Symbolic secularism in the time of floods

There is much that has to be written about the flash foods and devastation in Uttarakhand. The last thing on Wing Commander S.M.Yunus' mind while he went on a sortie to rescue people would have been his religion. But, he is being feted because of it. 'Airforce pilot Yunus is proud to be Indian' was the headline. Not 'proud to save people'. Okay?

However, before we rubbish the Times of India report and the response to it, let us pause a bit and look at the role of the media.

If anything is worse than political opportunism, it is how the different newspapers and television channels claim breaking news.

When you see corpses floating, houses toppling down, and read stories about people clinging to ropes for up to three days, hungry, thirsty, unwell, waiting for help, then all debate becomes futile.

Yet, the media was caught between delivering eyeball grabbing news to an audience or losing out. Readers and viewers who complain about sensationalism were looking out for heart-wrenching stories and pictures.

Photographs were emailed or posted on social networking sites questioning their veracity. Some pictures were supposedly from China. In one video clip a reporter is shown carried through the knee-deep waters on the shoulder of a young survivor.

Narayan Pargaien said that he was hoisted on the shoulder by a local out of respect and he had no intention to show this sight. The cameraman was to shoot him chest up. The video was posted online and was everywhere. Some took to grandstanding about the "fall in journalistic standards". This was often done by other journalists.

The reporter is from a local and not a well known urban channel. Had that been the case, would the response be the same? Or would he be lauded for braving the waters, of being resourceful?

It is most certainly not a nice image, but there are many such young people who ply cycle rickshaws, who carry pilgrims, who act as coolies. Was it necessary to make it into a Brahmin riding on the shoulder of a Dalit? Who knows what caste either is from? Who is equally to blame for this demonisation?

I do hope I don't have to reiterate that I absolutely dislike media overdrive. It reveals a desperation that is market, and not news, driven. The fat cats who run the media know how they can get business, and if it is a place of worship the 'moral' is factored into it.

Secularism has become about oneupmanship, much as religion is. To return to the case of the IAF officer and the TOI's patronising report, is it only about "scumbag journalism"? Those taking a high ground forget that this is not the first instance of such reportage or line of questioning.

In this instance, it was, "So what was it like for a Muslim to be one of the first to come to the aid of Hindu pilgrims?"

It then goes on:

"Yunus laughs out loud before giving a quick answer to that. ‘In the Air Force we are taught only one religion — to be Indian. That is what IAF pilots are trained to be. Had it not been for such tragic circumstances, I would have been grateful and happy to see the holy shrine of Kedarnath'.”

You know what? As bad as the query is, may we take a closer look at the reply? Wait, before you reach your conclusions. It is not because he said that being Indian is the only religion in the army. Why do they have all kinds of religious totems in various outposts then? Why does it need to be emphasised at all when it is understood that an officer will be called upon to do his duty as an Indian?

Of course, his statement is applauded as being a "fitting reply". Since when has the obvious become fitting? Had he rescued people from a dargah, would anyone bother about him and his Indiannness, even though he would have saved Indian citizens?

His statement does not stop at his 'Indian religion'. He adds that he would have been happy to visit the Kedarnath shrine. This is the subtext that has been glossed over, because no one wants to take away from the secular face of the army. Or is it this that actually makes him secular?

He is doing his job as are many others. He has not only been made a symbol by the newspaper but even by those who are on the lookout for the good Muslim. It is pretty disgusting, especially since the community members are often taunted about whether they serve the nation.

A couple of prominent names will be bandied about. It is as though they are museum pieces that have been reclaimed. The fact is graver, as in this report. Although two and a half years old, things aren't much different:

“India’s largest religious minority – which accounts for about 15% of the nation’s population – is just 3% in the Army. But when it comes to martyrdom, the Army jawans from the community double the percentage. In 2010, as many as 187 armymen laid their life while protecting the nation – more than 6% of them were Muslims....This figures out as out of a Muslim population of nearly 150 million (15 crore), barely 29,000 Muslims are in the million-strong Indian Army. The figure will further go down if the number of Muslims serving in J&K infantry that has over 50% Muslims is excluded."

So, should we assume that three per cent of the Indian Muslim population is considered secular because the armed forces gave them jobs? Are they reluctant to join the army or is there reluctance to recruit them?

To be honest, not only the army, but every national organisation should not choose or flaunt a religious identity. This means also not highlighting secularism, for by doing so it amounts to 'accepting all religions'. How does it matter when we are Indian? Why specify, highlight, laud on the basis of some god allegiance to legitimise tolerance?

Before calling the reporter names, how many asked themselves what certificate they were giving the officer and why? I am afraid this kind of melt-in-the-mouth secularism is just that — a tasty titbit.

Early this month there was an article in India Today that reeked of the worst form of magnanimity. Their subject was Asif Ibrahim who...

"was made the first ever Muslim director of the Central Intelligence Bureau...ostensibly with an eye on Muslim vote in its race for minority votes with the likes of Mulayam Singh and his Samajwadi Party. It was supposed to be a message to the India's Muslim leaders who command their community votes: 'Look, we have made a Muslim the first Central IB head, something which no Government of Independent India including those of Pandit Nehru and Mrs Gandhi had ever done'. Union Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde even said so after Ibrahim's appointment."

Since when has the IB chief ever garnered votes from any community? Does he not possess the requisite qualifications? These do not seem to count. It is when he did not agree "to fix Narendra Modi in the 2004 Ishrat Jahan fake encounter case" that the magazine declared, "Ibrahim has shown his true nationalist colours".

I won't get into the case details here, but just think what would happen if his stance were different. Would his nationalistic colours fade? He is heading a security agency that depends on inputs and uses the intelligence network; nothing is foolproof. Where does nationalism come in here? Why does he as a trained professional have to hold up the flag of secularism?

The article quotes a security and political analyst Vidyut Thakar, who says:

"Asif Ibrahim's move will go a long way in removing the stereo-typing of Muslims in this country as ones who always side with the cause of their brethren even at the cost of national security."

Perhaps, they'd like to keep in touch with the ever-changing versions that keep appearing. Maybe they ought to beef up their security, so that infiltrators and terror attacks do not take place.

Who is in charge of scams involving poor bullet proof jackets, of not ignoring real intel reports, of ensuring the safety of the citizens? On what basis does anyone have the gumption to allude that a senior officer has to go along with a preconceived template of who is a terrorist in a fake encounter killing to prove that he is not siding with his "brethren"?

Wing Commander Yunus should not have said that being Indian is his only religion. He should have instead counter-questioned, "How do Hindu officers feel when they rescue their brethren?"

Those who have been running down this report reveal how important it is for them to huddle with their own. They look for an opposition they can pit themselves against. So that they can then choose the good, the bad and the ugly.

No one is in a position to lay claims on India that is agreeable only to some to the exclusion of other Indians.

Sorry to break the news, but if you think secularism is a handout, then stuff it.

© Farzana Versey


  1. FV,

    QUOTE: "..not only the army, but every national organisation should not choose or flaunt a religious identity. This means also not highlighting secularism."

    How come we dont see you wholeheartedly aporoving statements like "justice to all, appeasement to none.." or thumpingly endorsing uniform civil code? (Hope you wont simply ask me to read the archives coz you know they dont say any such thing.)

    Because those speaking are Hindu and not Muslim?

  2. FV,

    Amused to see you fretting about media highlighting a Muslim person who seems to be a departure from the stereotype. So much for objectivity.

    I wonder if you fretted with equal anguish when

    1. The case of a few of the countless unfortunate encounter killings were played up on account of the religion of victims being Islam.

    2. One specific CM was targettedly demonised and abused by journalists (actually, by you as well) solely because of what Muslims probably thought of him, though riots are more common Iin India than we would like them to be.

    3. Parties specifically aiming at Muslim vote are given benefit of doubt and not called "threat to fabric of India" etc.

    I know you are entitled to selecting your targets..! :)

  3. I think you writes with anguish and pessimism, a journey into hearts of darkness with no light at the end of that distorted prism, mainly because your are a astute observer

  4. F&F:

    Just in case you have not noticed, there is appeasement of the majority community too. Hindutva ideology is just that.

    And, yes, you will have to look through archives, although I don't see why it is always quid pro quo.

    I don't see how the IAF pilot is a departure from the stereotype. It is your problem if you have the stereotypes, therefore it is you who are being selective and not I.

    Riots are a reality, it does not mean that one must not address one's where a certain CM is put on a pedestal by cheerleaders.

    I don't think anyone has forgotten about 1984, where Muslims we not victims.

    Encounter killings are a huge blow to justice and *everybody* ought to be concerned. If you are not, then you are being selective.

    The BJP is as concerned about Muslim votes as any other political party. Just run a search.

    You may of course choose to use a filter to suit your selectivity.

    I just don't figure out what problem anyone could have with the statement you have quoted. Look within.

  5. It seems like the media is going out of its way to identify these guys by their religion even if they are just doing their job. Of course they are trying to provoke others for, what I don't know. May be they think they can stir up some controversy and get more attention? Just saying some guy did a really good job at what ever he is doing or some person has been severely affected by the floods doesn't seem to satisfy these guys. Usually this provocation strategy seems to target the hindu/muslim angle a lot. It clearly exposes the bias of these journos/writers more than anything else. I hope people will see through this nonsense and question why religion is being brought into this unnecessarily.

  6. Sai:

    Unlikely that anyone wants to sideline religion at such opportune times, especially when the unfortunate floods happened at a pilgrimage site. The media whets the appetite of the people for such divisions.



    Thanks for calling me an astute observer. It naturally made me observe that your comment is a verbatim replication of a portion of the India Today review of my book. I am sure you liked the sound of it...do use quotation marks, at the very least.



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