A N Shamseer
The Hindu’s front page was emblematic of what Kerala is today. A five column headline announced the inauguration of India’s first Digital Science Park which is expected to catalyse the state’s transformation into a knowledge-based economy. Juxtaposed was another banner headline that notified the launch of an agitation proclaiming faith was more important than science in the context of the State Legislature’s Speaker A N Shamseer’s statement about Lord Ganapati.
Kerala has always been a land of paradoxes, of both the benign and malign kind.
Though the progressive and the parochial always walked hand in hand in Kerala, it has hit a new low with the Ganapati row. Just how much more would Kerala race to the bottom? As usual, the original issue has soon got blown out of proportion and twisted beyond recognition, thanks to the reigning communal spirit, our post-truth times and the fake-news machines infesting the social media. As always, the original has been buried under heaps of false imitations and fake interpretations, made deliberately or otherwise. One is reminded of the fable about a Khadar vomiting a crow.
What did Shamseer say that opened the Pandora’s Box? Addressing children in a school on July 21, Shamseer said; “We have to encourage science in the education sector. It is the only solution to today’s ills. Instead, what is being attempted to encourage now? Who invented the aeroplane? When I was a student, the answer would be the Wright Brothers. Now it appears to be the wrong answer. World’s first aeroplane is Pushpaka Vimana invented during the Hindutva (?) age. Science is being replaced by myths. Textbooks encourage myths instead of science. Kauravas are born out of In vitro fertilisation. Who was the first plastic surgery baby? Ganapati who has a man’s body and an elephant’s head”.
Wonder what is anti-Hindu or anti-Ganapati in these lines? Did he say Ganapati or Hinduism was a myth? Any ordinary mortal could see that Shamseer was only criticising those who portrayed Pushpaka Vimana as the first aeroplane or Ganapati as the first plastic surgery baby. As we know, in 2014 Prime Minister Modi said ancient India’s knowledge in the field of cosmetic surgery and genetic science were exemplified respectively by Ganesh with human’s body and elephant’s head or Karna who was born out of his mother’s womb. Later, Andhra University’s vice chancellor G Nageswara Rao followed this up in 2019 saying at the 106th Indian Science Congress in Jalandhar that Kauravas were test tube babies born from stem cell science, Ravana had 24 types of aircrafts including Pushpaka, and Sudarshana Chakra was an example of guided missile technology.
In fact, shouldn’t the devotees realise that their beloved Vighneswara was insulted more when portrayed as a product of artificial plastic surgery than seeing the lord’s magnificent attributes as natural and divine? But, then aren’t we in the post-truth era.
One cannot also miss the openly communal mindset behind the anti-Shamseer rhetoric. None found it improper when Shashi Tharoor or even R Hari, Kerala’s seniormost RSS veteran, had dumped these claims as bunk. Shamseer’s critics ask why he doesn’t call out the myths in Islam or even allegedly praise some of them even as he insulted Hindu myths. Strangely, they don’t see that Shamseer was not making up things but only responding to issues brought up by Modi and others. He has questioned many archaic practices in Islam also in the past. Above all, why can’t someone who believes in one religion, criticise another? Only a theocratic state can issue such a fatwa or bar it through blasphemy laws. Last time I checked, India was still a secular democracy.
The first response to Shamseer’s speech came from a BJP Yuva Morcha leader K. Ganesh, who charged that the Speaker insulted Hindu religion. The Lord’s namesake even warned ominously. “Maybe he believes that his hands won’t be chopped off as it happened to Joseph sir. But the Hindu society does not have to remain like that forever”.
Though the BJP leader’s response didn’t get much notice even from the CPI(M), Marxist strongman from Kannur P Jayarajan did not let it pass unchallenged. He roared with alliterative skill; “If a hand is raised against Shamseer, the place of Yuva Morcha workers will be in the mortuary”. Thus Jayarajan helped the Yuva Morcha leader and his statement be known widely and also provide a possible cannon fodder for BJP and Congress in the approaching election campaign.
Expectedly, the controversy has come as a “golden opportunity” for the Sangh Parivar like the Sabarimala issue of 2018. Certainly, with the Lok Sabha elections merely a few months away, Ganesha would be evoked fervently to clear all of BJP’s hurdles. For the Nair Service Society also this is a god-send to recapture its losing relevance. Faith is more important than science, affirmed General Secretary G Sukumaran Nair demanding immediate apology from Shamseer. Let’s pray for the day when scriptures replace science textbooks in NSS schools and colleges or Namajapam takes over the surgical theatres of its medical institutions. Not to be outdone, SNDP General Secretary Vellappalli Natesan and also Sree Narayana Dharma Sangham, the proud legatees of Sri Narayana Guru who called for ending all archaic religious and caste rituals and embracing education and entrepreneurship too joined the outraged Hindu brigade.
Congress also hopes to reap from the controversy as it did during the Sabarimala riots. Unlike the Sangh, Congress has some inconvenient vighnams like the Indian Constitution framed under its leadership or its leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru who kept harping on the need to preserve the scientific temper, maintain equality (of gender too) and bury superstitions. But then, today's Congress believes that all such vighnams would be submerged under the emotional upsurge for Ayyappa or Ganesha. However, it would be worthwhile for them to note what happened to BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections held immediately in Sabarimala’s aftermath or to Congress and BJP, two years later in the assembly elections. But if NSS takes a plunge, can Congress be far behind?
One can understand K Sudhakaran or even Chennithala, who seldom swear by any ideology or ideal, jumping in to "defend the faith”. But, how could V D Satheesan, the self-proclaimed Nehruvian Leftist, scream for Shamseer’s head? Shashi Tharoor, of course, is always the diplomat par excellence.
It may be good that our Congress leaders occasionally read Nehru. “Organised religion filled me with horror...almost always it seemed to stand for a blind belief and tradition, dogma and bigotry, superstition and exploitation”, Nehru wrote in his autobiography. Why doesn’t Satheesan who calls against “mixing science and faith” recall the 8th Fundamental Duty of citizens mentioned in the Indian Constitution which says; “Develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform”.
Yet, most interestingly, it's the CPI(M) that is caught like a fly in the ointment. Shamseer’s statement seems quite accidental because the party has long buried its strength to take on communal lobbies as shown by its backtracking on women’s entry into Sabarimala. State Secretary MV Govindan after his usual theoretical exposition, appears to have done a summersault on whether Ganapati is a myth or not. CPI(M) could have very well called the bluff of critics who say the party attacks only Hindu religion and its gods. A few years ago, only Pinarayi Vijayan had the courage to decry attempts to build the country’s largest mosque in Kozhikode to preserve the “Prophet’s hair”. Though it was the pro-CPI(M) cleric Kanthapuram Aboobaker Musaliyar who was behind the move, Vijayan stated that hair was a “body waste” that should not be preserved. But today, when CPI(M) courts even the most obscurantists, neither Vijayan nor the party would dare take such a stance. Hence, one need not be surprised if the CPI(M) soon distances from or disowns Shamseer. Interestingly, the CPI, which often claims to be even more revolutionary than the CPI(M), also has lost its voice on the issue.
Beside the politicians, many “independent” observers and "po-mo" (post-modern) intellectuals also have jumped into the fray to slam the Commies. Careful not to appear pro-Sangh, they embark upon esoteric cerebral exercises about the social and philosophical relevance of the myth in general or on the metaphysics and inner meanings of the Ganesha myth, in particular. Some lecture on scientism, the tyranny of technology or the post-modern critique of Enlightenment and pooh-pooh Kerala’s ill-informed Communists for capitulating before such Capitalist gods. We saw similar outpourings even from self-proclaimed “Marxists” who defended the ban on women’s entry to the shrine during the anti-women and anti-Dalit Sabarimala agitation. All may be right, but what about a citizen's fundamental right to make an opinion?
As Sunil Khilnani wrote; “It has of late become fashionable to attack reason. In many intellectual circles, reason is portrayed as an ill-effect of the Enlightenment, a banner marking the imperium of western theories and assumptions, an imperium oblivious to cultural differences and diversities. The rise of postmodernism and the expanding claims of contemporary religion are by no means directly connected; but they are also not entirely unlinked. At a time when our universities are being encouraged to produce postgraduates in astrology, it may seem misplaced to offer a defence of reason. The political landscape today seems to have become the territory of the non-rational: populated by new claims of selfhood-couched in terms of religion, nation, tribe, culture-all ready to use violence to assert their desires. Reason seems somehow disarmed".