Wednesday, January 1, 2003

A New Beginning

A New Beginning

By Narendra Luther

I share my first name with the chief Minister of Gujarat. But I don’t share his claim, his blame -- and now his fame. Nor do I have the inclination or the capacity to do so. For what he has achieved is based on fear, and numbers. Fear does not last. The extreme of fear is courage. When you have nothing further to lose, you stand up.

However, he has helped raise a basic question: Are we secular? As one who suffered the trauma of Partition as a child, I have a stake in secularism. The question often asked derisively is: what is secularism? It has been dubbed as plain non –concern about the majority community, or cynically equated with appeasement of the largest minority. There are lofty definitions of secularism, which are as old as the hills. As a working formula, Sarva Dharma Samabhava – equal respect for all religions can’t be improved upon. Democracy is based on the concept of equality of all persons. Once we accept that, caste, creed, colour -- all become irrelevant. Human being and his/her welfare is what matters. And that welfare is a common denominator cutting across the barriers of community and religion. For decades since Independence, we have heard the slogan of Roti, Kapda, and Makan – food, clothing, and shelter, and its generic substitute – Garibi Hatao. Now, food clothing and shelter have no religion. When I was a young child, at every station when the train stopped, vendors came shouting ‘Hindu Pani’, and Muslim Pani’. In our smugness, we took water from our respective communal pitchers, not knowing that it had come from a common source. It quenched thirst irrespective of who was dispensing it. Shylock, the much-maligned Jew speaks for the whole humanity in his spirited reply to Salerio in ‘The Merchant of Venice’:

‘He hath disgac’d me and hinder’d me half a million; laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies. And what is the reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, affections, passions, fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that…. The villainy you teach me I will execute; and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.’

That about sums up the situation in Gujarat – and even in the rest of the country. In what respect are the members of different communities different from each other in their civic needs and wants? And politics is concerned only with the civic side of citizens. It is not – indeed should not concern itself with their private beliefs and faith. Note the last sentence of Shylock. They will retaliate. And retaliation may take different forms. If they are not conventionally equal in arms with the other, they will resort to guerilla warfare, as Sivaji did with Aurangzeb. The modern variation of that is terrorism. And you can’t fight terrorism unless you tackle its real causes and roots. The dharma –duty of a ruler is to ensure conditions of civilized existence for its subjects. That is the raison d’etre of the State. In that, the State cannot take a partisan stand. It cannot let groups of citizens settle their scores by taking law in their own hands. As Chief Minister, Modi had no religion, no attachment, and no consideration except the security of the citizens of Gujarat.

Gujarat underlines the tragic fact in our political life that we have been highlighting non-issues. What was the gaurava of Gujarat, which was brought in to drum up the passions of the people there? Gujarat’s gaurava is Mahatma Gandhi who laid down his life for communal amity. In Gujarat, every man is called Bhai and every woman a Behn irrespective of their community or religion. With such universal brotherhood, and sorority, a surprise so much blood shed should have take place there. But feud within families is generally far bloodier than normal warfare. Civil wars destroy more than external aggressions.

Having said that, I shall like to address the other side too. For too long have they gone on blaming the majority for all their ills. For too long have they gone on harping on their separate identity, which resulted in the creation of Pakistan. For centuries, they have ruled this country. Why did they become backward then? Why do they plead their backwardness as a reason for getting special treatment?? Who prevents them from removing their backwardness through education? The Constitution provides level playing field for all – plus special safeguards for minorities. As the case of Pakistan has shown, religion does not unite; language does not bond. If that were so, Bangladesh should not have come into being. We have to rise above language and religion. There is always scope – even need for reform. The impulse for that has to come from within.

Iqbal said ‘religion does not teach hatred. He was wrong. Four centuries ago, Dean Swift observed bitingly: We have enough of religion to hate one another, but not enough of it to love one another’. I am not sure whether we need more of it or less of it. Can’t we live just as plain human beings?

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