Pride and ownership
Narendra Modi launches Swachh Bharat Mission in New Delhi, October 2, 2014
IT WAS IN his address in 1916, at the inaugural ceremony of the Banaras Hindu University at Kashi, that Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi connected cleanliness and orderly thought with independence. More importantly, he unapologetically owned the ancient Hindu culture and heritage of the land, exhorting his audience to do so with pride—as an essential part of the effort to build the new nation. Gandhi said: “I visited the Vishwanath temple and as I walked through those lanes, these were the thoughts that touched me. If a stranger dropped from above on to this great temple and he had to consider what we as Hindus were, would he not be justified in condemning us? Is not this great temple a reflection of our own character? I speak feelingly, as a Hindu. Is it right that the lanes of our sacred temple should be as dirty as they are? The houses round about are built anyhow. The lanes are tortuous and narrow. If even our temples are not models of roominess and cleanliness, what can our self-government be? Shall our temples be abodes of holiness, cleanliness and peace as soon as the English have retired from India, either of their own pleasure or by compulsion, bag and baggage?”
This was decades before thraldom to the British was finally cast off. The Father of the Nation-to-be was clear in his vision of India: the heritage and culture of the land should be owned even as it marched towards modernity. Cleanliness and orderliness were to him the fulcrum of holistic health and radical thought that would challenge prevalent practices that forcibly relegated certain communities to the work of sanitation. A metaphor, in effect, for sanitising regressive mindsets on casteism and its attendant oppression. Linking an ordered mind and dirt-free environment to one of the most revered gods of the Hindu pantheon at Kashi was the pivot of his worldview that cleanliness was next only to godliness. Clearing the refuse-ridden bylanes surrounding the Vishwanath temple—in one of the oldest surviving cities of the world holy to Hindus—was, for Mahatma Gandhi, the best prayer to the supreme deity, to the environment and to society. He also believed that the foundations of the new nation should be built and reinforced from the countryside, the heart of the land.
In the decades that followed Independence, the temples of modern India, however, took precedence after the first Five-Year Plan. The building of mammoth Central institutions with little resonance in everyday life in rural India overshadowed much else, divorced from and even apologetic of the much-revered traditions of the majority community. European societies showcased their traditional symbols and identities and were celebrated by the Indian leadership who saw only regressive values in similar symbols of our own culture. Thus, new symbols dominated the discourse, even as those of traditional culture atrophied through neglect.
Ironically, Swadeshi, including khadi, the homespun that most effectively signified the warp and weft of the struggles and sacrifices of individual Indians for freedom, was sidelined. It was forced to make way for cheap synthetic fibres in a land of sweltering summers and came to be regarded with a sense of revulsion. In the 1990s, even leaders of the party at the helm of the Independence movement sidelined the homespun for the cheaper, easily maintained synthetic substitutes.
Writing in Young India in 1931 on the importance of the Swadeshi spirit, Gandhi said, ‘A country remains poor in wealth, both materially and intellectually, if it does not develop its handicrafts and its industries and lives a lazy parasitic life by importing all the manufactured articles from outside. There was a time when we manufactured almost all we wanted. The process is now reversed, and we are dependent upon the outside world for most manufactured goods. The past year brought forth a remarkable awakening of the Swadeshi spirit. It has therefore become necessary to define Swadeshi goods. But in giving a definition, care had to be taken not to make the definition so narrow as to make manufacture all but impossible or so wide as to become farcical and Swadeshi only in name. We do not want to follow the frog-in-the-well policy, nor in seeming to be international, lose our roots. We cannot be international, if we lose our individuality, i.e., nationality.’ What Gandhi wrote then resonated even six-plus decades after Independence, during which ‘losing our roots’ came to be celebrated with hosannas.
The more significant damage to the perception of Hinduism—and the magnificent edifice of ancient culture, heritage and community identity associated with it—came not from the British but from within, post-Independence. Systematic efforts were made to trash an omnibus faith that celebrated diversity as a weak belief system lacking in spiritual and moral vigour. Backed by Marxist historians, Hindu culture and heritage were projected in state-sponsored history as exploitative and regressive, patriarchal and feudal, endorsing the subjugation of non-Brahminical castes. The very moral centre of Hinduism was ridiculed. These were monumental wrongs that had to be urgently righted—and the Modi Government was determined to hit the ground running.
In 2014, when Narendra Modi raced to power in Delhi, there was a singular clarity of purpose and perspective that he would have to restore pride in the traditions and cultural heritage of this land—a prestige that had to be knit again into a rejuvenated primary discourse around the freedom movement and a New India with its indelible symbols of identity. An identity that did not stem from the Constitution alone but from the sacred in the lived life of the people.
From launching a renewed rebranding exercise to reclaim khadi as a symbol of rural India and the fibre that bound the freedom movement together to the re-development of the famed Kashi Vishwanath temple complex, from reviving the Char Dham holy to Hindus to gifting copies of the Hindu epics to heads of state, from honouring leaders of socially marginalised communities to according Sanskrit pride of place in education, from relocating Ayurveda and traditional medicinal systems as a centrepiece of official health policy to asserting internationally that yoga was ancient India’s gift to the world and reclaiming its ownership, the Modi Government began to rightfully reinterpret the cultural moorings of this land and its people, divorcing them from the longstanding accretions of ignominy in the lopsided race to build a ‘modern’ India.
AMONG MODI’S pet plans was the Maha Yojana to redevelop Varanasi. Central to this plan is the Kashi Vishwanath Temple Corridor, spread over 39,000 square metres, linking the ancient shrine and one of the 12 Jyotirlinga temples to the ghats. Modi laid the foundation for this—the city’s first major redevelopment project since 1780 when Ahilyabai Holkar of Indore had developed this holiest of Hindu shrines—in March 2019. At the foundation ceremony, Modi, who represents the city in Parliament, spoke of a dream in which the deity had exhorted him to put his heart and soul in the project where, today, the primary architectural symbol is the dome of the Gyanvapi mosque built by Aurangzeb. The clearing of the surrounding areas unearthed 40 temples. While the corridor itself is pegged at Rs 700 crore, a sum of Rs 40,000 crore is earmarked for some 300 projects involving the transformation of Kashi into a modern, Smart City able to showcase India’s ancient culture for both domestic and international tourists. The ambitious project is meant to seamlessly link tradition with modernity—and redefine its Hindu moorings as a fundamental feature of independent India.
It was as part of this same broader worldview that Modi, in December 2016, launched an all-weather highway project to link the Hindu pilgrimage route of Char Dham. The Chardham Mahamarg Vikas Pariyojna, a Rs 12,000-crore, 900-km project, at long last, aims to connect Badrinath, Kedarnath, Yamunotri and Gangotri in Uttarakhand.
Linking cleanliness with godliness as Gandhi did has remained a core inspiration for the Swachh Bharat mission in instilling a culture of tidy and refuse-free surroundings that improve physical, mental and spiritual health. Lack of a public health and hygiene routine was one of the biggest failures of traditional India. ‘The cause of many of our diseases is the condition of our lavatories and our bad habit of disposing of excreta anywhere and everywhere. I, therefore, believe in the absolute necessity of a clean place for answering the call of nature and clean articles for use at the time and have accustomed myself to them and wish that all others should do the same. The habit has become so firm in me that even if I wished to change it, I would not be able to do so, nor do I wish to change it,’ Gandhi maintained. With each person becoming his or her own scavenger and cleaning up after themselves, oppression on sections of society that have sanitation work forced upon them because of their caste would also wither away, he felt.
Modi has ensured a widening of perspective on public health and hygiene, positioning sanitation as a crucial component of mental, physical and spiritual health, as propounded by Gandhi. Modi has been more successful with changing mindsets than anyone before him
The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan was launched in 2014 from Raj Ghat by Modi. It was to be a nationwide campaign till 2019, aiming to raise social awareness on cleanliness and health. The objectives include challenging regressive practices through an evolution of mindset by effecting a successful behavioural change in society on public hygiene. Swachh Bharat aims at cleaning up the streets, roads and infrastructure of India’s cities, towns and rural areas. Its objectives also include eliminating open defecation through the construction of household-owned and community-owned toilets. Modi connected the mission to the Father of the Nation, dedicating it to his memory and vision on his 145th birth anniversary. The Mahatma is believed to have maintained that “Everyone must be his own scavenger. If you become your own bhangi [sweeper], not only will you ensure perfect sanitation for yourself, but you will make your surroundings clean and relieve those whom you call bhangis, of the weight of oppression.”
India is to be made open-defecation free by October 2019. A massive awareness campaign linking toilets to good health and the dignity and security of rural women was also launched. Thousands of toilets have been constructed countrywide, most through Government subsidies. Reviews on their state and lack of use due to scarcity of water, poor construction, etcetera led to criticism but by mid-2019, Modi had ensured a widening of perspective on public health and hygiene, managing to position sanitation as a crucial component of mental, physical and spiritual health, as propounded by Gandhi. This has been a difficult task in caste-ridden rural India still subscribing to blind beliefs on women’s hygiene. Modi has been more successful with changing mindsets than anyone before him, even going to the extent of holding that toilets are as important as temples in society.
For Gandhi, khadi—the homespun central to the freedom movement, to livelihoods, lives and lifestyles in rural India—and its revival would make ‘the largest contribution to the economic and moral regeneration of India’. He also saw the traditional art of spinning khadi as a key means to supplement income from agriculture. In an article in Young India in 1924, Gandhi justified his support for the sector: ‘Khadi is only seemingly expensive. I have pointed out that it is wrong to compare khadi with other cloth by comparing the prices of given lengths. The inexpensiveness of khadi consists in the revolution of one’s taste. The wearing of khadi replaces the conventional idea of wearing clothes for ornament by that of wearing them for use.’ Modi, echoing Gandhi’s sentiments, was determined to revive khadi, which the Congress had abandoned without ceremony well over a decade ago, leaving it and the thousands dependent on it, to fend for themselves.
Modi’s policies have fuelled a silent revolution, spelling a rebranding and rejuvenation of the sector, ensuring close to two million jobs in the four years between 2014 and 2018, a time when the sector’s sales rose to Rs 1,828. 30 crore, up from only Rs 914.07 crore. That meant a 100 per cent growth. The Khadi and Village Industries Commission now has a job creation target of 1.38 million till 2020.
Modi’s inclination towards alternative medicine systems and holistic health practices led to the decision to mainstream traditional medicinal systems and restore them to their rightful place in policy measures through the AYUSH ministry. These systems, either ridiculed or marginalised, have once again found pride of place in the life of Indians. Rejuvenating these systems was also part of the larger blueprint to officially centrepiece ancient cultural heritage. According to some estimates, the Government’s push has led to a 20 per cent growth in patients for AYUSH sectors. By 2022, the Government has set itself a target of $9 billion for the Ayurveda sector’s size, with personnel-rich Central ministries like Railways, Labour and Defence coming on board to set up special wings for AYUSH systems in allopathic hospitals under them. The Government’s aggressive push to the Ayurveda sector (now at about $4 billion) holds immense potential for private investment in the overall hospital industry estimated at $60 billion.
But it is with the ancient holistic health system of yoga that Modi has been the most successful. Yoga has been reintegrated into the social consciousness as an essential symbol of New India’s identity. Both nationally and internationally, Modi exercised his most effective projection of India’s ‘soft power’ through yoga. The export of yoga to the West happened much before Modi came to power. But he aggressively reclaimed yoga’s origins in India. In November 2018, on a visit to Argentina, Modi asserted that yoga was India’s gift to the world and global healthcare. Describing yoga as “an invaluable gift of our ancient tradition”, Modi maintained at the UN General Assembly that it “embodies unity of mind and body, thought and action, restraint and fulfilment”. He said it is “about harmony between man and nature, a holistic approach to health and well-being”.
In their paper ‘Yoga soft power: how flexible is the posture?’, Aavriti Gautam and Julian Droogan maintain that Modi’s use of yoga as a key tool to project India as a global soft power giant has reinforced its position as a cultural, spiritual and inclusive force. ‘Yoga soft power diplomacy represents a concerted effort on India’s behalf to draw on ancient S Asian spiritual traditions to portray itself as a benign and beneficial cultural force in global affairs,’ they argue. June 21st was designated International Yoga Day by the UN in response to Modi’s own appeal, with the backing of 177 nations. Strategic affairs commentator C Raja Mohan has argued that ‘If Delhi was hesitant in the past to project its rich cultural inheritance from the past or celebrate its contemporary democratic values, Modi appears bolder on both fronts.’ The mobilisation at the global level has meant that Modi has managed to consolidate people at home too behind this ancient and holistic health system, especially by taking the lead himself each year at public demonstrations of yoga.
By overtly rekindling a strong sense of pride in ancient art and culture, holistic health and medicine systems, Modi has successfully created the symbols of identity in New India and inspired Indians to reclaim their age-old heritage with pride and honour. This, he believes, is the real freedom from thraldom—a slavery of the mind that undervalued our culture in our own eyes.