Monday, September 17, 2007

Haleem, Ladoos, Lab rats and the 'M' word

In Nagesh Kukunoor's Dor, Zeenat (played beautifully by my senior in school, Gul Panag) asks Meera to sign a letter to forgive her husband who accidentally kills Meera's husband. Meera, sick of her life as a Hindu widow, doesn't agree and in the ensuing discussion asks "Tumhara Quran bhi yeh kahta hai naa …badle ke liye badla ... mujhe badla chahihye" (Even the Quran justifies revenge and asks an eye for an eye ... I want revenge). Zeenat replies by saying that the Hindu scriptures encourage forgiveness and pleads Meera to sign.

For a religion that started in the 7th century when the world already had enough religions to contend with, the adoption of Islam has been phenomenal. If a religion in the new age had to succeed, it had to be militant, aggressive and forceful. Islam gives you all of them in equal doses. It had to grow at the expense of all other religions and the only way it could do so was to preach Zero Tolerance, be unforgiving to people who blaspheme and elevate itself as the purest and most supreme form of worship. Thomas Friedman in his article in the New York Times talks about the Islamist view "Muslims are raised with the view that Islam is God 3.0, Christianity is God 2.0, Judaism is God 1.0, and Hinduism is God 0.0." If this is indeed true then we are in deep trouble.

Exactly 108 years to the day when a bunch of stupid men flew planes into buildings, a man clad in saffron addressed The World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. It was September 11th 1893. Somewhere in a speech that talked about universal acceptance and tolerance he had time to translate an old Sanskrit hymn "As the different streams having their sources in different paths which men take through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee." Vivekananda captured the hearts and minds of Americans with his speech (obviously Mr Bush wants to do it differently with the Iraqis), but all he was stating was what is so obvious in the Hindu religion.

India today is trying to reconcile with the fact whether Hindus and Muslims will ever be able to live again peacefully. One religion talks about acceptance and tolerance while the other considers all other forms of worship blasphemous. Amartya Sen in his book "Identity and Violence" talks about how having a single identity that eclipses all other identities can cause friction. He argues that every person is not only a Hindu, or a Muslim, but also a male or a female, a doctor, engineer or an actor, a communist, socialist or a capitalist, a rock music fan or a carnatic music fan. In a nutshell the more identities a person has the less likely is there a chance of friction in the name of religion.

The Indian Muslim who has multiple identities is never the problem. A Shahrukh Khan, a Mohammed Kaif, a Shabana Azmi or an Azim Premji will never fund a terrorist outfit or become a suicide bomber. However, the Indian Muslim below the poverty line is being slowly moulded to have only one identity (which is the identity of religion). He is taught to belong to a different league and is continuously reminded of his superiority. His frustration only mounts when he is unable to come to terms with his standing in real life. It would be a difficult task to get the poorer Muslim to be more pluralistic, but that doesn't mean it can not be done. To start with, a part of the fault lies with the Hindu Majority. From a religion which was based on acceptance and pluralism we have seen a more uncharacteristically militant form which reeks of all things which were never the basis of Hindu teachings. The problem with today's Hindu is that we don't give the Muslims a second identity, albeit a more important one, that they are Indians just like any body else. That would solve half the problem to begin with.

In "Chak De …", when Kabir Khan walks out of the Indian Hockey Federation meeting after asking if he could coach the Women's Team, his friend (a character inspired by Negi's real life friend Jyotikumaran) consoles him of his missed penalty stroke by saying "Lekin … Hum Sab ki Ek Galti to maaf hota hai" (Everyone is forgiven for one mistake) and Kabir retorts "Sab ki naheen" and repeats it again "Sabki naheen" (Not everyone's first or only mistakes are forgiven). That pretty much sums up the feelings of the ordinary Indian Muslim. Making Lab rats out of them and asking them to wear their loyalty on their sleeves is something that has already begun to isolate them.

Every Ramzan I make it a point to be in Hyderabad (partly because it is the safest time in the year to be in Hyderabad and partly because I love the Hyderabadi Haleem). On Vinayak Chaturthi, my cousin, a friend and I went to the Al Saba Cafe and packed a Haleem for dinner. I can't speak for the other two, but consider me sacrilegious, a voracious meat eater or a plain stupid dunce, I still managed to add 3 new identities to the ones I already have. On a more serious note ... How many Muslim's would eat Tirupati Prasad after they see the moon come out during Ramzaan? … Clearly it takes two hands to clap …!!!


Chaitanya Kalipatnapu said...


great insights. I agree with the point on the multiple identities masking the need of a religious one (myself being a voracious ****eater).Although how unforgiving a religion can be, dont you think that the income-level has to be conducive to display/practise multiple identities? At least in India, a majority of the Muslim population is under poverty line, as you have mentioned. what other effort can they be able to make other than trying to earn more than 20 Rs per day or with the asset(religion) they are left with?
After all, all the examples you mentioned are succesful Muslims!

Zaphod Beeblebrox said...

Chai ...
Couldn't agree more with you dost. A few 'qualified' economists are grappling with the issue of getting these very people over the poverty line. I'm not sure if affirmative action and Welfare state policies would help and if such policies do help I'm not sure how much of a difference they would make. The well to do Muslims are the ones who will not become fanatical as they have everything to lose and the rest will bay for everyone else's blood.

Maybe I just have a bleak perspective on the future ... but what I think will happen is what Samue Huntington predicted in his "The Clash of Civilizations and remaking of the world Order". At the end of the day if it is an ideological war Islam will win hands down.

simphony80 said...

It is interesting to know Amartya Sen’s comments on identity and friction. I don’t see the soundness of that argument though. If the single identity of being “human” surpasses every other identity, do you still think that would cause friction? But I agree that Islamic Militants issue when it comes to India has an economic angle to it. For that matter, I read somewhere that Hitler was able to provoke Germans because there was high unemployment rate in Germany at that time. Minds in distress are easy to mold as emotions blind logic.

But there is more to “global” Islamic fundamentalism than economic conditions and identity crises. Otherwise how can you explain a rich Saudi wretched in Pakistan? What about the fact that the London bombers were doctors and September 11th leader was an architect? I see Islamic fundamentalism even in very well educated Muslims, which I did not see in other religions. I once heard an argument that Muslims fear the extinction by the west and that primal fear drives them to retaliate. Funny as it sounds, they were the ones in the not-so-old history who plundered other societies and converted them to Islam by force or executed them without mercy.

This irony exists with Christianity as well, which, in spite of its savior that preached forgiveness and compassion, involved in crusades?

In spite of being a theist, at times I strongly believe that man created God for the greater good - The fear of superpower will make the inexplicably fallible human mind stay the right course. Otherwise, it’s tough to explain why we keep forgetting the Golden Rule “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”?

PS - I am glad that you did start your blog and continuing!

Zaphod Beeblebrox said...

Hey Abhilash,
What you have raised are all fair points, which I wish I had straightforward answers to. I will try answering them staying within the debate of Identity as a primary factor:
1. To your question "if the single identity of being “human” surpasses every other identity, do you still think that would cause friction?", The answer would be an emphatic "No", if that identity is not exploited by vested groups. The point that Sen (I make him sound like my long lost friend) is trying to make is having a single idenity is a problem when the identity is being enforced for a non-altruistic purpose and is exploited by vested groups

2. To your statement "But there is more to “global” Islamic fundamentalism than economic conditions and identity crises". Yes there is more but I think Identity is still one of the primary factors. All were doctors, but their identities as doctors was not one that they identified with or gave any relevance, else they would have thought about saving lives as their primary goal as opposed to bombing Glasgow airport.

popsie said...

Instead of multiple identities, don't you think this would help - "I am an Indian, a human and a male/female".
A very sensitive issue,put across very well. Will be great to discuss this issue sometime and I second Chaitanya - great insights!