Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Rushdie affair shames India….but who’s really responsible?

I wrote a few days back that the Congress was responsible for the Rushdie fiasco. There is a difference between being secular and appeasing the retrograde elements of a community. I called it cowardice. Yesterday, when Rushdie was not even allowed to appear on a video link, it brought out the collective anger of a whole bunch of liberal Indians – those who carry a different vision for the country; those who despise bigotry of all types – whether it has a Hindu or a Muslim color.

While the Congress must take the most flak for being so weak in its response to the threats from a small number of extreme Muslims, the unfortunate affair also brings out another fact. That most of us Indians are extremely orthodox – steeped in centuries old tradition – and worse, we are very comfortable with it. Our sense of nationalism and identity stems from our parochial and outdated views of our religion. We see ourselves as Hindus and Muslims first; rather than as Indians. We forget that faith is something that should be practiced in the private confines of our homes, preferring instead to build our identities around it. Our orthodox views prevent us from bridging the divisions in our society. They ensure – in fact compel us – that we continue to remain in the grip of stone-age beliefs. Those who want to rise about such petty thinking are pulled back into the cesspool of traditionalism by others who pretend to be protectors of faith.

Politicians only reflect the realities of society. The Congress took this stand on Rushdie because of the UP elections. For the party, the Muslims represent a core vote bank and getting the hackles of the community up just before an election is not something that is politically wise. Much as we may despise such political strategy, isn’t this a bitter reality of politics? Haven’t Muslims in fact presented a nearly unanimous disapproval of Rushdie? I haven’t heard too many liberal Muslims come out in support of Rushdie or of Freedom of Speech for that matter. Save and except for one voice on TV last night (from the organization called Muslims for Secular Democracy) and of course the irrepressible and indefatigable Javed Akhtar, I haven’t heard too many other Muslims rise in support of Rushdie. So the Congress is not wrong in pandering to the mood of the community. Does it have the guts to go against its own vote base….no way.

The BJP is no different. Replace Rushdie with Hussain and the underbelly of the BJP gets exposed. The BJP and all its sister and brother organizations created enough ruckus around Hussain for him to leave the country for good. The BJP was appeasing its Hindu vote bank. In the Hussain case, one did hear several liberal Hindu voices complaining – but in the end, did it matter? Not one bit. Hussain opted to take citizenship of Qatar.

Just look at the other emerging story of the day. Jay Leno – the US stand-up comedian and TV host – apparently took a dig at Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate, joking that the Golden Temple was like a summer home for him. Jay Leno was talking about Romney’s wealth in these trying times – hence the reference in particular to the “Golden” temple. There was no offence intended. I actually felt good that an extremely beautiful and hugely pious place like the Golden Temple was being discussed in the US. But the Sikhs have reacted angrily. And the Government of India – obviously to please the Sikhs before the elections in Punjab – has apparently thought of complaining to the US. How ridiculous is that? But equally, how unwarranted is the reaction of some Sikhs?

Even amongst the illiberals, some of the Muslims stand out as being the most illiberal of them all. The most common imagery of Muslims is one of orthodoxy. The religious leaders of the Muslims dominate the landscape, not the intellectuals. The schools are not normal schools, but madrasas. The teachings inside the madrasas are not modern subjects like mathematics and science, but religion and religious philosophy. The Muslims are objecting to the Right to Education Act as it would impose certain requirements on the madrasas. Why? The clothing of women of the country has changed hugely since independence – with the jeans and t-shirt ensemble replacing the salwar kameez almost completely amongst the younger generation. But amongst most Muslims, it’s still the same conservative dressing of the past. The Muslims are themselves responsible for this. Islam is a powerful religion – and Muslims need to do everything to keep it contemporary. They should look up to Turkey to see what modern Islam means.

But honestly the Hindus can be equally orthodox. Look at the caste system that’s so intrinsic to our identity – we’ve made almost no dent on it in the last 60 years. I doubt if we will ever be able to even just scratch its surface in the next 100. The caste system is extremely unfair – dividing society up into meaningless and unfair parts. Those who are privileged obviously are happy with status quo – but those who suffer at the lower levels are forever considered unequal. For no fault of theirs. No matter how well educated; how successful a lower caste person becomes, he/she will permanently remain a lower caste person. It’s because of this that we have so much of caste-based politics in the country.

In large measure the reason for this orthodoxy is in the pathetic state of education in the country. When I was growing up, for a very long time, I studied a subject called “moral science”. It may have looked a little preachy then, but the fact is that it did instill in me a certain degree of progressive thinking; it made me think of others before thinking of myself; taught me a little about sacrifice; about being nice and polite to others; about allowing others to have their own views; about not being a bully. Today, in most schools of India, there is no such subject. Forget moral science…..there is nothing else that teaches children to be modern and civil.

The Rushdie affair is not the last one we will see. Everytime the Indian state is challenged by such identity led issues, it will succumb. It will succumb because the people of this country want it to succumb. No government will ever be able to stand up to such challenges. We all know how pusillaminous the UP governemnt’s response was to the Babri Masjid demolition. Kalyan Singh was happy to give his word to the Supreme Court that he would protect the shrine – and yet when it came to it, he conveniently allowed the devastation. So convenient for him to later say that the crowds took over and the government couldn’t do much.

Unless we recognize the dangers that such divisions in society pose to the unity of the country, and unless we work towards eliminating those divisions, we run the risk of breaking up. Just look at Europe. It stands divided into ever smaller countries – mostly on irrelevant ethnic grounds. The US in contrast has stood as one massive country. No wonder then that not a single European country can challenge the might of the US by itself; even though collectively they are as strong. The leaders of Europe realized this – hence the formation of the European Union and the Eurozone and all the other European institutions. While they work together now, it’s not the same as being one united country. Once the country is divided, it is impossible to put it back together.

The real truth is that the Rushdie affair is a wake up call to us. It’s a reminder to us all – Hindus and Muslims alike – to rise above petty orthodoxy. We must do that in our own interest. The world won’t mind if India gets divided into smaller parts. Only we will suffer if that happens…..

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