Kuldip Nayar, Nav Hind Times, Wednesday, March 22, 2006
MUSLIMS in India were genuinely outraged by cartoons of their Prophet. Their anger against the US President, Mr Bush was also understandable after what he did to Iraq and threatened to do against Iran. But their protest did not have to be hysterical. They did not have to come on the streets to ventilate their annoyance. This evoked a lot of misunderstanding and fear. So much so, Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh had to talk to some leaders of the community.
However, my reading is that the pent-up grievances of Muslims found an expression in the protest. The community increasingly felt alienated and abandoned. The cartoons and Mr Bush’s visit to India gave it an opportunity to underline the despair about improvement in its status, stature and the substance. It has been anxious for some time to project its case in a manner which would not be considered communal and would still show the fire burning within.
The problem with such types of protest is that it gives a handle to fundamentalists. And this is what happened. One band from among them killed some 25 innocent men and women at a Varanasi temple, and another announced a yatra, a like of which killed thousands in its wake last time. From among Muslim extremists, one UP minister announced a reward of Rs 51 crore to the person who would kill the cartoonist in Denmark. The one from the Hindutuva crowd promised crores of rupees to someone who would cut off the hands of Maqbool Fida Hussain who had painted Bharatmata nude.
The leaders of both communities have spoken against the incidents. But they have been silent over bigotries and fundamentalists. They are reluctant to do so lest they should forfeit their standing among their own community. But they are politicising the incidents in view of forthcoming state elections in Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. I do not know whether it is communalism which is rearing its head again or whether communalism has taken the shape of terrorism. Whatever it is, the fact remains that the country is more divided and more uneasy than before.
I do not think any one party can set things right. The exaggerated rhetoric of one-sided campaigns has already tainted the atmosphere. Leaders should be conscious of people’s dislike for communal politics, particularly in the countryside. The BJP has still not recovered from the electorate’s abhorrence over its ideology at the last general elections. The National Integration Council, where the different parties are represented, should meet more often to assess the various happenings. It should try to find out why there is more desperation in the air and less opposition to the cult of bomb. It would be a facile inference if the council were to come to the conclusion that the state was soft. More restrictive laws or more companies of police do not necessarily curb terrorism. The BJP’s criticism that the POTA should not have been dropped is not convincing because the law did more harm than the MISA during the emergency.
In fact, the challenge to the country is parochialism which some political parties have adopted as their creed. This has to be faced. Nations worth their salt have to show determination to defend their ethos. This is a quality and faith which is distinctive from the subjective or emotional response. Pluralism is our ethos, an ideal. This guided us during our national struggle and we even consecrated the ideology, secularism, in the constitution we adopted after witnessing the genocide in the name of religion during the partition in August 1947. A country with 80 per cent Hindus decided not to be a Hindu rashtra but a secular, democratic polity. Those who are not reconciled to it are the ones who have been fighting against India’s ethos since independence.
So strong was the wind of pluralism for many years after freedom that the party which would appeal in the name of religion was swept off like dry leaves. The Jana Sangh, the BJP’s predecessor, did not even cross the double-digit figure in a parliamentary election. The Muslim League which was a byname in the forties in
UP, Bihar, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh did not win even a single seat in these states after independence. It was a welcome sight which falsified the skeptics who said that communalism was doomed to stay in India.
Lately – the watershed is the genocide in Gujarat under the BJP Chief Minister, Mr Narendra Modi – the shadows of communalism are lengthening. Political parties are thinking in terms of vote bank. Some states are worse than the other. UP, for example, has become the epicenter of parochialism. Yet, Varanasi has given an appropriate reply to the bomb blasts by holding concerts of bhakti and sufi music. Even the high priest of the temple where the blast took place has paid no attention to the purpose of fundamentalists to create communal riots.
In contrast, the action by police was shoddy and panicky. Within 12 hours of the incident, they killed a person whom chief minister Mulayam Singh said was a Pakistani but turned out to be a criminal from Madhya Pradesh. The hullabaloo about catching the culprits came to naught because there was none to identify the much-published sketches the police had drawn.
Before the Varanasi blasts, I was at a gathering of Muslim youth. They were talking about the distance between them and the Hindu youth. “Tell us, how do we span the gulf?” they asked me. “How can we participate in the nation-building activities when they do not trust us?” They have a point because they find the two communities – Hindus and Muslims – living separately, not only socially but also mentally. But there is no political party except the BJP which is going to the youth, although to poison their mind.
What has enabled the two communities to live closely for centuries is their healthy attitude towards one another. The sense of tolerance and the spirit of accommodation have provided them with the glue to stick together. That glue is drying up. I wish the communists and the Congress men could do something about it instead of talking at each other all the time.
They may find an answer in what the 23-year-old Bhagat Singh said before his execution by the British at Lahore 75 years ago on March 23. He wondered why those who agitated side by side during the non-cooperation movement in the 1920s had turned into enemies. It was strange that they participated in the agitation and yet remained strangers. Religious, political or personal considerations brought them together. But at heart, they remained biased and bigoted, only Hindus and Muslims.