Guest post by MARY E. JOHN AND SATISH DESHPANDE
It seems odd to associate words like ‘mean’ and ‘petty’ with entities like states. But it is hard to avoid them when confronted by the despicable attempt of the Modi regime to cancel or restrict the holiday for Christmas. On the other hand, these words are far too mild to capture the poisonous malice behind this small-minded act that, despite its clumsiness, is clearly part of a systematic campaign to cultivate a culture of vicious aggression towards select “minorities”.
How should one respond to such pettiness, knowing that it is only the surface of a deep reservoir of violent hatred? One could light heartedly point to the irony that 25th December happens to be the birthday of not only Madan Mohan Malviya (1861) and Atal Bihari Vajpayee (1924), but also a certain Mohammad Ali Jinnah (1876).
Alternatively, one could argue, in a spirit of liberal reasonableness, that Christmas has for long been much more than a holy day for Christians. The secularisation of Christmas is apparent not only in its relentless commercialisation (much like Deepavali), but also in its longstanding status as a broader symbol of festive good cheer marked by giving and sharing.
However, given that we live in decidedly illiberal times, it is perhaps better to respond by invoking yet another anniversary, one that underlines the fact that for governance to be good it must first be just.
Many citizens of this would-be Hindu Rashtra may be aware that since 1927, 25th December has also been celebrated as “Manusmriti Dahan Divas”. It marks the historic occasion when the Manusmriti – identified as a symbol of brahmanical oppression of Dalits, Shudras and women – was burnt during the Mahad Satyagraha led by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. The Mahad Satyagraha was waged to assert the civic rights of Dalits, and specifically their right to take water from the Chavadar Tank. The burning of the Manusmriti was staged at the “Conference of Untouchables” which had passed the following resolution:
Resolution No. 2.—Taking into consideration the fact that the laws which are proclaimed in the name of Manu, the Hindu lawgiver, and which are contained in the Manu Smriti and which are recognised as the Code for the Hindus are insulting to persons of low caste, are calculated to deprive them of the rights of a human being and crush their personality. Comparing them in the light of the rights of men recognised all over the civilised world, this conference is of [the] opinion that this Manu Smriti is not entitled to any respect and is undeserving of being called a sacred book [and] to show its deep and profound contempt for it, the Conference resolves to burn a copy thereof, at the end of the proceedings, as a protest against the system of social inequality it embodies in the guise of religion.
(B.R. Ambedkar, Essays on Untouchables and Untouchability—Political, Ch.2, “The Revolt of the Untouchables”. Available here. See also K.Jamnadas’ description. Accounts of recent observances include those in Pimpri (Pune) and Hyderabad).
The specific day when a particular person is born or a specific event occurs is largely a matter of accident. But there is nothing accidental about anniversaries which are conscious social acts of commemoration, affirmation and celebration. By contrast, the granting of a government holiday for such commemorations need not imply any endorsement by the state. However, the taking away of an already granted holiday, that too for the biggest religious holiday of a particular community, can only signal the state’s antipathy.
In attempting to cancel a holiday identified as Christian, the BJP and its allies are seeking in unsubtle fashion to signal their disrespect for one such commemoration, that of believing Christians. At the same time, they are seeking to obscure their sectarian prejudice by designating this day for the commemoration of something they call “good governance”. By calendrical accident, Manusmriti Dahan Divas happens to fall on the same day that Christians celebrate as Christmas, but no one has suggested that it seeks to oppose Christianity or offend Christians. And though burning the Manusmriti and commemorating this act seem to be opposed to Hinduism, they are in fact opposing caste oppression and the denial of human rights to Dalits and lower castes, as the resolution passed at the Mahad conference makes amply clear.
Manusmriti Dahan Divas is a timely reminder of a fact that is in danger of being forgotten in “Modi-may Bharat”: The only book that all Indians need to believe in – the Constitution of India – bears testimony to our resolve as a nation to defend justice even when it is in conflict with faith.
So the citizens of India should be free to celebrate 25th December in many ways. Along with Christmas, if we also wish to commemorate “good governance”, then let us celebrate it as Manusmriti Dahan Divas. But unlike its citizens, the Indian state is required (it is not “free” in this regard) to treat all religious holidays equally.