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Narendra Dabholkar was a notable rationalist from Maharashtra who quit a flourishing medical practice to devote time to social reform and had founded the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmulan Samiti to combat superstitious beliefs among people. He was brutally murdered after receiving threats from religious fanatics for many years. Extremists condemn him for opposing Hinduism. Liberals endorse him in principle. Yet, given that most of his work happened in Marathi, most Indians commenting on him have little idea of what thoughts the man promoted.

This marks the first of hopefully many efforts to make his thoughts accessible to a wider audience and my small contribution to promoting rationalism among people.

This is the first of three parts translating the speech into English..

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Lokahitawadi (Gopal Hari Deshmukh) was born in Maharashtra in 1823 and Prabodhankar Thakeray died in 1973. Maharashtra has a 150 year tradition of social reformers who examined prevalent folk traditions. There were Lokahitawadi, Mahatma Phule, Savitribai Phule, Dnyanoji Mahadev, Godkar, Ranade, Gopal Ganesh Agarkar, Rajarshi Shahu Maharaj, Tukadoji Maharaj, Ghadge baba, Babasaheb Ambedkar, Swatantryaveer Vinayak Damodar Sawarkar, Hamid Dalwai and Prabodhankar Thackeray. Such an unbroken stretch has not been the fortune of any other state in India. And if we consider them to be schools of learning for social reformers, each headed by a learned guru, then Mahatma Phule was the learned guru of them all.

But as we clap on hearing his name, I'd like to share an example. We know that Savitribai [Phule] had started teaching girls and those who opposed her used to throw filth on her clothes as she passed on the way to school. So she used to carry a spare sari to change into for teaching, on reaching school. But what we don't know is that at that time, there were pamphlets circulated in Pune, which if I tell you now, you will laugh. They said that this Phule says women should be taught to read and write, but women must not be taught to read and right at all. Why? Because if women learn to read, they will read bad/obscene books. No idea how the man who learned to read knew this... Women who learn to read will read inappropriate books and women who learn to write will write naughty letters to their husbands.

You are laughing, Phule's father didn't laugh. He called Phule and ordered him to stop teaching girls. Phule asked, "Why?". He replied, "Our religious tradition says so. Learning isn't a woman's work, her arena of work is the kitchen and children.". Phule retorted, "Whatever was written in religion may be written, I have decided that I will teach women." Phule's father said that that wouldn't do and that everyone had to obey religious strictures.  Phule refused to obey. His father said that if he wanted to teach women, then it would not be in his home.

And because a 21 year old Mahatma Phule and his 18 year old wife Savitribai Phule stepped over the threshold and left their home in order to teach women, you 40-50 women [in the audience] are sitting here confidently.

Which brings me to this incident. A woman from the pardhi community from Amravati, who didn't have water where she lived, filled water at the school next door. The school headmaster thrashed her badly. Ignore that she was beaten. She was beaten, there was police investigation of the headmaster's actions, that is not the point. What was worse was that because a woman was touched by a man not related to her, their caste panchayat excommunicated the woman, her husband and her two children, didn't allow them to live in the settlement, forced them to sit under a tree and fined them 31 thousand rupees. Of this, they were able to pay only ten thousand. Ashok Pawar, an anti-superstition activist from that community wrote the story of this injustice for the Sadhana weekly magazine which I edit. I was astonished to find that a reader I had never met, a retired teacher called Bhigde, sent me 21 thousand rupees in cash, requesting that it be given to the caste panchayat "because our community will take at least another 500 years to repay these sins." Where is Mahatma Phule? The money was sent to the caste panchayat. This is the reality.

Today, we are fighting for an anti-superstition law, the bill for which is before the upcoming winter assembly, what is it called? It has the name of our subject.  Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and other Inhuman, Evil and Aghori Practices and Black Magic Act, 2011 (it was passed in 2013, after he was murdered). The discussions you are having about inhuman and inappropriate traditions, how long has it been since the law has been proposed? Only 18 years. It has been approved by the Assembly five times in these 18 years.

In 1829, Lord Bentinck passed a law banning sati practice and our shastris and pandits went to court claiming that the immolation of the wife after the death of her husband is our religious tradition. Lord Bentinck did not agree. The pandits asked, what would happen of her character/reputation? That is when Lord Bentinck started a seven rupee pension. He faced criticism over meddling in matters not of his religion or trade. He replied that if he saw a woman burn and did nothing, he'd be useless as an administrator.

Even today, people throw stones when a wish is fulfilled [speaking of specific orthodox tradition]. If I threw stones, I'd be arrested for stone pelting, but thousands throwing stones is appreciated as religious faith. And there is no law for this. They ask, which law should be used.

It needs to be understood. Not all traditions are bad. Dharma-shastra (religious rules) say that a Ganesh idol should be of the earth (made of mud/clay) and it should be immersed in flowing water. In earlier times, there was plenty of mud and rivers had plenty of flowing water. Make a nice clay idol, and the texts prescribe that it shouldn't be larger than the span of a palm, and use it for worship. Then, return what was taken from nature back into nature. But a hundred years ago, you didn't have plaster of Paris, toxic paints and gigantic idols. Maharashtra's population had not reached 11 crore. Can the same practice be continued now?

We suggested, that the idols not be immersed in the river. If you see the Mula Mutha in Pune, it is more like a sewer than a river. But people would throw the idols in there. Then we decided that we would take the idols as donations after the religious rites were over. Senior scientist Vasantrao Gowarikar and I stood there to accept donated idols. People who called themselves protectors of Hindu religion came and stood next to us, with loud religious bells and whenever we started to speak, they'd ring the bells loudly so that we couldn't be heard. Their did not accept our questioning of their religious tradition to dispose off idols in flowing water.

Then we went to the High Court, and Supreme Court and all the decisions were in our favor, and now, what we were suggesting is an official order from the environment ministry.

What does this tell us? We need reform.

Narendra Dabholkar's speech on tradition and superstition - English translation Part 2

Part 3 coming soon.

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There is some debate on whether Hindi should be used officially as a government language, that is meeting resistance from anti-Hindi quarters who see it as marginalizing the non-Hindi population of India. On the other hand, there are those who think that English marginalizes most people of India, since effective communicators in English are a minuscule part of the population. Both views have merit and the government will certainly need to communicate in one or more languages, none of which will be acceptable to the entire population, given India's regional and economic diversity.

On a related note, it is rather distressing to see that there is little focus on the development of the regional languages of India. Today, quality education is increasingly available solely in English. Students who study in regional languages are forced to adapt to English to pursue higher studies and employment.

Whether government communication happens in Hindi isn't as important to the larger picture, as the development of education in regional languages. Most of the time, the citizens of India are rarely paying attention to official channels of communication by the government, and their needs of understanding government communication are adequately met by media in every language of their choice.

However, day to day opportunities for improving conditions are another story altogether.

One evening, around the campfire at the Indian Homeschooling Conference, a homeschooling parent, who is a foreigner married to an Indian described property disputes they were having with villagers where they had built their home. They were on the side of the right, and the court ruled in their favor, but after the entire case being heard in Marathi, the judge pronounced the judgement in English. "I wanted to scream," she said. "Speak in Marathi, so that this crowd of twenty people understand what exactly is being said! Tell them that we have not broken laws and are harming no one, so that the threat of hostility to our family ends!"

This is one among many ways in which how a country operating in a language most people don't understand clearly leaves behind citizens while it chases the ideal existence.

Today, we speak of India as a wannabe world power. We speak of our economy and market and democracy and more, yet our standards of living compare unfavorably with some of the worst developed third world countries. We have a large population that is a burden to progress instead of asset, because most of the time, people don't really know what is "officially" going on, though everyone is a master of "everyone knows", bribes to get stuff done, and plain old jugaad.

While the processes of the country operate in a language most people don't understand, access to them will remain limited to the few who speak the language (or actively find other ways of interfacing). While access to knowledge remains restricted to languages other than the mother tongue of citizens, the instinctive absorption of information, trivia and a hundred other forms of knowledge that come from exposure beyond training in an alien language will remain elusive.

It isn't just languages, but languages are gateways to culture. As traditions die out, and large scale displacement accompanies development, is it not important to sit up and take note of the hundreds of Indian dialects already vanished and prevent more from going the same route? With disappearing languages are disappearing histories, disappearing bodies of knowledge. Will a focus on revival of languages aid access to indigenous knowledge that has evolved in the circumstances it will be applied in? It cannot be possible that a continuous civilization spanning thousands of years brought only religious knowledge to the world that is worthy of keeping.

[Inserted update] Harini Calamur points out in her edit in DNA: The Eligibility of Language:

The 2013 survey of Ethnologue, a website that catalogues the languages of the world, declared that there were 7,016 languages and dialects. In the case of India, Ethnologue has this entry “The number of individual languages listed for India is 461. Of these, 447 are living and 14 are extinct. Of the living languages, 63 are institutional, 130 are developing, 187 are vigorous, 54 are in trouble, and 13 are dying.” 

India seems to have got into a rut of seeing its citizens as a liability. Yet, the density of the population itself proclaims that India is a place where life can and does thrive. How is it possible that centuries of practices that allowed life to thrive are seen as so unimportant as to not merit efforts to keep alive and evolve further? How is it that our focus of language and learning is so externalized, that we are desperately applying solutions that evolved in another place to use us to build the empires of others and ignoring that which made India fertile and prosperous enough to be an attraction through the centuries?

If we look at developed countries today, they all operate in languages citizens know. Be it English speaking countries or France, Germany, China, Japan... They have their traditions, they have their unique practices and indigenous knowledge. They have entire sections of the internet buzzing with active users, advanced knowledge translated effortlessly because their languages were considered important enough to make knowledge available in. Citizens do not need interpreters to seek knowledge for themselves. Compare the French or Spanish versions of Wikipedia with Hindi or Marathi. Compare the quantity and quality of education in each language. See regional WordPress users timidly using minimal installs, while Indian software coders write fancy themes and plugins in English alone.

But open content volunteers are still making an effort to extend the knowledge to more and more people, while governments remain content to operate in English. It is intellectual inequality that appears to train some people for jobs, and others for joblessness. Where are the excellent educators in regional languages? Where are the efforts to raise the intellectual potential in regional languages? What would happen if there were ministries for languages at the state and center tasked with ensuring flow of information to all citizens in languages they understand?

And not just regional languages, but languages of different abilities as well! Where has Doordarshan's news for the deaf gone? Why are there no braille newspaper versions sponsored by government funds if necessary? Why can't newspapers be forced to supply braille editions - subscription only, if necessary - and news channels forced to broadcast at least news highlights, if not more in sign language?

Access to knowledge grows people. Access to knowledge in languages people understand grows more people.

Imagine a country with the size of India and the size of its population able to seek and grow knowledge in the language they are at ease with. Wouldn't our intellectual capital grow? Wouldn't more people engage with development more effortlessly? What would happen if agricultural colleges provided translations of important knowledge in the mother tongue of farmers? If economic theories were available in every citizen's mother tongue? Forget all that, we don't even have laws accessible in regional languages easily. Laws citizens are expected to obey - without having access to read them to know what they say. How would lawlessness decrease, if the word of the law never reached the ears of the common man in a language he understands?

In my view, more important than nitpicking about what language the government uses, it is important that excellent and advanced education be made available in regional languages. It is important that the government takes an interest in world knowledge being made available to Indians in regional languages by forming various task forces that translate it. Teams contributing translations to public sites like Wikipedia, special knowledge banks of important works in other languages and more.

Language isn't merely a symbol of unity or supremacy, it is the breathing thread that weaves citizens together. Important weaves must be woven with threads that connect people.

So, the real question isn't whether the government should tweet and update Facebook in English, Hindi or both, the real question is why official government documents are not available in ALL the regional languages of India.

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They say dreams hold messages from the unconscious. Well, this one was loaded.

Disclaimer: Do NOT expect logic from a dream.

Here we go. The whole thing happened on Twitter.

PuLa Deshpande was alive and the first we came to know was when his blogpost went viral on Twitter. Went viral as in, went mega viral. It was classic PuLa. Hyper witty, sensitive, but a sharp commentary none the less, and had fleeting mention of Bal Thackeray's death - maybe a line or two. But PuLa being PuLa, all it took for him to make his view clear was a line or two. Everyone loved the post, Shiv Sainiks on Twitter included. But newspapers were terrified to pick it up. They didn't want their offices burned.

So on Twitter we were lampooning all the famous journalists and demanding they publish the letter. For some reason, TV show anchors and actors were also being treated like they could publish stuff in the newspaper. Stalemate. Everyone loved letter, no one wanted to print it. Shiv Sena leaders even went public on TV saying that PuLa was a Marathi Manus and asking the Shiv Sena mobs to please maintain order in the event the article was published. But on the unofficial word was that PuLa would be respected, but the paper who published it will get office vandalized. Cops were recommending not to take "unnecessary risks".

For some reason, Anja Kovacs was keeping track of the whole thing (as always when it comes to fighting censorship) and I was asking her if she even understood what the article said. She was saying the article is very easy to understand and very funny and nothing offensive about it. Gaurav Sabnis had blogged a translation, though people seemed to be reading the original just fine.

Some people were trending it on Twitter with tags like #ArrestMeNow #CensorThis #StopITRules etc though it is unclear why, considering that the blog wasn't blocked and going viral.

There were rumors of a new character sketch to be published in a few months and while no one knew who it was, everyone was certain it would piss off Shiv Sena. So there were a lot of tweets about how great people should be respected and PuLa commenting jokingly that one day he would be famous and get some respect too.

Pul La Deshpande was on Twitter (the Marathi Tweeple's dream), though he just posted his one liners without interaction for the most part. There was a lot of scathing and hilarious commentary on state of current affairs without getting into bitter wars. People were becoming wiser. Salil Tripathi wrote an article about the article and got trolled on Twitter. Kanchan Gupta wrote a scathing rebuttal to people who use articles by great people to further their own agendas (but nothing against PuLa). I published a copy on my blog with great pride, and all the comments said that this needs to reach more people than internet readers. I was planning to stand on the street distributing printouts and the Pirate Party took on the project and we were planning to distribute about a lakh printouts in 6 states - wherever we have members. Other people were warning us to be careful or the party will end before it is registered.

For some reason, Shiv Aroor was pissed, but I never found out why.

Then Sachin Kalbag, Saikat Dutta and a few others and Barkha Dutt (for some reason) approached foreign papers without an office in Mumbai to burn and told them to publish it. So for the first time ever, Guardian had a Marathi article on its front page (I swear till then it was in English!). Some Shiv Sainiks were talking of this as the pride of the Marathi Manus.

Various plans were being made to distribute Guardian and other papers that published it in India so that people could read.

 

Then things kind of get hazy. Don't know if the article actually made it to the Marathi Manus in the end. Nor was there any actual incidence of violence. I don't remember what the content of the article was either, except that it was hilarous and irreverent and vintage PuLa and made a few comments on forced volunteering and xenophobic politics. So that kind of sucked. Imagine a dream about a PuLa article without the article... If I remembered the article, I'd at least publish it on my blog 😀

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Bal Thackeray died yesterday, and all hell broke loose among the polarized opinions. Some respected him for what he did. Others saw him as a fascist. There was very little overlap if any. In my eyes, mass leaders like Balasaheb Thackeray cannot be viewed in isolation from the masses. While it is undeniable that the Shiv Sena held and continues to hold the city hostage with brute force, while it cannot be denied that there have been hideous attacks on outsiders and Muslims, the question really becomes one of trying to understand what is really happening here.

When a politician can use a regional identity and build such formidable politics around it that almost no public figure is seen criticizing him in death, the matter isn't one of political disagreement, but a question of what drives a sizable part of the population to ideologies that the rest see as unacceptable. If the country is to be whole, there has to be an attempt to include interests of all.

Bal Thackeray and his divisive politics can be dismissed as beneath our attention. However, isn't this a story that keeps repeating countrywide in various ways across the political spectrum? We see the high success of religious identity politics with parties like the MIM. We see far more xenophobic politics in the name of region among the Kashmiris or Bodos. We see the narrative of the rights of the local people echoed in political orientations as far left as the Maoists.

We could choose to fixate on the unacceptability of a person and refuse legitimacy to views of a significant part of the population, or we could choose to see what it means to India as a whole if such divisive politics consistently finds popular support.

A common factor I find is disenfranchisement. It is less about the desire for superiority and more about the desire for identity to be respected. When we speak of the Marathi Manoos rallying behind Shiv Sena, we could dismiss them as Facists. All of them. And accept that a significant part of the country has interests in bringing fascists to power. Then we fight a perpetual ideological war. Or we could choose to see what the hurt is and see if there are ways it can be fixed to avoid driving people to violent ideologies. This is not about adopting divisive politics, but in identifying the problems being addressed by it to see if more functional solutions that don't divide people are possible that satisfy the needs perceived by the people, or remove the needs in other ways.

A common factor in all these narratives seems to be a state that will not listen leading to people who think they need to take matters in their own hands if their interests are to survive. These are invariably people without a mainstream voice. What is the Kashmiri who keeps saying that India is trying to colonize Kashmir really saying? What is happening to his identity? What does it mean when a Bodo comes to the point of massacring outsiders (Muslims this time)? What does it mean that thousands of people stand accused of sedition for daring to refuse a nuclear plant? What does it mean when a Marathi Manoos speaks of Balasaheb Thackeray saving the "Marathi Asmita" in a time when Marathis were ridiculed as "ghatis"?

The rest are just the frills. It matters little if Balasaheb Thackeray saved the Sikhs or Kashmiri Pandits. Those are being presented as evidence of his being "good", but what really got people rallying behind him? They felt that their identity was being bolstered by powerful stands he made. Today, the Marathi manoos often lives in an overwhelming perception of his culture and identity being marginalized. Particularly those who don't have access to this "modern" India being built around them. Whether factually correct or not, it is experientially true. A person who grew up in the shadow of middle class parents working hard and buying their own home cannot dream of doing the same. This is inflation, but a new class of rich people makes it seem like odds are stacked against him (which they are too). Massive growth in media and muli national industries have resulted in a new class of affluent people who idolize influences that increasingly exclude Maharashtrian ones. It isn't only about missing influences but about them being inferior.

Marathi accents in Hindi or English are perceived as less refined. Marathi heroes are possible only if sanitized to a generic north Indian image. In the city with the most national media being made, the "average" person portrayed is never Marathi unless it is made in the Marathi language. A job as a peon too needs fluency in Hindi and/or English. It is not just a matter of jobs, but one of identity being perceived as declared inferior to that of "outsiders"

We  can debate the "good man, bad man" thing till the end of time, but the bottom line is that the Marathi person sees much needed enforcing of respect for the identity of "real inhabitants" in symbolic things like Marathi signboards or insistence on Marathi films being played in theaters. And it isn't perfect, but it feels good. It feels like their existence is valued. As a Sena supporter said recently on the hype about the Biharis "Here Gujjus are owning Mumbai, driving up prices till Marathis are selling and moving to cheaper places, and we are objecting to people doing labor that helps the city run?" The point is that the Marathi Manoos isn't fooled by the xenophobia. They aren't fooled by the selective standards. But they want whatever affirmation of their identity possible.

The question really becomes one of why this kind of disenfranchisement happens. Why do things reach such a point where a template of "Indian" takes over unique identities and compounds it by calling a generic rootlessness the ideal? Why does this ideal deny any special bonds between people and their homeland? What is achieved by denying these fundamental identities? Why is the "greater good" at the cost of those being harmed by it? Who do we cater to, by upholding the rights of those with resources to pick the best opportunities everywhere to do it regardless of cost to local sentiments?

For that matter, in a country perpetually outraging over sentiments, how is it that the violated sentiments of tribals, Kashmiris, Bodos, Marathis, Kudankulam locals, and such people invaded by the larger good don't find validation? A little contemplation shows that it boils down to power - muscle or money. Have money, reach opportunity. Have muscle, influence opinion. Have money, take over the economic capital of the country.

In my view, the real thought on Balasaheb Thackeray's death does not need to be if he was right or wrong, but what is it that he provided that the supposed rule of law and democracy deprived his supporters of. What is it that we as a country are ignoring? Why are we not able to listen to people?