The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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We Indians have a penchant for making trivia into issues of national importance: baat ka batangar, making mountains of molehills. The latest example is the hoo-ha being made over conversions from one religion to another. Whose business is it save of the person who wants to convert' Is not forbidding him to do so an infringement of his right to worship gods of his choice' No, says Jayalalithaa Jayaram (Brahmin), chief minister of Tamil Nadu. No, says Arun Shourie (Brahmin), minister of the Central government, and many others (all belonging to the upper castes); Shourie says quite rightly that conversions create social tensions. So do inter-religious marriages. According to their logic, the next step should be to ban Hindus marrying Muslims, Christians or Sikhs — or the other way round. I know dozens of Muslims married to Hindu or Sikh women as well as Hindu and Sikh men with Muslim wives. In none of these cases were there any conversions. And to the best of my knowledge differences of religion never became an issue, and they continue to live happily together.

Let us clear our minds on a few points before we decide whether a ban on conversions is morally justified. First, all those who support the move belong to the higher castes; they are the very people whose ancestors imposed humiliating discriminations against Dalits and forced millions to opt for other religions. Mayavati, chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, is right in castigating them as Manuvadis, so named after Manu, the best known apologist of the caste system. Though upper-caste Hindus are very pleased when white Christians or Jews embrace Hinduism — as are Sikhs, when they meet Yogi Bhajan’s blond-bearded or blonde-haired American men and women who have embraced Sikhism — they turn very sour when one of their flock leaves them to join another.

Conversions of well-to-do and educated people are a rare phenomenon and usually motivated. I know of three such examples: one of Mahatma Gandhi’s son, who briefly converted to Islam to spite his bapu: the Mahatma was not a very good father. There was K.L. Gauba, the eldest son of the millionaire, Harkrishan Lal Gauba, who likewise converted to Islam to spite his father and make political capital out of it. He won the Muslim seat from Lahore to the Punjab assembly. His strongest support came from the city’s red-light district, Heera Mandi. He had a succession of Muslim wives, spent a few months in jail for contempt of the judiciary, migrated to India in 1947 and died a pauper in Bombay. The most celebrated convert of recent times is the Malayalam poet and novelist, Kamala Das. Her appetite for publicity is proverbial. With great fanfare, she announced her conversion to Islam, taking on a new name, Sourayya. She donned a burqa which neatly framed her face. Overnight she became the pin-up girl of Malabar Muslims. I do not know how much Arabic she has learnt to perform the namaz. I make no secret of my dislike for the educated affluent who change their religions.

The real problem is the attitude of upper-caste Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims and Christians, who look down upon people of their own faith belonging to lower castes. To this day, we have temples and gurudwaras where Dalits are not welcome, wells from which they cannot draw water and localities they may not enter. How then do they have any right to perpetuate the vicious hold of the caste system by the subterfuge of banning conversions of people who want to break out of its shackles'

Beating about Bush is fun

It is intriguing why some politicians become the butt of jokes while others more laughable than they are go scot-free. I believe it has more to do with their names than with their lack of intelligence. And yet there are characters like Laloo Yadav whose name lends itself to joke-making, but I have yet to hear any that succeed in making him sound ridiculous. He is a joker who can hit back more powerfully than those who try to make fun of him. Now we have George W. Bush, president of the United States of America. He has generated a vast corpus of jokes, which make him out to be a moron. It is true that when he was being considered as a candidate for presidency, he admitted he did not know the name of the prime minister of India. So what' There are almost 200 countries in the world. I could not name the presidents or prime ministers of more than a dozen — nor, I am sure, could most of my readers.

All I know about Bush is what I see of him on television channels. Far from appearing foolish, he comes across as a forthright person who does not mince his words. For him, human beings came in two species — good guys and baddies. His list of baddies begins with Osama bin Laden and his al Qaida gangsters, Saddam Hussein and his 55 courtiers, Gaddafi of Libya, President Assad of Syria and a few others. He is not given to euphemisms, he calls them killers.

One reason why Bush has become the target of joke-makers is the widespread sympathy for the Iraqis. It is forgotten that while no one had a kind word to say for Saddam Hussein, no one was able to get rid of him. When the US-Britain-led coalition did the dirty job, they were severely criticized by the Peaceniks. And nothing hurts more than being made fun of.

Indians have made their contribution to Bush jokes: Shock and Aw! is a compilation introduced and edited by Suhel Seth. He begins with an imaginary interview with the US president (aptly entitled “Foreplay”). The jokes are collected from the internet and other sources. He lays no claim to originality but has put together jokes which will keep you smiling for half an hour. I give a few samples:

“Bush came to India for the first time...and was taken to a hotel. He had a hearty meal and then went to wash his hands but began washing the basin instead. The manager came running on seeing the President, surrounded by a thick black cordon of his Secret Service bodyguards, around the washbasin. ‘What are you doing, sir'’ he asked with evident consternation. Bush gave the manager a cold Presidential stare and replied, ‘Don’t confuse matters. Haven’t you written, “Wash basin” on the board'’

“Bush and Powell were sitting in a bar. A guy walked in and asked the barman, ‘Isn’t that Bush and Powell'’ The barman said, ‘Yep, that’s them.’

“So the guy walked over and said, ‘Hello, what are you guys doing'’ Bush said, ‘We are planning World War III.’ The guy asked, ‘Really' What is going to happen'’ Bush said, ‘Well, we are going to kill 10 million Iraqis and one bicycle repairman.’ The guy exclaimed, ‘Why are you gonna kill a bicycle repairman'’ Bush turned to Powell and said, ‘See, I told you no one would worry about the 10 million Iraqis!’

“Asked by his teacher to compare three US presidents, Johnny thought for a moment and said, ‘Well, George Washington couldn’t tell a lie. Richard Nixon couldn’t tell the truth. And George W. Bush can’t tell the difference.’”

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