Editorial / Goodwill in the gloom
Way of all faiths
The Telegraph Diary
Letters to the editor

Good news and goodwill have both become rare commodities in India today. Violence, hatred and indifference to the dignity of human life have made people cynical and even insensitive to human suffering and wrongdoing. In this encircling gloom comes the news that in Gurdaspur district of Punjab, Sikhs have quietly and without any discord handed over a mosque to the Muslims. The story is a telling and a poignant one. The mosque dates back to the 17th century and was built by the sixth Sikh guru, Hargovind. Thus, locally the mosque is known as Guru ke Maseet. It is beautifully situated on a hill overlooking the river Beas. Prayers have not been offered in the mosque since independence. Some time back, Baba Kirtan Singh, head of the Tarna Dal of the Nihangs (warriors of the sixth guru) had placed a copy of the guru granth in the mosque, and from 1984, the mosque served as a gurdwara. In February 2001, negotiations began between Kirtan Singh and Mohammad Rizwanul Haque, the secretary of the Central Wakf Council. The negotiations had no hype around them; they were carried out with the two parties sitting on charpoys. The talks lasted over a year and involved a close reading of the relevant documents. It was agreed that the mosque and its surrounding areas would be cleaned and a suitable structure located to shift the granth sahib. Kirtan Singh did not live to see the handover: he died a few months ago. But his death did not impede the process, and namaz was read in the mosque after 55 years on March 29.

Coming close on the heels of the cause celebre in Ayodhya, this episode in Sri Hargovindpur shows that disputes involving religious communities in India can still be resolved through dialogue and consensus. In Ayodhya, the waters have been muddied by the destruction of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992. This has hardened positions and has ushered in the Supreme Court. There is another aspect to which attention needs to be drawn. The hatred and mistrust that surround relations between religious communities today have led to the misconception that this hostility was present in the past as well. The history of Guru ke Maseet � indeed its very name � shows that relations between religious communities were friendly and fraternal. A Sikh guru had built a mosque: this alone should be good enough evidence for the spirit of religious tolerance which had informed Indian civilization. And the fact that the same mosque has gone back to the Muslims without any discord shows that the spirit is still about.

In the atmosphere of goodwill, the mosque has also been restored. A piece of history has thus been preserved. Overall, this is one incident of which all Indians can be happy and proud. It also shows that with a little bit of trust and common sense, nothing is controversial and without a solution. It can be argued, and with some justification perhaps, that the Ayodhya situation is far more complicated than Guru ke Maseet. But this is so because it has been allowed to become complicated by interested parties, which includes a former prime minister. Complications call for more, not less dialogue. Let Guru ke Maseet be a small example.


Those who are reasonably familiar with Indian social life will immediately recognize from my surname that I was born into an upper-caste Hindu family. The words, �born into��, are used advisedly since I practise none of the rituals associated with Hinduism. I also detest the public manifestations of Hinduism on display in India today � from the raucousness of the Durga puja in Calcutta, to the venality of pandas in temples, to the murder and destruction witnessed in Gujarat recently and earlier when the Babri Masjid was brought down by thugs belonging to the sangh parivar.

Yet, I have among my friends and relatives practising Hindus, who do not associate themselves with the hatred and intolerance which have become the public face of Hinduism. Their faith � in some rare cases informed by the knowledge of the philosophical underpinnings of Hinduism, but in most cases not � has provided them with sustenance. It has given them the ability to accept and respect difference and not to hate those who follow another religion. There are people of other faiths who share the same attitude: Muslims who are horror-struck at what happened in Godhra, Sikhs who loathe the terror that stalked life in Punjab in the Eighties; Jews who disapprove of the policies which the Israel government follows against Palestine; and Christians who are deeply ashamed of the violence perpetrated in the name of Christ.

Such people form the silent majority in India, a country in which religion has had a hold over the minds and lives of people for over 2,000 years. It is important to rescue this sensibility for in it lies embedded the practice of religious tolerance, which in a country like India should form the basis of any civilized existence.

I can see my secular friends raising their sceptical eyebrows at this. They will say that by arguing on the basis of religion, I am conceding ground to the anti-secularists. In secularism lies India�s hope. This view needs to be probed and exposed. It assumes that there is a necessary correlation between secularism and the absence of religious persecution of the minorities. This is a complete misconception based on an ignorance of history. The Nazi state was completely secular; it did not rule in the name of religion; and the spheres of religion and that of the state were kept separate, the former belonging to the private sphere and the latter to the public domain. This did not stop that state from persecuting and killing Jews. The Soviet state under Stalin was secular to the extent of being anti-religion, but this did not prevent Stalin from persecuting Jews. In India under Rajiv Gandhi, a secular individual, and the Congress, a party professing secularism as part of its creed, Sikhs were butchered in Delhi in 1984.

Look at the contrary case of Mahatma Gandhi who was a deeply religious man and therefore one who could not have been secular. But he was profoundly tolerant and respectful about the beliefs of other people, including that of atheists and agnostics.

The point is germane to what is happening in India at the moment. The prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, despite his lifelong association with the sangh parivar, an ideological formation that does not believe in tolerance, has, in his public pronouncements, committed himself to upholding the Constitution, a document in which religious freedom, equality and secularism are inscribed. In his policies, Vajpayee has displayed a keenness to distance himself from the dictates of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the rest of the parivar: witness economic reforms. But to date, there is no evidence that he has taken any action against those who carried out the pogrom against the Muslims in Gujarat. On the contrary, the chief minister of Gujarat, a man who in any civilized society would be put behind bars as a terrorist, moves around as if he has accomplished something great.

When push has come to shove, in spite of the horror stories coming out of Gujarat (including film footage of the killings), the prime minister of India, a secular country, has sat back and done nothing, not even visit the site of the crime. He has shown that his claim to uphold the Constitution and to be the prime minister of the whole of India and not just of a section of it is a sham. He cannot be unaware that the killings in Gujarat are a direct outcome of the ideology of hatred propagated by the sangh parivar, which Vajpayee serves. The prime minister of India can be anybody, but not somebody who tacitly approves of the law of the jungle.

There are eminent members of Vajpayee�s cabinet who have directly condoned the Gujarat killings as an inevitable response to what happened in Godhra (even Newton�s law was invoked!); one went to the extent of upholding the pogrom as a sign of Hindu consolidation against Muslims. The barbarity of such statements is enough to take one�s breath away. The advocates of Newton�s law should remember that if every action has a reaction, then what happened in Godhra must be the product of another action. Has any attempt been made to find out what the kar sevaks, toing and froing from Ayodhya, had been doing on that stretch?

There is another point to be made here. A group of enraged Muslims carried out a horrible carnage in Godhra for which Muslims in Ahmedabad and the rest of Gujarat, who had nothing to do with the crime, were punished. Can this be explained by anything other than barbarism?

Mughal emperors in the 16th and 17th centuries, for their own political and economic reasons (it is established beyond doubt now, for anybody who cares to read history that they were not driven by religious motives), destroyed some temples. For this, Muslims in the late 20th and early 21st century have to pay with their lives even though they are not remotely connected to the Mughals. For what happened in the 16th century, a mosque has to be destroyed in the 20th. By this perverse way of thinking (one refuses to use the word, logic), Muslims should ask for all the land and other endowments which the Mughal emperors made to Hindu religious establishments. And they did make quite a few.

If today�s Muslims are to pay the price for what Muslims had done in the past, then the Dalits of today should, following the perversity of the sangh parivar, collect their dues from the caste Hindus of today for 2,000 years of oppression. If that happens, will the Vajpayees, the Joshis, the Mishras, the Mukherjees, the Dasguptas, the Sanghvis et al have a place to run? They will uphold, no doubt, the rule of law, which the sangh parivar transgresses again and again with impunity.

These polemical points aside, in the rising tide of religious hatred, a certain sensibility is getting completely drowned. There is no better way to describe this sensibility except through that old-fashioned and much-abused word, humanism. Only a profound and pervasive humanism enables a human being to live and respect difference; this respect prevents him from demanding that others should account for their difference. This cannot be a matter of politics and government. It already exists in the daily lives of Indians who continue with their work and worship undisturbed by any distant cannonade. Ordinary lives often have extraordinary lessons.



Shape of things to come

Two is company The Nehru-Gandhis finally seem to have some competition within the Congress for their position as the supreme arbiters of the party�s fate. Diehard loyalists of the Congress�s first family, who until the other day couldn�t see beyond Priyanka and Rahul, now can�t stop singing the praises of Jyotiraditya Scindia, son of Madhavrao Scindia and the maharaja of Gwalior. The blue-blooded debutant MP made quite a splash with his very first speech in Parliament. For the assembly, comprising everyone from Sonia Gandhi to AB Vajpayee and LK Advani, Jyotiraditya�s relations in the treasury benches, and friends and family in the visitors� gallery, it was an emotional moment. Aunt Vasundhara Raje Scindia sat in the treasury benches, wiping tears of joy and pride and remembering her brother, whom she never missed an opportunity to oppose. The finance minister, Yashwant Sinha, could be seen listening with rapt attention and after the speech was over, sent the young parliamentarian a message congratulating him. As he sat down to a symphony of congratulatory thuds, many could be heard saying, �Like father, like son� and hailing Jyotiraditya as a future PM � after all, he won the Guna by-polls by a margin even higher than Sonia Gandhi�s in Amethi. An influential lobby within the Congress formed of Murli Deora, Suresh Kalmadi, Anand Sharma and Karan Singh, are backing the new maharaja of Gwalior. They want him made youth Congress president. Well, Priyanka has no one but herself to blame for letting the grass grow under her feet.

Life begins after eighty

Another Congressman, PV Narasimha Rao, seems to have got a new lease of life after his recent acquittal in the JMM bribery case. The octogenarian Rao who had been pushed into political oblivion by corruption charges, is now all over the place � at functions, at parties, at dinners and at other dos. Last week, he put in an appearance at the Holi milan function organized at the residence of Murli Manohar Joshi. Pandit Jasraj was to sing and Rao was there primarily to listen to him. But as the former prime minister was leaving, Joshi, much to everyone� surprise, presented him with a shawl. Now, that could well be a respectful gesture to a senior politician, but New Delhi�s cynics are not ready to accept such a simple theory. Why, they ask, are the saffronwallahs suddenly felicitating Rao? Is there something cooking?

Dark side up

Priya Ranjan Das Munshi, the dapper Congress chief whip in the Lok Sabha, could be seen sporting dark glasses throughout the budget session of Parliament. No, the West Bengal politician wasn�t courting fashion nor was he flaunting his latest designer acquisition. Priyada, it seems, has an infection and wears dark glasses on doctor�s orders. The shades, however, give our man quite a Karunanidhi-like demeanour. But, when a journalist suggested as much to Das Munshi, he was peremptorily shot down with, �Why should I want to look like Karunanidhi? Personally, I think I look like Atulya Ghosh.�

Riddle of the sphinx

The corridors of power these days are abuzz with tales of the Congress president�s new-found confidence, of the marked difference in her speeches, in the way she seemed to be in an attacking mode on the floor of the house. Sonia Gandhi has come of age, they say, she is now in control of her flock.

After her two extempore and combative speeches in the lower house, the general consensus is that Sonia�s new avatar is thanks to a new speech-writer. The usual suspects are being named � Priyanka, members of the Gandhi family�s inner circle, socialite friends of Sonia. But on this issue, the AICC president remains as sphinx-like as ever.

Those who know better

Talking of Sonia, the Congress seems to be taking great pride in its victory in the Delhi municipal elections. But RSS mandarins at Jhandewalan know better.

The grapevine has it that frustrated with AB Vajpayee�s flip-flop over the Ayodhya issue, the sangh parivar quietly instructed its rank and file to ensure the BJP�s defeat in the civic polls. In fact, so incensed are the saffron biggies with the ruling dispensation that a top functionary of the sangh has even vowed not to visit the party�s headquarters at 7, Race Course Road ever again. Further, RSS functionaries at Jhandewalan warn that the next six months are going to be crucial for Vajpayee.

A different song

At 60-plus, she is the diva of Hindi film music and Indi-pop, equally popular with the younger generation and with their fathers and even grandfathers. She is Asha Bhosle, without doubt one of the all-time greats of Indian music. But unless the civic authorities of Mumbai are careful, we might well lose Bhosle to, of all places, Dubai, the play ground of the D-gang. Bhosle is incensed at the civic authorities� plans to build a flyover over Pedder Road. The veteran singer, who along with her illustrious sister, Lata Mangeshkar, lives in an apartment building overlooking Pedder Road, fears that the flyover will lead to a sharp rise in pollution and this, coupled with the loss of privacy, will make life very difficult in Mumbai. Last year, the Mangeshkar sisters had even led a delegation to the Maharashtra chief minister on the issue. Obviously, the famous singer-duo�s extremely public intervention does not seem to have made much of a difference. Bhosle has since said she will never leave India � she loves it too much � but one wonders, why she wanted to go to Dubai anyway?

Footnote / The lady speaks her mind

If former prime minister PV Narasimha Rao is a devotee of Pandit Jasraj, our present PM, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, is a fan of Pankaj Udhas. The ghazal singer of Chithi Aiyee Hai fame, was the star attraction at a farewell party hosted by Vajpayee for outgoing Rajya Sabha MPs. Our poet PM was so moved by Udhas�s soul-stirring renditions that he asked him to sing some of them again. But unfortunately, Udhas�s singing did nothing to lift the spirits of the others.

Actress Jaya Prada � who had failed to get N Chandrababu Naidu�s nod for a second term � gave expression to the general consensus when she said she would miss the Rajya Sabha very much. �We will miss you too,� immediately answered about a dozen of the assembled MPs, who went on to say that they would also miss her beatific smile, her long tresses, her designer saris. Jaya, who seldom opened her mouth during her tenure in the upper house and hence had rarely given evidence of wit, retorted, �Don�t go any further.�    


Hope dies hard

Hope for the best Sir � The Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam seem to be finally inching towards the talks table (�Deal on face-to-face talks in Srilanka�, March 28). And why not, since both parties seem in the mood for compromise. It seems to have finally dawned on V. Prabhakaran, the LTTE leader, that he can�t get what he wants by being rigid. The government, on its part, seems more amenable to the rebels� demands than ever before. With more than 64,000 dead and four peace bids coming apart in a bloody battle, it would be too much if this initiative also came to nothing.

Yours faithfully,
P. Mitra, Calcutta

Mutual distrust

Sir � Investors in the Unit Trust of India�s monthly income plan schemes due for redemption in the next few months will be relieved that the mutual funds major has decided to offer redemption at full face value and not at net asset value (�UTI weighs rollover of monthly income plans�, March 20).

However, this move may dismay investors of other UTI schemes, especially those of MIP �96 (iv) who lost Rs 1.63 for every unit of face value Rs 10, which they redeemed in January, 2002. Why did not the UTI top brass have the good sense to use the development reserve fund to rescue these investors, most of them middle-class senior citizens? MIP 96 (iv) investors should demand that the UTI compensate them for their loss. Investors, particularly senior citizens, have lost their faith in UTI given the many scandals that have come to light recently. Any belated gesture to compensate MIP 96 (iv) investors and those of other such schemes will help restore the investors� confidence in UTI once again.

Yours faithfully,
P. Banerjee, Calcutta

Sir � The aim and objective of the UTI is to augment and protect the investments of small investors. Before its MIP �91, UTI issued post-dated cheques for every MIP, calculating uniform interest for the entire period. Given this record, investors were confident that MIP 96 (iv) would be a good investment and ensure a steady monthly income when it first started, with a 15 per cent interest rate. But to their dismay, the interest rate was gradually reduced and is now down to 5 per cent. Worse, the principal amount too was slashed. This is nothing short of gambling with the hard-earned savings of investors.

Yours faithfully,
Amiya Prosad Mitra, Calcutta

Sir � I am 74 years old, retired and had invested Rs 30,000 in MIP 96 (iv). For the final year of the scheme, I was given an interest rate of 5 per cent only. On termination on December 31, 2001, I received a cheque of Rs 25,110 � much less than the principal amount of Rs 30,000.

If UTI continues to treat its investors so shabbily, soon nobody will want to invest hard-earned retirement benefits with the UTI.

Yours faithfully,
Biren Ghosh, Calcutta

Time to act

Sir � The recent Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh directive that the minority community should try to appease the majority community in order to survive goes against the Indian ethos of secularism and religious integration (�Sangh stirs wound as Atal plays healer�, March 18). It is evident from the RSS�s statement that it considers Muslims as nothing better than second-class citizens. How long will these zealots be allowed to operate freely in India? The RSS, Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad should be banned immediately. After all, we cannot afford to lose any more lives for building a temple at the birthplace of a mythological hero.

Yours faithfully,
Nilanjan Biswas, Malda

Sir � In 1947, Muslims in the subcontinent had the choice of migrating to Pakistan, and a large number of Muslims actually did, shows the trust that those who remained in India imposed on the Hindu majority. Unfortunately, more than 50 years on, this trust has been shaken by the events in Gujarat. The time has come to stop going on about India being a secular country and realize that it stopped being one since the Partition.

Yours faithfully,
Amrita Rathore, Calcutta

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