Venerating Casteism in the Quest of the 'Idea' of India

Given the source of Gurgaon’s new name, one is forced to ask – can respect for Ambedkar and the Constitution co-exist with the veneration of the casteist Dronacharya as the ideal guru?

Credit: Sean Ellis/Flickr Commons

What is the ‘idea’ of India? Credit: Sean Ellis/Flickr Commons

The ‘idea’ of India has become a favoured topic in these days of avid contestation over ‘nationalism’ and ‘identity,’ with overwhelming majoritarianism being projected as the only ‘real’ basis of national unity. How complex the idea of India really is and how many hues, aspects and conflicting points of view and perspectives this idea encompasses has been illuminated once again in the course of the debate over the renaming of two districts in Haryana.

The pracharak Chief Minister of Haryana, Manohar Lal Khattar, is a strong upholder of the school of historiography, which makes many wondrous claims about the veracity of the Mahabharata and the existence of the River Saraswati, as he has every right to be. When he makes this understanding the guiding force behind policies that his government imposes on Haryana and its citizens, however, problems arise and debates ensue.

On the eve of Ambedkar Jayanti, Khattar announced that he had decided to rename Gurgaon as ‘Gurugram’ and Mewat as ‘Nuh’.  The announcement concerning Gurgaon was received with much ridicule, humour and sarcasm while the Mewat name-change was not considered worthy of much comment or criticism. Political supporters of the pracharak chief minister were quick with their own response and said the names of many cities had been changed, which had not been subjected to to the scathing criticism that Gurgaon/Gurugram was receiving. They also welcomed the renaming of Mewat as part of Hindu assertion.

It is true that many cities have been renamed. This has usually been done when a demand for this renaming was raised by citizens of the states to which these cities belong. Often, the renaming has been a return to the original names that had proved too much of a tongue-twister for our colonial masters. For instance, Tiruvananathapuram (Trivandrum) or Kozhikode (Calicut).

Since, as far as one knows, there was no demand from any corner to rename Gurgaon and Mewat, why was this done? As far as the re-naming of Gurgaon is concerned, Khattar has been loquacious. According to him, Gurugram was a tribute to Guru Dronacharya of the Mahabharata, who was born there. He did not say anything to justify his decision to rename Mewat as Nuh.  Perhaps, he thought it was self-evident.

The responses to the renaming of Gurgaon that have appeared in newspapers and the social media have, on the one hand, been hilarious and full of a contempt for what is seen as an attempt to turn the clock back and exchange the identity of a symbol of the globalising India of the 21st century for a primitive and, possibly, regressive one. The other very visible and audible response has been from those who share the pracharak chief minister’s worldview and laud the change as one more example of the efforts being made by those of their ilk to restore India to its ancient glory.

There is also a third response that is barely visible or audible. It represents the outrage and despair of millions who have been unheard and unseen for centuries. For them and also for many others, the renaming of Gurgaon in homage to Dronacharya on the eve of Ambedkar Jayanti is an affront, an insult and an unforgivable display of caste arrogance.  Not only was the Dronacharya depicted in Mahabharat responsible for demanding that the tribal Eklavya sacrifice his thumb as guru dakshina so that his Kshatriya student Arjun’s prowess as an archer remain unchallenged, but he was also responsible for preventing Arjun from accepting Karna’s challenge during a tournament of warlike skills. He said that since Karna was a shudra charioteer, he was not worthy of matching skills with a blue-blooded kshatriya prince. This incident was a defining moment of the Mahabharata. It made Karna a staunch ally of Duryodhana; it gave Duryodhana the confidence to declare war against the Pandavas, a war both fratricidal and bloody.

As his 125th birth anniversary first approached and then dawned, adulation of B.R. Ambedkar and the Constitution he authored developed into a crescendo. Our pracharak prime minister went all the way to Mhow, Ambedkar’s birthplace, to pay homage. However, an important question to ask in the midst of the pomp and circumstance the anniversary is surrounded with is, can respect for Ambedkar and the Constitution to co-exist with veneration of the casteist Dronacharya as the ideal guru? Millions who will not remain unseen and unheard for long are certainly coming to their own logical conclusions.

Of Mewat and Nuh, we can arrive at the same conclusion as those supporting this name-change.

Subhashini Ali is former MP, former Member of the National Commission for Women and Vice President of the All India Democratic Women’s Association.