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Fringe, cut

Liberals like to believe that there are at least two sides to every story, if not seven shades of truth. But there are moments, rare though they may be, when polite discourse and robust debate is meaningless; when you can't bear the argument because there is, in fact, none; when you turn to the skies and secretly wish that the guy in control at the keyboard of life would hit the delete button on the virus that threatens to swallow up the sanity of the rest.

india Updated: Feb 20, 2006 00:16 IST

Liberals like to believe that there are at least two sides to every story, if not seven shades of truth. But there are moments, rare though they may be, when polite discourse and robust debate is meaningless; when you can't bear the argument because there is, in fact, none; when you turn to the skies and secretly wish that the guy in control at the keyboard of life would hit the delete button on the virus that threatens to swallow up the sanity of the rest.

Like most of you, I had never heard of Haji Yaqoob Qureshi till a few days ago. But I am convinced that the man who goes by the lofty title of Minister for Haj and Minority Affairs in Uttar Pradesh must be removed from government, banned from politics and put away in prison. Not because the cartoon controversy is an illegitimate cause — the contours of that debate blur and shift everyday — but because I can't think of a single man who has given Indian Muslims a worse name.

Last week at an Asia Society Conference in Hong Kong, I listened to young politicians from Indonesia, Malaysia and Pakistan wrestle with religious orthodoxy in their countries. The fisticuff battle between Radical Islam and Reason was the thread that wove their varied stories together into a common plot. India was not even on their radar, till I intervened gently, and may I add proudly, to say thatthoughthere were more Muslims in India than any other country in the world after Indonesia, we had somehow side-stepped the storm.

Let other countries grope their way to modernity through the minefields of an increasingly politicised Islam. In India, democracy and the confluence of cultures had mingled with globalisation to create a sturdy, unshakeable, forward-looking structure. Even the separatist movement in Kashmir had its roots in ethnic, not religious, identity and every attempt to create a pan-Islamic empathy for it in the rest of the country had failed miserably.

No wonder that the cowboy rancher from Texas had been wonderstruck. President George Bush had asked the Prime Minister in Washington how it was that not a single Indian Muslim had been linked to the al-Qaeda.

Sure, we have our share of clerics and self-appointed saviours who sign fatwas like doctors' prescriptions from their clinics of public morality. But I have always believed that this is the lunatic fringe, which would havedwindled awayon the margins, had we in the media not walked into their trap each time. From Sania Mirza's skirts to Saddam Hussein'ssentence, these are mostly a handful of professional protestors playing out a part in a script already written. Each time we put them on camera, we create a self-perpetuating myth.

I was deeplydiscomfortedby aBBCreport on howIndian Muslimshad joined the global protests over the cartoons. Indians watching the report would have recognised the bunch of boys, hurling stones and burning the Danish flag, to be the street ruffians that they were. At the time, it was easy to dismiss the report as a typically oversimplified Orientalist view of India. But now? How can we possibly take the higher moral ground with the global media?

An elected representative in the country's most populous state asks for a foreign citizen's head, promising not just big bucks, but the executioner's weight in gold. All this at a rabble-rousing public rally cheered on by a gushing stream of supporters. Watching the tapes sent a shiver down my spine — was this India's first confrontation with institutionalised radical Islam?

It needn't be. The Haji has already been isolated within his own community. The normally orthodox Muslim Personal Law Board has questioned his authority and ordinary citizens have dismissed his declarations as more deplorable than the cartoons he was campaigning against.

But it's the political silence that has draped itself like a shroud of respectability over the minister.

Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav has not thought it necessary to disown his remarks, nor has the otherwise voluble Amar Singh. These are men who have often painted themselves as the messiahs of the Muslims in Uttar Pradesh.

The Congress, which can normally work itself into an allergic frenzy if the Samajwadi Party so much as sneezes, has, at best, made some lukewarm noises. Is it the unwillingness to display political courage in a state where the party needs crutches to walk? Even the Left, which claims secularism as its cornerstone, hasn't publicly denounced the state minister. Only the BJP's protests have been unequivocal and loud, predictably polarising the issue even more.

The cartoon controversy itself is deeply complex. Anyone who has seen the cartoons will vouch for the fact that they are neither funny nor clever nor satirical enough to intellectually justify themselves. Most sane people will concede the point that they seem deliberately designed to offend. There is also the question of civilisational hypocrisy and the refusal of the same newspaper to publish a spin-off on Christ. But once you throw the cordon of censorship around Religion; once faith becomes a holy cow that can only be worshipped, we slide down a slippery slope.

The right to protest is as inalienable as the right to freedom and there can be many views on whether the Danish newspaper wasexercising its right to expression or simply beingprejudiced and pig-headed.But surely, there can be no two views on whether a man who uses his public office as a pulpit call for murder should be allowed to continue in government.

There are those who believe that the onus is only on Moderate Muslims to stand up and be counted. I disagree. We are all equal stakeholders in the future and each one of us who remains silent carries a share of the blame.There is no point in the government appointing committees to study ‘minority welfare'. There is no point in any of us committing ourselves to the secular cause, if we passively allow a lunatic to speak on our behalf.

This isn't the face India wants to show the world. More importantly, this isn't the face we want to see in the mirror every morning. Haji Yaqoob Qureshi may find a soulmate across the ideological divide — perhaps Praveen Togadia. Let us send them both on a long journey to oblivion.

First Published: Feb 20, 2006 00:16 IST