LAHORE: The second and last day of the Afkar-i-Taza ThinkFest 2020 began with a keynote address by Nobel Laureate Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, president of the Royal Society, which was moderated by Aga Khan University Hospital’s molecular biologist Natasha Anwar.

In the talk that was titled ‘The Gene Machine’ after Dr Ramakrishnan’s book by the same name, he spoke about various proteins and how each possessed different characteristics on the basis of slight changes in shape.

He said that despite being a PhD in Physics he soon lost interest and stepped into biology where he was awarded with a Nobel Prize for his work on ribosomal structure. He also explained the impossibility of analysing a molecular structure using X-rays.

In the session ‘Savarkar and the Origins of Hindutva’, Dr Ali Raza from Lums talked to Janaki Bakhle about her second book that focuses on Savarkar. Bakhle explained that Savarkar’s Hindutva was a neologism, a term that did not exist before his reign. She explained Savarkar was a self-proclaimed reformer who brought to the people a collection of sentiments called the Essentials of Hindutva. She explained that he writes on three main principles: the caste reform - a progressive one in line with Ambedkar’s ideology; territory; and the hijacking of history. The latter two remain the conventional RSS ideology.

Bhakle explained that Muslims were at the centre of all of Savarkar’s ideology, but only in the political sense, not religious. For him, it was caste that predominantly differentiated Muslims from Hindus. “Savarkar is not well read by academics, but is a person who has been written about a lot, and his ideology is used a lot,” she said. She brought to light Savarkar’s history and how, like Gandhi, he was persecuted under the British law.

“His feelings against Muslims developed as a result of the abuse he faced by an Afghan prison guard who was a Muslim,” she said. “He is said to have blessed the assassin of Gandhi and to have died out of his own will by refusing to take medication.”

She explained an alternate hypothesis about Savarkar as the only hero for Hindus where Gandhi was a sell-out and Nehru busy with his own interests.

Dr Raza asked Bakhle about the contradictions that were evident in Savarkar’s life, and she narrated some stories from his childhood and clarified that it was the same Savarkar who although a complex personality responded to the same opinion regarding Muslims.

Bakhle recalled how his works, alongside Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj, were banned by the British. She remembered his writings against the Raj claiming that their occupation was intended by God. “Savarkar became a hero to the niche of revolutionaries around the world,” she said. “The British arrested him on two counts: sedition and under the Fugitives Act.”

She also brought up the importance of the Khilafat Movement in Savarkar’s development. In the 1920s, most nationalists, including Gandhi, were arrested and there was a vacuum in the political sphere which Savarkar exploited by bringing in his narrative.

She summed up, saying that in theory, anybody could be a Hindu. “This becomes a tricky business, as it becomes a sort of imperialist move to colonise the communities that deviate from the basics.”

In the session ‘Rise of Populism in India’, US-based journalist of Indian origin, Sadanand Dhume, and Mani Shankar Aiyar spoke with Najam Sethi on the situation in India.

Mr Aiyar said that while there was a populist revolution under way in India, he felt positive that there was a very strong anti-populist revolution also, one which was not financed or led by any agenda. He said according to Francis Fukoyama, populism had three characteristics: economics -- where the leaders tended to put economic policies that felt good to hear about but may not be sustainable in the long term; communicating directly with the people (Modi’s radio programme ‘Mann Ki Baat’); and when a populist leader refers to ‘people’, it is actually just a sub-set of the masses – he means some, not all.

He said that although there was an anti-populist movement going on and he wanted it to prevail, the reality was that the government had many cards here, the foremost being that the Citizenship Amendment Act was actually kindness on the part of the government to let people register their national identity. But what they did not seem to mention was how they were excluding people, especially Muslims.

He said that such protests were happening all over the country and many Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka had fled to South Indian areas mainly because of the language, not religion. The attempt to use religion through the backdoor meant that the ideas of Gandhi and Nehru were being challenged almost 100 years later.

Meanwhile, Mr Dhume said that this was definitely an era of right-wing populism and it has a cultural tinge. “Modi was helped by a slowdown in the economy,” he said. “Demographic anxiety is the reason for the rise of Hindutva – they feel as if their culture is shrinking and a sense of ‘otherness’ is born.”

Aiyar said that he was happy to see that India was not one of the biggest problems in Pakistan, because in India it was the opposite and usually elections were won with anti-Pakistan sloganeering.

A very interesting session took place with Dr Kim Wagner talking about his book on the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, the precedents and the impact. In his research, the massacre was a momentous incident that gave birth to many other anti-colonial movements. The details given in the book explain what colonialism stood for, and the central role of fear in the system. Dr Ammar Ali Jan moderated the session.

The discussion also revolved around how the British perceived the Indians and for them there was no such thing as a peaceful gathering of Indians. It was also important for the British to keep their stranglehold on Punjab because this was where most of their loyalties came from. Any kind of uprising here would not be tolerated.

Dr Wagner said the gathering of people at the Jallianwala Bagh was peaceful, but Gen Dyer, who was the third general to be deployed there in 24 hours, only saw them as enemies.

Today, even in the UK, he further said, the tragedy is not seen by all as a big moment. There is only a section of society that knows of and condemns this incident. Otherwise, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre was just a snapshot of the colonial situation in the subcontinent, he added.

Published in Dawn, January 13th, 2020