Hindu dharma is implicitly at odds with monotheistic intolerance. What is happening in India is a new historical awakening... Indian intellectuals, who want to be secure in their liberal beliefs, may not understand what is going on. But every other Indian knows precisely what is happening: deep down he knows that a larger response is emerging even if at times this response appears in his eyes to be threatening.

Friday, February 25, 2005

More secular than thou

Khushwant Singh
February 26, 2005

None of our languages has an exact equivalent for the word ‘secular’. It means something quite different in western democracies which are almost entirely Christian from that in the Indian context. India, though predominantly Hindu, has a sizeable population of Muslims, Christians and Sikhs.

So far I have arrived at only two means of deciding whether a person is secular or not. One, anyone who subscribes to no religious belief is an atheist or an agnostic is per force secular. Their numbers don’t count because most Indians are proud of belonging to one religion or the other.

My second test is even more down to earth and relevant to our present state. When it comes to the nitty-gritty, what determines whether or not a person is secular is his or her attitude towards the minority communities, mostly towards Muslims who matter much more than Christians or Sikhs. I have a further test: anyone who did not condemn L.K. Advani’s Somnath-to-Ayodhya rath yatra and the destruction of the Babri masjid is anti-Muslim and has no right to call himself or herself secular. This may sound somewhat arbitrary but I stand by it.

I also sought further enlightenment. So I went through Mani Shankar Aiyar’s Confessions of A Secular Fundamentalist (Penguin). It is a comprehensive collection of articles embracing different points of view. I will confine myself to a dialogue between Aiyar and Arun Shourie which took place in September 1995 and forms the first chapter of this book. I do so because I regard both Aiyar and Shourie as the brightest, cleanest and most well-read men in their respective parties. Aiyar is a minister in Manmohan Singh’s UPA government; Shourie threw his lot with the mosque-breakers’ party and was a minister in Vajpayee’s BJP-led government. Aiyar is an atheist; Shourie a Hindu who rejects the existence of a compassionate God (he has good reasons to do so), subscribes to the Buddha’s belief in all pervading dukh (sorrow) and visits Sufi dargahs. He has also written books which hurt the sentiments of Dalits, Christians and Muslims. Aiyar chose to confront him on his views on Islam and Indian Muslims.

Aiyar put it to Shourie as bluntly as he could: “Does being a Muslim make it more difficult to be an Indian than being a Hindu makes it to be an Indian?”

Shourie replied: “Adhering to Islam in purity would make it impossible to live in a multi-cultural, multi-religious society and still abide by the tenets of Islam. But for a Hindu…” Aiyar pressed his point further: “If you’re faithful to the edicts of Islam as enshrined in the Koran and the Shariat, you would have difficulty in being a good Indian.”

Shourie answered in the affirmative and went on to define a good Muslim: “If ‘good Muslim’ means brotherhood of man and so on, then there is no difficulty. But if it means, as 1,000 verses in the Koran say, ‘Spread Islam, have nothing to do with these kafirs, kill them, they are untrustworthy, they are unclean’, then? The Hadith is full of this. There are rewards for killing the kafir. If this is a good Muslim, then a multi-religious society in India would become impossible.”

I leave it to the readers to decide which of these two men is really secular.

Generally speaking

The day I read of General J.J. Singh’s appointment as Chief of Army Staff, I got in touch with Manzar Khan, head of the Oxford University Press which has published my two volumes of History & Religion of the Sikhs, to include his name and photograph in the updated version due to be published soon. I acquired the general’s bio-data and photograph. He is the first Sikh to become COAS.

His appointment puts an end to the false propaganda carried on by a few bigots that by not entrusting a Sikh to the highest post in the army, successive governments betrayed an anti-Sikh bias. Two Sikhs have been Air Chief Marshals and Sikhs are more than adequately represented in all the three defence services. It could be maintained that there was more bias in favour of Sikhs than against them.

General Singh has not started well. The language he used — e.g. “I am a ruthless soldier” — is more becoming of a Nihang prone to indulging in braggadocio than the head of a modern army. His orders for everyone working under him to wear combat dress on Fridays is fatuous beyond belief. He has gone further and published his achievements as a marksman and has a plaque put up in his name. He should know better. Soldiers never brag — it is not done, it is not pukka.

Since neither the prime minister nor the president has yet told him to keep his mouth shut and get on with his job, I feel the media should do so. If he goes on like this, he will end up adding to the corpus of Sardarji jokes.

Salvation seekers

Longing to have darshan of a Devi

Striving to have dip in a sacred river

Hundreds of devotees die in a stampede

Often do much mishaps occur!

To achieve their hearts’ desire

Devotees choose a short, narrow path

They want to wash away their sins

With a single holy bath!

A stampede in a mammoth crowd

Can cause havoc, can you deny?

Pilgrims may or may not attain salvation

But will not they all together die?

(Courtesy: G.C. Bhandari, Meerut)

Martial alert

This incident appears to be apocryphal, but I have been assured that it actually took place.

By the time General Zia-ul Haq took over Pakistan, that country’s army officers were more interested in earning money and acquiring property than in fighting.

The general, anxious to establish air superiority over India, was planning to purchase F-16 fighters from the US. Zia, therefore, arranged a presentation on the plane’s capabilities, with all the top brass attending.

The presenter, unfortunately, went into boring, long-winded technical details, with the result that one of the senior generals dozed off. The presentation concluded and Zia turned to the sleeping officer. “Well, general,” he asked, “Do you think we should go in for the F-16?”

Waking up with a start, the general replied, “Sir, if it is a corner plot, buy it.”

(Contributed by Rejeshwari Singh, New Delhi)

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