Venue for a Speech on Tamas: A Chronicle of an Event That Should Never Have Happened

First posted December 5, 2011

By Dilip Simeon; published in Bruised Memories: Communal Violence and the Writer, by Tarun Saint (ed), Seagull Books, Calcutta, 2002

Early in the year of grace 1988 certain (dis)reputable members of the academic community in the University of Delhi organized a public address on an unspeakable subject by a reluctant speaker in an unlikely location. Your chronicler was one of those persons. Our repute – or notoriety, depending on ideological taste – was on account of our strident criticism of the politics of Hinduttva, at the time a popular philosophy within the teaching community. (It probably still is, although the hopes of its votaries have been somewhat dimmed by the course of events). The address was part of a meeting to discuss the controversial TV serial Tamas, whose storyline suggested to some minds that the Partition of India had been sparked off by the actions of Hindus. Its advent on the household screen had enraged the sensibilities of Hinduttva‘s hegemons. 

So severe was their ire that the Hyderabad centre of Doordarshan had been ransacked by the local wing of the BJP in protest and as a token of what could be expected to happen if it continued to be telecast. In our opinion however, Tamas was a balanced and sincere fictionalized portrayal of the dangerous and inhuman consequences of communal politics of whichever hue. The star speaker at our meeting was none other than the author of the script and the venue was the auditorium of Ramjas College. What transpired on that fateful day became an object lesson in the art of intimidation, the politics of speech and the (potential) strength of conviction.

The episode had its origins in the decision by the students’ wing of the Hindu nationalists to invite me to participate in a panel discussion of the serial being organized by the university student’s union, then under their control. I was approached by the unions’ emissaries during the course of a lecture by two visiting Pakistani civil rights activists (ironical, but true), and told them that a far better choice of speaker would be my comrade and colleague, Purushottam Agrawal, who was then employed as a teacher of medeival poetry in the Hindi department of the college. This was agreed upon, and we were duly informed of the date and venue. 

A week later, on the appointed day we saw posters advertising the seminar at Tagore Hall with a list of names which contained four speakers of known saffron persuasion (known colloquially as shakha mrigs) and two (pseudo)-secularists (to use Shri Advani’s quaint and ironic semantic invention) one of whom, Rajendra Mathur of the Hindi daily Navbharat Times subsequently revealed to us that he had no information about the panel discussion and that his name had been announced without his consent. On the lawn outside the Hall and in the company of several students who had come there specifically to hear Purushottam, the latter made clear his anger and irritation at the organizers for having misled us about the nature of the panel, which we had been led to understand was going to be `balanced’. He was inclined at first to boycott the proceedings and deny the event the aura of a democratic debate, so dearly sought after by its organizers.

After considering our options, our little group decided that this was an opportunity not to be wasted. Purushottam was the first speaker and his speech delivered extempore, was the most scintillating polemic against so-called Hindu nationalism that I have ever heard. Drawing upon his knowledge of classical bhakti as well as modern literature and with rhetorical flourishes embellished by his political sense regarding the dangers of incipient fascism, he spent over forty minutes demolishing the arguments and actions of the opponents of the serial. Towards the middle of his oration the organizers and the rest of the panelists (which included a notorious politician from East Delhi) were looking decidedly sheepish, but it is a measure of the power of his words that he held his largely hostile audience spellbound.

As our small group sipped tea and chatted in the lawns of the Law Faculty in the aftermath of the meeting Ram Prakash Tripathi, a Ramjas Hindi honours student, suggested that we invite the author of Tamas to the university. Ved Prakash, another of Purushottam’s students, enthusiastically supported the idea. We soon convinced ourselves that this was the best way to counter the hysteria being so assiduously built up about the serial. And what better place to invite him to than our own college? A date in early February was tentatively decided upon and arrangements made to invite Bhisham Sahni along with Dewan Birendranath, the well-known Urdu literateur and a stalwart of the anti-communal movement.

One morning, some days before our big event, I arrived at the college to find Ram Prakash standing at the gate holding a stick with an inverted ghara with a gruesome face painted on it. A placard indicated that the face represented “communal forces”… Read on: