Spot the monkey at the Kumbh

Author: Francois Gautier
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: January 29, 2001

There was a very symbolic photo published in The Indian Express during the early days of the Kumbha Mela: a naga sannyasin wanting to take a quiet dip in the Sangam was trying to shoo away a group of (mostly) western photographers. The fully dressed lensmen versus the naked sadhu might have given the impression of civilisation versus paganism, enlightenment versus medievalism, as if the educated world was photographing the monkey. While it is true that quite a few foreign media, such as the BBC, did try to convey the inner meaning of the mela, it was at times as if the western press was probably unconsciously and without ill intent reflecting the images of a colonial India: mysterious pagan rites, naked sadhus, teeming masses praying to an alien God. In many European countries, the Kumbha Mela is only worth 30-second spots on television news, showing visuals of the mela. Will the cliches created by Herge and Kipling forever haunt India?

But who are the monkeys the photographed or those photographing? Do you know what are the TV shows which boast the highest ratings in the West today? You take a few ordinary people, lock them together in an apartment for three months, place cameras everywhere and record their every moment: when they bathe, fight, talk, make love. At a time when globalisation has brought a lowly sameness all over the world Coca Cola, MTV, MacDonald’s and Calvin Klein very few foreign newspapers cared to say that it is extraordinary that in the 21st century 80 million people endure endless travels, hunger, cold, discomfort to pray to That which is beyond us. These millions of people, mostly poor folks from the rural areas, are embodying the best of India: its virtues of tolerance, gentleness, patience, faith and simplicity. It is thanks to these humble people who form the backbone of India that in spite of murderous Muslim invasions, British colonialism and Nehruvian Marxism, this great Indian culture has survived.But the saddest is that the Indian press showed once more that, except for a few brilliant exceptions, it is often a pale copy of the western media. Press a button VHP, for instance and you have one hundred voices and pens which faithfully come up with a pre-recorded (by the British more than 200 years ago) message: ‘‘fundamentalists, Hindu fanatics, communalists’’.

This is exactly what happened during this Mela: very few Indian newspapers and magazines showed that they were proud of their own culture, or highlighted the fact that, for once, the Indian government (the UP administration in this case, which is supposed to be the most inefficient and corrupt in India) did a wonderful job. There has never been in the history of the world such a huge congregation of people at the same time. Yet everything is working, thanks in part to the efforts of the adopted ‘‘son of the soil’’, Murli Manohar Joshi, who took a personal interest in the Mela. No reporter also mentioned the fact that for the first time in history, the three religions born in India, Jainism, Buddhism and Hinduism, came together to devise ways to protect their faith.

Instead, the Indian press has mostly two leitmotifs: the VHP and Sonia Gandhi. Every religion tries to defend is culture and heritage; the Pope not only is attempting to stem the falling attendance in churches, but also tries to propagate Christianity even declaring Asia as the ground of evangelisation for the Third Millennium during his visit to India (it is as if the Shankaracharya invited in Paris would tell Frenchmen that Christianity is a false religion and that they have to embrace Hinduism). What is wrong with saints and Hindu leaders of this country trying to unite to stem the conversion drive by Christian missionaries and the Islamisation of South Asia? But instead of highlighting this point and the fact that no country in the world can boast of so many saints, enlightened beings and sadhus who have devoted their lives to the Unseen, the Indian press only spoke of the ‘‘political agenda’’ of the VHP and the Ayodhya controversy.

Sonia Gandhi is spelling doom for the Congress. Whatever her qualities and goodwill, she has absolutely no idea what India is about, having been confined to Delhi by VIP security for most of her stay here. She probably went to the Mela out of political compulsions more than out of religious faith, being a Christian, as she has every right to be. But this obsession of the Indian intelligentsia with the ‘‘white skin’’ is too strong: her half-dip took the centrestage, superseding everything else.

Indian journalists played the very game of the Congress, and one reporter went as far as saying that by coming to the Mela, ‘‘she was taking the wind out of the VHP blitzkrieg’’. Does the reporter know what blitzkrieg means? It was coined by historians to describe Hitler’s treacherous invasion of Poland and subsequently Belgium and France, using tanks, planes and canons and murdering thousands of innocent people. What an expression to describe a religion which not only always accepted the divinity of other avatars, but never tried to convert others, never invaded other countries.

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