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Contesting political colours

Why do ‘Hindi-Hindustani’ forms of religious and cultural expression take precedence?

Contesting political colours
Holi, the largely Hindi belt festival of colours, was quite special in Uttar Pradesh where it is celebrated with a lot of pomp. It was a "saffron" Holi, as an ancient festival comes to be tainted in contemporary political colours. However, Holi, which Incredible India sells to white people as a colourful uniter of sorts, has long been wielded as a divisive tool. This year was no exception. No Union government in Delhi has ever been an exception. And that's more than unfortunate for a diverse federal democracy like the Indian Union. Let me explain.

Last Monday, on March 13th, it was Holi – "the festival of colours". It was not "the" festival of colours but "a" festival of colours among others. For example, in West Bengal, Tripura, and vast parts of Assam, the festival of colours is Dol Jatra. It is not Holi. It does not even fall on the same date as Holi. The origin stories of Holi and Dol Jatra are also radically different. Holi originated around the burning of Holika, the legend having its actual origin in the Multan region of present day Pakistan. Dol Jatra, on the other hand, has nothing to do with Holika, Multan or Pakistan.

The diverse peoples of the Indian Union do not have a single, uniform "festival of colours". Thus, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweets on March 13, saying "Greetings on the festival of colours, Holi. May the festival spread joy & warmth everywhere", he creates a blanket of imagined cultural homogeneity and wraps it over a very diverse Indian Union. For him, Holi may be "the" festival of colours, but as explained above, as far as the diverse peoples of the Indian Union are concerned, it isn't. It is especially problematic when he hopes that the "the festival spread joy & warmth everywhere". What is this everywhere? Does this also include all areas where Holi is not the festival of colours? Why is it always the case that a festival that is necessarily centred around the Hindi-Hindu-Hindustani ethnocultural zones that need to spread everywhere? Why is it never the case that the Prime Minister will never call for spreading Dol Jatra to this 'everywhere'. Similarly, why is Diwali the 'festival of lights' and not Kali Pujo? I am Bengali. For me, Dol Jatra is the festival of colours, and Kali Pujo is an invocation of mother goddess accompanied by lights and crackers. Why is there never a tweet on Dol Jatra or Kali Pujo but always on Holi and Diwali? It does not stop at that. After the Holi greetings by Narendra Modi, many greeted him back on Twitter, in either Hindi or English. Not even Gujarati. He responded back, thanking them. Thus, we have a curious thing where a Prime Minister of all ethnolinguistic nationalities of the Indian Union endorses one festival that is primarily celebrated in the Hindi-Hindu zones and thanks back people in a language of that zone but never in any other language. Given that such accounts are run under the political direction and rarely personally, it also shows that even if the Prime Minister's cultural and linguistic repertoire is limited, his team shares those limits. It's relevant to mention here that a majority of the citizens of the Indian Union do not understand Hindi, as evidenced by multiple studies.

CPI(M) General Secretary and Rajya Sabha MP from West Bengal Sitaram Yechury also took to Twitter and posted a similar greeting on Holi. This from an MP who represents a state where Holi is marginal. Dol Jatra is the primary festival of colours. Like Modi, Yechury did not post any greeting on account of Dol Jatra to the people he ostensibly represents. Thus, this is a disease that cuts across political ideologies and represents a higher order common ideology – that of parties and ideologies that are headquartered in Delhi and who want to attempt socio-cultural homogenisation in this diverse Union. This higher order ideology may come in shades of red or saffron but ultimately represents an Indianness that boils down to Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan-ness. Even the BJP chief of West Bengal and his hyperactive Twitter account had no mention of Dol Jatra.

This forced hierarchy of cultures has an official endorsement as can be seen in any Union government list of holidays where again Holi is a compulsory holiday but Dol Jatra isn't, Diwali is a compulsory holiday, but Kali Pujo isn't.

Narendra Modi gave "Happy Holi" Greetings in Hindi, on a day that is not Holi, mostly for hundreds of millions of Indian citizens who are non-Hindi, non-Hindustani. Heartfelt greetings I suppose. Last year, while Modi gave Dol Jatra a miss on the of March 23, he did not forget to greet "people of Pakistan on their National Day" and tweeted birthday greetings to Mrs Smriti Irani, among others things. Priorities define ideology. Ideology defines priorities. The message is clear. Holi is "national". All festivals of colour are "local". Whose "local" becomes "national" and whose "national" is rendered "local" is a contest that goes to the foundation of the Indian Union. That contest is over. The Indian Union operates as a plural and federal Union in rhetoric and a majoritarian Hindi-Hindu-Hindustani nation-state in practice. Interestingly, the government of Bangladesh officially mentions Dol Jatra (and many other Hindu Bengali festivals) as restricted holidays for Hindus. No such acknowledgement of the "local" from the Government of India.

Why don't I just sit back and enjoy the festival of colours? Why don't we just consider Dol Jatra as a "variant" of Holi? This 'magnanimous' inclusion by declaring it as a "variant" form has a predictable direction. Whenever there are multiple forms, the Hindi-Hindustani zone's variant is considered standard by the Centre, though the Indian Union doesn't formally claim itself to be a majoritarian nation-state. This destruction of diversity by co-option is what fashionably goes under the name of "tolerance". Our "local" gods and goddesses thus become forms, and get subsumed into "bigger" goddesses that invariably had the greater military strength and a more powerful state apparatus backing them up – this has been an ancient trick in this Subcontinent. It is easy for people to 'look past' variations when the hierarchy of variations favours their cultural world. Others 'look past' to be accepted by the 'mainstream'. What may appear as hair-splitting to those in the Centre is a desperate cry for the preservation of identity for those in the periphery.

What business does the Central government have in issuing a separate list of holidays? Does it represent anything else or anything more than the individual states? If it does, what is it? Which selective parts of the Indian Union does it list and its emphasis represent? Why is it always the case that Hindi-Hindustani forms of religious and cultural expression take precedence? Why is the concept of "all India" and Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan so remarkably similar? In its holiday calendar, the Indian Union exhibits its deep ideology that there is an officially promoted and imposed hierarchy among the citizens and communities – of 'core' and 'national' versus 'periphery'. What does it mean for the rest of us, living in the penumbra of Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan?

The deep ideology of a state is given by 'innocuous' choices, of font-size variations of different languages in Gandhi-chhap currency notes, the automatic language of CRPF or BSF irrespective of their posting in West Bengal or Tamil Nadu and many other instances. When was the last time a Tamil marriage/religious/cultural custom went 'national'? Whose 'local' becomes 'national' and whose 'local' disappears when ideas like 'all India' and 'mainstream' are evoked? Why is the direction of traffic in this supposedly two-way street so predictable? Why does any leading Prime Ministerial candidate focus most in areas where Holi is the uncontested name for the festival of colours?

(The views are strictly personal.)
Garga Chatterjee

Garga Chatterjee

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