[From my column OBVIOUSLY OPAQUE in UTS VOICE,01-15 February, 2012]
Elephants are strange creatures. Stranger is their uncanny ability to subvert the common sense and make their presence felt. Think of them, jet black in colour, being considered as auspicious in a culture whose obsession with fairness is almost pathological. Think of them achieving the feat in a culture where anyone a shade darker than ‘pinkish white’ is taken to be ‘dark’.
The auspiciousness attributed to them is baffling to say the least. No worships are complete in most of the Hindu temples without them. No marriage ceremonies are worth their salt, if they have not been graced with the august presence of the elephants. Think of this again; in a superstitious culture where people avoid anything black even coming close to the sacred fire elephants often become the first hosts greeting the bridegroom’s procession! Interestingly, the respect they command is not confined to the relational and private realms of religion. The elephants find a place of pride even in the secular ceremonies. Watch the Republic Day parade if you have any doubts about the same. One of the biggest news about Republic Day parades of the recent past was the banning of elephants from participating for the fear of them going berserk.
They seem to have a particular penchant for entering people’s dream as well and bestowing them, and at times the whole community, with good fortunes. The legends recount how one of them, albeit white in colour, entered the dreams of a queen named Maya and bestowed her with an offspring after decades of yearning for a child of her own. Interestingly, while the ‘whiteness’ of the elephant of the myth stood in reverence to the Brahminical traditions and its grips on social life of the times, the blessed offspring did not. He ended up as, perhaps, the first and definitely the foremost rebel the subcontinent has ever produced. He shook the very foundations of the age-old scaffolds of caste that maintained the hierarchical system of graded inequalities, as Babasaheb Ambedkar was to term it millenniums later. That was the beginning of a dream, a dream of freedom, of emancipation, of equality. The dream, I concede, is yet not fulfilled but then having a dream is the first step towards turning it into reality, isn’t it?
Need I tell the name of that rebel, Gautam Buddha? Marvel at the capacities of elephants now and see how effortlessly they have entered the collective imagination of emancipation by associating themselves with the fable of his birth. Smart creatures they are!
The elephants are at it again. More than two millenniums later, they are entering, nay trespassing, into peoples’ dream. Amusingly, all the people they have chosen for doing so are big people known by a so desired abbreviation that has come to define post-colonial Indian nation. They are gracing only those who are VIPs, Very important Persons for the uninitiated, a category that is defined, again, by monosyllables followed by signs that denote the levels of security and aloofness these VIPs demand from the same people they claim to represent. So they are entering the dreams of people who enjoy Z plus, or Y or similar sounding security cordons and are forced to interact with the people only once in five years, willingly or unwillingly I am not certain about.
The elephants have changed a bit this time though. They do not remain as benevolent as they were earlier. They are not bestowing the dreamers with good fortune but instead are scaring life out of them. They seem to have ganged up in support of that woman all other VIPs seem to hate so much. She is alleged to be corrupt (as if others are not!), power hungry (as if others are not!) inefficient (as if others are not!), dictatorial and autocratic (as if others are not) and what not (as if others are not!). They have reasons, quite convincing ones, for the allegations. Just that the woman and her party are real late entrants to the scene.
She came riding on the elephant with her mentor and promised the Dalits a life with dignity. Actually she, or even her mentor, was not the first one to offer a life dignity to Dalits, the people condemned to live on the margins of the society since times immemorial. Many other people have fought and even sacrificed their lives for the same. Right from Buddha to Ambedkar, the list is endless. The list is not confined to charismatic and legendary leaders either! The story is the same on the ground, with countless people engaged in small battles of survival and dignity against the system that is inherently feudal and casteist.
The struggles have won glorious victories as well. The dignity promised to the Dalits and other marginalised people by the woman was not a dole but a right guaranteed by the constitution of the nation. The constitution has abolished untouchability and has assured them a life free from oppression. It has promised them protection against atrocities as well as equal access to the education, public sphere and everything that came with it. It has promised to make citizens out of people dehumanised by the use of sheer brute force. It has promised to restore their claim on the nation.
Nothing of this turned into reality for a long while. The promise remained buried in the book with the powers that may spurning them at will. Interestingly, almost all of the provinces that make Union of India were ruled by the same party whose crown prince has been promising to turn the tables and turn the ruined and dilapidated states going to polls into developed ones without even bothering to answer how the decay set in the first place. He is known for his sojourns into the villages tucked into nondescript lands and dining and staying in the houses of the Dalits without ever explaining how they continue to be Dalits despite sixty years of Indian independence.
The Yuvraj, or the crown prince, is particularly unhappy with the elephant. He has been thundering in rallies after rallies warning the people against the elephant in Lucknow that eats all that is sent from Delhi for the poor. The people listen to him and silently wonder about the fact that less than two decades ago, there was no elephant sitting in Lucknow and yet, there was someone who used to eat eighty six paisa out of every one rupee that was sent from Delhi! Clearly, the problem lies not with the elephant but something else, something that is far more entrenched in the system!
Similar are the woes of the party that has fashioned itself as the army of the Gods, the Hindu ones I mean. They too have a particular disliking for the woman and her elephant despite the long history of their association with her. They are angrier for their association was not merely political but had entered the private domain of familial relations. The woman with the elephant used to tie Rakhi, or the symbolic thread denoting the love of brother and sister, to several important leaders belonging to the saffron concern. And then, having come of age on her own she dumped them unceremoniously.
They could have taken that a bit easily had she stopped at that. But no, she went further and stole all the steam out of the engine that run their train of social engineering. She made her elephant unlearn all its earlier anger against the so called upper castes and converted it into Ganesh, the Hindu deity with the right to be worshipped first! Tell me, who would vote for Lord Rama and his temple when Lord Ganesha was on the side of the woman with the elephant?
The elephant, now, was not out in the street to trample its enemies; it has sobered down and was taking of fraternity and goodwill. The goodwill it focussed on was a calculated one targeting the Brahmins who have been out of power since long. The elephant had sensed into the long running animosity between the Brahmins and the Rajputs, the castes which have been engaged in a turf war of supremacy since god knows when, that is if he exists! Seeing that another master politico has built a formidable alliance of the Rajputs, Muslims and the other backward castes that left the Brahmins out into the cold, the elephant started wooing them. Rest, as they say, is history!
The elephant understood the fabric of the society like none else did. It realised pretty soon that the real issues that mattered in the elections were not about development, corruption or other such things. It understood that it can afford to be corrupt and ruthless as all its predecessors were, and going by the signs of times, will always be. It knew that all those people it has thrown off its back will be lapped up by those who were abusing them till the other day. It knew that all the allegations of corruption against it, which most probably are true, would not mean a thing as soon as any Babulal Kushwahas will be welcomed into rival camps. It might not have known, though, that the rival camps will go to the extent of calling themselves ‘sewage plants’ that clean up everything.
Neither did the elephant knew that even the Election Commission will come to its rescue by ordering all its statues, built on public land and by public money, to be covered up for it is the symbol of the ruling party in the province while leaving out all the hand pumps, lotus, cycles and the palms. The elephant had wronged many a people over last five years in the same way its predecessors did, by erecting statues and parks while ignoring real development. But then, even others have flooded the province with the statues of the chosen ones! They too were built on public land using public money and yet had escaped any orders of getting covered up!
The elephant could now act as the victim and so it is doing. It knows that in a culture where people are dehumanised, the first and foremost struggle centers around the question of dignity, of reclaiming human honour and nothing else. And it knows that the blame of dehumainsation rests not with it but the enemies. It knows that every single statue of its covered with a polythene bag will remind people all the historic wrongs committed on them. It will remind them of the structures, and people at the helm of those structures, that stole all their clothes and will end up helping the elephant. It will remind them of all other statues that stand. It will bring all the people who had strayed away back to the elephant’s fold.
The elephant is covered, long live the elephant that is even more visible now. Till then, let’s hope for a day when the question of dignity would finally be resolved so that real issues could come center stage!