9.10.07

Two Lovers and the Funeral of Secularism

Return to the Clans in Leftist West Bengal?

Two Lovers and the Funeral of Secularism
By Farzana Versey
October 9, 2007, Counterpunch

His skull was smashed and his body thrown on the railway tracks. The police in Kolkata claimed that Rizwan-ur-Rehman had committed suicide. His diary and complaints to human rights organisations show that he was being threatened by the cops for marrying Priyanka Todi, the daughter of an influential industrialist from a Marwari family, traditionally considered clannish.

This was less than a month after their wedding. The girl has disappeared; the voice of the criminal party is barely heard and the victim’s family is hounded by the media. In a most appalling move, Rizwan's brother and mother were in the studio for a panel discussion on one of the private channels. At one point the anchor asked the audience to put up their hands if they believed he could have been forced by circumstances to commit suicide. This was media interference in legal matters. Is this how justice is conducted?

Later, the lights were dimmed to show us how Bollywood has portrayed inter-religious alliances. This was demeaning and facile.

The screen captured the father, a butcher, brandishing an axe. The young man was pleading with him to let him marry his daughter. He glowered in return, screaming. The girl cowered in a corner wearing a veil, but her eyes dripped pain. For the sake of cinematic licence they showed the eyes and the face. Our beauties are not to be hidden.

The lover, his ardour not lessened, grabbed the weapon and then the girl’s hand, slashing her arm near the wrist, then his and letting their blood mix. All differences were wiped out in that one melodramatic moment.

Why is it disgusting? It isn’t about Hindi cinema but about how a serious discussion on inter-religious marriage that led to a tragic death chose to use clips from movies; this particular one ended the montage, while the brother and mother watched. The brother said that this in fact was Rizwan’s story.

No, it is not. Not all Muslims are butchers with axes. The sly media devil is creating a most dangerous trend. Rizwan was educated at St. Xavier’s college in Kolkata; he graduated with English Honours. He had ambitions of being a journalist, but due to financial pressure chose to be a graphic designer. They are not a poor, but a middle-class family.

Middle-class does not sound exotic enough when you talk about Indian Muslims. Poor, shabby, illiterate look great.

Communal divisions are getting more pronounced. Disturbingly, while the youth are prone to making choices, they are increasingly making pro-clannish choices. The voices of dissent are not rising against the status quo but for it.

* * *

I belong to a family where people practise different versions of Islam as well as people from other faiths, including atheism. Years ago my cousin converted to Hinduism. I recall almost everyone attending the ceremony, including my grandmother. She moved to America. A few years later on a visit to India, she was frantically looking for a plaque with some Quranic verses, “Anything Islamic, Bismillah or whatever,” she said. I was a bit disappointed. What was she trying to prove? Was it to be merely one more showpiece where she could tell her foreign neighbours that cultures had meshed, when it was so clear that she had shed her own skin?

And that pained me. She was here a while ago. We went for a film. A lady in a headscarf walked past. She told me, “The Muslims are really asserting themselves now.” A young woman watching a late-night English film munching popcorn was asserting Muslimness? And this from her whose first stop on arrival in Mumbai is to visit a temple in another town?

Those who had never judged her were being judged by her. This has become a part of the ‘belong to the mainstream’ idea. It is terribly dangerous because it leaves no room for individual choice, forget theological ones. The Hindu ideologue, Guru Golwalkar, had unequivocally declared in his book ‘We Or Our Nationhood Defined’: “The non-Hindu peoples in Hindustan must adopt the Hindu culture and language, must learn to respect and hold in reverence Hindu religion, must entertain no idea but those of glorification of the Hindu race and culture…So long, however, as they maintain their racial, religious and cultural differences (with Hindus), they cannot but be only foreigners.”

If we see the tragedy of the murder of Rizwan against this backdrop we will realise it isn’t about one individual but that individual has raised several questions about what constitutes nationhood in India today.

If it is a religion we are loyal to, then what is it about that religion – its concept of god, its message for living, or its single-minded obsession with itself? And if it is the country you have to wag your tail behind, then what aspect of it must make us feel loyal – its existence on the world map, the few square feet of space that we live in, the nationality it grants us on the global stage, or the values of equality and fraternity that it promotes on a scrap of paper? Both religion and the country make people into zombies and are expected to be followed blindly. Weren’t there cries of “Jai Siyaram” (Hail Lord Ram) when houses were burnt down in Gujarat?

Muslims are told, even by secularists, that institutionalised silence can be seen as confirmation of the suspicious Hindu’s belief that you cannot trust the Muslim during a national crisis. No one seems to have asked why the Hindus at the institutional level did not protest when the Babri Masjid was brought down. Where were the holy men then? Did not Ashok Singhal of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, at the ‘Global Vision 2000’ in Chicago, snap at an Indian Christian who asked him about the Hindu Rashtra with a, “If 800 million people in India want a theocracy, how does it concern you?”

Today, in Kolkata there are protest rallies by the ordinary people. They are whitewashing Rizwan’s murder as a class divide.

This is rubbish. As someone rightly pointed out, had the boy been a less wealthy person from the same community nothing would have happened. West Bengal, the state where this incident took place, prides itself on communal harmony. It has a communist ruling party. The Left has always been a great opposition, but wherever it is the Establishment it errs on the side of money and power. Even today there is talk about the class war because it needs to underscore its position.

Rizwan was not a man in the streets; he was educated. He has become the symbol of a twisted secular ideal and posthumously has the potential of creating a right royal fright. Therefore, the questions posed are typical: Was the girl forced to convert? She wasn’t. And she did not.

No Muslim organisation is rallying behind this family. It is the herd of politicians that is behaving like vultures. Even today his family says it believes in the Indian judiciary. If this is not being ‘mainstream’ enough, then let me ask you: have you heard about Muslims wanting a solution other than that given by the courts? Whether it was the Bombay riots or the bomb blasts, whether it is Gujarat or Godhra, and even the demolition at Ayodhya, they have never said it is a matter that should be decided by religious heads.

* * *

As a counterpoint we have a situation where the Hindutva parties are against the setting up of the Sethusamudram Ship Canal Project in South India which has been lying comatose for years. In the blazing controversies surrounding it, two writ petitions were filed seeking an assurance from the government that there would be no destruction of the mythical barrier Ram Sethu during the construction.

The reason being that the bridge was the creation of Lord Ram and is therefore sacred. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) told the Supreme Court that there was no historical evidence to establish the existence of Lord Ram or the other characters in Ramayana. It is not a man-made structure, but a natural formation. The court has said it cannot use myths to justify history.

Now, the Sangh Parivar is planning to enrol fifty million Hindus to agitate, timing it with the major festivals. For this reason security around mosques and temples has increased. Is this what we are calling secular? The Ram Temple has been replaced by the Ram Sethu. They are tugging at religious heartstrings once again by using pugnacious language. One leader announced a reward for anyone who could behead the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, who is for the construction of the canal and happens to be an atheist. The media, pretending to be secular, decided to call it a “Hindu fatwa”. Words like “Hindu ayatollahs” have become regular occurrences, driving home the point that a peace-loving people have been forced to fight.

The headlines tell us that a village in Haryana has a “Taliban writ” because the 5000 Muslims living there are not allowed to watch TV or get themselves photographed as per an edict by some religious head. A woman reportedly said, “The women folk aren’t allowed to come out of their house. Many haven’t travelled more than 25 km ever in their lives.”

How many rural women in India manage to travel? And if they do, it is to fetch water. The fact is that Haryana has the largest number of female foeticides; according to a report, 43 per cent of first-born girls are killed. The male-female ratio is so low that there is a regular racket of importing poor women from other states. What is this? Talibanisation? Have they learned it at the feet of some mullahs in Afghanistan?

We are worrying about people not watching television when 250,000 villages in India do not have electricity.

At such a time the Hindutva parties are gung-ho about organising a group of “Raksha Dharam Yoddha” – warriors of the faith. This is all they can think about.

As recently as a month ago, the Allahabad High Court observed that the Bhagwad Gita should be made the national “dharma shastra” (religious treatise) of the country. Was the Bhagwad Gita written as a legal treatise? How many non-Hindus are aware of the contents? The scripture, like most religious texts, is about war and struggle. We have a Constitution.

Who is adhering to it?

India is perhaps the only secular democracy that has to reiterate that it is a Hindu majority state. And it has nothing to do with the ancient history of Hindu civilisation, but the less than 80-year existence of Hindutva.

The other theory doing the rounds, and expounded by the venerable saint Sir Vidia Naipaul, is that since Indian Muslims are converted people, they become part of the Arab story and reject their own histories and “develop fantasies about who and what they are; and in the Islam of converted countries there is an element of neurosis and nihilism. These countries can easily be set on the boil”.

How little does he know about our fantasies. If anything, it is Indian Muslims who have steered clear of major controversies; they are difficult to understand because Islamic societies cannot quite pin them down. Naipaul’s problem is that by attributing the Indian Muslim holy land as Arabia he is living out his own fantasy of his holy land being India. His is an attempt of trying to belong to a place by playing their game.

As much as the media is. In the West we realise how devious society has become. It is evident from Ronald Kessler’s book, ‘The CIA at War’. He writes, “…the CIA created fake mullahs -- recruited agents who would proclaim themselves clerics and take a more moderate position about nonbelievers. ‘We are taking over radio stations and supporting clerics,’ a CIA source was quoted as saying. ‘It's back to propaganda. We are creating moderate Muslims’.” Kessler said the CIA also paid for mullahs to issue fatwas, or urging Iraqis not to resist American forces.

The Indian media is transposing the butcher Muslim with the “Hindu fatwa”. Strangely, and with supreme irony (or is it parody?) the majority is sought to be portrayed as colonised. A truly secular Rizwan dies for it.

13 comments:

  1. Every time you write something like this, I shake my head and think we can cry ourselves hoarse but to no avail.

    But don't let that defeatist attitude get to you. You said you can fight intolerance. I respect that and I pray that you never run out of ammunition.

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  2. This is a good piece and I hope to see more from you along the lines that probe the “Indian Muslim” thought process (assuming for simplification, that there is indeed enough of such a homogenous group to ask these questions) – what does one expect of Indian Muslims and even more importantly, what do the Indian Muslims expect of themselves?

    True, not all people are butchers with axes – there are all kinds of weapons out there, including words of discouragement, disparagement, and denigration. Even the media is guilty of the same. But the media only reflects the society and should not be blamed for its ills – in fact, without its focus on those ills they would stay forever – as some of them have persisted over the centuries.

    What happened to this young couple was a great man-made tragedy. However, the commercialization of whatever is current (and therefore possibly marketable) is not malicious. Also, such commercialization is unfortunately here to stay – because the underlying reason is the Public’s appetite for the sensational. Like the Shakespeare said, it’s all one big stage, anyway!

    Religion has its place in life but it can not be everything and the sole focus. It can not be the sole focus of existence or the only theme for every “act”.

    Obviously, perfection does not exist – even among one’s own! (Mr. Naipaul is a writer and, like your relative, has every bit as much right to his opinions and of expressing the same that she has or you have.)

    In focusing on the plight of this couple it is also important to remember that liaisons like these are indeed occurring – which would have been unlikely even a couple of decades ago. Therefore, on the whole, things are moving in the right direction – the direction of desegregation!

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  3. FV Naipaul is related to India by ancestry and so are Indian muslims whose ancestry was hindu.Arabs are a different breed and muslims relate to a foreign land Arabia by religion .It is illogical to compare Naipaul India connection
    with muslim arabia connection which is a foreign religion called Islam for which they are willing to break up india in 1947 and steal land and yet stayed behind to
    demand sharia against shabano and are loyal to paletinians and Iraqis who are foreign blood.Naipaul has Indian blood.U are incapable of reasoning and clarity.

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  5. @Beej Kumar
    Media does not reflect society, it sells stories and creates masala to go with it. The power of words is unfathomable. The same thing said with different choice of words and tone has different impacts.

    I don't know how many of you remember this...there was once an article in TOI (probably the sunday times) about 'The Angry Muslim' or something of that sort which was a rather comical report of a certain muslim guy who passionately takes part in religious protests, every given islamic protest. The picture accompanied with it was a close up depicting him with flared nostril, angry eyes and mouth opened in a scream. Yes, it was funny. Wasn't there a reason that this particular picture was used? Basically I think it was a crock of shit. But the general trend is "if it's in the Times, it can't be wrong, right?"

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  6. @FV
    I think it's time to get the moderation back. Please.

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  7. BJ:

    There can never be complete homogeneity in a country like India, even within one religious group, given regional differences.But I suppose one has to pare it down to some 'identity'.

    "True, not all people are butchers with axes – there are all kinds of weapons out there, including words of discouragement, disparagement, and denigration. Even the media is guilty of the same. But the media only reflects the society and should not be blamed for its ills – in fact, without its focus on those ills they would stay forever – as some of them have persisted over the centuries."

    While the media reflects society, it also manufactures consent. SM has mentioned an example...there are several. Gudiya, Imrana...I do not think people have for example become more tolerant towards cross-cultural alliances due to the media. In fact on that panel discussion a woman who had married a Muslim in 1955 spoke about some parental opposition, but that is it. Now these have become 'item numbers'.

    As you said, quoting Shakespeare, the world is a stage, but people have become puppets today with the media pulling the strings. If they need to commercialise, there are several other aspects to do so with. You mean to say people would switch off the channel of the programme I mentioned had they not shown those film clips?

    "Religion has its place in life but it can not be everything and the sole focus. It can not be the sole focus of existence or the only theme for every “act”."

    I completely agree, but would there be such a hue and cry had the couple been form the same religion? Would there have been such a tragedy?

    "Obviously, perfection does not exist – even among one’s own! (Mr. Naipaul is a writer and, like your relative, has every bit as much right to his opinions and of expressing the same that she has or you have.)"

    I am the first one to admit perfection does not exist, especially among one's own because that is what one notices first. Why do you think I take India to task and not Pakistan :-)

    Naipaul has a right to his opinion; I have a right to disagree...he has never lived in India and sits and pontificates; I have a better handle on what is going on.

    "In focusing on the plight of this couple it is also important to remember that liaisons like these are indeed occurring – which would have been unlikely even a couple of decades ago. Therefore, on the whole, things are moving in the right direction – the direction of desegregation!"

    Wrong. Liaisons like these have always taken place, but there was much less noise about it. Also, the prospects of meeting people socially has increased, and that could be one reason. But in those days no one spoke about tolerance; they just felt they were crossing a bridge.

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  8. SM:

    I recall that picture, and do you know it was not even in India? This bloke goes to Hyde Park and other places...he is UK-based!

    Btw, let me tell you about the time during the Bombay riots. The TOI had at one point refused to carry any reports of the hearings of the Srikrishna Committee in its early stages. Now look at how they are jumping in to celebrate Eid, with a qawwali programme. The same paper had not bothered to wish its readers on the festival a few years ago and of course when I mentioned it I was called an Islamist...what a world...

    PS: Bringing back moderation seems necessary except that I do not get online often enough, and I need to sign in to let my own comments pass...besides, I am using the delete option. I do not think ANYONE reading that stuff is going to be influenced by it even if they disagree with me. I can only apologise to those of you who are mentioned and the sensibilities you stand for are hurt.

    I only wish that I was really so bad in maths that I could not count the number of times the same thing is posted..

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  9. Hmm...the news, the world is full of such examples. I've read many times that militants pick up lost, disturbed youth and brain wash them into becoming terrorists. Isn't the media and the political factions doing the same against Islam? I guess Halitosis Anonymous would serve as a good example. When he says that the Quran teaches to war, I think it is because his mind has become programmed such that all he sees is supposed meanings in those words, exactly what his mind is willing to conform to and accept.

    ("I only wish that I was really so bad in maths that I could not count the number of times the same thing is posted.." - This is too good! lol)

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  10. blog
    two lovers and funeral of secularism...
    Excellent title of this subject....

    Title says it all in two words....

    India pretneds or portrays itself as a secular democracy, but, infact it is totally opposite of secularism....Hypocrisy thy name is India...

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  11. Phenomenal Article. Would like to discuss some assertions but time is not on my side.

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  13. Circle:

    I believe in a pure form of secularism and this is an excerpt of what i had written long ago elsewhere:

    Secularism, in our contemporary context, is not a virtue. It is a Necessity. It should be propagated in the same way as family planning, self-reliance, ecology, health care and adult education, instead of a morally right position.

    I continue to believe in it. For the full article, here is the link:

    http://www.rediff.com/style/jun/16farz.htm

    HP:

    Would have liked to debate it, but time seems to be only on my side!

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