Thursday, 15 March 2012

India Travelogue - Nagpur

Nagpur, Central India. Some things don’t change.

On the surface a lot has changed in Nagpur since when I was last here as a medical student living in Gokulpeth, regularly taking the No. 3 bus at 715 every morning from Ramnagar stop to Ajni via Sitabuldi..

The buses are better, they now have a central wide door and the conductor has an electronic machine that prints out a ticket. The bus stops, at least in this part of town, have clear notice boards showing the routes served and the timings and frequency of buses. Many more cars and motorbikes and scooters on roads that are no wider than they were 40 years ago.

The cows and their place in the road hasn’t changed either. After all this is Gokulpeth. But somehow they seemed to me to have become even more part of the domestic scene than all those years ago. They were tolerated then, now they appear to be almost venerated. They amble along the streets of this locality, seemingly very much at home; no owner in sight but almost certainly they are well cared for, looked after and exploited by someone who wouldn’t understand if you tried to explain that letting them roam free on the public roads was a good example of a negative externality of the local milk industry.

On an early morning stroll I found this cow apparently returning home after a night out and looking suitably contrite after being put in its place by the owner refusing to get out of bed to let it in. I stood and watched to see what would happen, but the cow had infinitely more patience than I did and so i moved on. 

Of course cows have a special place in India, but in Nagpur they are more than just holy animals.  This is the home of the RSS, for whom the cow is not just a spiritual symbol but also a source of potential scientific breakthroughs in every conceivable field.

Nagpur is home also to the politically opposite end of the Hindu spectrum. If the RSS is the last political defender of Hindu belief, then a visit to Deeksha Bhoomi in Ramdaspeth, some 3 Km away, brings you face to face with the counterargument. On this ground, almost 6 decades ago, BR Ambedkar, one of the principal authors of the Indian Constitution, forswore Hinduism and became a Buddhist. He also administered the same 22 vows to a large number of Dalits who followed him to give up their Hindu religion and embrace Buddhism.

At one level the vows are a direct assault on the basic tenets of Hindu belief, and even more directly on Brahminical rituals and practices.  Say similar things about some other religions and you could be in serious trouble! Its a tribute to India's pluralist democratic tradition that Ambedkar is remembered as a national hero. Pity the Government cannot extend the same protection to Rushdie or MF Husain when he was still alive.    

Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva are not Gods and I will not worship them.
There are no gods and goddesses
I will not take part in any ritual performed by a Brahmin.
I will not perform annual shraddha ceremonies (for departed elders)

There are also other vows along the lines of the Ten Commandments, but these, I suspect, are observed more in the breach than in the strict practice.

Deeksha Bhoomi today is a spartan, minimalist monument that is said to attract Buddhists from around the world but more to the point it serves as a focal point for the political activism of people from India’s backward castes.

These castes are listed and defined in one of the Schedules of the Indian Constitution (hence Scheduled Castes). Now the Government wants to set up a database of different castes and communities.

For the downtrodden of India, Deeksha Bhoomi has the same power as the ML King Memorial in Atlanta has for its blacks. I’ve visited both and the symbolism of struggle, survival and emancipation makes your hair tingle

For these people, BR Ambedkar is a God; his framed and garlanded picture, lit up by oil lamps and sanctified with incense, adorns many homes. How ironical that having vowed not to worship Vishnu or Shiva or Brahma, they’ve taken to the worship of Ambedkar.

Maybe the human urge to recognise a God is stronger than Richard Dawkins thinks. Or may be Ambedkar should have made room for one more vow. Or just maybe the people Ambedkar tried to help find themselves, despite, or perhaps because of, the policy of reservations, in much the same plight as before Ambedkar; and so they still feel the need divine help.  

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