The day Mahishasur visited Rajya Sabha: Smriti Irani's argument may be misguided, but it's a discussion that must be had

Following her Wednesday's fiery "to main apna sar kalam karke aapke charnoon main chhod doongi" argument in the Rajya Sabha, Union Human Resources Development (HRD) Minister Smriti Irani, on Thursday looked to continue her form which impressed the top brass of the party.

Only this time, the script was not researched well enough and destined for an own goal.

Defending the government's heavy handed response to the JNU row, Irani brought up the 'Mahishasur Martyrdom Day'.

Producing a pamphlet issued in October, 2014 at JNU campus, the HRD minister proceeded to read it, but not without a touch of dramatics.

The day Mahishasur visited Rajya Sabha: Smriti Iranis argument may be misguided, but its a discussion that must be had

Smriti Irani. PTI

"May my god forgive me for reading this," began Irani. “Durga Puja”— a major celebration in eastern India — “is the most controversial racial festival, where a fair skinned beautiful goddess Durga is depicted brutally killing a dark-skinned native called Mahishasura. Mahishasura, a brave self-respecting leader, tricked into marriage by Aryans. They hired a sex worker called Durga, who enticed Mahishasura into marriage and killed him after nine nights of honeymooning, during sleep,” read the minister.

“What is this depraved mentality?” she concluded. “I have no answers for it.”

The statement drew sharp criticism from the opposition, with JD(U) accusing her of violating established norms of the Parliament. Congress and CPI(M) followed suit.

On Friday, the issue dominated Parliament debate with as Congress asked her to apologise, citing that the comments made were blasphemous. Irani went on to defend herself saying that the documents she read were from the the University, not from the government, and she only read them when asked for a proof.

To understand how and why this issue escalated in the Parliament, one needs to understand what is 'Mahishasur Martyrdom Day', and and how it found its way into the JNU debate.

The alternate narrative

As per the conventional narrative, Durga Puja is celebrated as a triumph of good over evil, depicted often graphically by the goddess slaying the demon, Mahishasura.

This is the popular narrative, but not the only one. Tribes and people belonging to Scheduled Castes and backward classes from many parts of the country follow a different narrative. According to their narrative, Mahishasur was not a demon but a tribal leader who put up a fight against the Aryan invasion.

According to tribal rights activist, Ajit Prasad Hembramand, tribals do not pick up weapons against women, children, aged and the weak, "The Aryans sent a woman to lure him. “The Aryans came with a proposal of marriage. But they used treachery and a woman called Durga killed Mahishasur," said Hembramand. The Indian Express reports that these thoughts are echoed by Ashwini Kumar Pankaj, editor of Johar Disum Khabar.  Mahishasur is regarded as a martyr in this version and the 10 days of Durga Puga celebration are observed as 10 days of mourning by some tribes. According to a detailed report in Quartz, some "traditionally-inclined Asurs" place themselves in isolation and mourn Mahishasura's death during the period of Durga Puja. However, as the practice is slowly fading away, a group of activists have tried to keep the subaltern version alive by mourning the slaying of Mahishasura.

A discussion on Mahishasur quickly turns into one on dalits, adivasis and all those who do not fit the bill of mainstream Hinduism — in other words, the othered.  "I don't believe in any kind of worship and I certainly don't want another devta. But Mahishasur Diwas is not about the puja. It should be observed through a discussion on our society," says Prem Kumar Mani, dalit ideologue who has penned an essay on the worship of Shakti, in an interview with The Times of India.

Academia and Mahishasur

Since 2011, the festival has been observed (orgainzed by organised by the All India Backward Students’ Forum) in JNU to debate caste issues as a tribute to the Mahishasura, reports ABP. The event has gained momentum over the past years, with more people joining in from across the country. Over 15 districts from across Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Orissa observed similar events in the subsequent years.

It has not been an easy ride for the organisers of this event at JNU. In 2014, a pamphlet of essays was launched to get the discussion started outside campus. On campus, the administration was supportive, but the police questioned the organizers several times, reports the Times of India.

According to this essay published in Counter Currents, students belonging to ABVP (student body affiliated to right wing), disrupted the meeting and attacked the speakers. A police team raided the office of Forward Press confiscating the copies of their October issue (a special issue on Bahujan tradition) and arrested few employees based on the complained filed by some individuals associated with right wing Hindu forces.

"A university is, by definition and ethos, a community at variance with your sentimental ties in the world. A university is a place where you meet the other, the antagonist, the challenger, and learn to deal with your political and other differences," wrote author Manash Bhattacharjee recently, in an essay in Economic & Political Weekly, discussing the role and importance of a university space.

To question debates in such spaces is not just a violation of right to freedom but also sets a precedent suffocating any chance of reform and of an opportunity to better understand the society in which one lives. To use this as an argument to justify a crackdown on a university is nothing short of facisim.

When it comes to mythology, the narratives have differed as far back as one can remember. To impose one narrative over another is equivalent to not just turning a blind eye, but negating the alternative — surely, this cannot be healthy for the nation's fabric that is defined by its plurality and diversity.

On Thursday, when Irani read out as examples of what gets produced from the "temples of learning" — the JNU pamphlet with disdain in the Parliament, she perhaps forgot that in the "world's greatest democracy", the narratives do not (and should not) overlap.

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Updated Date: Feb 26, 2016 16:08:59 IST

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