of saas-bahu serials who speaks in convent school English even as she advocates so-called “Vedic” mathematics, has no experience of any policymaking whatsoever. The new chair of the Indian Council of Historical Research has so far proved incapable of publishing even a single article in an internationally-recognized journal. The prime minister himself, who has just informed children that he does not think there is any such thing as global climate change today, does not know that Shyamji Krishna Varma was not Syama Prasad Mookerjee, that Taxila did not exist in modern-day Bihar or that Nehru did actually attend Vallabhai Patel’s funeral. Truly, the blind are now leading the blind. To pretend to be a guru before today’s shishyas on Teachers' Day, one ought to ideally know something beyond cracking jokes, and winning office. But, alas, the law of the jungle, with its dictum of might is right, remains alive in Modi Raj just as it did in the Congress Raj. 

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During the election campaign, Modi promised us good days (achche din). Little did we know he meant the good old days of the Congress Raj.

Uday Chandra is a research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, Goettingen, Germany. 

[1] A clear, balanced account of the episode, which ended in an out-of-court settlement brokered by Syama Prasad Mookerjee, can be found in Robert N. Minor, Radhakrishnan: A Religious Biography (Albany: SUNY Press, 1987), pp. 34-37.
 

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