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MAINSTREAM IS TOO FAR

At the writers’ conference in Neemrana Fort, Sir Vidia Naipaul got into an acrimonious argument with the Dutch wife of the American ambassador. Unwittingly, I, who was sharing the table with them, started the debate. I asked the ambassador’s lady why there was so much hoo-ha in Holland on according special rights to its immigrant Muslim population to run their own schools and observe their customs. She replied, “We have a long tradition of allowing people to live in the manner they like, stick to their faiths, run their schools and speak their languages. Now we have a right-wing political party which insists that people who make Holland their home must follow Dutch customs and manners.”

“Then why do they leave their countries'” snapped Sir Vidia. I was inclined to agree with him, following the adage: in Rome, do as the Romans do.

I have thought over the matter many times as I have innumerable friends who have settled in England, Canada and the United States of America. They stick to their faiths, but impose their mother tongues on their children, make them go to mosques, temples and gurdwaras, organize camps where preachers emphasize the need to remember their roots and distinct identities.

The issue is discussed in Faces of American Islam by Daniel Pipes and Khalid Duran in Policy Review. Although all the world religions are represented in the US, Muslims have problems not shared by other religious minorities. Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs, though they have their own places of worship and speak their languages, by and large fall into the mainstream of American life. Islam has a long history of confrontation with Christianity. Whoever they be, both Muslims and Christians carry the burden of past hostility on their shoulders.

It is estimated that America has around three million Muslims from over 100 countries: Chinese, Malaya, Indonesians, Bangladeshis, Indians, Pakistanis, Arabs, Africans, Iranians, Turks, Chechens and others. They have little in common besides their faith. Furthermore, they remain a divided community. Most are Sunnis, 10 per cent are Shias, and a small percentage Ahmedis.

The first wave of Muslim immigrants came with the slave trade, which began in 1501. Most black slaves came from Africa. Their families were broken up as white buyers divided them among themselves. They were not allowed to build mosques or observe Muslim rituals. By the 1860s, almost all had been converted to Christianity.

A second group consisted of captured Muslim soldiers. A third wave came just around the turn of the century and included Punjabi farmers (Muslims and Sikhs) to the west coast. Anti immigration laws and racial prejudice put an end to it. The main Muslim immigration came after 1965 with a flood of Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Iraqis, Turks and Egyptians. It has not stopped. Most of them fled their countries because of the fear of persecution. Although they came to a free country, they brought their anti-Christian prejudices with them. Religious fundamentalism struck deep roots in their minds. Their leader, Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind sheikh convicted of attempting to blow up New York City landmarks, said, “They lent willing ears to the call for jihad by Osama bin Laden. American installations, embassies, and garrisons were attacked in Saudi Arabia and Africa. Americans and British plans were destroyed on the ground and in the air. Heads of Muslim states like Gaddafi of Libya, Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran and Saddam Hussein of Iraq who openly declared America as enemy number one of Islam became heroes of the Muslim world. Then came the bombing of New York Trade Centre, the Pantagon on Los Angeles airport on September 11, 2001. Muslim fundamentalist violence against non-Muslims has been going on for the last 13 years. It is not very different from the crusades...but fought with modern weapons.”

The Muslim dilemma has lessons for non-Muslim immigrants living in foreign countries as well as Indians from one part of the country settled in another. The first is that when you decide to make your home in another country, you must do your best to conform to the rules of the society in which you live and integrate with the mainstream. Likewise, Indians making their homes in states other than their own must learn the language of the region and become a part of that community. The best example of integration are the Parsis. They fled from Iran and settled in Gujarat. They stuck to their faith but made Gujarati their language. They gave more to India in the way of industry and charitable institutions than any other Indian community.

All about Indore

Madhya Pradesh has some of the oldest and the most beautiful sights of historic and tourist interest: Khajuraho, Sanchi, Bhopal, Bhimbetka, Orchha, Mandu, Pechmarhi. Its biggest city, Indore, is not one of them. I visited it briefly twice and found it a nondescript collection of bazaars, a huge temple studded with mirrors but no architectural pretensions, a few palaces of the Holkar dynasty — not very much more. However, some of the nicest people I know are from Indore. Among my latest acquisitions is Dicky Holkar, scion of the erstwhile ruling family. Although he is known as Maharajah of Indore, he prefers to live in Maheshwar, the older capital of the state. His passion is to revive the old craft of weaving saris for which this town was once famous. Maheshwari saris are back in the market.

What else did I know about Indore' Rani Ahalya Bai (1767-1795) who came to be nationally revered as a builder of temples: Jaswant Rao Holkar (1798-1811) who tried unsuccessfully to persuade Maharajah Ranjit Singh to join him to fight the British — Ranjit Singh called him a pakka haramzada (absolute bastard) and Yashwant Rao Holkar (1926-47), the last ruler who fell foul of Sardar Patel and had his dominions merged in Madhya Pradesh. I also recall Hukum Chand who made a vast fortune trading opium before he went into industry and philanthropy. If my memory does not fail me, he also had a surgeon flown in from Europe who implanted monkey glands in him and his wife Kanchan Bai to restore their youth and longevity. The news was splashed in all the papers at the time. I also met the eccentric P.C. Sethi when he was home minister under Mrs Gandhi. And I have passing acquaintance with the new ruler of Madhya Pradesh, Digvijay Singh, on whom I pin my hopes to keep the country secular.

I know a little more about Indore through Prachi Dixit, one of the nice people I referred to. She has been teaching English literature in the university for over 23 years and has edited an illustrated brochure, Ballad of Indore: Down Memory Lane sponsored by Nai Dunya, owned and published by the Chhajlani family. It tells you of its past, its beauty spots and its great sons and daughters. There is more to Indore than I thought.

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