How Mahesh Sharma Became India's Minister of Culture Wars In 2015

30/12/2015 5:47 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
Hindustan Times via Getty Images
NOIDA, INDIA - OCTOBER 13: Minister of State for Culture, Tourism and MoS for Ministry of Civil Aviation and Gautam Budh Nagar MP, Mahesh Sharma speaks during an interview with Hindustan Times at his office on October 13, 2015 in Noida, India. Sharma chose to remain silent on the Bisada incident. (Photo by Burhaan Kinu/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

2015 was undoubtedly Mahesh Sharma’s year.

Sharma did not become India’s minister of culture this year. But he certainly came into his own. Chances are in 2014, most Indians would have not known there existed a Culture Minister and even fewer would have known his name. 2015 changed that. Mahesh Sharma was a headline-maker in his own right, in the news, day after day, topping outrageous statement with even more outrageous statement.

And he ends the year true to form by telling the media that the meat recovered from Mohammad Akhlaq’s house was beef, not mutton. It does not matter that the Uttar Pradesh Veterinary Department says it’s of “goat progeny”. Mr Sharma always knows better.

In Sharma’s world, communal colour can only be ascribed if all houses of a particular community are razed to the ground and women are raped and molested.

Now the meat has gone to a forensic laboratory in Mathura for final diagnosis to figure out if it is indeed “pratibandhit pashu ka maans” (meat of a forbidden animal), a phrase that sounds blandly bureaucratic but is actually ominously deadly. The unbelievable surreal journey of the meat in Akhlaq’s freezer through the Indian criminal justice system is indeed the news story of the year. It added fuel to the great tolerance debate. It cast its shadow over the elections in Bihar. It gave impetus to the spate of returned national awards. If that was about #SelectiveOutrage, Dadri brought into sharp focus Prime Minister Narendra’s Modi’s #SelectiveSilence where he seemed unable or unwilling to speak up for weeks.

To this date, the government seems to have not realized that it should not matter if it was beef or mutton. The only thing that should matter is that in 2015 a man could be lynched in India because of what he ate. If all this had not come with such terrifying consequences it could have well been the subject of a dark comedy, a circus of the macabre. And Mahesh Sharma is its ringmaster.

As the Dadri issue dominated headlines, Mahesh Sharma tried to spin it as an “accident” and said “no communal colour” should be given to it. As evidence of that he cheerily informed us that “about 10-12 houses of the other community are in the village but no incident concerning them has happened.” Even more telling, Sharma said no one even raised a finger on Akhlaq’s 17-year-old daughter who was at home at the time.

In Sharma’s world, communal colour can only be ascribed if all houses of a particular community are razed to the ground and women are raped and molested.

He even said, from his experience of 30 years as a doctor, he knows that someone being beaten by lathis should end up with 10-15 fractures and five to seven broken fingers. Danish, Mohammad Akhlaq’s son, only had a head injury proving that “intention was not to lynch”.

Dadri was not the only hot-button issue Mahesh Sharma weighed in on this year.

He told India Today TV that the decision to rename Aurangzeb Road after APJ Abdul Kalam made sense because Kalam “despite being a Muslim” was a great nationalist and humanist. Sharma, despite being a Culture Minister, has shown again and again that his view of India’s diverse culture remains hopelessly blinkered.

He stirred up a storm in a teapot by saying Nehru Memorial Museum and Library would be recast as a “museum of governance” showcasing among other things, Narendra Modi’s campaign for smart cities and ISRO’s unmanned flight to Mars. Eventually Mahesh Rangarajan, the head of NMML, resigned.

Sharma told CNN-IBN that “night out” by girls was against Indian culture but as proof that he is not sexist he said his daughter is a doctor and also “goes for movies at night.”

The Bible and the Quran, he said, were worthy of respect but they are not “central to the soul of India” the way the Gita and the Ramayana are.

Ever government has its colourful foot-in-the-mouth minister and Sharma could have just been the funny guy filling that role, one who can be depended on to liven up a slow news day. After all, the Minister of Culture is hardly the most pivotal portfolio in the cabinet. Few remember who UPA II’s minister of culture was or what she ever said or did. The name of Chandresh Kumari will ring few bells.

But the UPA was not much about culture. Their culture minister was merely preserving the status quo of Congress governments past. Its job was to try and get the economy going and that was the yardstick it was measured by. The Modi government might have been elected on promise of sweeping economic and administrative reform, but the more those promises have faltered, the more they have fallen back on culture. If they cannot have GDP growth or land reform or GST or Bihar, let them have culture wars instead. Thus a figure like Sharma became prominent. And he makes no bones about his agenda. “We will clean every area of public discourse that has been westernized, where Indian culture and civilization need to be restored,” says the golf-loving minister.

The Bible and the Quran, he said, were worthy of respect but they are not “central to the soul of India” the way the Gita and the Ramayana are.

Hence it’s no accident he weighs in on emotive issues from making Hindi compulsory in all schools to building the Ram temple in Ayodhya. It would be easy to make his pronouncements the butt of jokes, but as economic and political reform becomes harder to deliver, and the Rajya Sabha arithmetic remains obstinately hostile to the NDA, culture has become more important as a rallying tool for the restless faithful.

If one thought that intemperate utterances would spark the annoyance of the PMO (as we are periodically assured they do), Sharma is none the worse for it. He unveiled a 365-kilo laddoo for Modi’s birthday, proving that he is hardly a national embarrassment in the eyes of the top brass.

When Modi had swept to power, there were many who decided to give him the benefit of the doubt, trusting that he knew that toilets rather than the temples were what India needed the most. Modi as PM was statesman-like, unveiling grand visions about a cleaner India, a safer India, a Make in India. He gave India’s image in the larger world a shot in the arm. He was careful not to embody what his detractors feared the most about him – a Hindutva agenda, divisive rhetoric, suspicion of minorities, blatant majoritarianism.

In 2015 we realized he didn’t have to. That job had been outsourced to others.

Sharma has become the embodiment of that agenda. He is not just India’s Culture Minister anymore. He is now India’s Minister of Culture Wars.

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