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Secular blunders

A state that calls itself secular has no business to involve itself in purely religious matters such as pilgrimages. By all means make provisions for the security and comfort of pilgrims, but the state governments must not go beyond that, writes Khushwant Singh.

india Updated: Jul 19, 2008 19:11 IST

A state that calls itself secular has no business to involve itself in purely religious matters such as pilgrimages. By all means make provisions for the security and comfort of pilgrims, as our state governments do during Kumbh Melas at Allahabad and Rath Yatras at the Jagannath Temple in Puri, but they must not go beyond that. State officials have no right to associate themselves or extend patronage to religious bodies or give away public land, property or money to them. That error was made by General SK Sinha, recently retired Governor of Jammu & Kashmir. He had no right to give away vast hectares of forestland to the Amarnath Shrine Board. As an experienced administrator, he should have foreseen that the move would cause grave resentment in the predominantly Muslim population of the Valley. And so it did. His successor N.N. Vohra was right in rescinding his predecessor’s order while at the same time reassuring pilgrims that the state would guarantee their safety and comfort. He had to face the ire of Hindus in majority in Jammu and the rest of India. It gave right-wing Hindu political parties a grievance they could exploit for electoral gains. Such mistakes should not be repeated.

It is also time to reconsider facilities provided to Muslims going on Haj pilgrimages to Mecca and Medina. Islam clearly provides that only those who can afford to travel to these holy cities should undertake the pilgrimage. Nevertheless, the Government of India provides subsidies to pilgrims who can’t pay for their expenses and sends official delegations of Muslims free of charge to Saudi Arabia. There is no justification whatsoever for its doing so. Most Muslims I know disapprove of such government patronage and would welcome their being withdrawn. The lesson to be learnt from our recent experience is that any secular Government that meddles in religious matters only burns its own fingers.

II. Minoo, the Bridge-Builder

It was a grievous blow to those who strive to build bridges between Pakistan and India to hear that Minoo Bhandara, ex-member of the Pakistan National Assembly had died. Apparently, while on a visit to China, he met with a car accident and was seriously injured. He was flown back to Rawalpindi. Amongst the first to call on him in hospital were President Musharaf and his wife Sahba. He seemed to be recovering but on June 15 he gave up the battle. He was barely 70. I don’t recall when and where I first met Minoo. We had a common friend and role model in Manzur Qadir. He shared my opinion that Manzur was the paradigm of goodness and rectitude. It was this admiration for Manzur that created a bond between us. However, I do remember that at our first meeting I asked him: “Are you a Bawaji?” He was non-plussed as he did not know what the word meant. I had to tell him that in India, behind their back, we refer to Parsis as Bawajis. “And what are you doing in Pakistan?” was my next question.

He explained he ran the Murree Brewery and was also a member of the National Assembly. We became friends. Whenever he was in Delhi, which was often, he spent a couple of evenings with me. He was proud of his products, notably his single malt whisky which he brought for me. He was invariably accompanied by a pretty Pakistani girl, usually a painter, poet, or novelist.

I also discovered that Pakistan’s leading novelist in English, Bapsi Sidhwa, was his sister. Bapsi stayed with me when she was in Delhi. Whenever I visited Pakistan, I stayed with Minoo in his beautifully laid out bungalow in Rawalpindi. He had built a mosque alongside for his Muslim employees. I asked him how the Pakistani took to brewery as liquor is forbidden as haraam. He smiled and replied: “You know how things are in our countries — say one thing, do another. My products are only meant for export. But behind closed doors the elite of Pakistan, when they can’t get imported stuff, they make do with the indigenous.”

Needless to say that in Pakistan amongst the richest who made his fortune legally was Minoo Bhandara who had the monopoly on brewing beer and distilling whisky. Minoo’s main interest was not politics but literature.

He would patiently answer all the questions about political affairs in Pakistan that I fired at him and then turn to books, novels, anthologies of poetry and whatever. In Delhi, he usually stayed at the India International Centre and spent his afternoons doing the rounds of bookstores in Khan Market. Invariably he asked me what I was writing on. I was then busy translating selections of Urdu poetry into English. I was facing a lot of difficulties with Ghalib. I told him I don’t agree with any of the interpretations of the opening lines of his Diwan: Naqsh faryaadi hai kis kee shokhiye tehreer ka/Kaaghazi hai pairhan har paikar-e-tasveer ka.

I told him that there was nothing to suggest that Ghalib had alluded to a practice of petitioners having to wear paper robes when they appeared before the Shah. He simply meant to say that a picture tells its own tale. It does not need learned interpretation to explain its purport. Minoo disagreed and said: “At the time we (i.e. Zoroastrians) ruled Iran that was accepted practice.” We had an animated (never heated) argument over it. Another time, it was about Faiz’s oft-quoted lines: Raat yoon dil mein teyree khoyee huee yaad aayee/Jaisey veeraney mein chupkay say bahaar aa, jaaye. He argued over my translation. I conceded to the suggestion he made.

Every time Minoo came to India, it was to attend a conference or seminar on Indo-Pak relations. He put the Pakistani point of view to Indian audiences. Back in Pakistan, he put Indian reactions in articles he wrote for Pakistani journals. He was a true bridge-builder between the two nations. With his going, that bridge has fallen.

For me, Minoo’s death has been a personal loss. With all my Lahore days’ Pakistani friends now resting in their graves, he was my last remaining link with a country I call my vatan, my homeland. That link has been snapped.

III. Pattern of Exams

General Students: answer all questions.

OBCs: answer any one question

SCs: only read questions

STs: thanks for coming

Gujjars: thanks for allowing others to attend the examination!!

(Contributed by Vipin Buckshey, N.Delhi)