“Understanding requires an Act of Conscious Participation of an Individual, an Act of Finding Out” — Necessity for Change, by Hardial Bains.
When the news of the passing of Satnarayan Maharaj broke over the weekend, anticipating the tsunami of assessments of the man, in tribute and derision, I sounded a note of caution attempting to stem the flood of what could be not-so-proud moments weighing this controversial figure in the balance.
This was my own initial post:
“RIP Satnarayan Maharaj.
Our nation bids farewell to a man recognised as a leader.
In our assessment of his role and contribution, it is hoped that we, as a society, do so in a dispassionate and objective manner.
We must not use the lenses of preconceived or inculcated notions or biases or what is now politely and disarmingly labelled ‘identity’ politics.
Condolences to his family.”
Social media, the press and airwaves were awash with comments, pleasantly not filled with much of the usual vitriol that was part of the commentary on many things that the long-standing Secretary-General of the Maha Sabha evoked over the years.
When the pleasantries flowed from the halls of governance, the highest officers of our land set a calming tone. Others, as was to be expected, attempted to measure his legacy and some called for a State funeral and others for monuments and tributes.
He had hardly parted from our company and in the midst of the messages from one quarter or the other, it was clear to me that the divisiveness some blamed him for really lies in the absence of a national assessment of his role and contribution.
Eventually, I added the following in response to a lengthy and lively Facebook debate on the merits of the suggestion of a State funeral.
“Wow. This thread is so interesting.
What was Sat Maharaj? What you ask. What was he in social terms. He was a religious leader, a political activist, a journalist. Some say he was a racist, misogynist, even a paedophile because his religion allowed child marriage.
He was divisive, a patriot, a fighter, etc.
One thing is sure. Based on these comments here and other public utterances, it is clear that this society has not come to an accepted conclusion on the role of Sat in our society.
There are chauvinists on either side of the race divide who for their own purposes are rushing to hail him as the champion of the Hindus or alternatively of the Indians or East Indians and a national icon or hero. On the other side, others condemn him as the enemy of the Africans and a racist hater. Are both correct?
Those who condemned him for supporting child marriage, a retention of Hindu and Indian culture, are themselves being disingenuous. Non-Christian marriage laws in this country accepted marriage ages below 18. And 18 was not always the legal definition of adulthood. As well, if we go back over our family trees, we will find many of our ancestors were married long before 21 or 18. If we condemn Sat on this basis then we will have to condemn a lot of others too.
He was divisive! some charge. Well, examine our political history, colonial and post-colonial and be honest and see if there’s not a very long list to whom such labels cannot be applied.
So What was Sat?
The answer will be this or that, not because of what he actually did or said but more so because of what narratives have been spun about him and his words and deeds. We hail the Baptists for defending their religion; yet condemn him for defending his. We hail African leaders for defending their “ethnic race” (as one comment put it) but condemn him for defending Indians. We hail Anthony Pantin as an activist religious leader but condemn Sat. Why? Because one religion is acceptable and another is not?
Hopefully, we, as a society, will agree how objectively we assess the contributions and roles of all citizens to our society. So, we will be able to assess Sat or anybody else on those socially acceptable criteria and not about our own prejudices and dogmas.
We are divided in our assessment of Sat, not because of Sat, but, because we are not united in our philosophy, values, Politics etc.”.
Some may have been surprised at the quarters from which denunciations of the easy derogatory labels came.
We have grown too accustomed to accepting narrative propagated by others for their own purposes. They now use “critical thinking” as a mere buzzword.
But, they encourage us never to understand others and their roles but rather to accept stereotypical objectifications of them without ever interacting with them, examining their circumstances and histories; without an act of finding out for ourselves.
However history will weigh him in the balance, none can doubt his contribution to the expansion and development of a remarkable portion of our educational system.
Perhaps with the dying embers of his funeral pyre and the final treatment of his ashes, we, this rainbow nation, will finally be able to pronounce on the legacy of Sat Maharaj.
THE AUTHOR describes himself as a Citizen longing for the
renewal of the national purpose.