19 March, 2010

Tryst With Destiny

At the tender age of three Yakub does not know the significance of 12th December. For his confused 7th grade camp-mate, Yasmeen, this date is a day of reckoning for the rulers of Gujarat. Most Indian Muslims and the thinking masses of India are anxiously watching the Gujarat elections.

I had met Yakub and Yasmeen in the Bakarshah Roza relief camp of Ahmedabad, gathering the shreds of their life scattered in the mayhem of March. A lot has happened since. Not only has the government's Godhra conspiracy theory fallen flat but strong needles of suspicion are pointed at the parivaar itself. The engineered violence that followed has created its own self-sustaining industry. The vulgarity of Gaurav yatras, debasing of the public discourse, ridiculing of the state's institutions and victimization of the conscientious have exposed the vulnerability of Gujarati society.

If the sniffing of 3000 innocent lives does not merit rethink, the economic losses caused by the riots, estimated at around Rs.10,000 crore, should. A lot of inland and foreign investment has vanished, employment shrunk, credit rating downgraded, coffers of the state and the municipalities emptied and the pride of the entrepreneurial state hurt as Gujarat plunged to 7th position and its citizenry burdened with the highest per capita debt in India. While the religio-cultural jingoism reined supreme the developmental work came to a standstill. Recognizing the bankruptcy of governance, BJP campaigners returned to the Godhra theme within two days of honeymooning with development agenda.

Scarcely can one believe that this is the land walked by the apostle of non-violence: Mahatma Gandhi's name is anathema to several Gujaratis today. His devoted followers, like the octogenarian Chunikaka, aged and frail, branded pseudo-secular and abused in myriad ways, have taken to streets once again, campaigning against the extremists; for what they believe is the true dharma. Only once before had they participated in political activity going to jails opposing Indira's emergency.

I had grown, like these kids, in the laps of neighbourly Hindu uncles and aunts. People that I remember as devout Hindus, clearly different from my parents in several ways, yet quite like them in loving and caring for me. Born in a devout Muslim family, as I grew up I came to recognize Hinduism as a flexible, assimilating, adapting faith and culture. The rigidities imposed by the autocratic Islamic states of the Middle East, the Islamic revolution of Iran and the Madrasa-dominated Pakistan made India's pluralistic culture dearer
to me. I was happy my parents had not opted for - and I was not born in - a theocratic state. The recent history of Afghanistan reinforced my faith in Indian liberalism.

Not unfamiliar with communal rioting by both Hindus and Muslims, I used to take Gujarat's recurring violence in my stride. When virtually the entire western Ahmedabad was systematically cleansed of Muslims during 1989-92, I had to return to a small Muslim mohalla seeking the refuge of numbers. Though my decade-long tryst with the "mainstream society" was humiliatingly aborted, my faith survived, sustained by reason. But as the post-Godhra carnage shook the nation from its slumber, even this was jolted. I am unable to fathom the sway religion held over reason, or how bigotry could overrule every other relation.

The secular India has fondly believed that the atrocities of Gujarat were the handiwork of just an extremist fringe that has come to command disproportionate visibility, not by the mass of Hindus. The BJP Government was on test during the riots and it failed miserably. Come December, the entire Hindu society must choose between dharma and adharma: the sublime, philosophical, non-violent faith of Aurobindo and Vivekananda and its vulgarized, extremist version propounded by the ilk of Togadia. They must choose between Indian nationalism and Hindutva extremism; indeed, between humanism and rationality on the one hand and fanaticism and chauvinism on the other. That Pakistan and Afghanistan are compelled to reign in their extremists holds lessons for us.

Far more than the electoral fortunes of some political parties, the ensuing election will decide the future of Hindu-Muslim relations, determine the morale of bureaucracy and relevance of august institutions; it will shape the state's economy and India's democracy. Perhaps it will decide the destiny of Hinduism.

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