Delhi's ethos is imperiled amid national exercise of erasing history, constructing homogeneous identity
The demand for Dr Romila Thapar's CV is not just a quotidian university procedure. It is a symbol of an entire city and nation at war with its own history, trying to erase particular aspects for constructing a homogeneous narrative
The demand for Dr Romila Thapar's CV is not just a quotidian university procedure.
It is a symbol of an entire city and nation at war with its own history, trying to erase particular aspects for constructing a homogeneous narrative.
This is a country which wants clear-cut lines and demarcations, not blurry water colours and pluralistic identities on its landscape.
And nebulous, larger-than-life, polyamorous Delhi is witness.
A few days ago, a new controversy in JNU broke out: that of eminent historian and professor emeritus Dr Romila Thapar, along with several other esteemed faculty members, being asked to submit their CVs for ‘evaluation’. While an evaluation to see if the person is fit to continue in their position may seem like an innocuous demand, shedding light on Dr Thapar’s political leanings and the circumstances reveals otherwise.
This is not just a quotidian university procedure, this is a symbol of an entire city — and nation — at war with its own history, trying to erase particular aspects for constructing a homogeneous narrative.
This is a country which wants clear-cut lines and demarcations, not blurry water colours and pluralistic identities on its landscape. And nebulous, larger-than-life, polyamorous Delhi is witness.
Delhi has been lusted after and loved by countless invaders, poets and madmen alike — and has drawn them all into its chaotic, ever-widening embraces. In turn, these people have tattooed their imprints on the skins of this city: wizened tombs arise beside lofty gurudwaras; medical colleges are named after wives of British viceroys; Mughlai outlets are thronged on hot summer evenings by scores. It is not impossible to meet a Haryanvi man who switches to Urdu in every other lisp. This is a city without lines and borders; all existence here is multi-hued, plural and boundless. Here food stalls and poems drift in and out of at least three languages, tastes and accents, all the while the populace is choking under grey skies and early morning fumes.
In such a place, it is easy to believe that nobody really cares about nationalist and religious politics; a journey from one end of the city to another leaves one sucked dry with exhaustion, let alone leave time for rumination and protests. How wrong would one be today if they came to Delhi and still believed this?
Our garbage collector speaks in Hindi and dreams about Bangla. My neighbourhood aunt barks in Punjabi and drifts carelessly into Hindi. Urdu runs like an undercurrent in all our lives, both as inscriptions on monuments and as a mumble-jumble of all languages, while ‘Jatta Da Chhora’, a Haryanvi party song, assaults our eardrums across college campuses. I bicker with my mother loudly in the market in Tamil as I wait for my Malayali friend. Languages change hands and merge into an uninterrupted flow of communication without anyone blinking an eye.
All these languages, swans and fountains and earthy songs alike, were made to bow before the might of the English. The once-proud city was under the siege of British influence, which was an instruction in shame and resenting our own skins. All of a sudden, our eyes turned to our own kind. A whole generation grew up picking out and rendering invisible those very things that white, colonial glances indicted us for. Along with it, after our independence came the long process of healing and decolonisation: politicians pushed for a national identity, and names were the first casualties. So Bombay became Mumbai, Calcutta became Kolkata, and Madras became Chennai.
But Delhi remained Delhi. Viceroy residences and gardens continued to thrive alongside new temples and museums, and everything was taken in and subsumed irrespective of past or identity. While other regions continued to be stirred uneasily as party after party tried to establish religious/one-person identities, Delhi became a big mass of everything jostling together in a careless union, something successive governments could not really put a dent on.
‘Humein khabar hai ke hum hain charagh-e-aakhir-e-shab.’ — Zaheer Kashmiri
(Translation: We are aware that we are the last lamps of the night.)
Today, Feroz Shah Kotla Stadium is Arun Jaitley Stadium and Aurangzeb Road is APJ Abdul Kalam Road. Airports and museums haven’t been spared, either; every airport has a Gandhi name attached to it, and even science centers have dynastic imprints. The aim of every Indian political party is to ensure its name is etched permanently in history — and while one party did it by naming everything after its ruling family, the other one is replacing old names with those of figures it hopes can quietly put to rest the secular narrative of our country. It is easy enough to fool a big population if you can poke your nose in university curricula, rename roads and rewrite textbooks. It is difficult to silence the erudite, so their CVs must be evaluated so they could hopefully be declared unworthy of their position.
The worst casualties of everything are people in the lower-income groups and below. The garbage collector doesn’t come to our apartment building anymore; being an impoverished refugee from Bangladesh, it was only too easy to pin the blame for an attempted burglary on him to do away with the bother of actually solving the problem. If you are poor, you are simply removed from the equation. Even your shadow cannot lurk in a ‘rapidly developing’ country’s backyard.
There will come a day long after bigotry and anti-intellectualism have staked their claim on the map of Delhi. And we — citizens of Delhi, shapeshifters of language and mutants of culture — must stand up and answer how we let it all happen before our eyes. Because more often than not, tolerance is just a nicer term for stark apathy. We are hurtling towards our own oblivion, like the last lamps of the night.
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