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Seize the moment

India's cosmopolitanism is 1,000 years old. But today, we need a new Hindu-Muslim charter to help us cross the hurdles in our minds. Sagarika Ghose writes.

india Updated: Mar 06, 2011 12:56 IST
Sagarika Ghose
Sagarika Ghose
Hindustan Times

On the heels of The Verdict, came The Games. Wicked ghosts of the past were dredged up during the Allahabad High Court verdict. But three days later at the Commonwealth Games, young India leapt forward to claim gold. A stunning opening ceremony showcased traditional diversity in high-tech style. The heart sank with a reminder of communal division. Immediately afterwards, it leapt upwards with a spectacular display of progress.

The Ayodhya dispute seems headed to the Supreme Court. But instead of a judge, the dispute requires a politician, a born leader of people, to seize the moment. It requires a politician of courage to stride out from among the warring litigants, to embrace each one with warmth and to convey:"I come with respect for both religions. I come to build a new relationship between Hindus and Muslims. Mutual respect for religious identity is the cornerstone of my new charter".

Today, urban religiosity is rapidly increasing among both Hindus and Muslims as a direct response to westernisation and perceived 'loss of traditional culture' due to globalisation. In 2007, in a Centre for the Study of Developing Societies poll, 42 per cent urban Hindus and 39 per cent urban Muslims said that religion is becoming more important in their lives. Yet, proud Hindus and proud Muslims (as opposed to 'political' Hindus and 'political' Muslims) have always respected each other. Khwaja Khusrau, the medieval poet, wrote:"Noble Delhi is the Garden of Eden. May Allah protect it from calamities. If it but heard the tale of this garden, Mecca would make the pilgrimage to Hindustan". For this Muslim poet, the holy land was Hindustan, not Mecca.

At the height of the stone-pelting protests in Kashmir, the Amarnath Yatra went off without a single hitch. Syed Shahabuddin, the stormy spokesman of 'Muslim' causes, remains a lifelong admirer of Chandrashekhar Saraswati, the late Paramacharya of Kanchi. On a visit to Kanchi, the latter told Shahabuddin,"You've come all the way to see me, before you leave let me show you a masjid nearby and please make sure you pray before you leave". A proud Hindu made sure a proud Muslim said his prayers before a journey.

Yet today we are doing a disservice to the Paramacharya of Kanchi. Systematic terrifying discrimination against Muslims in housing, the emergence of Brahmin-bania-thakur dominance in urban neighbourhoods, denial of opportunities and bank loans to Muslims, trumped up charges of terrorism against the youth, collapse of governance in Muslim majority areas have made the Sachar Committee conclude that the condition of Indian Muslims is worse than that of SCs and STs. Should a nation, where cosmopolitanism is 1,000 years old, not be ashamed that it needs to tear down masjids and mobilise gangs of unemployed youth to prove its identity? Surely Hindus are too ancient and too sophisticated a people to fall prey to such un-Hindu practices and prejudices.

The Paramacharya wouldn't want Hindu majoritarianism to be seen as a force of evil. It is perceived to be precisely that because it has so far been coupled with aggressive discrimination and threat of violence. Yet, some majoritarian arguments are perhaps justified. The arguments that all citizens, irrespective of religions, should follow the laws of independent India, that Muslim citizens should plunge into the entire spectrum of Indian civic activism and not remain imprisoned only in the 'Muslim' cause, that Muslims should accept that Hindu 'faith' is as important as Muslim 'faith', are not without justification.

A sagacious Muslim leadership should realise that asking for the removal of Ram Lalla idols from the disputed site is an unrealistic expectation. Removal of the idol is certainly a legal possibility, but it's a political impossibility, just as the forcible removal of any object of worship of any faith from any shrine is difficult. For better or worse, the cultural mainstreaming of majoritarianism has been the BJP's contribution to Indian politics. Hindu majoritarianism must become respectable, decent and civilised. For this, a new charter with Muslims is a necessity.

What other concrete steps can be taken to implement a new Hindu-Muslim charter? The Centre should consider introducing a law against religious discrimination with safeguards to prevent its misuse. When we have a law against caste discrimination, why is there no legal protection against religious discrimination? School textbooks should be written exploring the many examples of co-existence that have existed between the two communities down the ages. Every government official, from the lowest babu and cop upwards should take a course in Hindu-Muslim understanding. Corporates who are secular employers should be given awards and applauded. Celebrities must demonstrate how religious discrimination comes in the way of wealth creation and upward mobility. Bollywood should make a special effort towards challenging Hindu and Muslim stereotypes. Just as there are campaigns showing that it's not 'cool' to hit women, there should be campaigns to show that it's not 'cool' to hate minority religions. And above all, India's modern politicians, if they want to make a mark on the global stage of statesmanship, must stay out of stoking religious hatred.

Let every Hindu see the tears running down the face of shooter Aneesa Sayeed, as she saluted the tricolour after winning her gold medal. Let every Hindu listen to Aslam Sher Khan when he said how proud he was to play in the 1975 hockey team against Pakistan. And let every Muslim mark the loud cheers the Pakistani team got when they walked out at the CWG opening ceremony. Let's create a new charter by becoming spiritual athletes from the land of Sri Krishna and Salim Chishti and aim for the gold medal in jumping the maximum number of hurdles in our minds.

Sagarika Ghose is Deputy Editor, CNN-IBN. The views expressed by the author are personal.

First Published: Oct 12, 2010 21:46 IST