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Mainstream, VOL L No 42, October 6, 2012

Identities are Returning with a Vengeance

Thursday 11 October 2012, by Kuldip Nayar

“The most heinous and the most cruel crimes which history has recorded have been committed under the cover of religion or equally noble motives.” So said Mahatma Gandhi in 1921 in an address to the Congress party at Ahmedabad. Yet the religion-based parties have played havoc with the sentiments and aspirations of the people in the country. In the name of improving man’s character and convictions the parties have indulged in such acts which have fanned fundamentalism and ultimately frustration.

India today is a sad spectacle of scotched hopes and exaggerated entities. A pluralistic society is being defeated in tolerance by the assertion of communities which do not pay even lip-sympathy to secularism, India’s ethos. I have never seen so many Hindu temples coming up and so many people, including the young, visiting them. Nor have I experienced before the frequency to mosques and large congregations. What is most disturbing is the discussion in the civil society in homes, clubs and restaurants. That reflects a way of thinking which was absent a few years ago. The discussion is an usual mixture of the communities’ chauvinism and religious fanaticism.

Muslims have generally withdrawn from the mainstream and feel more secure among members of their own community, visibly Islamic. Young girls are taking to hijab which I saw even rarely in Lahore. Young men wear a small beard and talk about the Muslim identity in a country which was divided 70 years ago on the basis of religion. The influence of Wahabis, a set of believers within Islam, is growing and even the ridiculous fatwa to justify talaq by a drunken husband evokes little protest. I am surprised how the Muslims have to come to prefer Allah-hafiz to Khuda-hafiz to underline the Arabic origin—a purely religious angle. The biggest loss is that of Sufism which still provides a common platform to Hindus and Muslims, seeking something beyond the temple and the mosque, prayers and rituals.

After the traumatic experience of partition, people in India as well as Pakistan had regretted the toll which religion had taken and had settled down to the fact that there would have to be a majority and minority in the two countries. But strangely they have not cultivated the spirit of accommodation or sense of tolerance. When the Babri Masjid was demolished in India and the Hindu temples wrecked in Pakistan and Bangladesh, it was evident that the feeling of amity is still to return to the subcontinent. It has been tough for the Indian Muslims and tough for the minorities in Pakistan and Bangladesh. As for the Muslims in India, they have come round to accepting even the unfair demands of the Hindus.

Economically, educationally and socially backward, the community has had no option. True, it goes on regretting what it has lost and reluctantly adjusts to the little leeway to go ahead. Yet they are being pushed out of even the limited space they have. This should have made them join the mainstream but it is having an opposite effect. More and more Muslims are withdrawing into a shell. In a country where their population is roughly 17 crores, a large part of the Indian body remains unutilised. This is a tragedy. 

The communal elements among Hindus have a different agenda—of undoing the secular state and of founding the Hindu Rashtra. It is a pity that the State has been too soft towards them. Even the civil society does not react as strongly against the excesses as it should because such people are out to demolish the liberal polity which we have built in the last 70 years, brick by brick. If they were to succeed, India would be lost in the world of extremism and may become prey to communal violence on a large scale. 

The Sikhs, genuinely hurt by the attack on their Vatican, the Darbar Sahib at Amritsar, in 1984 and the killings of their community members at Delhi in the same year, find themselves more at home among the Sikhs. The exigencies of living do not bother them—they are generally well off— but the dilution of their identity does. They mix religion with politics more often than others. Yet the Hindus find themselves closer to the Sikhs—one, because they are nearer to one and another religion-wise, and two, because they have migrated together from Pakistan.
Whether all the three communities, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, are satisfied with their obsession to refurbish their identity or not, they are weakening the idea of India and harming the ethos of the country. Secularism should have been on the top of the political parties’ agenda, which was the war-cry against the British during the independence struggle and promised to abolish boundaries on the basis of religion and caste. In contrast, it is sad to see identities returning with a vengeance. No doubt, the politicians are most to blame for fostering cleavages with an eye on the electoral advantage. They have betrayed the nation and changed the ‘noble motives’ which Mahatma Gandhi had attributed to religion.

The author is a veteran journalist renowned not only in this country but also in our neighbouring states of Pakistan and Bangladesh where his columns are widely read. His website is www.kuldipnayar.com

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