Sitting down to write this essay takes me back to my college days and the tremendous fervour generated by our leaders, with Gandhiji at the helm, to strive peacefully for freedom from the yoke of British rule. The nation wanted to take charge of its own destiny!
A choice came our way : migrate to Pakistan, the new land of opportunity for our "victimized" community (so our Muslim League leaders proclaimed). Many families and neighbours known to us opted for the adventure and the vision of an Islamic State, a picture which had little appeal for us.
Why then did our own family and relatives consciously choose to stay back in secular India? With all the drawbacks and struggles imposed by over emphasis on religion in public life, it has been, in retrospect, a most rewarding and heart warming decision to remain here.
There are two prominent features in our extended family: we are not orthodox in our practice of Islam. And two, there have been a large number of marriages with spouses from other religions and countries. Many have been and are fascinating persons, integrating well with our culture and our family.
This has encouraged us to think more of ourselves as citizens of the world, members of the human community, hoping that mankind could some day live on a borderless planet. At the same time we took pride in our country and wanted India to be a beacon light to the rest of the world as an example in harmonious and composite nationhood.
But then came the vote gathering yatra to Ayodhya, with the support and participation of prominent political parties. Some even idolised Hitler as a super patriot!
"India is primarily for Hindus", was vociferously proclaimed and a Ram Temple would be the ultimate offering to bring peace and prosperity to all citizens. In the process, then and subsequently, many lives have been cruelly lost, and tragedy has needlessly struck many a family who were solely interested in earning their daily bread with integrity and hard work.
The Muslim clerics and leaders were certainly not guiltless. They wrongly preached the superiority of the Muslim over all others, and misinterpreted the meaning of jihad, generating animosity against the majority community. They overlooked that in its true meaning, jihad is the inner battle of each individual against the negative and evil features in his or her character.
This is the theme Prophet Mohammed gave to the people of the world for all time:
- O people, remember that your Lord is One. An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab, nor does a non-Arab have any superiority over an Arab. Also a black has no superiority over a white, nor does a white have any superiority over a black, except by virtue of piety. Indeed the best amongst you is the one with the best character.
It seems we are increasingly forgetting in our daily lives and interaction with our fellow beings the lofty messages of our many religions and spiritual sages and scholars. To mention a few: Vivekananda, Dr S Radhakrishnan, Gandhiji, the Prophet of Islam who shunned worship and pictures of himself, stating that he was only the Messenger of Allah; also the voices of Jesus. Buddha, Zarathustha, Guru Nanak and so many others, and all the Holy books -- the Gita, the Bible, the Qu'ran, the Guru Granth Saheb and other scriptures.
A little over twelve months ago, we in India set a supreme example of our secular Constitution: a Hindu voting majority, a Christian leader of a major party, a Muslim President to officiate at the swearing in ceremony of a Sikh Prime Minister -- above all, a peaceful change of guard at the highest levels. India had demonstrated, like no other nation in history, THE STRENGTH OF A COMPOSITE SECULAR CULTURE IN A DEMOCRATIC ENVIRONMENT!
This one event beckons us to look ahead to what each one of us should be doing to make the dreams of our independence struggle come to greater fruition in the time ahead. Each of us, whatever our caste and creed, has the same kind of blood in our veins, and the Almighty has been extremely fair in giving everyone an absolutely equal 24 hours per day to do what we want to with our gift of life from Him.
Yes, talent and intellect have been unevenly distributed. At the same time they are generously sprinkled amongst ALL citizens -- just look at the composition of our cricket, hockey and other sports teams to realize that when merit is the criteria, every community has much to offer.
Music is another unique example. Audiences of all faiths gather at concerts by Lata Mangeshkar, Amjad Ali Khan, Asha Bhosle, Bismillah Khan, Ravi Shanker, Zubin Metha and so many others. Many are enchanted by the lilting rhythms of A. R. Rehman. Talent from across the border in Pakistan has also been much appreciated here for the likes of Abida Parveen and Mohsin Raza. All without any thought of their religious background.
Again, in the field of IT business, the two best known names are Narayan Murthy and Azim Premji, whilst the Tatas and the Birlas have made a mark in a wide spectrum of industries.
Why then stifle initiative and the flowering of talent by narrow mindedness, when the intention should be not to dominate or destroy, but with full utilisation of all available skills and resources, to win the overwhelmingly difficult battle against poverty? Let us then rethink our overall concept of secularism, much maligned by the prefix of 'pseudo' given by some political parties, to insinuate minority appeasement.
Let us now, more than ever, move over to its wider meaning of a COMPOSITE society, with equal rights and justice for all. Let us take pride in the multifaceted nature of our culture and inheritance, the result of healthy assimilation over centuries, a marked feature of Hinduism at its very best.
Let us be devoid of unhealthy passion, or anger at past historical events, and aggressive questions of caste, gender and creed -- the Taj Mahal and the Ajanta & Ellora caves are equal in their grandeur, and are neither Muslim nor Hindu but magnificently Indian!
These give an insight into the talents we have nurtured as one of the oldest civilizations, talents equal to the best of any other nation. Again we have so much uniqueness in each community that enhances the beauty of the tapestry that is composite India .
Let us all be religious, better still spiritual. Let us teach ourselves to consider our beliefs to be a private matter, and not an advertisement label to wear each time we move out of our homes. In creating mankind, the Almighty did not speak of differences of gender, caste, faith, blood groups, etc. Instead HE unhesitatingly gave to one and all the peace of a scenic sunset, the fascinating variety in nature and the animal world, and the elevating experience of being high up in the Himalayas.
HE remains ONE and our several religions are but so many roads to a common destination. Let us pause a bit and look backwards into history -– which of the ancient empires, or the recent one of Hitler, has survived once the cancer of hatred has entered the body politic?
Yes, a change of heart is sorely needed in the attic of the minds of many of our religious clerics and the political class at all levels. We need a wider sense of comradeship with all our people, stricken and bewildered as they are, searching for some way of escape out of the ruins and poverty around us.
Let us broaden the definition of secularism as not only primarly focused on freedom of worship, but more spiced up with joy and pride in our COMPOSITE culture. Let us unstintingly love our common Creator, and along with Him, the life He gave us, joining hands with neighbours and friends in laughter, tolerance, helpfulness, service and good fellowship. Let us work towards banishing hatred and cruelty, a utopian dream for an imperfect world.
This then is the rethink we envision and in all earnestness pray that it happens. Let each one strive to help our nation move forward towards the grand potential that is India, a vibrant home of many mansions, secular and happily composite, where there will be room for all to live in justice, peace, prosperity and freedom ...
Said President Abraham Lincoln's foremost opponent in the American civil war, General Ulysses S. Grant: I believe that our Great Maker is, in His own good time, preparing the world to become one nation, speaking one language of love and peace, when armies, navies and killer weapons will no longer dominate and be no longer required ...