In his book The Chamcha Age, published in 1982, Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leader Kanshi Ram warned the Dalits against becoming “chamchas” (stooges) of the brahmanical establishment. The book focussed on the historic Poona Pact, which was preceded by a severe confrontation between Gandhi and Ambedkar on the issue of separate electorates for Dalits.
“With this started the chamcha age on September 24, 1932, the day when the Poona Pact was signed, taking away the separate electorates and forcing the joint electorates on the depressed classes. Now when the chamcha age is 50 years old it has been decided to write this book besides denouncing the Poona Pact in a big way and all over India.
“The purpose of this book is to enlighten, awaken and caution the Dalit Shoshit Samaj (oppressed and exploited society) about the large scale existence of this element of stooges (chamchas) in our oppressed and exploited society,” wrote Kanshi Ram.
That was in the 1980s. More than three decades later, the much reviled “chamchagiri” appears to have become an attractive vocation that celebrities and powerful office-bearers are publicly – and delightedly — claiming ownership of. Chamcha in Hindi/Urdu translates into spoon and it connotes a toady, sycophant, or crony; but the original has a flavour that just cannot be translated.
Earlier this month, in the midst of a full-blown row over the film Udta Punjab, the architect of the spat – censor board chief Pahlaj Nihalani –made an outrageous if honest admission on national television.
When asked about his response to being called the prime minister’s chamcha, Nihalani told NDTV: “Bilkul mein chamcha hoon. Apne prime minister ka chamcha hone mein mujhe koi apatti nahin hain. Kyun ki ek aadmi achcha kam kar raha hain, aur mein uske liye achcha kar raha hoon… Mein apna prime minister ka chamcha nahin hoonga to kya Italy ka prime minister ka chamcha hoonga?” (Of course, I am a chamcha. I have no objections to being my prime minister’s chamcha. He is doing good work – so I am doing good for him. If I am not expected to be my prime minister’s chamcha – whose chamcha should I be – of the prime minister of Italy?)
The censor board chief is not the sole figure in the burgeoning chest-thumping brigade of self-proclaimed chamchas. Three months ago, actor Anupam Kher too said he does not object to wearing the toady tag. “I am better off being called a chamcha of Narendra Modi, than a ‘balti’ of somebody else. They are using this word (chamcha) to put me on the defensive. I am a chamcha of thespian Dilip Kumar and Amitabh Bachchan too.”
“If you use the word ‘chamcha’ for admiration, then it is perfectly alright with me, because after a long time we now have a prime minister who has brought emotions in me for my country, a man whose career graph is not a fluke, a man who did not enter politics as part of any legacy,” Kher said on the Aap ki Adalat show. He praised Modi for working day and night. “Why can’t our children chant slogans in admiration of our prime minister in schools? As children, we used to chant slogans for Lal Bahadur Shastri in our schools. What is the problem?” asked Kher.
Modi himself of course has not lost a single opportunity to remind audiences at home and abroad that he is a 24×7 hands-on prime minister. Picking up that valuable cue, the “chamchas” are now going public with their admission of faith. No red faces, no shame-faced cringing: just the brazen acknowledgment of being a crony.
It is probably safe to assume that neither Kher and Nihalani are strangers to the deprecatory connotation of chamchas in popular vocabulary. Their embrace of the term, hence, is a fully conscious one. Chamcha is not a term to be interchangeably used with admirer. This distinction needs to be clarified in light of Kher and Nihalani defending such public expressions of sycophancy as nothing but testimonies of admiration. Consider, for instance, how the Oxford Dictionary defines a chamcha: An obsequious person – which is distinct from the definition it provides of an admirer: someone who has a particular regard for someone or something.
The ubiquitous tribe of chamchas operate in a context where the powers they bend over backwards to serve, encourage their cloying servility. Nobody is foolish enough to believe that chamchagiri is a new genre of sycophancy, suddenly mushrooming with the rise of the Modi government to power. Toadies have always existed and served their masters.
The 16th century case of Akbar and Birbal is a particularly interesting and revealing one, historically speaking. One fable deserves mention in this context. One day Akbar invited Birbal to lunch, which included dishes made with brinjal. When Akbar said how much he liked the vegetable and its preparation, Birbal not only agreed, but sang praises about its great qualities. Several days later, Birbal once again sat down to a meal with the emperor. Although there was brinjal on the menu this time too, Akbar reversed his opinion of the vegetable completely and denounced the preparation. He claimed it offended his sensibilities. Readily agreeing, Birbal proceeded to heap criticisms upon he vegetable, arguing it had no unique taste. Surprised, the emperor turned to him and asked what had caused Birbal to change his mind about the baingan. Birbal responded saying: “My lord, I am beholden to you, not to the vegetable.”
Celebration of chamchagiri
Unlike in the medieval era, today’s day toadies generally tend to operate on the sly, rather than declare their chamcha-hood from rooftops. But Nihalani, Kher et al are in a class apart. To publicly and proudly admit to being a sycophant instead of refuting such an accusation, is undoubtedly, a new manifestation, and smacks of the kind of loyalty demanded by kings and not democratically elected officials of state.
As we move from a somewhat unacknowledged culture of chamchagiri to its public celebration, I am reminded of Saladdin Chamcha, one of the protagonists in Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses, a toady to the British Empire. In her book Scarecrows of Chivalry: English Masculinities After Empire, Praseeda Gopinath writes about how Rushdie defined a chamcha: “Colloquially, a chamcha is a person who sucks up to a powerful people, a yes-man, a sycophant. The British Empire would not have lasted a week without such collaborators among the colonised peoples.” In the novel, Saladdin Chamcha desperately tries to get rid of his Indian identity. The Anglophile that he is, Saladin is as deferential towards his adopted country England, as he is dismissive of India. His toadyism to the British is his desire to subsume himself in what he perceives to be a superior/more powerful culture. At the same time, by embodying in his very name both Saladin and a chamcha (or humble spoon,) Rushide’s character captures the complexities of negotiating identities in the modern world.
The hallmark of the toady in the present Indian context is much simpler: to eliminate his/her own identity and dissolve into the image of Modi himself. Chamchagiri, or toadying, is a vehicle to quick elevation in the power structure, especially for those who haven’t done the hard work to qualify. In this situation it would be wise to remember that even Birbal was no simple chamcha. While he might have strategically sung praises of Akbar, many of the legends revolving around them amply demonstrate that Birbal was a higher intellect who sought to challenge the emperor too. In a royal court full of sycophants, Birbal was something more. That is why we remember him today and that is why the current crop will be quickly forgotten.