Monday, October 17

Children Of The Same God

A prize-winning entry in an annual essay contest sponsored by The Indian Express and Citizens for Peace on the topic "A Secular Rethink" by Shashi Warrier

On a bright winter's morning in Bombay more than two decades ago, my friend Shankar and I stood nervously by an open doorway crowded with grim-faced people, some snuffling, a few weeping, most of them avoiding our eyes. We were on a condolence visit that Shankar had to make: he had dragged me along for moral support. A short while after we arrived, a graying lady caught sight of Shankar from inside. She came out, took his hand, and led us into a darkened, quiet bedroom to meet her younger sister, recently widowed, prostrate from grief. The widow looked at Shankar through bleary, swollen eyes, took his hand in both of hers, and wept a little, wiping her eyes with the end of her white dupatta. She said nothing at all, and neither did we.
The elder sister came for us in a few minutes, taking us to the crowded sitting room, where she handed us cups of cooling tea, and biscuits. She told us of how her brother-in-law had died: he'd been dragged out of a taxicab and butchered to death by a screaming mob, egged on, she said, by Congressman HKL Bhagat.
He was a Sikh, a trader in automobile parts, visiting Delhi on business. He was at the wrong place at the wrong time, and he paid for that with his life. "We never thought anything like this could happen," she told us. "We were part of you. Now..." Her voice trailed away, and neither my friend nor I could find anything meaningful to say. We sat with her for a few more minutes and left, relieved to be leaving.
Another bright winter's morning some weeks later, we met the ladies at a market and stopped to chat. The widow was still getting used to dealing with the large empty space in her life. Grief had made her gaunt, and her clothes hung loose on her. Her face was weathered, her graying hair almost white now. But her back was straight as ever, and the fire in her eyes as bright and strong. Once again she took Shankar's hand, and, this time round, mine as well. "I thought of going to my son, in England," she said, "but decided to stay. This is my home. You are my people. Despite what happened to him. You are my people. Not the English." Strangely, her strength comforted us.
I remembered her when Lakshman Kadirgamar was assassinated. Until a few years ago, we used to think of Sri Lanka as a country where the majority Sinhalese more or less stuck their decisions down minority throats. Along came Mr Kadirgamar, and that began to change. Sri Lanka became more inclusive, more tolerant. The government began to talk to the LTTE, with the Norwegians mediating. And peace, after a fashion, returned to the island nation. Now, with Mr Kadirgamar gone, I wonder where the peace process will lead.
But two little bits of Kadirgamar's thinking, two principles that he spoke of again and again, stick in my mind: first, that he stood for all the people of Sri Lanka, regardless of religion or language; the second, that the LTTE, for all the damage they did, were Sri Lankans, and deserved to be treated as such. Much like the Sikh widow who held my hand twenty-odd years ago.
It's easy to accuse someone like Narendra Modi - or, for that matter, Jagdish Tytler or Bhagat - of being a blot on the country?s fabric. It's easy to appoint committees to look into pogroms of different kinds and come up with nothing. It's harder far to accept that Modi is one of us, just as it's harder far to accept that a separatist shooting down women and children, or letting off a bomb in a crowded market square, is one of us.
The word "secular" in essence just means relating to worldly things as distinguished from things relating to church or religion. In our society, it has acquired this meaning: don't hate someone because they pray to a different god. That's a very narrow meaning, and one that is already beginning to hurt India.
Thanks partly to Modi and others of his ilk, it's now acceptable to hate those who hate those who pray to a different god. Behind a banner of secularism, united only by their need to defeat the BJP-RSS combine, have come together two parties that have been the country?s bitterest political foes since decades before Independence: the Congress and the leftists. Adding weight to this coalition is the RJD, led by Laloo Prasad Yadav, accused of swindling the treasury of many hundreds of crore of rupees, of running his state into the ground in the many long years during which he ruled it, and of many other lesser charges.
The strange thing is that this "secular" front has given itself licence to hate on grounds other than religion. Caste, for instance. Laloo Prasad Yadav has thundered against the "forward" castes, criticising them for being forward. You can discriminate ? nay, hate ? for almost any reason other than religion, and you will get away with it. You might be a serial killer but if you haven't been convicted and are willing to spout hatred against "communal" forces, you're welcome to join the band ruling the country.
Trouble is, this is a government based on hate, just like the BJP-RSS combine. As the days pass, the differences between the UPA and the NDA seem to narrow and dwindle. One of these days, political reality will look more and more like the ending of Orwell's "Animal Farm", where the working beasts gather at the windows of the farmhouse to see the pigs and men sitting together at the table, indistinguishable from each other.
But Mahatma Gandhi more than half a century ago, Kadirgamar rather more recently, and the Sikh widow in between, all in their different ways made the same point that Jesus made a couple of millennia ago: there's no US and THEM, there's only US.
So, what does all this have to do with secularism, this business of us and them? Thinking in terms of us and them is about hate, about bigotry, about prejudice. It's the kind of thinking that has set Kashmir apart from the rest of India. It's the kind of thinking that makes the shopkeeper in Srinagar ask visitors if they're from India, or the village official in Nagaland tell you that his son has gone to college in India.
Secularism must be inclusive, and compassionate. So being secular means not judging another human being. Someone who's a different colour is different, but no better or worse. Someone who worships differently is no better or worse. Someone who preaches a different political ideology is just someone who thinks differently, but is no better or worse. Someone who's wealthier or poorer has more or less money, but is no better or worse.
There's no way to learn this except by doing it. Learning that Hindus and Muslims and Christians are all the same, that they use different words for the same things. That knowledge will free us. But it's wealth, or lack of it, that's at the root of most troubles. Poverty anywhere, on any scale, is a potential source of strife. Ignorance is another. Work on these two, and we're on our way to getting some of our big problems licked.
The question is how. The old slogan, "Think Big", gets increasingly in our way. Thinking big in conditions of widespread poverty, or war, or communal strife, only leads to a feeling of helplessness, of defeat. So think small. Think not of how to clean up the country's roads: instead, pick up a bit of garbage on the road and drop it in a litter bin. Think not of how to feed the country?s millions of hungry children: instead, help the kid on the corner to get a square meal. Mohammed Yunus of Bangladesh did just this: he thought very small. From his thinking small came rural micro-credit and Grameen Bank, a powerful instrument of social change, especially among women, in Bangladesh.
So think small. You and I and millions of others who think small might not end up like Mohammad Yunus, but we certainly can make a difference. We are, after all, children of the same god.

No comments: