This is the first part of the edited transcript of renowned writer and journalist P. Sainath’s inaugural speech at the Panchajanyam film festival at Chittoor, Palakkad, Kerala. The event took place on February 4, 2024. (For Video, Click Here)
I am very happy to be here, particularly with the platform and event associated with the memory of KP Sasi, who I knew from my JNU days and again when he came back and worked in Mumbai for a while as an artist and political cartoonist. I am also glad to be here because I like your theme for the festival, which is “Rediscovering India”. It is obvious that there is a growing number of people in our country who have never discovered it (India) in the first place. These people who have never discovered India are building an entirely obnoxious construct and “rediscovering India” will mean necessarily rescuing India from what is happening around us.
Three weeks ago, the former president of the Bajrang Dal, perhaps one of the most aggressive Presidents of the organisation, Jaibhan Singh Pawaiya, told The Week magazine that the Mandir movement (Ayodhya Ram Mandir movement) is far greater and bigger than the Independence and Freedom Movement. Now, you can dismiss it as the mumblings of an idiot – which he undoubtedly is – but ten or 15 years ago, he could not have said such a thing without being challenged. Today he can do that.
This was on the eve of the orgy of January 22 (when the consecration of the Ayodhya Ram Mandir was done by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.). Then, approximately ten days ago Tamil Nadu Governor Ravi declared that Gandhi’s contribution and role in the freedom struggle was insignificant. He went on to say that it was Subas Chandra Bose who did everything in the freedom struggle. Now, this is a fantastic thing of juxtaposing figures who actually dealt with each other very differently.
Do you know what names Subas Chandra Bose gave to the brigades of the Indian National Army (INA),when he formed it? We all know about the Jhansi Rani Brigade. But, the other brigades of the INA were Gandhi Brigade and Nehru Brigade, named after his onetime comrades in the Congress party. By the way, in 1943 Netaji Subas Chandra Bose was making a speech on Gandhi’s birthday and do you know what he said? He said that, never in history has one individual achieved so much in one lifetime. Indeed, they (Bose, Gandhi and Nehru) had great differences. That is why they broke apart and that is why they formed different political parties. But they were of a class and a generation and a mindset that dealt with differences very very differently from the way we do today. Yes, they would ideologically fight the other completely, but they never denied the others, their role in history and their role in the struggle.
What was I doing on January 22nd when the Prime Minister was playing high priest to Hindutva and in fact making the Shankaracharyas jealous, many of whom wanted to know what right he (Modi) had to be doing what he did in Ayodhya on that day. On that day, the television channels were full of Modi. Lord Modi kneeling down and Lord Modi prostrating, Lord Modi rolling over etc. I kept looking for the Ram Lalla (Lord Ram in a child image), but Modi was clearly more visible on channels than Lord Ram.
It was told that the day marked a celebration of the return lord Ram from exile. But the fact is Ram Lalla was not kicked out of Ayodhya by Babar or Islam which did not exist at that time. Ram was thrown out of Ayodhya by his flesh and blood. He was kicked out by his father and his stepmother. Now,what that has to do with Babar or what that has to do with Islam is beyond me. But, you can write your own history now.The differences you are seeing on these subjects and on these issues is not the difference between different interpretations of history. It is a difference between those who see history as a process, history as an evidence based discipline and those to whom evidence is irrelevant and faith triumphs over everything else. Evidence is irrelevant in this school of thought.
I covered Ayodhya as a journalist when I was working in Blitz. I covered the Ram Janmabhoomi movement from between mid 1980s to a little after 1993, the period when the demolition of the Babri Masjid took place in December 1992 and the riots took place in different parts of the country, including in Mumbai. It was also the time when the great security scam rocked Dalal Street. On the one side you had Ram Janmabhoomi and on the other side the Scam Janmabhoomi, as we put it in the Blitz paper.
I have visited Ayodhya several times and if you go to the Ayodhya- Faizabad region there is not one but thousands of temples in that region. Almost half of these temples claim that Ram was born at the place their temple stood. They would give you the spot marked X as the birthplace of Ram, but they could not tell you when the Lord was born, because once you start trying to put a date to it you run into all kinds of problems. So, there are temples where Ram shot his first Arrow and there are temples where Ram, you know, maybe ate an apple or whatever. That is there are temples for every moment of the Lord’s life, but there is no temple which tells you when he was born. You claim to know the exact spot and the location (of the Lord’s birth) and you built a huge thing on it.
On that day, our organisation, the People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI), we carried Rabindranath Tagore’s 124 year old poem, which is titled “There is no space for God in your temple”. In that poem Tagore writes of a great king who built a gigantic temple of gold, which was almost piercing the sky. There was effusive enthusiasm when it was inaugurated, but after a while nobody was going there. At the same time, the courtiers reported to the king that people are going and listening to some old sadhu who was sitting under the branches of a tree.
So, the king took his courtiers and went to the sadhu and he asked him,”Oh Holy One, why are you sitting here in the open when you have got my temple over there and you can preach from there.“ And the sadhu said “there is no space for God in that Temple“. The king gets very angry and says, look, it is pure gold, it is piercing the sky, I built such a thing and you are saying my temple is empty? The sadhu replied: “I didn’t say your temple was empty. It is filled and crowded with your arrogance and pride. The arrogance and pride of a King. That is what is there in your temple.”
Governor Ravi and the former Bajrang Dal president are able to say the kind of things they said and get away with it, because of the dangerously near complete erasure of our history. Erasure of our history is visible from the way the official government website displays things. Please compare what you saw on January 22 with how the country celebrated August 15 and January 26. Is there any comparison? Did the commemoration of one of the greatest Freedom struggles humanity has seen get that kind of attention? You did not see that on August 15 and you did not see anything of it on January 26 Republic day but you saw the most incredible celebration on January 22. This again has to do with the erasure of history.
The extraordinary thing about the present regime is not merely the erasure of the past. They are even erasing the present. Look how after losing millions of people in Covid -19 we are now claiming to be the nation that managed Covid best in the world. There is a section in the official website of the government, which claims to be a celebration of 75 years of Independence. However, this website does not contain a single picture, a single photograph, a single video, a single illustration, a single story on or a quote by a living freedom fighter. There are many still alive in different parts of the country, including in Kerala, but still they don’t figure in the website at all.
I am told that after “The Last Heroes“ (Sainath’s book “ Last Heroes; the Foot Soldiers of Indian Freedom” Penguin 2022) came out they have taken two or three characters from my book and included them, but they have been careful to include those characters who have died. But not a single living freedom fighter was included. Now, I am not saying there are no photos on the website. There are hundreds of photographs and you all know whose photographs would be there. Yes, the very same photograph that appeared on every single Covid-19 vaccine certificate. The same photograph, if we are unfortunate in April- May this year, which will appear on every bus ticket in this country.
Generations have grown up without knowing what British colonialism did to countries and people around the world. Incidentally, every year there is new emerging research on what that colonialism did. But that research is not happening in Indian universities. In 2022 November Jason Hickel of London and Dylan Sullivan of Melbourne brought out an astonishing paper. You know all of us during Covid-19, we learned this word “ excess deaths “. What does this “ excess deaths” mean? Excess deaths mean if a society has a normal number of deaths each year – let us say a big nation has 10 million deaths a year normally, but one year it has 15 million, then the excess deaths are 5 million. You all read this phrase during the Covid-19 period.
Does anyone have a sense of what were excess deaths during British rule? Remember those days you were a bigger country. You were India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, parts of Burma and parts of Nepal. What these two researchers – Hickel and Sullivan – have done is take data of 40 years – from 1880 to 1920 – and tabulate excess deaths. Why did they take 1880 as the starting year? Because the India’s first census was in 1871 and so from 1880 to 1921 you have comparable data. And what did they find? Can you guess the number of excess deaths in just 40 years of British imperialism? There is a high estimate, there is a low estimate and a middle estimate.
But the general agreement or consensus is that 100 million excess deaths took place in that period. The high estimate is 168 million excess deaths. Can you count how many that is per second? Now, tell me if just one percent of that had occurred in a European country you would be screaming genocide. But it was treated as worthless Brown lives.
Continued in Part Two.