Cultured minister: the world according to Mahesh Sharma
"We will cleanse every area of public discourse that has been Westernised and where Indian culture and civilisation needs to be restored, be it the history we read, our cultural heritage or our institutions that have been polluted over years." - Mahesh Sharma
If you're like me, that's probably the first time you heard of Mahesh Sharma. He is the Minister of State with Independent Charge for culture, whose recent affliction with verbal diarrhoea has catapulted him to the front pages of most papers.
But it isn't so much about Sharma's issues with Western culture, as it is about his idea of Indian culture.
His own connection to the West
After all, the man himself doesn't seem to have too many issues with the West - his chain of super-speciality hospitals does not specialise in any Indian systems of medicine.
Institutions corrupted by the influence of the damned West don't seem to worry him either; his son Kartik graduated from Oxford.
As far as institutions corrupted by Western influence go, it's a wonder his son didn't have to undergo a cleansing ritual on his return.
Or maybe he did. After Somnath Bharti's dog was taken in for questioning by the cops, nothing surprises me anymore. Or maybe it's okay because Oxford has 'Ox' in it and oxen are related to cows and cows are holy.
'Despite being a Muslim'
No justification would be too surprising because Sharma is always able to 'explain' away his statements. Take for instance his recent statement about Aurangzeb and the late APJ Abdul Kalam:
"Aurangzeb Road ka naam bhi badal kar ek aise mahapursh ke naam par kiya hai jo Musalman hotey hue bhi itna bada rashtravaadi aur manavtavadi insaan tha (The name of Aurangzeb Road has been changed to the name of a great human being who, despite being a Muslim, was such a great nationalist and humanist)."
Yes, essentially what he said was that Kalam managed to be a good Indian despite the curse he suffered at birth - being born Muslim. And Sharma managed to be the culture minister despite being obviously bigoted against an entire culture and community.
What surprises me most is that Sharma did not draw a connection between Kalam's work on missiles and his being Muslim.
Sharma seems OK enough with the West - his hospitals don't have any Indian systems of medicine
Still, Sharma said that all he did was call Kalam a "nationalist Muslim", completely missing the problematic nature of what he said to begin with.
Continuing in his rich vein of cultural sensitivity, Sharma then went on to drop the following line:
"I respect Bible and Quran, but they are not central to the soul of India in same the way as Gita and Ramayana are."
Maybe it's just Sharma keeping in line with the Modi sarkar's 'Make In India' campaign, but with Sharma's ever-expanding reputation, I'd chalk it down to him just being himself.
After all, to Sharma, India's culture is Hindu culture and vice versa. Forget the years where Buddhism was the dominant religion; forget the influence of Islam on our culture, Mughal invaders or not. India equals Hindu as far as our culture minister is concerned.
The latest gem
But while he bangs on about India's culture and how it's rooted in our (Hindu-only) past glories, Sharma's mindset is also rooted in a different era, as he so eloquently proved with his latest utterance:
"Girls wanting a night out may be alright elsewhere, but it is not part of Indian culture." Yeah, that's the culture we should aspire to. One where women aren't able to leave their homes at night the way men can.
After all, as he proved when dealing with religion, equality is not an integral part of Sharma's culture. Whether it's because he's trying to institutionalise a patriarchal system or because the government can't be bothered to improve law and order to the point where women can feel safe at night, the statement smacks of sexism and stupidity.
Amazingly, just after making the statement, Sharma pulled every politician's favourite excuse - he claimed he was misquoted.
The future of tourism
Ironically, he's also the minister for tourism, which is why this lament is particularly worrying:
"We have not been up-to-the-mark in presenting our Indian cultural heritage in the right way. We will totally revamp all these institutions after a detailed roadmap is prepared." I can just picture it now, a tourism campaign based on misogyny and bigotry.
Aamir Khan can no longer be the brand ambassador, because he's Muslim. Gajendra Chauhan, however.
We could also change the slogan from 'Athithi Devo Bhava' to 'Welcome to India - a great place if you're a Hindu man.' The travel advisories issued by other countries will make for fun reading at the very least.
Loonies, loonies everywhere
It's not just Sharma either. Rajnath Singh, the Union Home Minister, recently went on a saffron rant, insisting Indian astrologers were better than NASA, among other things.
At least in the initial stages of the Modi sarkar, the loony utterances came from fringe elements; now they flow from the lips of ministers.
This obsession with India's past, instead of dealing with India's present, really makes one wonder if the Modi government is intent on living in the past at the cost of India's future.