A Kafila of Brown Sahibs and Memsahibs?

by Ritwik on October 13, 2010

On 5 October, Kafila.org published a post by Nivedita Menon, guest authored by Susmita Dasgupta, which argued that Nirmohi Akhara is not a “Hindu” sect and that Ram was a fictional hero not backed by Puranic texts and therefore worshipped only by those on the margins of society.

Almost every line of the original post leaves the author and her hypothesis vulnerable to being taken apart. For instance, the author contends that Krishna-worshippers traditionally believed themselves to be non-hindu. At some time, krishna-worshippers could “climb into the Hindu fold because Krishna has a Puranic backing”. It is curious why those who defined themselves as “non-Hindus” would want to climb into the “Hindu” fold. Maybe there are lots of details and resultant complex analysis involved in this picture, which the author hasn’t had the time or effort to look into, eager as she is to wade into murky waters to serve one or the other political project. If such service is to be done at the expense of the truth or academic method, then so be it!

I shall not dwell any more on the factual inaccuracies and logical inconsistencies which are scattered all over Susmita’s post and her response to comments. Indeed, certain commentators, like “BC” and “suresh” have already raised some extremely probing questions to which Susmita has (wisely) chosen not to respond.

Having read the post soon after it was published, and having found it legitimately funny [though such an outcome was probably not foreseen by the author or her promoters], I had submitted the following comment to Kafila:

My heartfelt thanks to Susmita and Nivedita for providing some much needed comic relief in the midst of an overheated debate on Ayodhya.

Susmita, in the course of your researches (?) did you bother inquiring from the Nirmohi Akhara as to their religious persuasion? Specifically about whether they consider themselves within or without the fold of hindusim.

Even though it was the first serious engagement with Susmita’s post, this comment was not approved by Kafila’s extremely enlightened moderators – the flimsy reasons cited by them [only on my prompting via this blog] can be read here

My comment was not made in jest. It’s tone was somewhat dismissive because I think indulging in long debates with people who cannot respect academic rigour or method and for whom facts are but inconvenient obstacles in the way of ideology, constitutes a waste of time. Indeed, there would be some justification in labelling the Kafila bunch, barring some honourable exceptions like Rohini Hensman and Jairus Banaji, as extremists [glib ones, though] for this very reason.

The second part of my comment [about asking the Nirmohi Akhara] involves a serious question of methodology. It is alright to to go back to Rabindranath and Saratchandra and other Indian and Western scholars, however did the author bother to ask the present followers of the Nirmohi Akhara about their religious persuasion? Isn’t it extremely condescending for all of us, far way from ground realities and communicating in a foreign tongue, to be passing judgement on the religious beliefs of a set of people without even bothering to consult them about it? Forget about involving them as actual participants, in this instance English speaking “scholaraship” has failed to even use the “subject of study” as a “native informant” !

Such methodology brings to mind the following passage by the brilliant social theorist Achille Mbembe:

On key matters, the Hegelian, post-Hegelian, and Weberian Traditions, philosophies of action and philosophies of deconstruction derived from Nietzsche or Heidegger, share the representation of the distinction between the West and other historical human forms as, largely, the way  the individual in the West has gradually freed her/himself from the sway of traditions and attained an autonomous capacity to conceive, in the here and now, the definiton of norms and their free formulation by  individual, rational wills. These traditions also share, to varying degrees, the assumption that, compared to the West, other societies are primitive, simple or traditional in that, in them, the weight of the past predetermines individual behaviour and limits the areas of choice – as it were, a priori. The formulation of norms in these latter societies has nothing to do with reasoned public deliberation, since the setting of norms by a process of argument is a specific invention of modern Europe.
(Achille Mbembe, On the Postcolony,2001)

If, in the above, we replace Western/European by English-speaking/convent-educated and take other societies to mean non-English speaking sections of India, then we see that the kind of attitude adopted by Susmita Dasgupta and other writers at Kafila is precisely the kind that Mbembe bemoans and rejects in Western discourses about Africa [and by extension, other colonized societies]. Somehow, in their keen-ness to emancipate the masses by “representing” their interests, some people forget or fail to take into consideration the masses own feelings on the matter.  In doing so, they end up behaving like arrogant white masters in a colony instead of equal participants in a democratic set up. In the present instance, the Nirmohi Akhara should be consulted about their own religious beliefs. The fact that they may not speak English, or refuse to participate in coffee table discussions should be immaterial. Please note that my question, was and is, one of methodology. I am not presupposing Nirmohi Akhara’s response [or lack thereof] if a query over their religious beliefs is indeed posed to them.

By censoring out my comment, Kafila doesn’t muzzle me since I am still reaching a audience similar to theirs through the same medium, but by muzzling the Nirmohis on a matter inextricably linked to them, not only does Kafila show intellectual arrogance, but a rather unfortunate sense of cultural and linguistic superiority which is a relic of the colonial episteme. Kafila should know that if they open their eyes to this, they can discard what we can call, the Educated Brown Man’s Burden, and this will enrich both their understanding and analysis.


hey, ppl like this kafila writer are those who want to gain some mileage from the ‘opportunity’ that came with the verdict. When the ‘common people’, the ones who live in the numerous galis, mohallas, and colonies are happy with the demonstration of secularism, why are the so called intellectuals sad. Did they want a one sided decision so that they could hav insighted more hatred and difference. Ignore it, such pieces hav no significance. She is no authority, I believe she is not smarter than the three judges and all the researchers who reached at their position through merit, not through biased one sided approach. Its a shame we dont respect our own judiciary and administration n CLAIM to be INTELLECTUAL.

by anjali on October 13, 2010 at 9:20 pm. #

Brilliant analysis Ritwik!

Most people at Kafila are wannabe. Shiv-am Vij is one such example. He doesn’t have any idea about Ayodhya, Mayawati or even Kashmir. But, glorifies himself to pioneer such topics to no limit. I’m sure he was kicked out of Tehelka, Outlook, Sakaal and now Open for the same reason.

He is a Communal bigot and an apologist. He can go to any extent to gain attention. Only deal is it should be rhetoric against India and in particular Hindus. His favourite target are the innocent members of the exiled community of Kashmiri Pandits who were forced out of Kashmir in 1990 due to eruption of Islamist terrorism.

They will talk about freedom, liberty and also get violent against cenrorship. But, at the same time will delete comments that will challenge their rhetoric and propaganda. Insane!

Ritwik.. you have exposed them point blank! Be careful!

by Aditya Raj Kaul on October 14, 2010 at 2:44 pm. #

Not answering is bad enough. Not allowing posting of probing criticism is worse. These are not the practices of democratic media. I do not wish to consider Kafila a motivated, dishonest forum, which stifles debate and is crudely intolerant of criticism. But this is so obviously violative of media practices, I wonder if there are any professional journalists, working with or advising Kafila. Please understand that non – acceptance of criticism is acceptance of the charge of motivated dissemination popularly called propaganda. You can’t get very far with ‘Not Open To Scrutiny’ label.

Instances have been reported of of rookie journalists in charge of night shifts in online versions of ‘big media’ blatantly censuring comments not suited to their predilections or fancies. To their credit complaints were acknowledged and regrets issued. So there you are, those they wish to challenge are more fair than them.

As I had remarked earlier, loosing credibility is the last thing they should be courting. Unfortunately that is what seems to be happening. I am sorry for being harsh but as a journalist committed to assert adherence to at least the most basic of publication ethics, it needs to be told as it is. If Kafila allows perceptions of that it is just about motivated preaching, intolerant and arrogant posturing – story for Kafila ends there.

Credibility of online publications has been eroding at a rate faster than the rate of growth of big business online ventures. And the primary reason is this – lack of accountability, transparency and scrutiny – perception is that you will get anything there – half truths, full lies and willful mis- represenatations. Being an online venture Kafila should be aware and sensitive to these issues and trends if I might say so. Reckless ignorance will eventually make citizen / professional driven initiatives irrelevant and un- believable. As a ‘media planner’ in an online broadcasters meet at Frankfurt remarked “ it is not about money – it is about authenticity “. Online publications have freed us from the shackles of buying and paying for money in kind and cash, thus paving the way for independent and honest media ventures, but it has not freed you from the ethics of publication and responsibilities emerging from it. Upholding of these values should be the hallmark of such ventures.

This thread was put earlier on perhaps a week back if I remember correctly. If they have not yet responded. That’s it. I guess. This is seriously bad news for supporters of dissent ventures against big media’s motivated biases .

by Shailendra Dhar on October 14, 2010 at 3:54 pm. #

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