On December 15th 2019, the Sri Rama Vidyakendra High School in Dakshin Kannada, staged a play with its children, in which the demolition of the Babri Masjid was enacted.
In a scene that has gone viral on the internet, the children are seen to be screaming “Jai Shri Ram” as the set collapses and a narrator on a loudspeaker eulogises this moment claiming that the devotees of Hanuman have brought this structure down with whatever they could find.
Kalladaka Prabhakar Bhat, who is the owner of the school and a leader of the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS) has gone on record saying he was proud of the students and more such programs are planned in the future. Kiran Bedi, the erstwhile star cop of this country and currently the governor of Puducherry was present at this event along with Union Minister and BJP MP Sadananda Gowda. A complaint was lodged by a PFI activist and 3 people including Prabhakar Bhat were named in a FIR lodged at the Bantwal Police Station. Further to this, no action is known to have been taken.
— Lavanya Ballal | ಲಾವಣ್ಯ ಬಲ್ಲಾಳ್ (@LavanyaBallal) December 16, 2019
Contrast this with a play that Bidar’s Shaheen School staged opposing the controversial CAA bill. Although the text has not been made public (only an excerpt is what the author has had access to) at one place , allegedly a question is asked about what will happen if the Prime Minister Narendra Modi comes to ask for papers, in response to which someone says “Chappal se Maro“ ( hit him with slippers), which could be a literal dialogue or more commonly in Hindi / Urdu usage it refers to the act of shunning someone completely for the ridiculous nature of their proposition. The meaning rests in the proposition than in the literal image.
In this case, the police issued a notice to the school. The students, some of them as young as 9 years old have been quizzed by the police multiple times and the principal, a teacher and Nazbunissa, 36, mother of the girl who said these lines in the play, has been arrested for teaching her daughter this line along with her daughter for no less than sedition against the state.
The videos that have gone viral this time are those of little children being quizzed by the police.
It is no revelation anymore in this country to be able to see the clear bias that the government, the courts and the police display blatantly towards the Muslim community.
Riots, judgements, attacks on muslim students make no bones about this being no longer a secret.
However, my particular focus in this essay is to look at the particulars of these controversial moments in these plays and attempt to examine the dramaturgy of Hindutva.
The content of each play, is being performed by children, potentially a lot of which has been written by adults. This itself is one of the major issues of making work for children in our schools in India. It is extremely rare to find content that comes from the children themselves. Not that some pedagogues do not do this, but by and large in large parts of our country children stage plays on ‘Nationalist’ days such as Independence day and Republic day. Plays in which they dress up as Nehru, Gandhi, Subhash Bose and now Savarkar. However before Hindutva achieved its current traction, the bias was against Colonial Rule. The plays did not depict characters from colonial history that had any favourable impact on the freedom movement, on the debates in British Parliament, on the reformist movements run by British people in India.
However the plays were always very clearly about the greatness of the freedom struggle, leaving aside even our own contradictions of the religious and caste divides .
One could say that since these plays were for children, more complex readings were not been provided to them, for they would be too young to appreciate and understand the fault lines . However, the unquestionable love for one’s country as a program seemed to be serviced well with this exercise in theatre.
This notion of ‘unquestionability’ is itself deeply entrenched in our school system and in our psyche. In many institutions around the world, Indian students are known to be diligent, reliable, hard working but often unusually lacking in critical perspectives. Being critical itself is considered a sign of unruly behavior and questioning the teacher in most schools in our country is taboo even today. This single minded belief in the teacher, in parents, in religion, in the nation and such institutions of power is drilled into our young from a very early age and strangely the form of theatre, that has been one of the greatest dissenting forms of the world, is used to celebrate an extremely questionable concept such as ‘nationalism’ than actually critique it. We as a nation are terrified when our young start asking us questions.
This subservience, blind belief and using art as eulogy in the end has enormously benefitted ideological positions such as Hindutva because it’s bedrock is argument in which the conclusion precedes the dialectic although one must admit this simplistic educational principle was provided by the British and then encouraged by the Nehruvian administration.
What I find particularly disturbing about Hindutva as an artist is its complete lack of imagination. No other ideology in this world, in my humble opinion is known to be this unimaginative in its use of tropes of that which it is meaning to oppose.
In the current instance , the school in Dakshin Karnataka was being ‘Hindu Nationalist’ and the only way it could display its idea was not by glorifying any of its achievements of anything constructive that it has achieved but by portraying the demolition of a mosque by agents of Hindutva.
As a dramatist, I can say with some confidence that this is an extraordinarily effective and yet unimaginative dramaturgical tool. For any ideology to present its case through literature or drama, traditionally it has inflated its constructive role in its society. Even if we look at the Nazis, and their performances on cruise ships that Adolf Hitler made available to common non jewish people for holidays ( thereby messaging a socialist program) the focus was on inflating first and foremost the contribution of the Nazi Party.
Stalin, in his time is rumoured to have created a cell that made his own political cartoons so that people could laugh at him and thereby have the illusion of dissent .
The Ku Klux Klan in its rituals with masks and fire and chains, depicted a proto Christian myth that although being deeply flawed, violent and disturbing, made no attempt at realism for realism would diminish the ideal it was aiming to portray through its performance of superiority .
However, Hindutva is the distilled unimaginative, in which the play will depict its achievement by breaking a mosque and that too on a realistic set.
Now one might argue that on one hand it is true that Hindutva’s only achievements are the assassination of Gandhi, the carnage in Godhra, the demolition of Babri Masjid, the introduction of a clearly partisan CAA, the economic disaster of Demonitization (that killed so many people in the country), attacks on universities and other such destructive actions. However, I do not think the Nazi party or Stalin fared much better on their report card on supposed construction. Nonetheless historically even the greatest despot is known to have the common sense and some talent around it to differentiate its ideology from its ideological messaging.
Hindutva , in its unimaginativeness creates content that is exactly what it really believes and this honesty is also what makes it so popular in a country where critical thinking is discouraged and which is still reeling from an archaic and immoral system of caste wherein there is no truth to be concealed and no civilizational decency to be feigned .
The school in Bidar on the other hand, used a sentence that could have potentially more than one meaning. It could be an idiom, a metaphor, an analogy or even if it is literally talking about hitting the Prime Minister with slippers (I am not sure they did say that) were not referring to something that has happened or is likely to happen.
It was not eulogizing an illegal act. However the school in North Karnataka was. But this dramaturgy of literalism is exactly what I argue is the organizing principle of the performance of Hindutva. It’s enormous success rests on its ability to reduce the symbols of the Nation and the religion it claims to represent to cognitively literal pictures that can be fought and killed for. However, all it does is uses an older idea ( of unquestioned nationalism) and combines it with its own literalism.
Coming to form, the literal demolition of a set, which presumably costs the school and the orgnizers money, by a chorus and not an individual is another classic trope of Hindutva.
There are no names. There is a mob. When a name appears, it very quickly disappears behind the voracity of the mob and there is one ( in this case two) supreme rulers in whose name a nameless mob can raise things that are larger than itself.
The Bidar play on the other hand, made the mistake of having an identifiable girl, who has an identifiable mother speak a distinct line. Immediately it became an issue that could be dealt with, making these players the symbolic dolls that would be pinned on the woods of our witch hunting Hindu nationalism. The police, the jurisdiction, the governance all descended on them like a nameless mob themselves, thereby displaying the strength of a chorus over an individual.
This in fact is a valuable lesson in actually understanding that in reality Agamemnon does not change the chorus, Gandhari does not alter the course of Andha Yug but rather they are subjected, in the short run, to the simplistic politics of their times and left with empty linguistic potentials like giving curses and praying for boons.
Hindutva’s unimaginative mobs can also be clearly be seen in our civic lives by the way it organizes it’s resistance (which is exactly how it organizes it’s dramaturgy). When 600 artistes sign a petition urging people not to vote for Modi (this author being one of them) in two days it gets signatures of 1500 people, without realizing that the numbers were not the point.
However in literal terms, the numbers is all it sees and all its followers care about.
Once we are in the realm of the chorus, the particular is inconsequential.
Hence anti CAA protests are being responded with Pro CAA rallies, which in their early days were called Pro CAA protests till some good samaritan pointed out that one cannot be protesting ‘for’ something.
The foregrounding of ‘Literalism’ and ‘The Chorus’ are irreplaceable aspects of Hindutva’s dramaturgy no matter which of it’s performances we examine.
Perhaps the assassination of Gandhi by Godse is the only exception to this and no wonder he had to distance himself from the RSS in court.
It is this clarity of its dramaturgy that it has gained this much in the short term. In the long run we do not know what will happen. However, we know from history that symbols are what last over time and anything literal wanes in relevance as society changes through revolution or even through normative means.
Today, it might seem wishful thinking that right wing religious political forces will become irrelevant. Isaiah Berlin in his seminal book ‘The Crooked Timber of Humanity’ argues that during the European enlightenment, Vico, who was arguing for religious monarchy was looked down upon, but the modern times show us that he cannot be dismissed thereby making the same error that philosophers around the French Revolution did.
I agree with Berlin, with the caveat that considering that Hindutva itself is a borrowed construction from the fascism of the west ( and in its literalism combined with the caste system of the Hindus) it is unlikely also that Vico will be able to remain relevant through multiple alienations it is causing across the line. It seems to forget that a chorus is only worthy if there is another. As Hindutva steamrolls into claiming its monolithic ideology as being the only one, it seems to forget that Agamemnon is killed by Aegisthus in bed and that Krishna ultimately in the myth dies of Gandhari’s curse (I am not suggesting that Hindutva has any of the redeemable features of either) .
It forgets that literature is not literal and that its dramaturgy is effective at the moment but ultimately eroding itself as its moves forward.
The ideologues of Hindtuva are thoroughly confused about the difference between a mob, a chorus and a society.
Till then, in the short run, the school in Bidar is paying the price for a national dramaturgy of a nation obsessed with its post colonial anxieties about being inferior.
The makers of the play in Bidar are faced with an administration, that is showing them that what they said in their play ironically is being defended by the performance of the state.
And in the short run, on stage many Babri Masjids will be broken because we are in the era, where a character has ended up making the common and unimaginative mistake.
It has entered thinking it will never have to exit the stage .