‘Bhaiyya, are all of you safe?’

‘Bhaiyya, are all of you safe?’
It is heart breaking to receive messages of concern from friends and relatives overseas whenever Hindu-Muslim riots break out. Most painful by far is the query from relatives in Pakistan:

“Bhaiyya, are all of you safe?”

The very transparent sincerity somehow comes across to me like Bergman’s reconstruction of a nightmare: faces of relatives, in a collage, jeering at me.

No deep Freudian interpretation is needed to decode this one. Until the 1980s, cousins from Pakistan were regular visitors because they found the “colour” in our lives a relief from their lives, rich in other ways, but set against the monotone of faith. Once, after visiting relatives across the border, my brother Shanney, summed up his impressions succinctly: “nice place, but too full of Muslims.” This apt description found great traction with plagiarists who claimed it as their innovation.

In an age of inelegance, Shanney’s subtlety requires elaboration. In our Qasbah of Mustafabad near Rae Bareli, we grew up in a home where religion was important enough to warrant a mosque in the courtyard, but it did not come in the way of Pandit Brij Mohan Nath Kachar’s annual visits to deliver lectures, to a packed house of Mustafabadis on the battle of Karbala. In Lucknow, likewise, our Eid began with a fixed ritual: Babu Mahavir Prasad Srivastava (Babuji, we called him) placing a one rupee coin in each one of our hands by way of “Eidi.” As much of a fixture was the guest appearance of the Mahant of the nearby Mandir at my father’s celebration of Hazrat Ali’s birthday.

A story comes to mind which clarifies Shanney a little more. Poet Ali Sardar Jafri and I attended a most tasteful Holi organised by the late Nandita Judge at the Times of India bungalow on New Delhi’s Tilak Marg. The versatile Birju Maharaj sat on an elevated platform with a “dholak.” This greatest of Kathak dancers could, on his day, play an incredible range of musical instruments and sing all the “bandishes,” compositions centred around “Braj” the terrain of Krishan’s dalliance with Radha and the gopis – the cultural core of the spectacle of Holi. It was precisely this which had inspired Raskhan and, in more recent times, Maulana Hasrat Mohani who wrote of his adoration for Krishna in Brajbhasha, Awadhi and Uudu. His Haj was incomplete without a visit to Barsana, the abode of Radha. These are only a few of the traditions which shaped our sensibilities, exactly the ones which found Jafari ‘Saab’ and me, riveted on Birju Maharaj’s “abhinay,” or mime of Krishna’s playfulness, Radha’s controlled spontaneity, rejecting and submitting at the same time. It was an alluring wonderland, its magic enhanced with the light sprinkling of colour and organic gulal.

“Let us organize Eid like this,” I blurted out. Jafri Saab glared at me. Suddenly I realised I had said something very stupid. Eid is a celebration of Abraham’s sacrifice – but it does not have a romantic, spectacular evolution over thousands of years of Holi, Deepawali or Dussehra. Shanney was fortunate to enjoy both traditions: the ones his cousins enjoy across the border and the other which leaves him joyous and free as a lark. These multicultural hues were alluring for our cousins.

Of course, Kashmir came up in discussions to which, pat, came our formulation which we had, over time, come to believe in: “Indian secularism protects, among a billion others, the world’s third largest Muslim population. Every issue, particularly Kashmir, should be touched sensitively, keeping the overall edifice in mind.” How naïve we were.

“The overall edifice” had to crumble because of its faulty foundation but, over a considerable period, it was crumbling imperceptibly.

Even so our multicultural edifice was credible enough to hurry General Ziaul Haq into promoting Nizam-e-Mustafa as a prophylactic against Indian secularism. His enthusiastic participation in the Afghan Mujahideen project had this important dimension: to wrench Pakistan away from South Asian multiculturalism. Under his auspices, Pakistan would seek salvation in a West Asian Islamic identity.

Just then Prime Minister V.P. Singh pushed a huge boulder into the pond. By dusting up the Mandal commission report reserving government jobs for a large number of Other Backward castes, he drastically reduced the size of the pie to be distributed among the upper castes. V.P. Singh was playing vote bank politics from a social justice platform.

This invited a sharp, double-fisted response from the upper caste party, the BJP. That is when the then BJP President, L.K. Advani set up the Ram Janmbhoomi and Babari Masjid conflict, custom made for Hindu-Muslim polarisation – exactly the polarisation which brought Atal Behari Vajpayee’s coalition government to power in 1996 and Narendra Modi in 2014. Modi’s hard anti-Muslim plank has synchronised with the western world riding a rampaging Islamophobia. Even the February 2002 Gujarat pogrom was to some extent drowned out by the US air strikes in Afghanistan. The same hard line which brought Modi to power in 2014 earned him greater electoral dividends in 2019. But there remains an almighty fly in the ointment. Modi’s historic win is still based only on 38 percent of the vote. Remember, communalism whipped up by the Ayodhya movement neutralised casteism aggravated by V.P. Singh – but nowhere near saturation point from where an honest bid can be made for a Hindu Rashtra. Towards that end communalism has to be stepped up to a higher plane, possibly so high as to make the riots in North East Delhi look a trial run.

The descending darkness is disturbing but each one of us has to carry our cross in our own way, from our homes, our neighbourhoods, indeed our country. Is nostalgia misplaced in such circumstances? As a ten year old, I sang Kaifi Azmi’s “Naye Hindostaan mein hum nayi jannat banayenge.” (In new India we shall create a new paradise) at my uncle’s college in Rae Bareli on India’s first Republic Day.

The writer is a journalist based in India

The writer is a journalist based in India.