To generalise the festival of colours as Holi amounts to missing the forest for the trees

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By Garga Chatterjee

Last week, in Bengal, there was a riot of colours. The naive ones who ventured out in normal clothes came back home with their attire looking much more interesting. There was a lot of drinking and merry-making on the big day of the colour festival. Except that it was Dol-Jatra or Boshonto-Utshob (Spring festival) and not Holi. It has never been. They even fall on different dates. In 2016, Dol Jatra was on 23rd March and Holi was on 24thMarch. That`s true for all other years. ‘Dol’ means a swing and Jatra means journey. Lord Krishna and Radha are the ones of the swing and the devotees take them around. There is no character called Holika (from where the term “Holi” originates) involved in all this.

However, if one is tuned to “national media” and colourful greetings message of the Prime Minister of the Indian Union or his twitter feed, one wouldnt know that in many parts of the Indian Union, Holi is not the festival of colours. Nonetheless, rather patronizingly, Narendra Modi gave “Happy Holi” greetings in Hindi, on a day that is not Holi, mostly for hundreds of millions of his subjects who are non-Hindi, non-Hindustan. Heartfelt greetings I suppose. While Modi gave Dol Jatra a miss on 23rd March, he did not forget greeting “people of Pakistan on their National Day ” and tweeted birthday greetings to Mrs. Smriti Irani, amomg others things. Priorities define ideology. Ideology defines priorities.

Holidays lists are a good reflection of the deep ideology of any administration. This is painfully true for the Indian Union too. As per circular No.F.No.12/7/2015-JCA-2 (http://pmindia.gov.in/ wp-content/uploads/2016/01/ holiday-list-2016-english.pdf ) of the Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions (under the Prime Minister`s Office) on “Holidays to be observed in Central Government Offices during the year 2016”, there is a list of compulsory holidays for Central government offices to chose from. Holi, on 24th March, is on that list. Dol-Jatra, on 23rdMarch is not. It leaves open the possibility of having Dol Jatra as a “restricted” holiday, by the line “Coordination Committees at the State Capitals may draw up separate list of Restricted Holidays keeping in view the occasions of local importance ”. The message is clear. Holi is “national”. All festivals of colour are “local”. Whose “local” becomes “”national” and whose “national” is rendered “local” as a result is a contest that goes to the foundation of the Indian Union. That contest is over. The Indian Union operates as a plural and federal union in rhetoric and a majoritarian Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan nation-state in practise. The irrelevance of Holi and hence 24th March 2016 as the day of “festival of colour” is given by the state government 2016 holiday list circulars of West Bengal (No. 7690-F(P2)) (http://www.iba.org.in/ HolidayA-2016/West-Bengal-16.pdf ), Assam (No. GAG(A)139/2015/81-83) (http://www.assam.gov.in/ documents/10180/2740840/Assam Govt. 2016 Holiday List.pdf ) and Manipur (http://manipur.gov.in/ wp-content/uploads/2013/02/ public_holiday_2016.pdf ). All of them have a public holiday on 23rd March on Dol Jatra or Yaosang (in case of Manipur – where Yaosang is a 6-day festival starting on the full-moon day on which Dol Jatra falls – Manipur observes both, but not Holi). There is no mention of Holi whatsoever. But the Central government mandates that it should and it must. In case of Odisha, where Dol-Jatra and Holi, both have adherents, both are 23rd and 24th March holidays and they are mentioned separately (http://www.odisha.gov.in/ portal/Calendar-2016.pdf ). Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, etc have Holi and no mention of Dol Jatra and that`s how it should be. Interestingly, the government of Bangladesh officially mentions Dol Jatra (and many other Hindu Bengali festivals) as restricted holidays on 23rdMarch for Hindus (http://www.mopa.gov.bd/uploads/ 2015/archive/file121/ reg4-2015-260.PDF ). No such acknowledgement of the “local” from the Government of India.

One may argue, why am I hair-splitting? Why don`t I just sit back and chill and enjoy the festival of colours – whatever name it is called by. Why don`t we just consider Dol Jatra as a “variant” of Holi? This `magnanimous` ïnclusion by declaring as “variant” form has a predictable direction.Whenever there are multiple forms, the Hindi-Hindustan zone variant is considered standard by the Centre though Indian Union doesn’t formally claim itself to be a majoritarian nation-state. This destruction of diversity by co-option is what fashionably goes under the name of “tolerance”. Our “local” gods and goddesses thus become forms,and got subsumed into “bigger” goddesses that invairably had bigger military strength and dominant state apparatus backing them up – this has been an ancient trick in this subcontinent. It is easy for people to ‘look past’ variations, when the hierarchy of variations favours their cultural world. Others ‘look past’ to be accepted by the ‘mainstream’. What may appear as hair-splitting to those in the centre is a desperate cry for identity preservation for those in the periphery.

What business does the central govt have in having a separate list of holidays – does it represent anything else or anything more than the individual states? If it does, what is it? Which selective parts of the indian union does this list and its emphasis represent? Why it is always the case that Hindi-Hindustan forms have precedence? Why is the concept of “all India” and Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan so remarkably similar? In its holiday calendar, Indian Union exhibits its deep ideology that there is an officially promoted and imposed hierarchy among Indian Union’s citizens and communities, of ‘core’/ ‘national’ and ‘periphery’. What does it mean for the rest of us, living in the penumbra of Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan?

With “national channel” beaming colour-festival motifs on 24th March and not the 23rd, desi and many firangi photographers were shooting away to capture the colourful ‘soul of India’ on 24th March and full-page Holi-discount advertisements in non-Hindi newspapers of un-Holi lands like mine, something broader and much more insidious is at play. In the evolving political-cultural landscape, Dol Jatra becomes Holi, Durga Pujo becomes Navratri, Kali Pujo becomes Diwali and all marriages need to have “sangeet”. The most sublime form of this cultural hierarchy is seen is diasporic communities. Such ethno-cultural flattening does no service to the Hindi-heartland where many cultures are in a state of decay, thanks to metro-centric Hindianism. And it goes beyond festivals. The deep ideology of a state is given by ‘innocuous’ choices, of font-size variations of different languages in Gandhi-chhap currency notes, the automatic language of CRPF or BSF irrespective of their posting in West Bengal or Tamil Nadu and many other instances. When was the last time a Tamil marriage/religious/cultural custom went ‘national’? Whose ‘local’ becomes ‘national’ and whose ‘local’ disappears when ideas like ‘all India’ and ‘mainstream’ are evoked? Why is the direction of traffic in this supposedly two-way street so predictable? Why does any leading contender for prime-ministership focus most in areas where Holi is the uncontested name for the festival of colours. Dol Jatra-Holi, Kali Pujo-Diwali, etc – all are testaments of Central Govt sponsored transformation of the Indian Union into Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan via the seditious-if-you-oppose ideological contruct of India.

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