Communalism in India


Dear Chancellor, Vice-chancellor, Deans of faculties, Teachers and Students,

When I say it is an honor for me to be the chief Guest in this convocation of Jamia Milia Islamia, it is not a formal statement prefacing all such addresses. I mean it because in these difficult times for most of us, the Vice-chancellor of this great University has shown the courage to act properly, and humanely that would have been the correct action by a head of an institution in normal times. But the hysterical attack on him by his critics prompts me to say that he has defended the ideals that our constitution upholds and nothing more. Nobody who is sane can defend the terrorists.

Let us not forget that Gandhiji was killed because he was perceived to be a friend of the Muslims, and an enemy of the Hindus while he strived against the violent actions of both Hindus and Muslims, and fasted to make his own disciples in power to give to Pakistan what was its due, legally. The stridency with which some top political leaders speak now a days makes one feel that Nathuram Godse’s way of thinking is yet alive and influential in our country. We want not only the terrorists to be punished for their inhumanity, but the political and cultural malaise that gives succor to terrorism to end.

I studied in the great Maharaja’s college of Mysore University which had a British Principal. This living legend who was opposed to the quit India movement, did not allow the police to raid the College without his permission. That was the story handed down by generations of students. In his eyes, the “erring” students were under his care. He was of the opinion that all students were under the care of the head of the University, and s/he must play the role of a parent. I cannot make this point better than my friend and fellow writer Sri Mukul Keshavan:

“I have a son who, in less than two years, will go to university. If, god
forbid, he finds himself in police remand for whatever reason (murder, armed
robbery, menacing the faculty, fraud), I’d want his university to behave as
if it were acting in my place, *in loco parentis*. I would expect the
proctor of the university to liaise with the station house officer to make
sure that such rights of visitation as he might have in that ghastly
circumstance were given him, to hire a lawyer to see if he could be released
on bail, and if the nature of the alleged offence didn’t allow that, to try
to have him transferred to judicial custody. Police remand is a dreadful
form of imprisonment in India; unlike judicial custody where the procedural
restraints of prison manuals apply, the police in their station-house
lockups have a free hand in working suspects over. Any university that
washes its hands of its students the moment they are arrested by the police
because it doesn’t want to be associated with notoriety or (as in this case)
the taint of terrorism is a cringing and wretched institution undeserving of
a citizen’s respect or a parent’s trust.”

Prof. Mushirul Hasan as vice-chancellor has stood by the traditions of this great university. The founding fathers of this institution were inspired not only by the anti-colonial Islamic activism of Khilafat, but some of them belonged to the politically radical section of Western educated Indian Muslim intelligentsia. It is important for me that both Gurudev Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi, who were skeptical of the European ideal of a strong, centralized nation-state, built on the notion of ‘one language, one religion, one race’, imagined India as a great civilization of multiple cultures and religions and yet united in an advaitic sense: they blessed this institution.

Let me quote again Mukul Keshavan to make clear what is at stake in our times now:

“When people, policemen and political parties buy into the narrative of *a priori* Muslim guilt, they run the risk of turning this remarkable republic into an ordinary, ugly, majoritarian State.”

I know how some of my Muslims friends have begun to feel these days. The media is largely responsible for this. When any arrest is made for suspected terrorism, you invariably hear a Muslim name. Then you are told that the arrested have confessed. Who will not confess under police torture? I do not know if I would not confess to acts that I am not guilty of if I am subjected to physical and mental torture. This so called “confession” is not valid evidence, however, in a court. By the time we learn that the arrested person is not guilty, the damage has been done. It is an assault on our psyche to be informed everyday that a Muslim has been caught by the police or killed in an ‘encounter’. We never know whether the encounter could have been avoided. How can the dead speak of what really took place? There is a constitutional guarantee that every ‘encounter’ killing is homicide unless proved otherwise through an impartial and transparent enquiry. Our nation state does not seem to take this provision seriously for everything is okay if you can generate a mass hysteria.

In my state of Karnataka, I now hear everyday that the “master-mind” of the terror attacks has been caught. If we doubt the authenticity of the story we are considered unpatriotic and anti-national. This surely is the beginning of fascism.

As a citizen I want to ask this question: Why should the media give out names of all the arrested under suspicion before they are proved to be guilty? Some restraint is necessary in a civil society, for, even after they are cleared of their guilt, the damage is done. Many like me have begun to feel that we are living in a nightmarish Kafkaesque world.

The whole nation seems to be neurotic. The rulers have to prove that they are efficient and therefore I have a suspicion that they randomly pick someone to create an illusion of safety among the citizens. (Any party in power or in opposition desiring to capture power has the next election in view.)

This feeling “safe and secure” is also a momentary illusion, for, tomorrow you hear again of some terrorist attack and of more Muslim names getting arrested. We are also shown on TV channels dangerous explosive material supposed to be in their possession for bomb making. Do we believe in the much-hyped “Breaking News” of the TV channels? Yes and No. Feeling torn between belief and suspicion, even as one recognizes their need to sensationalize and closely compete for TRP ratings, is itself a mental harassment for common citizens like me. Don’t we have children whom we want to return safely from school?

The harassed police are also under pressure from their nervous political bosses to find the guilty as quickly as they can. The inhuman terrorists, who abuse the word ‘Islam’, also know how poor the intelligence network in the country is; and the State seems to be serving their interest in arresting anybody who has a Muslim name, for, the terrorists hope to demoralize the rest of the Muslim community in the hope that they would join them, or at least sympathize with them. They carry such attacks in a Muslim country like Pakistan too. This is the story of powerful Bhasmasura, who tries to destroy his creator. This is true of the policy pursued by the USA for hegemony in the world; they have to now suffer for their karma.

The minorities are thus alienated from the mainstream of our nation. If you are a Muslim you can hardly get a rented house in a decent middle-class locality in the IT city of Bangalore. On learning the name, they are politely told that the house has already been taken.

With the elections round the corner, Hindu rioters – a safe word for the Hindu communalists to mark their difference from Islamic fundamentalists – are attacking churches. In a Kannada newspaper, one with the largest circulation and owned by a prominent Indian newspaper group, published a few days ago an irrational and abusive article on the evil designs of Christians to annihilate the Hindu religion, which had the full support of their leader Smt. Sonia Gandhi. The article was right in the front page, which continued in the inner pages. The excuse was that by publishing the article the issue of conversion had been opened for impartial debate. Some months ago, the same paper conducted a sms campaign against me for criticizing a communally poisonous novel against Islam by this very author, who has now launched himself against the Christians.

I must however observe here that despite such psychological war, thousands of our fellow citizens go about living their lives and caring for their children and the old. The truly religious – among both Muslims and Hindus – are pious and compassionate. Otherwise there would have been utter chaos and anarchy in our country.

I feel it is also time all of us, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, did a serious exploration of what constitutes the fundamentals of Islam. This is necessary to understand the core of Islam, and, more importantly, to extricate Islam and Muslims all over the world from the clutches of religious bigots; protect it from misrepresentations of the Western media and all its lackeys; and to highlight the dynamism of Islam as religion and philosophy. Great scholars like Maxime Rodinson, Edward Said, Mohammad Arakoun, Ziyauddin Sardar, Alam Khundmiri, Maulana Wahiduddin Khan and activists like Asghar Ali Engineer have all done this. Only such an attempt would ever resituate Islam for all concerned without which ugly stereotypes and distortions and misrepresentations about Islam and Muslims cannot be confronted.

It is also equally significant to erase the unfortunate gap that exists now between well-meaning secularists and traditional believers, often dubbed as religious fanatics. In difficult times such as ours the conflicts/tensions/antagonism between genuine secularists and profoundly religious people have to be removed for the good of all. Our great crisis revolves round this aspect too. Otherwise, stereotypes and prejudices would make the situation almost impossible to deal with.

The Christians have at least the West to speak for them, but Indian Muslims have none. President Bush in a Freudian slip perhaps had declared a crusade against them with the support of feudally ruled Muslim states.

Hindus like me who have come under the influence of Gandhi, Ramana, and Paramahamsa who in search of a spiritual realm went beyond any organized religion, now feel threatened. The nature of Hindu civilization, nurtured for more than 2,000 years by disbelievers, for instance like the Buddha, may also be destroyed by cynical supporters of a majoritarian state.

There is a cynical calculation, more so in some parties, less so in others, in dividing Indian people on communal lines for the sake of creating safe vote-banks. It is difficult to create a solid Hindu vote bank for they are divided on caste lines. In the past, during the struggle for freedom and even earlier, there were many reformative movements to fight against casteist hegemony among the Hindus and unite them as a people. One of the greatest of them, Sri Narayana Guru of Kerala got self-esteem and dignity for what was then a semi-untouchable community of toddy tappers. The Guru was a great advaitin himself. For him the untouchable Chandala who brought about a change of heart in the great Adi Shankara was not Shiva in disguise as the myth tells us, but literally a Chandala. Thus he was a “literalist” advaitin. In Karnataka we had a great movement for social justice and unfettered search for spiritual truth in the 12th century. The great poet of that movement, Basava, thought of the dying human body as a temple of the living God which lasts, paradoxically, longer than the seeming solidity of the stone and mortar built temple. He also fought for social justice and equality and got a Brahman girl married to an untouchable. Gandhiji himself was a great reformer.

The paradox is this: now the unity of the Hindus is sought to make our state a majoritarian state. In this seeking of a united Hindu vote bank there is of course no spiritual purpose, although there is a show of festivals and pilgrimages (like the Datta Maala in Chikamagalur).

Last year, in another great institution for which Gandhiji was the founder and Chancellor until his death, the Gujerath Vidyapeeth, I spoke of a genuine search for a spiritual realm, beyond the boundaries of organized religion. This is about the three urges — I call them hungers of the soul following a great saint philosopher Simone Weil— that animated the Gandhian era of our country. They are, hunger for equality, hunger for the spiritual, and hunger for modernity. Writers like me all over the country were inspired by these urges.

Solution to the merely physical hunger for equality appears to be within our reach today. But equality as hunger of the soul is not easily satiated unless it gets coupled, as it does in some great sages of all times — with the other hunger, the spiritual hunger. Both these hungers have their origin in the feeling that all forms of life are sacred and our routine quotidian existence in the temporal world is boring unless it glows with a transcendental meaning. Consumerist paradise can ultimately prove to be dull and tediously repetitive. Great writers of the West have shown how listless and nauseated the human person is in his civilization.

Therefore, when one is deeply animated by these two hungers, as if the two hungers were the same, one becomes profoundly impatient with the existing social system, the existing structures of religion as well as the developmental dreams unleashed by science and technology, for this world doesn’t belong to man alone.

This twin-hunger is what distinguishes our great saint poets of mediaeval times – Basava, Tukaram, Kabir and Akka Mahadevi. In our own times, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Ambedkar – to take some examples at random – exemplify this hunger for equality as well as spiritual hunger. Spiritual hunger may be a better term than hunger for God because I can then include a fierce critic of organized religion like Ambedkar in it. Who is not familiar with the person of Ambedkar in European clothes (symbolizing modernity) who fought an incessant battle for equality and dignity of the Dalits? But it is the same Ambedkar who in his later years embraced the compassionate Buddha. This was not in contradiction to his social commitment but as a continuation of his struggle on another timeless dimension. There is a moving picture of him, although not so popular as the Ambedkar in western dress, in Buddhist robes and shaven head. Those who consider both these pictures of Ambedkar as intensely connected would understand how difficult, yet how beautiful, it is to connect the hunger for equality and human dignity which seeks ruthless political action in the temporal world outside, with spiritual hunger which seeks fulfillment in an inward silent struggle. This is what makes Gandhiji and Ambedkar complementary, despite their differences. I am not able to say the same about the contradiction between the ideas of Veer Savarkar for a strong nation state, and Gandhiji’s dream of gram svaraj. They are irreconcilable, and we see enough proof of that in our troubled times in India.

The last point I wish to make is this: After such trauma and violence in Gujerath, the country seems to have forgotten the role played by Narendra Modi in making Gandhi’s Gujerath almost a nightmare for Muslims. He is now a hero for all those who believe in Development. Every political party speaks of Development and the industrialists and multinationals know that a majoritarian state where dissent is curbed is the best site for development. No political party seems to speak of Gandhiji’s ideal of Sarvodaya, an economic policy that would even benefit the last poor person. The suicides of agriculturists are not taken seriously; their death does not affect the sensex.

Those of you who graduate today from this great institution should ponder over what we as citizens can do to combine development with the welfare of all. Development should disassociate itself from an unabashed consumption and its need of an authoritarian state where the majority can rule ruthlessly, suppressing every form of dissent.

Please don’t think of what I just said as a cliché ridden advice; the whole world is in an economic crisis following the American model of development and consumption; an ecological disaster is ahead of us arising from our greed-driven consumption; violence in our societies has never been effectively curbed by counter-violence. Gandhiji’s faith in non-violence and truth being the same is not just an ideal; it is a practical and sensible path for not only individuals, as perceived conveniently by many of us, but for nation-states too.

Thank you for listening to my words spoken with a feeling of anxiety and personal urgency. Forgive me for not being able to give you a proper academic talk suiting the solemn occasion.

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