Rethinking Islam and Hinduism

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THERE has been a lot of noise about rethinking in Islam, particularly post 11 September 2001. This I feel is long overdue and 11 September has just given us the rude shock needed to get into action. Within India, Godhra and the ensuing Gujarat carnage has added urgency to the question of rethinking, making us conscious of the fact that there is something seriously wrong somewhere.

Yes, if 11 September and Godhra are the ugly faces of Islam, then the burning of Graham Staines and his children and the ongoing Gujarat carnage is the depraved and distorted face of Hinduism. Both are threats to the secular and pluralist fabric of India. Unfortunately, Islam and Hinduism have allowed their respective faiths to be hijacked by a lunatic fringe, which appears to be calling the shots on behalf of their faiths. Pakistan is an apt example of this perversion in Islam while the Sangh Parivar is the mirror image of this aberration in India. The Islamic variety appears to be more threatening to world peace given Islam’s multinational character and the diverse political problems involving the so called Islamic nations.

However, this does not mean that the Sangh Parivar’s machinations and hate-filled campaign against fellow citizens is a lesser danger to civil society. Striking terror and causing mayhem and misery among fellow human beings is nothing but terrorism. It is time to wake up and seize control from those who have no qualms about the vulgarization of their religion as long as it serves their sectarian agenda.

It is a known fact that Islam did not undergo any meaningful reform to cope with the challenges of modernity. Any serious attempt at ijtihad – a reasoned struggle and rethinking to reform Islam – had been countered by specious arguments that Islam is beyond time and context, thus any talk of rethinking is un-Islamic. This was seen during the 19th century when Syed Ahmed Khan, Jamaluddin Afghani, Mohammad Abduh and others gave a call for ijtihad.

The so-called defenders of faith take refuge in Islamic tradition to counter any suggestion for change, which conforms to changing times. They fail to realize that Islam came in with a dynamic and revolutionary social, political and moral message. It can never be a creed to resist change in accordance with the changing contexts. Alam Khundmiri, the late activist and thinker of Hyderabad who died in 1983, was right when he said that most Muslim social reform movements commit a common error of identifying a particular medieval religious tradition with Islam itself, which as a religion was itself a revolt against the superstitions of the age in which it was born. It is a pity that in an attempt to preserve the Islamic tradition, this revolutionary tradition of early Islam is being completely ignored. The Book has many passages that should inspire man to use his reason and elevate the status of man as an agent of change. Islam left it to the creative intelligence of the believer to translate the essential vision of the Book into an idiom, which suits the requirements of the modern age.

This early vision of Islam and its reverence for human reason and respect for human experience was revealed in a limited manner in the magnificent achievements of Muslims in the fields of science, mathematics and philosophy. All this was possible in an era of Mutazilite ascendancy when ijtihad reigned supreme and the shackles of tradition had not yet trapped the vibrant faith. The believers were still conscious of the fact that the only thing eternal about Islam is Quran and the relationship with the Quranic text has to be interpretative, more so if it is perceived to be eternal. Once interpretation or ijtihad was outlawed, any scope of adjustment with the changing times and contexts became impossible. Alam believed and rightly so that the medievalists committed an error by putting the seal of finality on Islam’s historical achievements. Let us stop finding medieval solutions to our modern day concerns and reinstate ijtihad to open up Islam, bring back its dynamism so that it stops being an obstacle to progress.

Another much talked about feature of Islam is its Shariah. It is being interpreted in its most revile form by the believers themselves and in the process invites ridicule and scorn of the civilized world. It is perceived as a divine code of conduct applicable forever without any spatial or temporal constraints. This has led to serious complications with respect to women’s rights. It is unfortunate that in Islam religiosity and morality have become synonymous with legality, while in fact legality should be subordinate to a moral and ethical vision. There is an urgent need to make necessary changes in Shariah under the Quranic gaze so that it conforms to the moral fervour of the Prophet and the ethical vision of Islam.

Ziauddin Sardar is right when he argues that Shariah is nothing more than a set of principles, a framework of values that provide guidance to Muslim societies. But these sets of principles and values are not static, given; they are dynamically derived within changing contexts. The Taliban misadventure in Afghanistan has shown us how narrow adherence to the text and tradition takes us away from the real world. What we have today is the caricature of Islam being projected as the true face of the religion.

But what about Hinduism and its vulgarization at the hands of Sangh Parivar? A group of rabble-rousers have legitimated themselves as representatives of Hinduism and its believers. They miss no opportunity to malign their bête-noire, Islam, but tend to do exactly the same while articulating their brand of Hinduism. They have brazenly adopted the most un-Hindu version of Hinduism called Hindutva propounded by Vir Savarkar in the early last century. Being a proclaimed atheist, Savarkar had no qualms in defacing Hinduism to suit his politics of social engineering.

It was treated with the contempt it deserved all these years till L.K. Advani revived it in 1989/90, providing it legitimacy and respect. Simultaneously, Advani promoted the idea of cultural nationalism, which was again inspired by the mischievous ideology of Savarkar who unabashedly made Hindutva and nationalism interchangeable. This exclusivism automatically drove out Maulana Azad, Ashfaqullah Khan, Frontier Gandhi, Ajmal Khan and scores of others from the nationalist gallery of the Sangh Parivar.

Contrast this cultural nationalism with that of Jamaluddin Afghani, who was in India during the 1880s, just when the nationalist discourse had begun. While addressing a group of young Muslims in Calcutta, he emphasized the composite strength of Indian nationalism where all communities had to be equal participants in their struggle against the British colonialism. He emphasized the common secular heritage including its science, technology and literature reminding the Muslim youth present that they were the inheritors of a civilization that produced arithmetic and geometry for the world.

He went on to say that, ‘Human values spread out from India to the whole world. The Indians reached the highest level of philosophic thought. The soil of India is the same soil; the air of India is the same air; and these youths who are present here are fruits of the same earth and climate.’

Here we find a clear enunciation of shared heritage that is not conflict-ridden and is not grounded in religious exclusivism. Hindutva is unfortunately rooted in the revival of a sectarian past and not the common past of all Indians. It seeks to construct an unadulterated Indian past after a careful sifting of icons and ideas, leaving out a large section from our heritage as something not only alien but also defiling. And the most unfortunate aspect of it all is that Hindutva’s concerted hammering of lies has trapped a substantial Hindu population in its web.

Hinduism and Islam have had their bumpy patches but they never hated each other as much as they do now in their new avatars of Hindutva and jehadi Islam. Both these versions have purged their respected faiths of all humanity, morality and spiritualism. They merely represent crass jingoism, fanaticism and hatred for each other. Both are haunted by the images of their golden pasts, lost in the march of history, which both of them want to rediscover. This reinventing of sectarian pasts has messed up our present and will certainly blight the region’s future.

We must use caution and restraint in our language. No personal attacks, avoid inflammatory rhetoric, do not suggest or infer violence, address the issues and be able to back up any statements or facts with a credible web site link.

S. Irfan Habib


War, resistance and environment

WAR, and its preparation in all forms is a raw destructive idea; one that has to be resisted by active, intelligent confrontation. Wars committed by nation states on each other; wars waged by terrorist reprisals against the defence forces of nations. Wars, and the armaments by which they are waged are, in the contemporary world, the single most lethal agent of contamination of ecology and environment. India and Pakistan in Siachen, Kargil and Kashmir; the U.S.A. and the Taliban in Afghanistan – to cite only a few neighbourhood examples – have been guilty not only of targeted and collateral damage on humans but also damage to geology, flora, fauna, the ozone layer, and the great snow/water systems of the Hindukush, Pirpanjal and Himalayas.

Military and civil wars (often there is an interface between the two) have resulted in the creation of millions of refugees around the world. They have also destroyed agriculture on a massive scale and damaged industrial infrastructure into ash-dust.

Peace, of course, is the sensible antithesis of war just as non-violence is of aberrant violent behaviour. Thus peace and non-violence, accompanied by militant non-cooperation and disobedience against the requirements of war, should be seen as the principal instruments to promote and protect ecological and environmental sanity.

It goes without saying that ultimately the armed forces of the world, uniformed and sans uniforms, have to be targeted by movements to secure and preserve the basic elements of the environment – soil, water and air. One of the finest recent examples of the people acting to protect their rural habitat and environment was the decision of the people of Chotanagpur to oppose the Indian Army’s attempt to acquire their villages to set up the Netrahat field firing range. Hundreds of thousands of adivasis would have been thrown out of their ancestral lands, their forests destroyed, their culture disrupted. Using drums, dance and non-violent civil disobedience, the adivasi people of the Netrahat area in Jharkhand forced the army to abandon its plans to create firing ranges at the expense of the people’s fundamental right to live their lives peacefully in their own ancestral territories.

In another remarkable attempt to protect their villages, lands and rivers, the Mundas and Oraons near Ranchi have prevented the construction of hydro-electric dams on the Koel and Karo rivers. They have successfully resisted the state and its paramilitary forces for more than 20 years to protect their ancestral habitat. As a part of their strategy to flummox the security forces, the adivasi women got organized to prevent the soldiers from performing their morning ablutions! In desperation they asked their commanders to send them out of the territory of the Mundas.

All wars are wars on the environment. Thus war should be treated as a pejorative three-letter word that should be opposed in the interests of protecting life, human rights and the environment. Taken together, this triumvirate, and its protection, should be considered a greater act of patriotism than simply using force to protect the borders of a polluted nation-state. Or to clear people out to make way for pollution-causing industry in the name of progress and development.

Baljit Malik


A ‘free’ press?

GOVERNMENTS in general, and those with an authoritarian mindset in particular, do not feel comfortable with the media since it tries to show them the mirror. Therefore, a political regime’s confidence in itself and its commitment to democracy can be easily gauged from the way it treats the media, both official as well as private. Its patronage to sections of media and hostility to others sends out signals regarding the system of reward and punishment that it puts in place. The message is pristinely simple: If you don’t eat the carrot and behave yourself, be prepared to get the stick and suffer.

The government of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee is no exception. Rather, it conforms to the rule a little too closely for comfort. The fact that it has many crusaders of the Emergency vintage who fought for ‘freedom’ does not alter the reality. It turns out that they fought for their own freedom to rule the country in place of Indira Gandhi and, just like her, view the media merely as a tool to realise their political ambitions.

Insofar as treatment of the media is concerned, Indira Gandhi’s critics are no better than her. Faced with a no-confidence motion, they get Doordarshan to telecast the Lok Sabha proceedings live so that the government could get the sympathy of viewers. However, when forced by the opposition to discuss the communal carnage in Gujarat, Doordarshan has no time to waste on such events in Parliament. The setting up of Prasar Bharati has not made an iota of difference and All India Radio and Doordarshan remain as much in the hands of the government as they were in the past. The only difference is that these days it is the Congress that protests against the ‘misuse of the official media’.

If Indira Gandhi harassed The Indian Express, the National Democratic Alliance government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party metes out the same – some would say harsher – treatment to Tehelka. If Mark Tully of the BBC was hounded out during the Emergency, it is the turn of Alex Perry of Time magazine now. As they say, the more things change the more they remain the same..

So, when Information and Broadcasting Minister Sushma Swaraj, who is second only to L.K. Advani when it comes to mouthing self-righteous platitudes, goes to town declaring the government’s commitment to press freedom and its impartiality towards all sections of the media, it is a bit difficult to swallow. ‘Why should we,’ Swaraj declares rather innocently, ‘who have fought for press freedom under Emergency, curb it? We have never tried to cultivate any section of the press. Kisiko apna kahkey paala nahin, kisiko paraya kahkey chhoda nahin. (We have not cultivated anyone, nor have we rejected anyone.)’ This assertion completely flies in the face of reality.

It is no secret that the government, or to be more precise, the L.K. Advani camp within its fold, has been propping up an English daily whose editor performed the rare feat of becoming its owner. Since the newspaper enjoys a pathetic circulation, ways and means are constantly being devised to keep it alive and these include allotting a plot of land in South Delhi and getting it very, very soft loans from public financial institutions.

The latest move to help it is really ingenuous. First, pressure was put on Swagat, the in-flight magazine of Indian Airlines, to bow out in favour of the BJP’s blue-eyed boy. When its publishers refused, pointing out that the contract was valid for another two years, the favoured publication was awarded the contract as an additional in-flight magazine that would naturally cut into Swagat revenues. The terms of the new contract are mouth-watering. While Swagat pays a license fee of Rs 1.05 crore, the new entrant will pay only Rs 12 lakh. Swagat’s deposit with IA is Rs 55 lakh while the rival pays only Rs six lakh. Swagat assures IA a circulation of 60,000 copies while the newcomer offers only 20,000. Ironically, the new magazine is called Darpan (Mirror)!

But a mirror is something the Vajpayee government wants to avoid at all costs. When web portal Tehelka last year came out with an expose of the defence establishment using rather unorthodox means, Defence Minister George Fernandes demanded the arrest of Tehelka reporters and accused them of conspiring against the country to demoralise its armed forces. The portal showed the then BJP President Bangaru Laxman accepting money and the then Samata Party President Jaya Jaitly, a close associate of Fernandes, agreeing to accept. Both of them had to resign from the presidentship of their respective parties. The army had to institute a Court of Inquiry to probe into the conduct of several high and middle-ranking officers. Fernandes too had to resign as the government set up the Venkataswami Commission, only to return after a while even as the Commission is far from winding up proceedings and pronouncing its verdict.

Fernandes’ demand could be met only after more than a year when Tehelka reporters were arrested on charges of, hold your breath, poaching. It seems that they were working on a story on illegal poaching in Saharanpur district of Uttar Pradesh. Just as those who made the Operation Westend possible and exposed corruption in the defence establishment, and not the politicians and army officers who took bribes, accepted hospitality and sevices of call girls in five-star hotels, were accused of indulging in anti-national activities, this time too the Tehelka reporters were accused of having entered into a conspiracy with the poachers and were arrested. No wonder that Tehelka’s CEO Tarun Tejpal has been crying hoarse about a witch-hunt.

Tehelka offices were raided on 26 June by the CBI which has an unenviable record of acting as a convenient instrument in the hands of the rulers of the day. Remember the selective leaks of Amita Mody’s diaries and other juicy details when the ruling establishment wanted to implicate Sanjay Singh in the Syed Mody murder case. Remember the Jain Hawala diaries in which the CBI filed cases against several politicians including Advani and the cases could not stand even on one leg before the court. The CBI had no time to spare for arresting those who had engineered the horrendous killings in Gujarat but was only too eager to raid Tehelka offices. And its timing was perfect. It so happened that Jaya Jaitly was to be cross-examined on the very day before the Venkataswami Commission by Tejpal and his colleagues. Who would go to the Commission’s office when one’s own offices were being raided by a vindictive regime’s pliant investigating agency?

There is a lesson in the Tehelka affair. Shankar Sharma and his company First Global who had 14.5 per cent equity in Tehelka, have been raided 25 times since the expose was made public in March 2001. Deposing before the Commission, Tejpal said: ‘Everybody loves us but nobody wants to be associated with us. Not a single rupee has been invested in Tehelka after we broke the story of Operation Westend. Our financiers have been put behind bars. We are served summons by half a dozen a week. We have been harassed by all the government agencies.’ The government is sending out a clear signal to both the media and its promoters: Lay off. If a media organisation shows the audacity of exposing the government, neither its employees nor its owners are safe. They should be prepared to face the music. As Hindustan Times editor Vir Sanghvi succinctly put it: ‘The message in all this is quite direct: if anyone ever tries to expose corruption in the way in which Tehelka has done, they will face the full might of the Government of India.’ He quite rightly worries about the future. ‘Today,’ writes Sanghvi, ‘the attack is on Tehelka. Who knows which section of the press will get it in the neck tomorrow.’

For a glimpse of the sinister designs of the BJP-led regime against the press, see the way the Venkataswami Commission’s terms of reference have been framed. In A.G. Noorani’s view, they are unprecedented since the Commission will look into ‘all aspects relating to the making and publication of these allegations.’ Noorani, a veteran commentator, warns that the press will be effectively muzzled. He writes: ‘Any time it publishes an expose, the government will retaliate by setting up inquiries not only into the truth of the charges, but also into the motives, finances and sources of the journal which publishes them.’ No wonder that not only Tehelka but also its financier First Global are facing persecution as well as prosecution at the hands of the Vajpayee government.

Like in everything else, the RSS clan adopts a duplicitous policy towards the media. It pampers journalists when it wants to spread its message. But when it wants to hide its misdeeds, it comes down heavily on them. The way media persons were mercilessly beaten up by the so-called kar sevaks on 6 December 1992 in Ayodhya in order to ensure that documentary evidence in the form of photographs or video films was destroyed. Similarly, the media has come under attack from the RSS clan and its apologists for its coverage of the Gujarat riots. Media men have been physically attacked not only by rioters but also by the police in Gujarat. When writer Arundhati Roy wrote on the Gujarat riots, she was summoned by the Baroda police to appear before it for ‘questioning’!

The same duplicity is in evidence in the case of the arrest of Iftikhar Geelani, a journalist who also happens to be the son-in-law of hardliner Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani. Iftikhar Geelani has been arrested under the Official Secrets Act as the police claims to have found data regarding troop movements and some other documents in his laptop computer. One does not know whether he is guilty or not. Media organisations have merely demanded that due process of law should be followed and Geelani not harassed or tortured. As of now, Iftikhar Geelani is as guilty or as innocent as Vaiko who has been arrested in Tamilnadu, invoking the provisions of anti-terrorist law POTA. However, for the BJP, Vaiko is innocent while Geelani is guilty.

Balbir Punj, a journalist who has been awarded with a Rajya Sabha seat for his contributions to the cause and is a living specimen of the falsity of Sushma Swaraj’s assertion that there is no apana or paraya, calls Geelani a ‘spy claiming the privileges of a newsman.’ He defends the attacks on Tehelka, blames the Gujarat carnage on the media, and accuses Arundhati Roy of not cooperating with the police! So much for freedom of expression under the present political dispensation.

Kuldeep Kumar