By Inder Jit
(Released on 2 October 1990)
India’s secularism today faces its biggest ever challenge. Yet the problem is not receiving the cool, overdue attention it deserves. The recent meeting of the National Integration Council at Madras was scheduled to hold “a detailed discussion on secularism” in response to a demand made by some of us at the new Council’s first meeting at Delhi in April last. But this did not happen, though the subject came up indirectly on the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid issue. This was indeed most unfortunate in view of the many fires of religious fundamentalism that have come to be lit all round and are being stokes recklessly. An in-depth discussion was also needed on one other score. Secularism as practiced today is being unwisely taken for granted and a crucial fact of our national life ignored. Our country is secular today because an overwhelming majority of the population is Hindu. Convert this majority to Islam and India would surely become an Islamic Republic – like Pakistan or Bangladesh, notwithstanding all those among the minorities who swear loudly by secularism.
Many expected India to become a Hindu Rashtra as a reaction to Jinnah’s pernicious two-nation theory and the resultant dismemberment of the country. But the Hindus who constituted an overwhelming majority generously ignored the role of the Indian Muslims and chose to go along with Gandhi and Nehru in accordance with their age-old ethos of tolerance and liberalism and become a secular state. All thinking and concern thereafter came to be concentrated on the minorities. The national leaders even titled towards them to prove by deeds to the world at large their continuing commitment to their pre-partition stand that the Hindus and Muslims were one nation, not two. Sadly, little thought was given to the new hopes and aspirations roused among the Hindus on their liberation from a thousand years of alien rule and tyranny. No one cared a fig for the Hindu psyche, something which New Delhi largely refuses to note even today while taking decisions on Punjab, where 46 per cent of the population is Hindu, or in regard to Jammu and Kashmir.
The decision of the Hindus consciously to opt for secularism was clearly an act of abnegation and self denial. (Even the RSS cadres, I remember, assisted Sardar Patel during the partition riots in Delhi to protect the Muslims against the angry demand to send them packing to the homeland of their creation). This should have brought in return from the Muslims of India an equally liberal and enabling response. Their leaders should have taken the earliest opportunity to end the historic indignities inflected on the Hindus by the despots among the alien Muslim rulers who had but one aim: to sit astride their subjects and spit in their faces. Certain corrective steps were thus needed from their side following independence. The Ram temple at Ayodhya, the Vishwanath temple at Kashi and the Krishna temple at Mathura should, for instance, have been honourably restored to the Hindus with full freedom to do what they liked in keeping with their sentiments. Simultaneously, steps could have been initiated to end some other communal irritants and tensions.
At any rate, Nehru should have got these leaders to assuage the greatly injured Hindus psyche. The need for this should have been understood from the decision of Sardar Patel in 1950 to rebuild the historic Somnath temple and of Dr. Rajendra Prasad to attend its restoration ceremonies in the face of stiff opposition from Nehru. The Sardar, whom I had the privilege of meeting on several occasions as a young journalist, had made up his mind to undo “other mischief also.” Alas, he did not live long enough and Nehru somehow failed to see the wisdom of the Sardar’s initiative despite his knowledge of world history and his “Discovery of India.” What is worse, he went on to indulge in what I would call “secular politics” by subtly playing up to the minorities and the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. This virtually gave him a captive vote of 25 per cent and enabled him to ride to power with the additional support of no more than 18 per cent of the caste votes. Nehru never bagged more than 43 per cent of the votes polled.
Kemal Ataturk, the builder of modern Turkey, took the earliest opportunity to end a great wrong done by the Turks to Constantinople’s famous Cathedral of Santa Sophia, which had been the centre of the Greek Orthodox Church for nine hundred years. In the fifteenth century, the Osmanli Turks conquered Constantinople and the unrivalled Cathedral was converted into the chief mosque: Apa Suphea. All the inscriptions and mosaics of the Cathedral were covered with mud and plaster. Lines from the holy Quran in Arabic were then inscribed on its walls and the Cathedral given an Arabic look. But in 1935, the Apa Suphea was no more a masjid. Quietly, the hojas and the mullahs were sent to the other mosques. Experts were called in from the US and Germany and the Cathedral restored to its glory as the greatest achievement of the Byzantine Art. Santa Sophia was made a museum and has continued to be so. Nehru seemed ever so right as I walked around the Cathedral in April last on a visit to Turkey. He wrote in 1935, “Apa Suphea, in a way, went back again to the Christian era — and that on the orders of Kemal.”
This is not to suggest, even remotely, that the disputed Ram Janmabhoomi temple and the Babri Masjid be converted into a national museum. Such a step will defeat the very purpose I have in mind: a Muslim gesture to India’s secularism. The Ram temple at Ayodhya should be handed over by the Muslims themselves to the Hindus who, for their part, should take full responsibility for shifting it to another site of the former’s choosing. Any Muslim friends may throw up their hands in holy horror at my proposal. However, what I am advocating is very much a part of the ethos of our Muslim brethren in the Arab world as I discovered on a visit to Riyadh and Jeddah a few years ago at the invitation of the Saudi Government. (Regrettably, I was unable to visit Mecca because of a ban on non-Muslims.) Mosques, however big or historic, are shifted or demolished in the country without much religious or emotional ado. Likewise, graves are not allowed to pose any problem. Many Mosques and graves were shifted to enable the Saudi capital of Riyadh to be replanned and made modern and beautiful.
Not only that. What I saw and learnt in Riyadh was confirmed during my visit in May last to Baghdad and from there to the Mausoleums of Hazrat Ali at Nagef and of Imam Hussain at Karbala, a round trip of some 400 km, including Babylon. (The weather was then blazing hot: 42 degrees Celsius. But I felt strongly attracted to Karbala having read Ais’ epic “Mersia” on Imam Hussain in Urdu during my student days and having been greatly influenced by the observance of Muharram, especially at Lucknow and Hyderabad.) My talk with several Arab and other Muslim Ambassadors in New Delhi has also confirmed the impressions brought back from Riyadh, Jeddah and Baghdad. In fact, I took the opportunity to share the information I had gathered in Saudi Arabia with the National Integration Council at its first meeting in New Delhi in April last. An eminent Muslim member interrupted me to remark: “The Saudis are Wahabis —- a sect of their own.” Nevertheless, my Arab friends assert: “This makes no difference. Our basic position in regard to mosques and graves stands.”
Where do we go from here? The National Integration Council at its recent meeting at Madras did well to indicate a direction in its unanimous resolution on the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid issue. It has called for a continuing dialogue “to consider and decide the site of the temple at Ayodhya and allied problems to the satisfaction of all concerned with a view to reaching an amicable settlement.” It has also welcomed the initiative taken by the Kanchi Shankaracharya and Janab Ali Mian of Nadwa and called upon the Home Minister, Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, to also consult other respected leaders of both the communities to find a solution. Simultaneously, it wanted the Government to request the court to expedite the case —- and all the parties concerned to respect the decision of the Court. Mr.V.P. Singh, for his part, seems to lay maximum store by the Court’s verdict. In fact, he told the Council: “The Court offers the only way out when there are differences among the people.” Is this right and justified?
In the final analysis, the court could run into an insurmountable road block, as succinctly put across by Mr. Biju Patnaik at the Madras meeting. Said he: “Who can say whether Rama was born at the disputed site at Ayodhya or that he was not born there. Either way, no judge can really decide.” Wisdom, therefore, lies even at this late hour in finding an honourable and amicable solution outside the court and in not getting stuck in sterile legalities and in claims and counter claims. The Muslims should understand the Hindus psyche and also appreciate the decision of the Hindus in favour of a secular India. The historic wrongs need to be undone without further delay. It is thus time for the Muslims to make their long overdue gesture and contribution to secularism in India in their won enlightened interest. They should not allow the power of their vote banks under the present electoral system to cloud their judgment. They will have none but themselves to blame if India moves towards Hindu fundamentalism. All in all, one basic fact needs to be remembered on all sides. Secularism cannot be a one way street. —INFA