Baske dushwaar hai har kaam ka aasan hona,
Aadmi ko bhi mayassar nahi insaan hona.
How hard, how impossible
To do the things one can;
Ah that the mighty earthling
Is hardly ever a man.
(trans., in Raina’s Ghalib, Writer’s Workshop,
It is once again time to speak straight to the point.
An act of the most grossly irreligious cowardice was on display at the Press Club in Hyderabad the other day.
Three elected members of the Andhra Pradesh Assembly belonging to the MIM (Majlis-e-Ittahadul Muslimeen) party barged into the Club where Taslima Nasreen, the self-exiled Bangladeshi writer, now living in India on six-monthly renewable visas, was to release Telegu editions of her works.
On cue, these MLAs, led by Akbaruddin Owaisi, proceeded to pelt the guest author with books, flower pots and other sundry missiles. Television footage of the barbarity clearly showed Ms.Nasreen being hit several times on the head. But for some brave protection furnished by elderly hosts, real physical injury might have been caused to Ms.Nasreen who has been critical of Islamic orthodoxy on several counts, especially concerning muslim women. As the world knows, umpteen fatwas are out requiring her to be beheaded.
After the event, Akbaruddin was heard to make two loud proclamations to his supporting rabble and to India in general: one, that were Ms.Nasreen ever to visit Hyderabad again, she would be killed as per injunctions of the fatwa; and, secondly, that he, Owaisi, was first a muslim and only after an MLA.
Well, well; it is clearly time to speak a similarly plain language to Owaisi and those who think as he does.
For a start, our citizenship—and all the rights and obligation that flow thereof—do not accrue to us from anything written in the Gita, the Quran, the Bible, the Granth Sahib, or any other scriptural text.
It accrues to us from the Constitution of the Republic of India as by law established.
Thus, if on the one hand, the Constitution furnishes us the freedom to practice and propagate what religious faith we will, it expressly stipulates that whatever hurts or grievances, real or imagined, we may have on this score must be settled through the due processes of law. On no account does the citizen have the right to usurp the prerogatives so stipulated where they concern the sphere of public conduct and controversy.
Those of us who have consistently critiqued and resisted attempts, especially since the demolition of the Babri mosque in 1992, at a majoritarian take-over of the State and its functions through vigilante mobilization and violence have, Mr.Owaisi, no intention of making the least exception of you and your cohorts just because you happen to belong to a religious minority.
And we say to you and your fellow MLAs that if indeed your religious allegiance (if it truly be such, of which we have great doubt) precedes and supercedes your sworn allegiance to the Constitution of India, the least you can do to prove your bona fides is to resign your membership of the Assembly, and then take up the work of liquidating infidels and dissenters in right earnest, unshackled by your secular oath.
And should such an honourable course not be forthcoming from the MLAs in question (as we do not think it will be), we call upon the Election Commission to do the needful as per provisions of the People’s Representation Act.
Citizens of the country will also be interested watchers of whether or not the law-enforcement agencies of the State take due cognizance of open declarations of the intent to murder Ms.Nasreen, with the all-important caveat that these enforcement agencies do not, in the first place, replicate the murderous examples set by their professional colleagues in Gujarat and elsewhere. There is after all ample ground to the widespread public distrust of these agencies, and not for no reason are they seen to be often the sources of the grossest lawlessness, particularly in their dealings with underlings of any definition.
To those unfortunate followers whom the Owaisis of this world are able to mislead and mobilize, we want to say that whereas we shall continue to struggle by their side towards the furtherance of their genuine material interests and rights, and against their alienation and exclusion from systems of sharing and of justice, we will reject their violent frenzies as decisively as those of the VHP or the Bajrang Dal.
We have consistently pleaded with them to learn the courage to assume with conviction their rights and privileges of equal citizenship that our secular democracy bestows upon us, and to join with the secular majority of the republic who hold the Constitution to be the one indubitably holy book for all citizens of India.
We now wish to make the further suggestion that they learn, and without loss of time, to distinguish between those so-called Islamic voices that at bottom use them as self-serving fodder, and those other learned muslim voices who speak the truth both about their faith and about citizenship.
Concerning Tslima Nasreen’s criticisms as available in her writings, recall what the holy Quran enjoins: “attack those who attack you AS they attack you.” This teaching would require that those who pretend to lead you into the true ways of Islam engage with Ms.Nasreen in disputation and argument, not in unwarranted and unmanly physical attack or threats of murder. That they do not do so tells us that the Owaisis of this world may after all have a negligible knowledge of the faith on whose behalf they commit illiterate and heinous barbarisms. Here is what Maulana Aqilul Gharawi has to say on the matter: “the seeds of democratic reform are enshrined in three key Islamic tenets of Shura, Ijma and Ijtihad.” Mr. Owaisi, go read some books.
Do not then permit an Owaisi to hijack the educated traditions of Islam into the politics of fascism. Think how repeatedly the Quran and the Prophet emphasise the central value of learning; had that not been the case the Arabs may not have given us the marvels of Algebra and Geometry and wondrous architectures and canal systems built to impeccable scientific principles—traditions that need to be deepened and carried forward. Think also that had a Copernicus or a Galileo not questioned Church teachings with regard, for example, to the placement of the earth within the solar system, the modern world in which the Owaisis practice politics and speak freely may never have been born. After all, why is it that the questions Ms.Nasreen has been asking are also being increasingly asked in many countries where muslims are in vast majority, not excluding Iran? Why is it that there are as many commentaries on the holy book as there actually are? Or so many sects of interpretation among muslims, just as among Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jews and others? Great are the books that grow, become richer, and change their meanings for us with advances in time and collective human experience. Only the limited ones remain tethered to a stagnant stake.
Especially with regard to India, it is not the violent intolerance of the Owaisis and the Togadias that has through the centuries ensured our most unique commingling of faiths and lives. Remember that if Islam flows so handsomely through the nations’s blood stream even today, it is to the noble vision of the Sufi orders that we owe such a rich consequence. And simple and long-lasting was their teaching: they refused all discrimination as between faith and faith, they made no distinction between high and low, they spurned the lure of authority and power, they saw the earth as a testament of universal love, spurning dogma and self-serving religious bureaucracies, they sang songs, they danced in ecstasy, and they were one with whatever was loving and noble in man or beast. And they did not think of woman as second to man. And it is for those reasons that a Chisti in Ajmer or an Aulia in Nizamudin or a Nooruddin in Chrar-e-Sharief in Kashmir draw to their resting places the believer, the infidel, the fat, the starving, the sinner and the saint, year after year, century after century. And we are the children of their magnificent union with a Meera, a Nanak, a Raidas, a Namdev, a Narsi Mehta, a Kabir, a Bulla, a Farid, a Tulsi.
There is the heritage that we must acknowledge and own, saying to the Owaisis and the Togadias that, being blood brothers on the other side, they keep their contagion to themselves in a house of common aboard, but far from where our children, sisters and brothers live.
Before we set off in umbrage to behead a suffering woman who only wishes to speak as she has experienced, let us recall that our own poets have asked questions and expressed skepticisms that far outdo what Ms.Nasreen might wish to say. After all, it was Ghalib who wrote:
Hum ko maaloom hai janat ki haqeeqat lekin,
Dil ke behelane ko Ghalib ye khayaal accha hai.
(They must be all correct, of heaven
The eulogies we hear;
But, may God so command that He
Is discovered somewhere there!)
Ask yourself, has Nasreen gone that far—to question the very existence of god or heaven? And yet, what has happened that Ghalib pleases us no end, while a poor Nasreen so inflames? Ghalib offends nobody when he says of himself that he is only half a muslim, in that he drinks liquor but eats not pork. Nor are we inflamed that the great predecessor of Ghalib, Mir Taki Mir could say of himself:
Mir ke deeno mazhab ko poochte kya ho unne to
Kashka khencha, dehr mey baitha, kab ka tark Islam kiya.
(Why ask of Mir what his creed or religion be?
He wears vermillion, sits in the temple,
And has long renounced Islam.)
Surely, perhaps Owaisi and suchlike ought to have been demanding a burning and banning of both Mir and Ghalib. Perhaps they haven’t heard the names or read these poets. They may yet do so.
Have we ,then, forgotten the lessons these and other great thinkers taught us—that no true religious or spiritual impulse can co-exist with intolerance, bigotry, hate, because intolerance, bigotry, hate are always somewhere or the other expressions not of our love of god but of lucre, dominance, and power. And, crucially, far from being protests against “modernity.” they are in themselves vicious by- products of it.
While I am about it, it is time that governments and parties at the centre and the states recognize that the time to play games with bigotry are long past. While they crow about our rising indices of economic clout, they have not a minute to lose in attending with more than the same passion to the matter of citizenship and equality before the law, at the heart of which in a pluralist democracy resides the sovereign right to peaceful dissent. And that right can never be truly protected in a secular democracy unless it includes the right to interpret or question scripture as well. Indeed their mealy-mouthed failure to uphold secular citizenship everyday auguments the maurauding energies of bigotry and enervates the efforts and convictions of those segments that would protect the republic from the atavisms of various kind. Should they fail to put their sectarian lusts on the back-burner, they must prepare for a conflagration in which they will find themselves in fatal embrace. Far better that the embrace is executed here and now along the best principles of non-sectarian humanism.
Finally, one is deeply heartened by the spontaneity and volume of outrage that the Hyderabad incident has evoked from not just “liberal” muslims but, more to the point, muslim clerics and maulvis. Whereas I have many of these responses on my notepad, let me conclude by citing just two or three:
”The attack on her cannot be justified; the attack was against the
spirit of Islam.”
(Maulana Abdul Wahab Khilji, Vice President, Milli Council.)
”We should stick to only lawful means to register our protest
(Maulana Khalid Rasheed, Firangi Mahal, Lucknow).
”Our culture and ethos is based on the foundations of a unique
secularism, based on the cocept of “Sarva Dharma Sambhava,”
unparalleled in the world and which is evolving as we speak.
This concept could provide a globalised world with certain key
answers that it is desperately seeking.”
(Muslim Intellectual Forum, Mumbai)
”As Muslims of India and the Muslims around the globe, we urge
Mr.Owaisi and Mr.Farhat apologize to not only Ms.Nasreen but the
Muslims of the world for the audacity of insulting them by
speaking in their behalf without their permission.”