Note: Shashi Warrier's first prize winner. Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta's third prize winner. The three other shortlisted essays: Sultan & Rehmat Fazelbhoy, Paresh Kumar, Amit Gawde.
Note also that these are the English entries that were shortlisted. Would a Hindi blogger out there like to post the Hindi ones?
With no more preamble, over to Lakkan.
I avoid making friends with Muslims who show a “special” interest in me because I also happen to be a Muslim. I also avoid making friends with Hindus who want to improve my comfort level by talking about their other “Mohammedan friends”. The ones who express surprise because we do not “look” like Muslims should count themselves lucky that I do not have their blood on my hands. My wife usually tells them that we have forgotten to carry our horns. And I simply detest people who bare their secular heart because I find them a shade more communal than the Muslims who show a “special” interest in me or the Hindus who have other “Mohammedan friends”.
There are certain words and phrases that lose their original meaning to reflect change. The word Harijan was coined by Mahatma Gandhi to give a touch of dignity to the country’s underclass. It was a very sensitive coinage. Its usage is now banned. The Dalits are happy with their new identity. Call them Harijans and you will have Mayawati gunning for you.
I believe the concept of secularism, for whatever it stood for, too has outlived its purpose. Gandhi was perfectly right in publicly using religious metaphors to establish communal harmony in the tense period before the partition-cum-Independence of India. The constant reference to “Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Issai, apas mien hain bhai, bhai” did help bring down the level of communal tension generated by the British, the Muslim League and the Hindu Maha Sabha in equal measure.
Today we are being asked to share the once sacred secular space with Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Veer Savarkar, both votaries of the vicious two-nation theory! Dear countrymen, I plead with you to with folded hands to support me in demanding that secularism in its present mutilated form should be officially given a quiet burial and allowed to rest in peace. Please do it before the butcher of Staines and the Fuhrer of Gujarat raise their hand in support of secularism.
I am certain that my mother was not promoting the Congress-coined and State-sponsored concept of secularism when she helped two Sindhi refugee boys, Lachchhoo and Chandu set up a grocery store in a mixed-locality in Lucknow shortly after partition. Neither was she trying to establish Shia-Sunni harmony by helping Khalil Master set up a tailoring shop. She is still around and at 90 as intellectually involved in condemning Bush for brutalising the planet as she is in the affairs of the socially disadvantaged sections of people around her.
Our parents were not promoting secularism by not stopping us from darting across the road to Krishna Bhavan for the evening aarti. Neither did Panditji make us aware of our otherness. We enjoyed playing with the cute little bells that he gave to all the devotees. I suspect we always got a larger helping of the Prasad than others. Evidently there was nothing in the scriptures against Shia Muslim kids taking part in the puja.
The residence of the family of Babu Mahabir Prasad Srivastava faced our house. Every Holi our father would lock himself up in a room because he didn’t like getting drenched in colours that took days to wash. For Bhola and Veeru, Babuji’s nephews, we played the Trojan Horse to let them in where father was hiding. Thereafter we went all over the neighbourhood spraying everyone with colour and shouting “bura naa maano Holi hai”. We did all this and more not because we wanted to display our secular ideals, but because in those happy times we were not ever made aware of the difference in “their religion and ours”.
Perhaps we are a rare family, which did not allow our religion to dominate our conduct. Moharram in our native village Mustafabad (Unchahar) is more a cultural experience than a religious observance. Take away Mir Anis and his marsisyas, describing different facets of the Karbala tragedy in simple Urdu verse and we shall have to reinvent our observance of Imam Husain’s martyrdom.
No, I do not have any rational answers to why we did not react like other families even if someone married outside the religious fold. I do not think there are many Muslim families that accepted a Chitpavan Brahmin, a Rajput Christian, a Chinese, an American and Sunni girls as daughters-in-law. I can count at least one Sikh, several Hindu and Sunni sons-in-law in our family. It is not that there were never any murmurs of protest. They were always muted. My father was a consistent conscientious objector and did not bless mixed weddings with his presence. However, once the dust was settled the non-Muslims became as much a part of the family as the “regular” sons and daughters-in-law.
But why have I brought in my family in the debate on secularism? Because we represent the rarest of rare exception. I wish the rest of India was as flexible in relating to other cultures and faiths as we are. Unfortunately it is a long way from happening. What worries me more is the perceptible backward movement into our respective communal ghettos. We shall be making a terrible mistake if we ignore the objective reality. My family is still largely untouched by the communal virus. But beyond our domestic comfort zone is a very, very disturbing picture.
The village communities that were untouched by the communal virus seem to be buckling under the influence of the politically sponsored hate campaigns during the past two decades against religious minorities. What makes me worry more is the change in the social perception of the educated, upwardly mobile urban youth, who once used to flirt briefly with communist ideology before succumbing to temptations of the market forces! The Sangh Parivar’s vicious propaganda against the Muslims, and lately Christians has managed to breach the centuries old secular shield of the villages and influence urban Hindu youths. Not surprisingly their hate campaigns gave Muslim madarsas undeserved legitimacy.
The secular space is now sought to be appropriated by the political lumpen. The process started immediately after Independence. I can give a thousand reasons, by quoting chapter and verse from the data on communal violence compiled by the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy, to make secular India hang its head in shame.
The anti-Sikh riots, the Babri Masjid-related acts of communal mayhem, the Bombay blasts, the Gujarat pogrom are just a few out of the countless instances of the secular State’s failure to provide the promised security to “we, the people of India” from the enemies of civil society. The day is not going to come in the lifetime of our grand children when the likes of L. K. Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Narendra Modi, Bal Thackeray, H. K. L. Bhagat, Jagdish Tytler, Sajjan Kumar etc will be brought to justice for their crimes against humanity.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is an honest man and secular too boot. So is Sonia Gandhi. However, which one of them will take responsibility for the entry of the Shiv Sainiks, in recent times, in the Congress? It is the continuing compromise with communal elements that is responsible for the present mess. The political leadership should have banned all forms of public display of religion after Independence. That is what secularism is supposed to do. A secular State’s primary function is to provide equal private space, without let or hindrance, to both believers and non-believers and come down ruthlessly against those who try to violate this cardinal principle.
What will become of India if secularism is discarded? This question is best answered by a counter-question. What was India before secularism was adopted as State policy? India is the only country that allowed all the religions of the world to grow and flourish on its soil. This happened much before the birth of secularism. Simply put, to be Indian is to be secular. By the same logic the votaries of communalism, or those who seek to create religious or sectarian ill will are not Indians. They are enemies of the State and should be charged with treason and hanged.
Raghupati Sahai “Firaq” summed up the essence of India in this verse –
Sar zameen-e-Hind par aqwaam-e-alaam kay “Firaq”
Karvaan bastey gaye, Hindustan bantaa gaya.