Debates over religious issues distractions from relief efforts in Kerala

Last week, citizens from across the country put their political and personal differences aside to come together to Kerala’s aid as it battled the worst floods in a century. Unfortunately, however, some voices in the public sphere are raking up issues that have nothing to do with the natural calamity and are only a distraction to the mammoth efforts required to rebuild the southern state. One of them is Hindu Mahasabha leader Chakrapani Maharaj, who has been claiming that helping beefeaters during a calamity is a sin. He has been echoed widely by many Hindutva supporters both online and offline. 

While voices on the extreme right of the political spectrum and online troll can — and should — be ignored, when similar opinions are expressed by senior officials,  it is difficult to do so. I’m referring to the comments of S Gurumurthy, the recently appointed member of the Reserve Bank of India’s board, who in a tweet said, “Supreme court judges may like to see if there is any connection between the case and what is happening in Sabarimala. Even if there is one in a million chance of a link people would not like the case decided against Ayyappan.” He was responding to another tweet, linking the Kerala flood and the temple case: “No law is above God... if you permit everyone, he denies everyone.”

As he came under criticism for this, which many thought linked the floods with the pending judgment on allowing women’s entry into Sabarimala temple, he defended his stance by claiming he had never said that God's wrath had caused the floods. He also came down hard on those who questioned an RBI official talking about the issue: “What has my appointment to the RBI board to do with my views? I am an independent director... It is not a paid job.” He also claimed that he was not superstitious but believed in divine powers. Yet, even making the faintest suggestion that the courts should think of these lines is more than a little sensitive at this time.

The untimely discussion over beef and temple when all of us should concentrate on relief efforts prompted me to revisit Satyajit Ray’s Ganashatru — an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. Ray, who adapted many literary works throughout his career, was quite loyal to the original material in this film, changing only the setting to Chandipur, an imaginary small town in West Bengal. The town is known for its good weather and a new temple, attracting devotees and tourists. When Dr Ashoke Kumar Gupta (Soumitra Chatterjee), a resident of the town, diagnoses water-borne diseases among his patients, he starts an investigation leading to the discovery that the charanamitra (holy water) of the temple is contaminated. But, when he tries to make this knowledge public, the entire town turns against him. Some are motivated by their religious fervour; others have simple commercial motivations. If people know that the water in the contaminated they will stop visiting the town, leading to losses.

Writer Bhashkar Chattopadhyay, in a piece for Firstpost, finds parallels between personal conditions in which Ibsen wrote the play and Ray adapted it. The Norwegian playwright’s work was a response to the outcry against his previous play, Ghosts (1881), which had explored taboo subjects of incest and syphilis, and was a scathing commentary on 19th-century morality. “Strangely enough, as many as 80 years later, in another part of the globe, history repeated itself, and the same story played out, when in 1960, Satyajit Ray made a film titled Devi — which was a scathing commentary on the dangers of blind superstitions and religious orthodoxies. Ray had to face unprecedented public criticism for the film — with allegations against him ranging from trying to malign a religion he himself was not a part of, all the way to hurting the sentiments of Hindus all over the world,” writes Chattopadhyay, adding that Ganashatru was his response.

But, there is also a public, political angle to it. Ray’s film was released in January 1990; in September that year, senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader would set out on his Rath Yatra. This would provide impetus to the Ram Mandir movement, leading to the demolition of the 16th Babri Masjid in Ayodhya and nationwide communal riots two years later. The demand for the temple was already pretty loud by the time Ray started making the film, and he would have been aware of the consequences that a lone rational man would face on countering faith with science. In a telling scene in Ganashatru, the owner of the hospital where Dr Gupta works and a member of the temple’s board, tells him that charanamitra cannot be contaminated because the water from the tube wells is mixed Ganga water and tulsi (basil).

A fatal disease as a metaphor for a political ideology, especially an oppressive one is not uncommon. Camus novel The Plague (1947) uses the eponymous ailment as a symbol for Nazism; Alexander Solzhenitsyn denied that the hospital in Cancer Ward (1966) was a microcosm for Stalin’s USSR, but it has frequently been read as such. In a powerful scene in Ganashatru, Dr Gupta looks on as devotees push each other to get a bit of the charanamitra. His face changes into a grimace; he knows that this water is the source of contamination in the town. But it is not only the contamination of the human body; it is also contamination of the mind.

When the local newspaper rescinds on its offer to publish his piece, Dr Gupta calls a public meeting to make the people of the town aware of his discovery. But, before he can read out his piece, the meeting is hijacked by his brother, Nishith Gupta (Dhritiman Chatterjee), who is also the chairman of the municipality. Nishith questions Dr Gupta’s faith in religion and accuses him of slandering the temple. The meeting ends in chaos, with the citizens of Chandipur turning against him. Dr Gupta’s house is attacked, his landlord asks him to vacate it, he is sacked from his job at the hospital, and even his daughter, played by Mamata Shankar, is not spared. She, too, loses her job as the school where she was a teacher.

The idea of a man standing up to society at large, refusing to conform, and sticking to his conviction at the face of immense odds was not new to Ray’s oeuvre. He used it in the Apu trilogy, in Pratidwandi (1970) and Jana Aranya (1976), and even in his last film, Agantuk (1991). (This film shares its name with Camus’s first novel, The Stranger.) Ganashatru was probably the bluntest expression of it among Ray’s film, possibly even a little self-indulgent. Dr Gupta can easily be imagined as a stand-in for the director himself, scolding his fellow citizens for disappointing him by their easy surrender to an unscientific way of life. But, the final resolution in the film is in solidarity, and not in hopeless individual struggle.

When all seems lost for Dr Gupta, a local journalist turns up at his house to interview him and give him an opportunity to present his case. His daughter’s fiancé informs him that the young people in the city are eager to hear him. The fight is not over. The last shot of the film focuses on a stethoscope placed along a bottle of charanamitra — the face-off between science and superstition. As Kerala limps back to normalcy, it is a time to continue with the solidarity that marked the relief efforts and not indulge in pointless debates. Even as I write this, news has been reported of how temples in Kerala have allowed people to read namaz in places where mosques are inundated. This is the need of the hour in our undoubtedly divisive times. 

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