New Delhi, March 12, 2019
On March 10, 2019. Prime Minister Narendra Modi enthusiastically tweeted, “The Festival of Democracy, Elections are here.”
The sentence rings of grave irony. But I will come to that later.
The word ‘Festival ’ – be it religious, secular, cultural or political – ideally denotes celebrating something more than oneself. It extends to a community and is a reminder of larger ties – a community is religious on the occasion of a religious Festival .
But there can be communities of other kinds, visible during the celebration of Festival s that do not (or no longer) have religious connotations. The Pride Parade, for instance, is a Festival for the queer community where people take to the streets, fling colours of love and hug each other in solidarity.
Holi’s religious (and violently casteist) origins have been superseded by a purely cultural ritual of colour-smearing – with people across religions taking part.
The spirit of Holi is best captured in Amir Khusro’s poetics of rang (colour), where he celebrates the tradition of Vrindaban. Like a poet in the tradition of the Braj Bhāshā, Khusro writes, “Gokul dekha, Mathura dekha… Par tosa nah koyi rang dekha re, main to aiso rang, Mahboob-I ilaahi (I have seen the face of Gokul, of Mathura… But nowhere have I seen a colour like yours, o’ the beloved of God).”
India’s secular character is proven by its calendar alone. March has Holi, Hazrat Ali’s birthday, the Parsi New Year, Shivaji Jayanti and a (one of many) Shaheed Divas or Martyr’s Day, commemorating the deaths of communist patriot Bhagat Singh and his comrades, Sukhdev Thapar and Shivaram Rajguru. April will bring Good Friday, Easter, Ambedkar Jayanti and Mahavir Jayanti.
Martyr’s Day, with no tie to religion, is celebrated by all Indians who have an emotional and political attachment to India’s anti-colonial struggle. Ambedkar Jayanti celebrates a social (and political) solidarity, primarily among Dalits who have experienced discrimination, but also among those who equally believe in a non-casteist future for Hindu society.
Heart Warming events
A Festival , be it religious or secular, is also a way of being in the world – of opening the doors of the heart. It can connect one to joy and abandon – and even mourning; to that unalterable experience of cyclical time that exists (and returns) every year to break the monotony of the linear time of modernity, work and capitalism. A Festival is, in many ways, a respite and critique of the shackles of linear time. If such time is one of ‘progress’ and productivity, the time of Festival s is a relapse into the non-productive excess of our emotions, our memories, our ties with childhood. Festival s are reminders of lost time.
India, as a nation, has its own official occasions – or Festival s – to celebrate. Republic Day and Independence Day are central among them. Gandhi’s death, too, is mourned as Martyr’s Day on January 31. General elections can be considered a political Festival of sorts in India’s democracy.
Election as Festival
I must add, however, that I experienced the idea of an election as a Festival for the first time in JNU, where every year a new students’ union is elected. After a whole day of voting in different schools, students gather around the place where results are declared after nightlong counting. You hear drums, slogans and animated conversations amidst snacks and tea stalls. It is JNU’s yearly political carnival – conducted in the most democratic manner and without the presence of security personnel (during my time). But times have changed.