What’s going on with the kaawadiyas? Some insights from conversations with Haryanvi young men
I know of a young man, about 18, who lives in a village near Sohna in Haryana. This bright young man, Ahir (Yadav) by caste, studied reasonably well until high school and then inexplicably dropped out. He began demanding money from his parents, flitting in and out of employment and every now and then turning hostile, even inflicting violence on his own family members. Last weekend, he turned up at home after many days of living away with relatives, and made demands for money to join his friends for the kaawad yatra (a pilgrimage to bring the waters of the Ganges river from Haridwar back home, held in the holy month of Saawan during the rainy season). The demand was in essence a tantrum. All his friends were going and he wanted to go too. The family, who had no extra money to finance the travel and the paraphernalia that goes with being a yatri (they get new clothes and gifts when they return etc), refused flatly. The young man sulked a bit, then left home again.
I read this anecdote in several different ways, and I will try in this post to offer some insights from my interactions I have had with young Haryanvi (usually Yadav) men over the last few years. My attempt is to nuance the conversation around the kaawad yatra, which is being perceived by one side as a right to religious practice deserving of state protection, and as a form of hooliganism and toxic masculinity by the other. Like many other things, in reality it is a cocktail mix of social, economic and religious realities and perception, spiced by the politics of communalism and hatred.
My protagonist’s story is one of growing up and coming of age in an environment of (what he likely perceives as) multiple deprivations: the disadvantages of poor quality schooling and the lack of skills that would land him urban jobs, the lack of quality employment in or near his village, the absence of cash that would buy him good clothes and a smart phone and therefore some respectability and popularity, the expectation of his family that he brings in a steady income and ultimately, their refusal to indulge him when he demands money for a leisure activity.
The yatra as permissible leisure……
Many young men I have spoken to in Gurgaon district have told me that they see the kaawad yatra as a form of leisure. The garb of religion helps them justify to their families not just the expenses, but also the possible loss of income by their absence from work. They articulate the yatra by using words and phrases like azadi (freedom), gaanv aur parivar ka garv (pride for the village and family) yaaron doston ke saath masti (fun with friends). Of course, they also articulate the religious significance of the yatra, but in terms of what it brings to the family in terms of status in the community. “Pitaji khush ho jaayenge, bhai ko bola tha jaane ko par wo nahi jaa paaya to mein jaaonga (My father will be happy. He had asked my brother to go, but he could not, so I am going)”, narrated the young man who delivers pooja flowers in our building block.
….against the backdrop of the controlling, patriarchal household
Most of these young men I spoke to have very little autonomy. They are expected to contribute labour and income to the household kitty, while remaining subservient to fathers and uncles who have a tight fist on money and resources. This is true even of those who are married, and early marriage is common. Additionally, they are caught amidst conflicts between their wives and mothers, and the battle between individual desire and household diktat is never-ending. Agricultural activity and land holdings have dwindled significantly and with it, the logic of land inheritance that upheld the deep patriarchy in this region, should perhaps be called into question. Yet, ironically, patriarchal rules tighten their noose not just around women, as expressed in several misogynist practices (like female infanticide, male child preference, dowry, restrictions on dressing and mobility, etc) but also on young men, who are expected to exhibit masculine behaviour while being totally controlled by older male members. Only those who excel academically and break through into private sector formal sector employment and others who get into government jobs make it out of this predicament, somewhat.
The yatra as higher purpose…
These are deeply religious people and religion shapes the celebration of festivals; rituals around birth, death and marriage; fasting on certain days especially by women, all of course marked by patriarchal logic and rules. Increasingly, they are also involved in ‘social’ activities in the name of religion and the protection of family honour, especially the honour of women. So they would be vigilant about inter-caste and inter-religious liaisons in the community. Not surprisingly, cow protection, previously a passive principle of life in the Yadav belt, is now more like a crusade, especially in the Mewat belt where accusations of cow-smuggling have been routinely leveled against Muslims as a way to stir Hindu, and specifically Yadav, passions.
I read the kaawad yatra as part of this crusade-like social practice, serving a purpose higher than the religious one. The possibility of organized funding fueling the scaling up of kawad activities is very real. The people I spoke to told me about money collection drives in their village communities and large contributions by “bade aadmi” (powerful individuals). They spoke about the yatra like one would talk about a sports contest between village teams, and evoked the pride of the community. They took Hindu pride very much for granted, as something obvious; they made no reference to any form of ‘other’.
….and who will deny them that?
The outrage being expressed by urban folks raises questions of law and order. Why are kaawad yatris getting state protection even when they break the law? Who is responsible when they create public nuisance and who will compensate for destruction of public property?
But it is clear enough that in today’s times, law and order are subservient to majoritarian interests. The state and its law enforcement agencies are far more afraid of a public riot that will break out if a kaawadiya gets hurt; in comparison, the predicament of a non- yatri is not a real problem, for that is hardly likely to bring people to the streets.
Being angry about public nuisance is entirely justifiable, but the solutions are not going to come easy. Be prepared in the coming times for many more such tableau. See them for what they are: loud, unapologetic claims to public space and attention by an under-employed, under-appreciated and infantilized youth that are being fed toxic doses of religion and masculinity.
Tales from Grandma: Are our children missing out?
At the end of a busy day, it was refreshing to go to my mum’s place for a special dinner yesterday. Ma had made a special effort to put together a simple but tasty version of the Onam Sadya, the traditional feast eaten during the Onam festivities in Malayali homes (and now, as food becomes a popular medium of social connection, everywhere!).
Before we sat down to dinner, Amamma gathered us together before her deities for a few moments. She used her walker and slowly lowered herself onto a chair in front of her puja ensemble. She gave us instructions and we performed the traditional aarti together. And then, to our delight, she asked my kids if they knew the story of Mahabali and Onam. Without waiting for a response, Amamma launched into an enthusiastic narration of the legend of Mahabali. With a liberal use of words from Tamil, peppered with Malayali expressions and strung together by some English and Hindi, her narration was driven more by her expressions and gestures than words. The children listened in rapt attention and so did we. Partly because mythology and legend is ever fascinating, but more because the act of storytelling had transformed Amamma from a placid, pleasant and largely inactive old lady into an animated, beautiful and expressive matriarch.
In those few minutes, I watched my children’s reactions but simultaneously I regressed to being a four year old in Amamma’s care, being fed and nurtured by her warmth, enjoying her wonderful cooking and listening to her unending stories about her life and times. That relationship with her remained through my life but of late has stagnated because she, sadly, has withdrawn into a shell born out of partial deafness and an uprooting from her native environment to Gurgaon where language and cultural context are drastically different.
The image of Amamma telling the story has lingered in my mind all morning and I’m thinking of the immense value that grandparents and great-grandparents bring to children’s lives. I worry about the problems arising out of an increasing focus on English, how grandparents are no longer able to communicate as well to the little ones as they used to in my childhood, when the primary languages at home were of their choice despite the pressures exerted by English-medium schools for us to be fluent in English.
The other thought on my mind is how mythology, while certainly mostly religious in origin, is being increasingly appropriated and intertwined with religion. In Kerala, though, the legend of Mahabali is widely narrated and Onam a statewide celebration across religious communities. Growing up in Lucknow, non-Muslims only missed the namaz bit of Eid, participating fully in the feasting that follows. On Diwali, whether children burst firecrackers was more about the economic status of their parents than their religion. Things seem to have changed today, sadly. Wouldn’t it be cool if we could revive traditions of storytelling and shape them into a collective format so children get to share legends across religious and regional lines, and also maybe share storytelling grandparents?
Not a nuisance but an opportunity to include: Why you need to rethink your opinions on the kaawad yatra
For the last many years, I’ve been fascinated with the annual kaawad yatra, which takes place during the saawan month of the Hindu calendar and involves the transport of holy waters from the Ganga in Hardwar back home by pilgrims usually on foot (more here). Its a tough pilgrimage. Watching the yatris rest at the end of a long day of walking at the makeshift camps that local communities erect along the entire route, I’ve often admired their resilience and also the growing number of women yatris. I’ve observed them bandage each others tired, swollen and cracked feet. I’ve seen communities volunteering to cook, clean and heal yatris. I’ve even smiled at their obvious enjoyment of the music blaring out of speakers, as I’ve watched them dance and sing in camaraderie and joy closer to the completion of the arduous journey. To me, the kaawad yatra has always been a demonstration of India’s multiple faith-linked traditions that have the power to bring people together in a continuance of age old traditions.
For the educated classes behind the wheels of their motor vehicles, though, the kaawads are another word for traffic hold ups, mayhem and chaos that compounds the water logging caused by incessant rain and poor drainage each year. It’s an inconvenience, an injunction into the (imagined) smooth functioning of their lives. Its a faith system they don’t understand, even though many among them are deeply religious.
This divide and the vitriol towards the kaawadiyas was brought home to me last evening. I was driving and a friend’s daughter, all of eight-years old, pointed out to a truck full of kaawadiyas and declared, with much feeling that she hates them! Hate? I was taken aback and I asked her why, were they not entitled to celebrate the completion of their yatra? And her response was something entirely unexpected: “They don’t wear clothes!,” the little girl told me. “See, that man is only wearing those short orange shorts!”
A different kind of yatra: The influence of money and power
The transformation of the kaawad yatra itself, in the past few years, from a low key humble affair to a loud, rambunctious public party is partly responsible for the perceptions that this young girl and a large section of elite urban society. Clearly there is more money in the yatra business now, perhaps in reflection of a more affluent rural and small town middle class. The camps have grown larger, the music louder, the trucks of enthusiastic and often rowdy yatris and supporters are ubiquitous. In the past, State-sponsored protections like traffic cordons to create safe passage were a response to the unfortunate deaths of kaawadiyas in motor accidents. Today, youth in motor cycles and trucks break traffic rules with impunity in the name of religion. The little girl’s comment on how the yatris are dressed is also telling. A display of hyper masculine behavior is not only hurtful to urbane sensibilities but frankly threatening as well!
The farcical liberalism of the urban elite
On the other hand, the educated elite does not usually bother to learn more about the yatra itself. I know from my interactions with villagers in and around Gurgaon, that the yatra is deeply symbolic to these communities. It is taken with a sense of duty; it is also a means for young people to take a small holiday and earn brownie points in the process. There is also some bit of harmless competition among groups in the village on who gets back the holy waters first.
Plug the gap or prepare to be drowned
It is this big gap between the two Indias that is immensely disturbing to me. The divide of the rural and urban, the chasm between the educated well-heeled and well-traveled elite and the homegrown upwardly mobile middle classes, the totally different perceptions of the pretend liberals and the deep-rooted faith systems of the more rooted-to-the-land populations. All this is exacerbated by urban planning that puts the elite into ‘safe’ gated communities and ‘others’ those who tilled the very lands on which these gated complexes are built!
We need a new movement here to bridge this gaping chasm that threatens to destroy the very fabric of our society. We talk about tolerance in our cozy drawing rooms, but we do not even understand the meaning of the world when we say hateful things that our children reproduce without understanding what they are saying. We need to start with understanding the traditions of our land and respecting them for what they are, even as we call out those who break the law and those who protect these detractors. We need to broaden our definition of community to include people from different classes. What stops the kaawad yatra organizing committees from reaching out to RWAs to contribute and collaborate in offering shelter to the yatris, as a gesture of humanity? Maybe this will lead to better ideas on how to resolve traffic snarls and conflicts of interest? What stops the police and local governments from running awareness campaigns that create empathy towards the yatris and use this enhance sense of pride to request them to remain within the law?
Of course, my comments could well be dismissed as naive. Many will say that I am deliberately leaving out the realities that confront us: the rise of the right wing that grants additional immunity to Hindu religious groups at this time, the alignment of local law enforcers with local communities that permits them to look the other way like we saw during Haryana’s infamous Jat quota agitation, the politicization of religion as seen in the capital that is now blatantly on display during the yatra. I admit there might be truth in all of this, but we must also admit that the insensitivity exists on both sides. If we do not bring empathy into the mix at this point, these conflicts will only get worse. We owe it to our children to speak a different language: one that opens the doors instead of slamming them shut; one that seeks to learn more before pronouncing opinions; one that celebrates diversity and shuns the idea of homogeneity that dangerously pervades our social lives; one that, in the true tradition of this land, refrains from violence seeks to include and find solutions through consensus.
Housing segregation: Not just a problem, but the symptom of a dangerous disease
This morning, a single woman friend put up a very witty post on her Facebook page that described her failed attempts to rent out a workspace. She used humour as her weapon to deal with the blatant patriarchy that she faced from landlords and even landladies, including constant requests to meet the husband, complete refusal to deal with her single status and even allegations on her character! Years ago, I remember fighting with a bunch of old men on behalf of a friend who was being asked to leave our housing society because her boyfriend misbehaved with her! Again, being single was conveniently associated with bad character and none of those chivalrous gentlemen (even within the limits of their self-conceived patriarchal roles) thought to come to the rescue of this damsel in distress who was being harassed by a man. Oh, the injustice of it!
This is one of many types of housing segregation that is commonly experienced in Indian cities. Caste and religion are routinely used to turn away renters. Many scholars have put a spotlight on the increase in housing segregation. Gazala Jamil’s work on the spatial segregation of Muslims in Delhi and Vithayathil and Singh’s research on caste-based segregation in India’s seven largest metros are part of a growing body of literature that show us that even as we look at the city as the panacea for the old social evils, these identities are viciously reconstructed the urban context.
In their piece in The Wire, Kumar and Sen argue that housing segregation is a direct result of poor housing policy combined with ingrained prejudices. “The reason why legislative intervention, as opposed to judicial, is necessary to resolve the matter of housing discrimination is because the problem should not be exclusively framed in the narrow context of individual acts of discrimination. Ghettos in cities do not rise spontaneously or accidentally. Ghettos are created by bad housing policy coupled with prejudice,” they write. They suggest legislation that makes it illegal for landlords or housing societies to be able to discriminate in such a way.
While legislation that comes out strongly against discrimination would be a good thing, I am not at all sure if it will end housing segregation in the short term. Something larger than the ability to discriminate without facing consequences is driving segregation in our cities. The expression of identity through the clustering of groups by language, caste, food preferences, religious practices and cultural norms is a way for people to find refuge and solace in the confusing and chaotic city, a context that is complex and disordered, where there is no tangible link between what you do and what you get. In this urban spider web where most citizens see themselves as a fly, the ‘other’ assumes a terrible importance. Hence, the single woman in a society that sees itself as bound by the values of family is a threat to the group’s collective identity. The Muslim family that may or may not attend the Diwali and Janmashtami celebrations or contribute to the Mata ka bhandara is viewed with suspicion. And so on and so forth.
How fragile is our sense of identity that we can see the people who are different from us as such potent threats? Clearly, we can find no easy way to unite and fight poor governance, or find concrete ways to improve our collective lives. It’s much easier to identify the ‘other’ and weed them out of our midst, to lull ourselves into the false complacency of uniformity and sameness. What is under threat is not simply access to housing, it is the very idea of pluralism that is essential to cities that is under question. If Indian cities are merely collections of villages (and do not let the shiny glass, Metro rail networks and CCTV cameras fool you), then the dream of urbanized development (smart cities included) is a false one. At the very least, we must all realize that.
The contours of faith at Ajmer Sharif #GirlyRoadTrip Day 2
On the stretch from Udaipur to Ajmer, I had the pleasure of getting off of NH8 onto NH79, an equally good highway that passes by Chittorgarh and Bhilwara through some really pretty countryside. Again hilly and dotted with spectacular water bodies, I really enjoyed the drive. At one point where the scenery got particularly enjoyable, we stopped and took a break, breathing in the fresh air and reveling in the wonderful freedom of being out on the road.
At Ajmer, we stopped very briefly at our homestay. Badnor House is quite a neat little property, well located and convenient. Pretty too!
We headed for the Dargah Sharif the same evening. It just didn’t seem right to come to the city and not go. And it was quite the experience. Our host Sanjay set us up with Furkan bhai, a tall strapping gentleman who is a khadim (equivalent of a priest). Furkan bhai would take us through the dargah with businesslike gentleness. You cannot take cameras in, or the pictures would have spoken of the atmosphere of utter faith inside this famous Sufi shrine, the final resting place of Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti, who established the Chisti order in the Indian subcontinent in the 12th century. The Chisti order would go on to become one of the most important religious movements in the northern part of the subcontinent and the dargahs of his descendants like Salim Chisti and Nizamuddin Aulia are also living shrines in Fatehpur Sikri and Delhi, very much revered.
I’m not very religious, but I’ve come to believe religion and faith are perhaps two different things. At the Ajmer Sharif, I went in with little expectations, mostly curiosity. We entered through the magnificent, ornate main gate, past the hauz (water tank) called Victoria Tank that was dedicated to the shrine by Queen Mary, and past hundreds of devotees into a courtyard milling with people and the enchanting sounds of a sufi qawwali. Furkan bhai took the three of us into the sanctum and ushered us close to the enclosure, putting a green chadar (sheet) over us as he murmured the ritualistic passing of our wishes to the saint. Without explanation, I found myself weeping, uncontrollably. Rachna put her arms around me, Nupur sidled closer. All three of us were crying, in various degree. Next to us, pilgrims from Pakistan were also offering their prayers.
It was a defining, irrational, moving moment, after which I felt visibly relaxed. We made a cash donation to the shrine, we walked around, we tied a string around a jaali to make a wish, we saw the enormous cauldron in which something yummy was cooking away, we walked past many Mughal monuments built by Jehangir, Shahjahan, Akbar, others. And then we walked out, back into the street in a bit of a daze. Back to the real world, we went into a giggly, selfie-taking mode, then found a simple and delicious dal-roti meal at a local eatery before finding a ride back to our homestay.
Chavath in Goa Day 1: Dedicated to Gouri-Mahadev and easy bonding!
This is a day for bonding and easing into the celebrations. As per tradition, married ladies fast on this day, in empathy with Parvati or Gouri, Ganesh’s mother. This is a day dedicated to the Goddess and to Mahadev or Shiv, her husband and also our family deity.
My camera’s roving eye found various groups of people in conversation, in camaraderie over activities like cooking or decorating or, in the case of the children, on burning firecrackers! Looking back at the pictures I clicked, I see how the young and old come together, how barriers come down as people ease their guard, how the ritual activities of a family festival take over a rhythm of their own and individual moods, opinions and priorities take a backseat. It is this transformation that grips me each time I come to Goa for Chavath. I revel in the slowing down of the pace of life, in the inversion of priorities away from the self and into the realm of family, community, ritual and perhaps even faith.
My aunts sat together, peeling and cutting vegetables and also sharing memories and planning the menu for the next two days. Ajjee sort of oversaw what they were doing, out of sheer force of habit because this is what she has been doing for the last forty odd years! We cousins swapped stories, clicked pictures and ‘Whatsapped’ them to each other and to other cousins far away.
As evening came, we gathered to sing together. The aarti, to me, is the crescendo towards which the events move. The chaal, best described as the rhythmic tune, in which we sing the aartiyo in Goa are distinct from those in Maharashtra. More musical and complex rather than merely chanted, participating in the aarti is as much about skill as gusto. We all enjoy this bit immensely, as you can see in this video. The kids particularly charm me with their enthusiasm!
The kids utilize the evening to do what they enjoy the most- Fog, or firecrackers! See the joy on their faces!
Ramzan diaries: Nocturnal wanderings in Jama Masjid
It’s something we decide to do every year, but often miss out on. This year, we pushed to catch the tail end of the Ramzan nocturnal revelries at the Jama Masjid in Shahjahanabad, Old Delhi. For Rahul, the food is the primary attraction; for me, it is the vibrant street life and an opportunity to wield my camera and simply see a life so unlike mine!
We went in a group of eight, some who had never been to the old city before. I savored the sights and smells, enjoyed the feeling of being lost in a crowd, the feeling of being welcomed by those who knew we were coming in from the outside to partake in their celebration. There is always an element of nostalgia for me, during these trips. Memories of early explorations of Shahjahanabad when I studied in SPA in the ’90s as well as memories of childhood trips to the older parts of Lucknow, which are similar in feel though not in architecture.
I feel, not merely discomfort, but a profound sense of sadness when Hindu friends make veiled derogatory references to Islam in the context of visits such as these. What we experienced last evening was the vibrant expression of a culture, that extends beyond the mere boundaries of religion. It is akin to being absorbed by the Kumbh or the Pushkar Mela. It is living heritage, one that is constantly under threat from change, yet one that is constantly evolving to absorb change.
The evening progressed. Food and plenty of laughter, random meanderings amid families shopping in a frenzy before Eid, watching a mobile phone thief being caught and mobbed and led away, children manning parantha stalls, youngsters looking for the best food deals, the homeless sleeping on the pavements oblivious of the ruckus all around, and then, a crazy taxi ride back home listening to the non-stop entertaining chatter of a Vijay Singh Rajput, our cabbie who had an opinion on everything and a certain way with words! An evening well spent indeed!
Sharing some images, so you can also take a sneek peek!
Change is a challenge, in every age
History is a magnanimous teacher. You can sit in your armchair and read about times gone by, people long dead and wonder how their lives were similar or different from ours. And it is fascinating that there is always a situation or a person you identify with.
I just finished reading ‘Wolf Hall’ by Hilary Mantel. Set in the early 16th century, it tells the story of Thomas Cromwell, who traversed the unthinkable trajectory in a single lifetime starting as a blacksmith’s son and becoming Henry VIIIs closest aide. At a time when England challenged the ubiquitous power of the Catholic Church, Cromwell is a man of commerce, almost a disbeliever. A cynic and a liberal. A man who educates his daughters and involves them in his business, a man who is unafraid of negotiations, who makes discipline and duty his ultimate religion.
What fascinated me about the book was the conflict between belief and religion. King Henry challenged and sought to bring down the confluence of money and power that vested in the officials of the Church during his time, primarily because the Catholic Church did not readily give in to his idea of divorcing Katherine to marry Anne Boleyn. Cromwell crafted around the king’s whim a web of laws and statutes that made him the head of the kingdom and the Church in England. And while he did this, powerful people warned of a downfall of morality, an end of truth, none of which happened because it was already an anarchic situation in what we know as Europe today- Turks attacking at one end, a dead Pope’s body being paraded around Rome and Munich being ruled by an autocratic tailor some among many crazy stories we know of now.
What is telling is how Cromwell manipulates the relationship between the citizen and the forces in power. On one side, he believes that citizens must have basic amenities and security of life, on the other he must work with the vagaries of the King’s mind. When push comes to shove, Cromwell sends his law all over the land and asks citizens to swear upon the Bible to accept their King as head of the Church, thus justifying all Henry’s actions. Cromwell knows what he does is wrong, asking innocents to swear upon an issue they barely understand, but he has no choice if he (and England) must survive!
These are the difficult compromises those in power and those close to them must make. Many of their decisions, when viewed in isolation, seem hard, unjustified and unethical. Yet, if we see the web of inter-related matters these men (and women, going by the formidable forces Katherine and Anne were!) must consider, one wonders how decisions get taken at all! In the end, strategic decisions are taken to keep the balance so that the machinery of State keeps running and the people, those poor citizens who know not what is at stake, can continue to lead their contented or wretched lives….
So what has changed, through history? At this point I look at the political situation in India, Egypt, Turkey…and many other places and I see that the citizen is still marginalized from the loci of power. I also see that citizens are given to rather myopic visions, overrun by their immediate concerns and that democratic gathering of opinion is not always possible because information, understanding as well as the well to be informed and understand is not equal among citizens. If we believe democracy to be the best solution for the modern State, we need to develop consensus building skills and powers of negotiation of a very refined and evolved nature. In parallel, citizens must have the means to be aware and involved in decisions that impact their lives. Most of all, we need systems that can wait till these processes of negotiation are complete and this is where I think democracy fails, repeatedly. As KC Sivaramakrishnan, eminent economist and Chairman of Delhi-based think tank said in the context of a recent workshop to support incrementally built neighborhoods in the informal parts of the city, “Every so often, there is an urge and impatience to do something world class and grand” that impinges on this patience. In an instant, we abandon the slower democratic processes to make sweeping changes without worrying about who they benefit. Later, when sense returns, it seems inappropriate to feel remorse, so we justify and we use sellotape to patch the fissures and so on, till things fall apart and a new age is ushered in…
Will liberals (and atheists) survive a radicalising society….or are humans self-destructing anyway?
I am utterly and completely convinced that liberal thought is the only way forward for the human civilization. And yet, when I see the growing power of radical elements around me and how their simplistic solutions have enticed so many intelligent, educated people, I wonder if human beings are simply bent on self-destruction, as a race!
A few ideas from this weekend’s editorial pieces struck me as interesting in this context. The Hindustan Times carried a set of articles on radicalization in India and it did not make for pretty reading. Educated people are turning on this path of blood boiling hate and cold-blooded planning of destruction. Whatever they may be, Islamic jihad or Hindu terror, they are making the world less safe with each passing day.
This idea of radicalisation of society is scary indeed and seems to be happening in the entire subcontinental context. I have not had a lot of time to read up on what’s been happening in Bangladesh and Taslima Nasrin’s piece “Why I support Shahbag” came at the right time. To offer a background, protestors in huge numbers were out on the streets in Bangladesh to demand the death penalty for a 1971 war criminal called Abdul Kader Mollah. Mollah, like many war criminals, is an Islamist. Protestors fear that Mollah, who is currently serving a life sentence, will be freed if the Jamaat-e-Islami came to power. And hence the demand for the death sentence. In a nation that is being rapidly Islamicised, the Shahbagh protests stand out in their demand for banning an Islamist organisation like the Jamaat.
This is happening at a time when liberal voices are being ruthlessly suppressed in Bangladesh and atheist bloggers have even been killed for their views. By labelling the protestors at Shahbagh as ‘atheist’, Nasrin writes, Islamists are trying to make pious Muslims who are part of the protest uncomfortable. Protestors are caught between believing in the legitimacy of their demands and proving themselves to be believers! The paragraph below from this piece resonates strongly with me in the context of what is happening around us in India. You could replace Bangladesh with India and Islam with Hinduism and this would still hold true!
“It is very alarming that the word ‘atheist’ is being considered as a filthy, obscene word in Bangladesh, and the liberal people refrain from doing anything in support of the freedom of expression of atheists. They must know that Islam should not be exempt from the critical scrutiny that applies to other religions as well; in their mind, they must understand that Islam has to go through an enlightenment process similar to what other world religions have already gone through, by questioning the inhuman, unequal, unscientific and irrational aspects of religion.”
Which brings me to one the strongest arguments I have against the Hindutva sort of religious extremism. If we are so critical of another religion’s extremist tendencies, then we really ought to evaluate why we are heading in the same direction. I sincerely hope we are not, though the chain of hate mails below even the slightest criticism of Hindutva extremist thinking is worrying indeed.
As for me, I am as close to being an atheist as anyone can be, without actually taking the plunge. To me, the concept of God and religion is a cultural one and the world is richer for its varied cultures, isn’t it? I find it unbelievable that we fight so much over something so abstract, but in reality the fights are about the deepest aspect of human greed-access to wealth and resources- and religion seems to hold the key to power and identity, which in turn are channels to achieve material goals.
Survival mantra: Condemn violence, re-invent secularism as our guiding light
It could be true, that inverse relationship between brawn and brain. I haven’t been as alert mentally since I started going to the gym regularly, but today I’m resolving to snap out of that stupor and get back to my blog and my work with total concentration.
I’ve been following the controversy following Home Minister Shinde’s remarks about Hindu terror. And thinking about the intense feeling of discomfort I have about that particular faction of our society. Yechury’s editorial in The Hindustan Times today about zero tolerance reveals the sordid history of the RSS and their commitment to military means to achieve their wins. It also exposes the essential fascism in their ideology. This scares me (despite growing up in a very much Hindu family). Because I was brought up in independent India with the clear understanding that secularism is very much a value we fought for and want to keep fighting for, that this is a deeply ingrained belief.
As I grew up, various incidents influenced me- the 1984 riots, Babri Masjid, Mumbai blasts and the general observations of how citizens in a city as cultured and nuanced as Lucknow got polarized and compromised in the crush of religious fear and machoism. Yet, my belief in secularism as the ideal to aspire towards never wavered.
Today, an urban practitioner in rapidly urbanizing, rapidly growing India- I hear disparate voices all around me. I know that religious identity continues to be the strongest one for many in this country and, while I do not think that is wrong, I am pained by having to accept that secularism no longer seems to be the agreed upon framework of taking this country forward.
The world over, religious fanaticism seems to be overpowering the voices of tolerance. I often wonder, why? Is it cyclical, moving closer and then way from fanaticism, clannishness? Or are we essentially an irrational and violent race and occasionally we get lured into more rational thinking by great people like Gandhi or Martin Luther King who for some reason all seem to happen around the same time?
In my analysis, it all boils down to managing anger. Just like we learn to manage anger and frustration in our personal lives, or should at any rate, collective anger also needs to be managed. When the management tool becomes skewed and leaders would rather incite, and preach retribution and revenge, violence and terrorism appear as very logical alternatives to those in a group. In the absence of reason, no one is able to break the tit for tat and the war goes on…
This is a war on our senses, on our liberties. It is a war that threatens to annihilate the beauty from our lives and marry us all into a culture of violence and retribution, which can only lead to sadness and more anger. It is a vicious cycle. We must break out of it. Secularism is one way to break out of it. Perhaps we must change the way we see secularism- not as a society sans religious affiliations, but as one where each group is tolerant of the faith and the cultural practices of the other strains that co-exist with it, an within that larger fabric of India, Asia, the world.
I would respect that Hindu leader that came out and punished perpetrators of violence from within its folds, same goes for the Islamic leadership. Religious leaders must condemn violence and be unabashed in naming all those who incite it. If they continue to shield murderers, no matter which religion they belong to, they are doing a huge disservice to us all. By luring people into the false cocoon of us-versus-them on hand and by alienating all those of us who refuse to support violence, on the other.