A Singapore journalist says both major parties in India must abandon increasing communalism
"Some countries are united by a common language; India has around fifteen major languages and numberless minor ones. Nor are its people united by race, religion or culture…Does India exist? If it doesn't, the explanation is to be found in a single word: communalism. The politics of religious hatred."
—Salman Rushdie in "The Riddle of Midnight: India, August 1947" in Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-91
If I were a regular Indian Hindu, I would not find it difficult to believe that the country today is threatened by the forces of Islamic terrorism— no matter what the Muslims say in their defense.
Further, I would add that the terrorizing Muslims and the evangelizing Christian missionaries are creating grave threats to India's progress, a country that is rediscovering its destiny as a superpower in the world stage.
I'm saying this because the recent terrorist bombings in many Indian cities have changed our lives. We live in fear of being blown away while shopping or traveling. How can we not blame the Muslims when members of their community have created this atmosphere of terror in the nation of peace-loving Hindus?
I know what I am talking about. I read newspapers. I watch TV. Lest you should believe that I am a dehati, I am not. I could be a government official, an IT professional, an employee of an MNC, a businessman or even a member of the diaspora. I could be anyone.
I am using the term 'regular Indian Hindu' as a classification for those Hindus in India who are not liberal (or communists or atheists or pseudo-secularists) or have not acquired liberal education in India or abroad and who are conscious of their Hindu identity. Our liberal brethren, the so called 'pseudo-secularists' (whoever invented this term must be a Indian Hindu and I want to give him shabashi for this innovative coinage) might even object to the phrase "Indian Hindu" as a contradictory duality—an Indian is an Indian, end of the matter, they'd say—but I wouldn’t have thought the worst of it.
For me it wouldn't have been difficult to bask in the glory of a resurgent India as a member of 'Hindu India' —an India that is waking up from its thousand year old slumber of inertia and slavery— first by the murderous Muslim invaders, followed by the wily British, who between them, ruled us for nearly a millennium.
But there are many who want to prick my balloon of pride. For instance, take the recent terror attacks in various Indian cities and the Muslim response to it. Let us keep our discussion confined to this topic and not get side-tracked by the issue of conversion of dalits and adivasis by the Christian missionaries, an issue that equally infuriates me.
If I were a regular Indian Hindu, I would feel the police action justified in the Batla House, Jamia Nagar police-terrorist encounter cases, no matter what people like Arundhati Roy have to say on this matter. When scores of innocents died in terrorist-planted bomb blasts in Maharashtra, Gujarat and Delhi, what is the big deal if the Delhi police killed two Muslim terrorists in an encounter?
Some Muslims are finding holes in the manner the police conducted the encounter and arrested the terror suspects. I give two hoots about it! I have my own problems to solve, my own life to live. But if I did care about the issue, being a newspaper reader and TV news watcher type, I would have felt the demands of inquiry into the whole episode by the Jamia Teachers’ Solidarity Group or Delhi Union of Journalists unnecessary, nothing more than an act of minority appeasement.
Why demoralize our police force, I would have asked them? After all, we lost one of our own brave policemen in the encounter, didn’t we? I would have damned the conspiracy theories circulated by these doubters and gossip mongers. They do nothing or just shed crocodile tears when bombs go off in crowded bazaars and kill scores of innocent Indians. But when one of them is killed, they ask for enquiry and provide legal aid to those terrorists? How unpatriotic!
But they are not alone in what they do. To make matters worse, (I would have thought it a matter of shame) some of our own, the pseudo-secularists, are party to the game being played by the Muslim intelligentsia and some publicity-hungry liberal minded media persons. The same way that they did after the Gujarat riots—they could not appreciate the fact that what had happened was a natural reaction to the dastardly act of burning our holy men alive on the Sabarmati Express. What did they get after doing all those exposes and investigations? All they could achieve was that they kept Narendra Modi bhai from visiting the US. That’s it. Was it worth all that muck-racking?
Therefore, clearly, if I were a regular Indian Hindu, I would have no difficulty in believing that Hinduism is under threat from Islamic terrorism. I would, in that position, seem reasonable if I believed that Indian Muslims, even after the country’s partition in 1947, have wasted all opportunities given to them. They are always looking for special treatment. They have hundreds of apologists of all kinds to make excuses on their behalf. As such, my message to fellow Hindus would be this: We have done enough for these guys, and they have performed dismally, so let us stop bothering about them.
Because of our peaceful nature, others have dominated us for centuries. They could do it because we were weak. Now we must strike back by showing that we are more aggressive even than the ones that dominated us. We have shown it in Gujarat, and elsewhere in the country. But these Muslims don’t seem to be getting the message.
If I were a regular Indian Hindu, I would have no difficulty in believing in all that that I have just said. But, as it happens, I am not.
I happen to be an Indian born in a Muslim family. And as such, the tentacles of my consciousness were trained in a different manner—different from those belonging to other communities.
Despite the difference, I find it difficult to blame my “regular Indian Hindu” friend for the way he thinks. It is not his fault—it’s my way of looking at him that makes him appear faulty. But he may not be at fault at all. Perhaps he was brought up in a certain manner and while I believed in “unity in diversity,” he believed in some other philosophy—an idea of India that was different from that conceived by Gandhi and Nehru—and as old as them, shared by those who distributed sweets on the streets hearing the news of Gandhiji’s assassination.
Perhaps he does not even hold Gandhi and Nehru in high regard. He has been fed a certain version of India’s struggle for freedom and he believes in that version, as I do in mine. Right from his childhood, he has been exposed to a certain kind of thinking: all through shishu mandirs, shakhas, ekal vidyalayas, sant samagams, television serials, the rath yatras, leaflets, videos, CDs (I have borrowed this impressive list from Shabnam Hashmi, Communalism, Centrestage in Tehelka).
Therefore, I don’t want to blame my “regular Indian Hindu” friend for he is the creation of someone’s hard work. Like I am the creation of another group’s hard work. He is as legitimate an Indian as I am, albeit with a different idea of India. What matters though and what will determine our future is where we stand today: which ‘idea of India’ has moved from the center to the periphery and vice versa and which idea of India will eventually prevail. This is something that, everyone—Indians as well as Asians—need to watch out for as it relates to the Asia’s America (a nod to Daniel Lak, India Express), Asia’s liberal superpower.
My India has always been based on ideas of multiplicity, pluralism, hybridity: ideas to which the ideologies of the communalists are diametrically opposed. To my mind, the defining image of India is the crowd, and a crowd is by its very nature superabundant, heterogeneous, many things at once. But the India of the communalists is none of these things — Salman Rushdie in “The Riddle of Midnight: India, August 1947” in Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-91
As a child, I was sold on the ideas of Gandhi and Nehru. In school, I grew up on the ideals of a secular India, built on the foundations of syncretic ethos, an India where all citizens are equal before the law and where all religions are equally respected. While we wrote essays on the greatness of Gandhi and Nehru, Indira Gandhi ruled the country with an iron first. Those were the post-Emergency Congress days and everything looked normal in our small town of pre-television era.
Hindu Muslim Sikh Isai, aaaps me sab bhai bhai — we were to repeat this phrase. I believed in it and continue to believe in it.
Growing up, I knew that I was living in a country where the majority of the population consisted of Hindus. But I had no problems with that. Rather I enjoyed the diversity of India. My father’s best friends were Hindus. As much as I looked forward to Eid, I looked forward to Durga Pooja and Chhat—the two major festivals in Bengal and Bihar. My village came under the cross section of these two dominant cultures. During Durga Pooja, it was a common practice for us to roam around the town, be a part of the crowd and admire the pandals. On Chhat, we all waited to taste the delicious thakwa, a kind of snack prepared on that day—equivalent of Eid’s sewaiyan. Every December, I used to wait for Christmas to see the beautifully decorated churches, and if fortunate enough, get a chance to nibble at the cakes and pastries in the homes of my Christian acquaintances.
Then came 1984. Indira Gandhi was gunned down by her own guards and all hell broke loose. Thousands of Sikhs were mercilessly massacred in Delhi. The slogan-- Hindu Muslim Sikh Isai, aapas me sab bhai bhai—began to sound shaky and fake.
I passed out of school and went to Aligarh Muslim University for further education. Aligarh is a communally sensitive town. While still a student there, I saw the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the riots that followed. The country’s atmosphere had completely changed.
The end of the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb
But a slow change had started years even before the Babri demolition. At that point of time, I could not grasp the importance of those changes but in hindsight they seem to be damaging to the country’s secular ethos, the Ganja-Jamuni tehzeeb of India. What was happening was that slowly but surely, Muslim cultural elements, however small in significance but were taken as a given by Muslims, began to disappear from public life.
For example, take the “unity and diversity” ads taken out by the government. Hindu Muslim Sikh Isai, aapas me sab bhai bhai. I used to see these national integration ads regularly in the media, in Urdu magazines and on the back of buses and on walls. Gradually these ads began to disappear. They were replaced by other slogans on the wall. One slogan that I can remember vividly is this—Bharat desh me rehna hai to vande matram kehna hoga. While some Muslims began to paste stickers like Fakhr se kaho hum Musalman hain, I also began to notice some Hindu establishments prominently displaying stickers with slogans—Garv se kaho hum Hindu hain.
Mughlai food: A vanishing act?
Along with the slogan baazi, I noticed two more things: Airbrushing of India’s Muslim, specifically Mughal, heritage and the undisputed dominance of Hindi in the common cultural space. Consequently, as the chandrabindu (dot, a sort of a diacritical mark) vanished from devnagri (Hindi), Mughlai food too disappeared from the great Indian menu.
While the Mughal and pre-Mughal Islamic architecture such as the Red Fort and Qutub Minar in Delhi and the Taj Mahal in Agra remained untouched (except for the mad claim that the Taj was built by a Hindu ruler), Mughlai food was airbrushed from the menu. Everything became tandoori or Punjabi—this is not to deny that there is no specific Punjabi cuisine but I find the case of the missing Mughlai cuisine intriguing. Also, I don’t think somebody sat down and deliberately performed the act of erasure (like somebody in the ministries forgot to commission the ‘useless’ unity in diversity ads). However, it has happened and consequently, today, if you go to any Indian restaurant, you will see typically two broad categories of cuisine: North Indian and South Indian. And the vast part of the North Indian menu would be Punjabi food, which is not totally illegitimate. But I can’t help asking: where has the Mughlai food vanished?
The vanishing act of the Mughlai food (Superstar Shahrukh Khan once said that he loved Mughlia food, perhaps he meant Mughlai—he does not see the terminology so often so even an articulate person like him got it all mixed up) is not that big a deal but it can assume a greater significance if seen in the light of the communalization of Indian historiography. Let me give you an example from one of Rushdie’s writings again.
Muslims as ‘Mughals’?
In the introduction to his book of essays, Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-91, Rushdie talks of a seminar in London in which eminent writers and historians from India were invited to speak at the festival of India in 1982. He writes: “…an eminent Indian academic delivered a paper on Indian culture that utterly ignored all minority communities. When questioned about this from the floor, the professor smiled benignly and allowed that of course India contained many diverse traditions—including Buddhists, Christians and ‘Mughals’. This characterization of Muslim culture was more than merely peculiar. It was a technique of alienation. For if Muslims were ‘Mughals’, then they were foreign invaders, and Indian Muslim culture was both imperialist and inauthentic. At the time, we made light of the gibe, but it stayed with me, pricking at me like a thorn.”
In the light of this experience, it would not seem impossible if Muslims took the airbrushing of the Mughlai food items from the Indian menu as an act of alienation.
Ghazal becomes Gajal
The same way the chandrabindu (the dot below a devnagri letter to signify pronunciation) seems to have been airbrushed from common devnagri lipi. It was meant to be a meeting ground of Urdu and Hindi, if you will—the two sister languages that also fell victim to communalization in India. The result is disastrous. The chef on TV has no compunction in pronouncing zeera (cumin seeds) as jeera. And the literature student has no problem asking: Yeh kya Galib (Ghalib) ki gajal (ghazal) hai. It grates my ears through. The interesting thing is that even no-Urdu knowing Muslims today pronounce words in this fashion.
Et tu, Bollywood?
And finally, the technique of alienation seems to have invaded the most secular of India’s cultural spaces—television and Bollywood. These are not just virtual cultural spaces but powerful engines of culture-generation. After the 1990s, as Bollywood moved from producing the cinema for the front benchers to the cinema for the yuppie, multiplex-going crowd, its stars and filmmakers began to define and set the cultural agenda of the country. Their impact on Hindus and Muslims, both off screen and on screen, are alike. As noted American political philosopher Martha Nussbaum has pointed out, it’s also interesting that Bollywood is the one place where Hindus and Muslims intermingle and intermarry and there is not any great sense of the gulf between them.
After the death of the Muslim socials in Bollywood (a natural corollary of the death of the Muslim elite), its filmmakers turned their back on Muslim characters. How many principal Muslim characters have you seen in Bollywood movies in the post Manmohan Desia era? Don’t even try to count on your fingers.
The situation is worse in TV’s case, especially the popular daily soaps on satellite TV channels. With the exception of the low-budget fantasies like Alif-Laila, in the world of Saas bhi kabhi bahu thi (which is supposed to be popular even in far and away Afghanistan) and Kahani ghar ghar ki, there are hardly any mainstream Muslim characters. It seems they are not part of the glamorous and prosperous social fabric of India which is more or less true.
These are big-ticket questions for the entertainment world. But I am asking a minor question. Like the national integration slogans, Mughlai food and the chandrabindu, one more thing has disappeared from Hindi movie, well almost: the Urdu language titles, along with Hindi and English, in the opening credits. In the last 10-15 years, I think I have seen most movies have done away with it.
I was glad to see that not all filmmakers have forgotten this tradition. Shyam Benegal prominently displayed the Urdu titles in his latest film, Welcome to Sajjanpur, in the feature’s opening credits.
I agree that these are not big issues—where do they stand in front of typically cited larger issues such as fundamentalism and terrorism?
My “regular Indian Hindu” friend might ask me how do these minor, inconsequential things matter to the Indian Muslim mind? My answer is: a lot. These are minor issues but they act as psychological symbols—symbols of our existence, participation and inclusion with the nation at large.
How these symbolic things, tokenisms, if you will, have tiptoed their way out of the public consciousness remains a mystery to me. But I would rather not have had them disappear from our public lives.
“Let us consider dispassionately the consequences which will follow if we give effect to the Pakistan scheme. India will be divided into two states, one with a majority of Muslims, and the other of Hindus. In the Hindustan State there will remain three and half crores of Muslims scattered in small minorities all over the land…they will be weaker than they are today in the Hindu majority provinces. They have had their homelands in these regions for almost a thousand years and built up well-known centres of Muslim culture and civilization there. They will awaken overnight and discover that they have become alien and foreigners. Backward industrially, educationally and economically, they will be left to the mercies to what would become an unadulterated Hindu raj.” —Maulana Abul Kalam Azad in a statement issued on 15 April 1946, responding to Muslim League’s Lahore Resolution
The prescient maulana had seen it coming more than half a century ago. After India’s independence, developments such as vote bank politics, Hindu Muslim communalism and saffronization of the Indian middle class have made the maulana’s worse fears come true. Muslims today lag behind all other communities in India. Their condition is worse than that of the dalits.
But blaming the state for all the ills of the Muslim community for the last 50 years has not got the community any further. As the Vice President of India Shri Hamid Ansari said in the recently concluded World Summit of the Aligarh Muslim University Alumni: “While Shikwa (complaint) about our condition was valid, there was no need to carry it to the point of incapacity for autonomous action. We failed to take note of, emulate and adapt, the initiatives taken by other communities in creative ventures in the field of education independent of government agencies.”
It would be a cliché to repeat that Muslim communalism has been feeding Hindu communalism. It’s good that by and large Muslims have disowned their communal leadership but have not been helped by the secular leadership—they continue to remain a rudderless community, a mere pawn in the chess board of the great Indian ‘vote-bank’ politics.
But things can’t be left where they are. The status quo must change.
One thing that Muslims must do, in order not to alienate themselves from the Hindus, is to respect Hindu sentiments, respect their religious books and culture and emphasize the syncretic values of Islam and Hinduism. A siege mentality of staying aloof will not work any longer, as it has not worked in the past. Similarly, my religion is better than yours mentality will also not work. The members of two communities have to mingle together on equal terms.
Terrorism: Indian Muslims falling in the trap of denial?
Apart from the efforts that need to be put in to ameliorate the conditions of the community, Indian Muslims also need to the face the charge of terrorism squarely, as columnist Vir Sanghvi recently asked: Are Indian Muslims falling in the trap of denial?
“This terrorism must not be allowed to drive on even bigger wedge between India’s Hindus and Muslims,” he says. “Some of this is up to the Muslim community. From what I remember of the 1980s, Muslims are reacting as many Sikhs did then: arguing that the stories of terrorism are made up and that it is all a conspiracy against their community.”
“India’s Muslims must be wary of falling into the trap of denial,” he suggests. “I am prepared to concede that some of those arrested for terrorist attacks could be innocent. I am prepared also to admit that the police do concoct cases. But can every arrested person be innocent? Can every e-mail from the Indian Mujahedeen be a fake?”
There is a lot of truth in Sanghvi’s questions. No one is arguing that the black sheep in Muslim community should be treated differently from the black sheep of other communities. However, can the entire community be held hostage for the wrong doing of misguided few? Must we profile people because of their faith? Must we incarcerate people without evidence and torture them to extract spurious proof? If not checked, will this not hasten India’s sliding into a fascist state?
Where is the moral leadership?
These are the questions that liberal Indians like Harsh Mandar and Arundhati Roy are asking today and these are the questions that both Hindus and Muslims need to ask of the police and the state. And our politicians should provide the moral leadership that is required of them at such times, not the usual vote bank politics that they are used to. After communal riots erupted in Delhi in the wake of a bloody partition of India, Gandhi went on a fast to stop people from cutting each others’ throat. No one expects today’s leaders to take such a self-sacrificial stand but some semblance of moral leadership has to be shown.
To their credit, a large number of Indian Hindus have been accommodative of the minorities. Indian Muslims, whether in India or abroad, must realize that Hindus are their best friends. Both share the same culture and are heirs to a rich 5000-year old civilization. Both have to work together to defeat the communal forces. Our sane minded leaders have tried to do so for the last hundred years or so but not with much success. It is time we took the matter in our own hands and gave communal hatred a silent burial.
Will that be easy? I have my doubts but let us make a beginning. Opening our circle of friendship to people of all faiths can be a good starting point. Everyone, all Indians, need to embrace a rational approach to civil life—don’t believe in unverified information, stop spreading rumors, and try to understand each other better.
At this juncture, India’s new elite and the technocratic middle class need to play a special role. “What I’m really discouraged by is the growing dominance of a technocratic middle class that is anti-political and for whom the suffering of excluded people doesn’t mean a lot,” said Martha Nussbaum. “This IIT mentality — become technically competent engineers, forget about human values — is very dangerous, particularly for a country like India.”
India’s new elite and the technocratic middle class need to pay heed. If they really want India to become the America of Asia, they can no longer afford to be silent and apolitical.
Published in Asian Sentinel, Hong Kong, Oct 29, 2008