Premchand’s (1880-1936) essay “Sampradayikta aur Sanskriti” remains as timely in 2018 – 138 years after his birth and 82 years after his death – as it was when written in 1934. Characterised by Premchand’s unique prose and rhetoric, this essay is one among several he wrote on communalism and culture – subjects that are often incorrectly yoked together. In order to provide the readers with a sense of fluidity of the original as well as the biting sarcasm of Premchand’s writing, this translation closely follows the text of the essay with its idiomatic usage of language. To some extent, I retain the syntactic structure of the Hindi text too.
Premchand’s most stringent critique is reserved for the leaders of various communities and members of the colonial government whom he terms sajjan (gentlemen) and afsar (officials), respectively. The various levels of honorific pronouns used in Hindi adequately indicate whom he is referring to without always naming them, but these might be lost in translation. I have added my clarifications in square brackets.
I also retain some terms from the original Hindi text and provide translations in round brackets. As the essay proceeds, Premchand’s main claim and critique of capitalism gains strength. He contends that the primary aim of the ruling class, whether they are British or India, is self-perpetuation and economic benefit. Premchand’s utmost sympathy is reserved for the janta (the people) who are caught between the self-serving leaders and a profit-minded colonial government. He writes: “ ‘Culture’ is the indulgence of the rich, the well-fed, and the carefree. For the poor, survival is the biggest problem.”
This translation is based on the version included in Premchanda Rachnavali: The Collected Works of Munshi Premchand, Volume 9, edited by Ramvilas Sharma and Arun Kumar, Janvani Prakashan. The essay was first published in Jagaran on January 15, 1934.
“Communalism and Culture”
Communalism always deploys the excuse of culture. It is perhaps ashamed to emerge in its real form, therefore, like that donkey which wears the skin of the lion to impose its sway on the animals of the jungle, communalism comes in the garb of culture. The Hindu wants to keep his culture safe until the day of judgment, and the Muslim, his own. Both have considered their cultures to be untouchable until now. They have forgotten that now there is neither a Hindu culture anywhere, nor a Muslim culture, nor any other culture. Today there is only one culture in the world and that is economic culture; but even today the Hindus and the Muslims go on harping about culture although culture has no relationship with religion.
There is an Aryan culture, a Persian culture, an Arab culture but there is nothing called a Christian culture, or a Muslim or Hindu culture. The Hindu is an idol-worshipper, but isn’t the Muslim a worshipper of tombs and holy sites too; who feeds syrup and sweets to the taziya (Moharram tableau) and who considers the masjid to be the house of god? If there is one sect among the Muslims which considers it blasphemous to bow their head in front of even the most important of prophets, then among the Hindus too there is a group which considers gods to be shards of stones, rivers to be mere streams of water, and religious texts to be just tall tales. Here we don’t see any difference between the two cultures.
So, is it a difference in language? Not at all. Muslims may claim Urdu to be the language of their community but for the South Indian Muslim, Urdu is as unfamiliar an object as Sanskrit is for the South Indian Hindu. The Hindus or the Muslims speak the language of the common people of the region in which they live in, whether that is Urdu or Hindi, Bengali or Marathi. The Bengali Muslim cannot speak or even understand Urdu just like the Bengali Hindu cannot. Both speak the same language. The Hindu of the frontier region speaks Pashto just like the Muslim there.
Then, is it a difference in attire? If a Hindu and a Muslim from the frontier region is presented in front of you, there is no difference between them. The Hindu men and women wear shalwars (loose trousers) like the Muslims, the Hindu women use kurta and odhni (long shirt and scarf) like the Muslim women. The Hindu man also ties the kulah and pagdi (cap and turban) like the Muslims do. Often both grow beards too. Go to Bengal; there, Hindu and Muslim women both wear sarees and Hindu and Muslim men both wear kurta and dhoti (long shirt and white waist-cloth). The custom of the tahmad (checkered or coloured waist-cloth draped in a different style from the dhoti) is very recent, trending from the time communalism has gained strength.
Consider the customs of eating. If the Muslims eat meat, then so do eighty per cent of the Hindus. Elite Hindus consume alcohol, elite Muslims consume alcohol too. Lower-class Hindus consume alcohol, lower-class Muslims consume alcohol too. Middle-class Hindus either drink very little or get quite high on bhang (hemp) led by our priestly class. Middle-class Muslims don’t drink much either but some people definitely use opium but, in this addiction, the Hindu brethren are not far behind the Muslims.
Yes, the Muslims sacrifice cows and eat the meat too but there are those sections among the Hindus who eat the meat of cows, so much so that they won’t forgo even the meat of a cow’s carcass – though there is little difference between meat of the carcass or of the sacrificed cow. In the entire world, Hindus are the only people who consider cow meat to be inedible or unholy. Therefore, should the Hindus declare a religious war against the entire world?
Music and painting are also a part of culture but here too we do not find any cultural difference. Both sing the same raag-raginis (traditional melodic structures) and the art of the Mughal-era is also known to us. Dramatic arts may not have been prevalent among Muslims earlier but today, we find Muslims as involved in this context as we find the Hindus.
Therefore, I fail to understand what this culture os that communalism is so hell-bent on protecting. In fact, the clamour for culture is just a pretence, pure hypocrisy. And its [culture’s] progenitors are also such people who sit in the shade of communalism and enjoy themselves. It is just a ruse to drag simple people towards communalism and nothing more. The guardians of Hindu and Muslim culture are those gentlemen and those groups who do not have faith either in themselves, or in their countrymen, or in the truth, and therefore, perpetually feel the need of an entity which will act as the arbitrator in their quarrels.
These organisations have no interest in the well-being of people; they do not have any social or political programme which they could offer to the nation. Their only purpose is to oppose each other so that they can plead to the government and in this way, perpetuate foreign rule. Foreign rule is a lot more tolerable for them than Hindu or Muslim rule. For the sake of gaining positions and concessions, they engage in one-upmanship with each other so as to join the ruler in ruling the people. They do nothing else but this.
If the Muslim manages to gain some concessions by hanging on to the coattails of the ruler, why shouldn’t the Hindu do the same and become successful like the Muslims – this is their mentality. To find a way that lets both Hindus and Muslims to become one and save the nation – this is beyond the power of their imagination. The communal organisations of both belong to the affluent, the landlords, the title-holders, and the power-hungry among the middle-class. Their playing field is limited to finding opportunities for their own groups in order to rule over the people and maintain their economic and commercial hegemony over them. They have no use for the well-being of the common people.
If some policy of the government is expected to benefit the people and these groups fear some harm to themselves, then they are instantly up in arms. If we examine the matter further, then we find that most of the gentlemen (sajjan) in these organisations have some or the other personal motive. At the very least, it makes their path to reach those in authority easier. An astonishing point is that these gentlemen are held in high esteem by the officials (afsar) and are treated with great attention. What else is the reason for this behaviour except for the fact that they [the officials, those in authority] understand that that their own rule depends on such people [gentlemen who lead communal organisations]? Let them [the various communal organisations] keep fighting among themselves, let them keep doing great harm to each other. Then let them [the organisations] take their supplications [to the officials]; whom do they [the latter] care for, they remain forever.
The interesting thing is that some people have also started spreading the rumour that the Hindus can gain swaraj (self-rule) on their own. Examples from history have been furnished to this end. To spread such misconceptions will result in nothing except to further sow the seeds of doubt among the Muslims. If there was such a time when the Hindus had gained independence during the rule of Muslims; then perhaps there was also such an age when the Muslims had created their empire during the time of the Hindus.
Forget those times. It will be an auspicious day indeed when history is eradicated from our schools. This is not the time for the rise of communalism. This is the age of economics and only that policy will be successful through which the people are able to solve their economic problems, through which this superstition, this hypocrisy in the name of religion, this exploitation of the poor in the name of reforms, can be eradicated. The common people have neither the leisure to protect cultures nor the need to do so. “Culture” is the indulgence of the rich, the well-fed, and the carefree. For the poor, survival is the biggest problem
After all, what was there in that culture which they should care to protect? At a time when the people were unaware, then the sway of religion and culture had them entranced. As the conscience of the people awakens, they are seeing that this culture had belonged only to the robbers who robbed the people using their positions as kings, scholars, and merchants. Today they [the people] are more worried about saving their lives, which is much more important than culture. There is nothing in that antiquated culture that can lure them. And communalism marches on, having shut its eyes shut to their [the people’s] economic problems so that their dependence remains everlasting.
Translated by Sanjukta Poddar.
Sanjukta Poddar is a PhD scholar in the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilisations at the University of Chicago. The translator thanks those friends who took the time and care to carefully comment and help with the translation.