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Two Lovers and the Funeral of Secularism

by FARZANA VERSEY

His skull was smashed and his body thrown on the railway tracks. The police in Kolkata claimed that Rizwan-ur-Rehman had committed suicide. His diary and complaints to human rights organisations show that he was being threatened by the cops for marrying Priyanka Todi, the daughter of an influential industrialist from a Marwari family, traditionally considered clannish.

This was less than a month after their wedding. The girl has disappeared; the voice of the criminal party is barely heard and the victim’s family is hounded by the media. In a most appalling move, Rizwan’s brother and mother were in the studio for a panel discussion on one of the private channels. At one point the anchor asked the audience to put up their hands if they believed he could have been forced by circumstances to commit suicide. This was media interference in legal matters. Is this how justice is conducted?

Later, the lights were dimmed to show us how Bollywood has portrayed inter-religious alliances. This was demeaning and facile.

The screen captured the father, a butcher, brandishing an axe. The young man was pleading with him to let him marry his daughter. He glowered in return, screaming. The girl cowered in a corner wearing a veil, but her eyes dripped pain. For the sake of cinematic licence they showed the eyes and the face. Our beauties are not to be hidden.

The lover, his ardour not lessened, grabbed the weapon and then the girl’s hand, slashing her arm near the wrist, then his and letting their blood mix. All differences were wiped out in that one melodramatic moment.

Why is it disgusting? It isn’t about Hindi cinema but about how a serious discussion on inter-religious marriage that led to a tragic death chose to use clips from movies; this particular one ended the montage, while the brother and mother watched. The brother said that this in fact was Rizwan’s story.

No, it is not. Not all Muslims are butchers with axes. The sly media devil is creating a most dangerous trend. Rizwan was educated at St. Xavier’s college in Kolkata; he graduated with English Honours. He had ambitions of being a journalist, but due to financial pressure chose to be a graphic designer. They are not a poor, but a middle-class family.

Middle-class does not sound exotic enough when you talk about Indian Muslims. Poor, shabby, illiterate look great.

Communal divisions are getting more pronounced. Disturbingly, while the youth are prone to making choices, they are increasingly making pro-clannish choices. The voices of dissent are not rising against the status quo but for it.

* * *

I belong to a family where people practise different versions of Islam as well as people from other faiths, including atheism. Years ago my cousin converted to Hinduism. I recall almost everyone attending the ceremony, including my grandmother. She moved to America. A few years later on a visit to India, she was frantically looking for a plaque with some Quranic verses, “Anything Islamic, Bismillah or whatever,” she said. I was a bit disappointed. What was she trying to prove? Was it to be merely one more showpiece where she could tell her foreign neighbours that cultures had meshed, when it was so clear that she had shed her own skin?

And that pained me. She was here a while ago. We went for a film. A lady in a headscarf walked past. She told me, “The Muslims are really asserting themselves now.” A young woman watching a late-night English film munching popcorn was asserting Muslimness? And this from her whose first stop on arrival in Mumbai is to visit a temple in another town?

Those who had never judged her were being judged by her. This has become a part of the ‘belong to the mainstream’ idea. It is terribly dangerous because it leaves no room for individual choice, forget theological ones. The Hindu ideologue, Guru Golwalkar, had unequivocally declared in his book ‘We Or Our Nationhood Defined’: “The non-Hindu peoples in Hindustan must adopt the Hindu culture and language, must learn to respect and hold in reverence Hindu religion, must entertain no idea but those of glorification of the Hindu race and cultureSo long, however, as they maintain their racial, religious and cultural differences (with Hindus), they cannot but be only foreigners.”

If we see the tragedy of the murder of Rizwan against this backdrop we will realise it isn’t about one individual but that individual has raised several questions about what constitutes nationhood in India today.

If it is a religion we are loyal to, then what is it about that religion ­ its concept of god, its message for living, or its single-minded obsession with itself? And if it is the country you have to wag your tail behind, then what aspect of it must make us feel loyal ­ its existence on the world map, the few square feet of space that we live in, the nationality it grants us on the global stage, or the values of equality and fraternity that it promotes on a scrap of paper? Both religion and the country make people into zombies and are expected to be followed blindly. Weren’t there cries of “Jai Siyaram” (Hail Lord Ram) when houses were burnt down in Gujarat?

Muslims are told, even by secularists, that institutionalised silence can be seen as confirmation of the suspicious Hindu’s belief that you cannot trust the Muslim during a national crisis. No one seems to have asked why the Hindus at the institutional level did not protest when the Babri Masjid was brought down. Where were the holy men then? Did not Ashok Singhal of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, at the ‘Global Vision 2000’ in Chicago, snap at an Indian Christian who asked him about the Hindu Rashtra with a, “If 800 million people in India want a theocracy, how does it concern you?”

Today, in Kolkata there are protest rallies by the ordinary people. They are whitewashing Rizwan’s murder as a class divide.

This is rubbish. As someone rightly pointed out, had the boy been a less wealthy person from the same community nothing would have happened. West Bengal, the state where this incident took place, prides itself on communal harmony. It has a communist ruling party. The Left has always been a great opposition, but wherever it is the Establishment it errs on the side of money and power. Even today there is talk about the class war because it needs to underscore its position.

Rizwan was not a man in the streets; he was educated. He has become the symbol of a twisted secular ideal and posthumously has the potential of creating a right royal fright. Therefore, the questions posed are typical: Was the girl forced to convert? She wasn’t. And she did not.

No Muslim organisation is rallying behind this family. It is the herd of politicians that is behaving like vultures. Even today his family says it believes in the Indian judiciary. If this is not being ‘mainstream’ enough, then let me ask you: have you heard about Muslims wanting a solution other than that given by the courts? Whether it was the Bombay riots or the bomb blasts, whether it is Gujarat or Godhra, and even the demolition at Ayodhya, they have never said it is a matter that should be decided by religious heads.

* * *

As a counterpoint we have a situation where the Hindutva parties are against the setting up of the Sethusamudram Ship Canal Project in South India which has been lying comatose for years. In the blazing controversies surrounding it, two writ petitions were filed seeking an assurance from the government that there would be no destruction of the mythical barrier Ram Sethu during the construction.

The reason being that the bridge was the creation of Lord Ram and is therefore sacred. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) told the Supreme Court that there was no historical evidence to establish the existence of Lord Ram or the other characters in Ramayana. It is not a man-made structure, but a natural formation. The court has said it cannot use myths to justify history.

Now, the Sangh Parivar is planning to enrol fifty million Hindus to agitate, timing it with the major festivals. For this reason security around mosques and temples has increased. Is this what we are calling secular? The Ram Temple has been replaced by the Ram Sethu. They are tugging at religious heartstrings once again by using pugnacious language. One leader announced a reward for anyone who could behead the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, who is for the construction of the canal and happens to be an atheist. The media, pretending to be secular, decided to call it a “Hindu fatwa”. Words like “Hindu ayatollahs” have become regular occurrences, driving home the point that a peace-loving people have been forced to fight.

The headlines tell us that a village in Haryana has a “Taliban writ” because the 5000 Muslims living there are not allowed to watch TV or get themselves photographed as per an edict by some religious head. A woman reportedly said, “The women folk aren’t allowed to come out of their house. Many haven’t travelled more than 25 km ever in their lives.”

How many rural women in India manage to travel? And if they do, it is to fetch water. The fact is that Haryana has the largest number of female foeticides; according to a report, 43 per cent of first-born girls are killed. The male-female ratio is so low that there is a regular racket of importing poor women from other states. What is this? Talibanisation? Have they learned it at the feet of some mullahs in Afghanistan?

We are worrying about people not watching television when 250,000 villages in India do not have electricity.

At such a time the Hindutva parties are gung-ho about organising a group of “Raksha Dharam Yoddha” ­ warriors of the faith. This is all they can think about.

As recently as a month ago, the Allahabad High Court observed that the Bhagavad Gita should be made the national “dharma shastra” (religious treatise) of the country. Was the Bhagwad Gita written as a legal treatise? How many non-Hindus are aware of the contents? The scripture, like most religious texts, is about war and struggle. We have a Constitution.

Who is adhering to it?

India is perhaps the only secular democracy that has to reiterate that it is a Hindu majority state. And it has nothing to do with the ancient history of Hindu civilisation, but the less than 80-year existence of Hindutva.

The other theory doing the rounds, and expounded by the venerable saint Sir Vidia Naipaul, is that since Indian Muslims are converted people, they become part of the Arab story and reject their own histories and “develop fantasies about who and what they are; and in the Islam of converted countries there is an element of neurosis and nihilism. These countries can easily be set on the boil”.

How little does he know about our fantasies. If anything, it is Indian Muslims who have steered clear of major controversies; they are difficult to understand because Islamic societies cannot quite pin them down. Naipaul’s problem is that by attributing the Indian Muslim holy land as Arabia he is living out his own fantasy of his holy land being India. His is an attempt of trying to belong to a place by playing their game.

As much as the media is. In the West we realise how devious society has become. It is evident from Ronald Kessler’s book, ‘The CIA at War’. He writes, “the CIA created fake mullahs — recruited agents who would proclaim themselves clerics and take a more moderate position about nonbelievers. ‘We are taking over radio stations and supporting clerics,’ a CIA source was quoted as saying. ‘It’s back to propaganda. We are creating moderate Muslims’.” Kessler said the CIA also paid for mullahs to issue fatwas, or urging Iraqis not to resist American forces.

The Indian media is transposing the butcher Muslim with the “Hindu fatwa”. Strangely, and with supreme irony (or is it parody?) the majority is sought to be portrayed as colonised. A truly secular Rizwan dies for it.

FARZANA VERSEY is a Mumbai-based writer-columnist. She can be contacted at kaaghaz.kalam@gmail.com

 

 

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Farzana Versey can be reached at Cross Connections

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