By Parveen Chopra
By year 2020 India will regain its pre-eminent intellectual and spiritual position in the world.
When he greets you in the backyard of his official residence in central Delhi, naked waist upwards, chewing on a datun (twig substitute for toothbrush), you realize that Dr Sanjay Paswan, 42, is a different kind of politician. There are no ministerial airs either around the Minister of State for Human Resource Development in the Government of India.
Yet, he is fully aware of his position and power, and how it can be put to constructive use. He has obviously not forgotten his roots. Hailing from a Dalit family in rural Bihar, branded a sick state, he went on to complete has Ph.D in Industrial Relations. He was associated with the CPI-ML (Liberation), before he got disillusioned with its extremist ideology. A student leader and trade-unionist, he joined the BJP in 1986, got elected to Parliament in 1999, and became a minister.
A teacher and scholar of repute, he has co-authored with his wife Dr Paramanshi Jaideva, the 14-volume Encyclopaedia of Dalits in India. He is also the founder-editor of a monthly Hindi magazine called Vanchit Vani (Voice of the Marginalized).
He recently courted controversy when he honored 51 indigenous healers—shamans, exorcists and charmers for the city-bred—in Patna. The media criticized his move as obscurantist. TV channels had a field day repeatedly showing footage of him doing fire-walking, and with two hissing cobras coiled round his neck.
In an exclusive interview to Life Positive, he explains why he champions the cause of the marginalized India, and shares his dream for the country. Why are you trying to preserve and promote wisdom from India’s interior areas?
Let’s take the healing systems first, of which there are medical systems and non-medical systems. Medical systems aim at curing physical ailments. Our indigenous medicine includes many non-medical systems called jhaad phoonk to treat ailments related to the mind and the spirit. Unfortunately, no faculty has been developed to look at them. But for many millennia they have been in use in the country, acknowledging and curing ailments that go beyond the body. This was much before the WHO expanded the definition of health to include mental, emotional and spiritual health.
In India, we get three different systems to tackle problems: yantra, tantra and mantra. Mantra is for those with sato guna propensity, yantra is for the rajasik, and tantra for the tamasik. In the rural areas, from non-Brahmin society we have Ojhas (who imparted gyan, for removing defilements of the atman), Bhagats (who unlike the priests took care of the upkeep of the temple, and because of their proximity to the deity acquired special healing powers), Gunis (who took care of mental ailments), and Jogis (bards who told people about holy men and places).
I am trying to modernize and institutionalize this wealth of traditional, indigenous knowledge, which is on the brink of extinction. It needs to be packaged well like yoga has been. We need to create a curriculum, and vocational training to create employment opportunities. It is also the need of the hour. How many Apollo hospitals can we afford to build to take care of the health needs of the country’s teeming populace? We need to train medicos on the lines of China’s barefoot doctors. To take just one area, we need to certify lots of dais (midwives). Their traditional expertise has been rendered useless, giving a spurt to women’s gynecological problems. More, there are bonesetters, and those with intimate knowledge of herbs and their healing properties.
I honored 51 indigenous healers in September 2003 and the media thought I was a promoting superstitions and fraudulent practices. But I had my reasons. Children of Bhagats and Ojhas today fight shy of admitting their family vocation. They’ll rather say they are peasants.
Rural and tribal societies have done us a favour by preserving such knowledge. Our rural system is so eco-friendly that it is unparalleled in the world. For example, we worship the peepal tree because it releases oxygen into the atmosphere.
My senior, HRD Minister Murli Manohar Joshi, has been accused of saffronising the education system, I call it Indianisation. This is to correct the tilt away from India’s own systems and knowhow. What I feel is that if this cannot happen during BJP’s rule, then when?
Neither do I see any conflict between faith and science. What we trust in is not blind faith, so it should be able to pass the test of experimentation. How can religion be harnessed for development?
There is a mighty force in religion. In India people seek out sadhus and sanyasis on their own, while politicians have to beseech people to listen to them. Our country is predominantly spiritual. Spirituality permeates every pore of our being and life. The role of religion is to safeguard it, the way banana skin keeps the fruit safe.
What is unique to India is the spirit of giving, philanthropy, wishing the well-being of all. Nowhere else are there conventions guiding people how to lead their lives from waking to sleeping We need to promote Indian ethos and values, particularly at a time when the popular TV programs are wreaking havoc on our value system. Who has influenced your thinking?
Acharya Shri Ram Sharma, founder of the Gayatri movement, is one. This reformist movement from Hardwar has taught the performance of yagyas to over a crore of people, irresepective of caste or creed. Then, my ideal is also Mahatma Gandhi. He had his finger on the pulse of Indian society and people. India needs another Gandhi today. I also admire Balasaheb Ambedkar. While Gandhi got us freedom, Ambedkar successfully fought the battle of social freedom and emancipation. But I don’t approve of his conversion to Buddhism. Religion—Hinduism in this case—belongs to all, to Dalits too. If correction is required in the way religion is practised, and if Hinduism has to be made progressive, we should try to strive for that from within, not by disowning our religion. I believe Buddhism and Jainism were reformist movements in Indian society. What made you recant your extreme Left ideology?
Our social set-up in Bihar and the need to save people from the cruel clutches of zamindars had compelled me into joining the communists. But zamindars are left with very small holdings today, and have lost their hold. I came to realize that fighting or violence is neither right, nor required. I can be more effective by joining the political system and utilizing the democratic power. The Left is poles apart from parliamentary politics. I quit to stay close to the Indian ethos and values.
India is different from Russia or China. Indian society is benevolent. A polity based on confrontation and clash has no scope here. Progress is possible here through harmony. What routine do you follow to maintain your health and peace of mind?
I wake up at four in the morning. Till about 7 a.m., I read and do my puja. I try to have a diet as natural as possible, shunning packed foods. What is your mission and message?
To re-establish a lifestyle and behavior patterns based on our age-old traditions. There are three aspects to human life: Earning for self and family, creation of value for society, and redemption for the sake of nature and God. We should return to nature what we get. We draw oxygen from it all our lives, so we should plant trees, and water them to pay back.
Americanization of our culture is a danger we should be beware of. I believe in cultural assimilation—cultural invasion is bad. I say if we take ten parts worth of their ethos, they should at least accept six parts from us. But no, there is no need for us to panic about globalisation.
Globalisation has made it possible for us to excel in the knowledge fields—IT, biotechnology, space science. India has got an identity now, our name is currency. We can become a global R&D hub. I am certain that by year 2020, India will regain its pre-eminent position in the intellectual world and spiritual power will overpower all other powers. To accomplish this, we don’t require the killer instinct, which is not us, what we need to imbibe is the healing instinct. We should not hanker after recognition, but go for hard work.
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