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Cover Story

The body politic

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ANTI-BODIES? A Mandal protestor sets himself ablaze.

Fasting, punishing, immolating - politics of the body has always had deep roots in India.

It all began with Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, one of the first to draw a connection between the politics of the body and the body politic. Observing Bengal's colonisation, Bankim concluded the British could take control because of their superior physical habits, exercise, discipline and diet. The Bengali, on the other hand, lost the battle even before it started, weakened by his fondness for the good things of life, loosened by lassitude. It was therefore imperative for the Bengali to take charge of his own body, tauten and control it, before he could dream of being master of more.

Anandmath is thus the story of militant Bengali men, training with exercise and living with rigour at an ashram which disseminates not so much a divine message as a political one - freedom is your birthright. But this must be earned through physical penance. While fighting a foe of greater might, your own body has to be your first battleground, your weakness, your first enemy. The message proved enormously popular, propagated later by Subhash Chandra Bose who advocated the eating of meat to build physical strength and compete with an enemy of advantage.

But the politics of the body grew other dimensions as well. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, plunged into troubling thought about the body's shames and pleasures, evolved a series of austerities for the physical to be less of a burden and more an ally, to aid one along the path to truth, not lead one into the twisting alleys of embarrassment. Gandhi came up with mud baths, emetics, tests of sexual forbearance and fasting. If the body could withstand these, it was ready to fight injustice. It was ready to take on the state.

Gandhi's practices drew heavily from India's folklore around sages and fakirs, immersed in tapasya for the divine, pushing themselves hard towards a goal so pure it could not be touched by bodies chained in pleasure and pain. It was this concept Gandhi made deeply political;tapasya went from being an individual practice to one defining a community. It went from connecting the individual to the divine, to linking the individual and the regime.

Connections between the politics of bodies and the body politic grew in Indian society. 1947 saw their ultimate perversion;as Partition was announced, people expressed their rage on the bodies of those they considered responsible. Men from 'opposing' faiths were stripped, checked for caste marks or circumcisions, beaten, tortured, killed, while unspeakable atrocities were committed on the bodies of women. As India and Pakistan came into being, their borders were drawn in blood.

Under Nehru's disdain towards such physical displays of political emotion, modern India cooled down until 1989, when the Mandal Commission recommended reserving educational and employment seats for lower-caste candidates. Enraged by what they perceived as injustice towards them, upper-caste protestors hit upon an extraordinary method of expressing their displeasure -setting their own bodies alight. While the images of men in flames did little to halt the progress of what became law, these brought back memories of another time when the bodies of 'enemies' were set on fire to stamp the majority's brute force - 1984's pogroms against Sikhs.

Today, as the body politic has again been impacted by the politics of Anna Hazare's body, kept fasting for three days, it is evident Indians link bodies to regimes and ideas of community more powerfully than many other societies. At times, through moral force, this can be deeply positive. But we also run the risk of our bodies overcoming our ideas and becoming, from our temples, our warzones.

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