A dialogue of civilisations

Tags: Opinion

A young journalist and her editor discuss existential dilemmas in Modi’s India

A dialogue of civilisations
SECULAR SAGA: The Kashi Vishwanath temple stands adjacent to the Gyanvapi Mosque in Varanasi
A freelance writer for Financial Chronicle based in Aligarh reacted with horror to a signed edit in this paper on the election verdict (read Hindu Nation in Mind of the Maverick dated May 17, 2014 at www.myd­igitalfc.com). We reproduce an exchange of notes in this column to carry the debate forward.

Dear Sir,

Hope this finds you in the best of health and happiness. I happened to read your edit titled Hindu Nation. Somehow, it gave me a sinking feeling.

Since the time I was born, I have taken pride in my mixed identity of Islam, Christianity and Hinduism. I remember my house was always decked in lights on both Diwali and Eid... and the year my father died, I remember asking my mother why we were not playing Holi?

“The bigger verdict from this summer’s election is that India has finally come to terms with its identity as a hindu nation after 67 years of living in denial under a pseudo-secularist garb.”

This sentence seemed to rankle in my mind. For all my religiousness, visiting countries that declare the­mselves ‘Islamic nations’ makes me uncomfortable and if ever I am given a choice I would always and always prefer to live in India rather than these one-religion-endorsing countries. My grandmother went for Hajj in the year 2000. On her return, I remember her telling me that she got down from the plane, took a deep breath and said, “Ahhh... home!” And the first thing she said to us was: “There’s no place like India. Saare jahan se achha Hindustan hamara ...”

“To that end, this election finally puts the seal of acceptance on the two-nation theory on which the subcontinent was carved up almost seven decades ago.”

I remember in 2009 we had a grand alumni meet in AMU. Lots of former students — septuagenarians, even, had come over from Pakistan. As media students, we were interviewing the visitors from different countries. I remember talking to the Pakistanis and it irked me when they praised Jinnah and the creation of Pakistan. In fact, I couldn’t contain myself and retaliated (politely, I'd like to believe) that we do not look upon the Partition as a wonderful thing, and in fact, we consider ourselves Indians first and muslims later. Each of the eight students in my group echoed my sentiments.

“In a country of a billion plus people, there is no sha­me in being identified as progressive and forward-looking hindus,”

I don’t think there was ever any shame in being identified as a hindu, muslim, sikh whatever… but to brand the entire country with one religion makes the others feel like outcasts. Wouldn’t we all much rather be progressive and forward-looking Indians?

I’m afraid I don't know the exact meaning of secular... I’ve always believed it to mean “someone who does not discriminate between people of different religions” or someone who is not hostile to other groups. For me, it was never a clash between belonging to one religion and belonging to none. I honestly never thought that hindus would be hesitant to be identified as such, and there is so much pressure to be considered secular. It is ironical then, but believe me when I say that from this perspective, muslims are, if not ashamed, then certainly afraid of their religious identity.

I’d know it because I literally wear my religion on my sleeve (and my head too, for that matter). As a muslim one is always under pressure to prove one’s Indianness — or one’s secularism, if you like. In fact, a nationalist muslim still comes across as a surprise to people. All your life your Indianness is being examined, and your secularism has to be proved again and again. The less of a practicing muslim you are, the more you distance yourself from religion, the easier it is for you. When I wore the neutral jeans and shirts, I used to be a more acceptable “Indian muslim”. I've never been uncomfortable with the word secular. I think being secular to me means that I can wear a burqa and sing a bunch of bhajans and a clutch of Christmas carols at the drop of a hat. Oh, and Vande Mataram too — by heart — over which there was such a silly furore.

I have always felt proud that India is not a one-name, one-colour, one-language nation. In Jordan, our desert safari guide just couldn't grasp that India has dozens of different languages... he kept asking me they must be dialects... and I had to explain again and again that they were indeed separate languages. Those are the things that make us unique. Different from the rest of the world.

Lots of people dream of moving abroad, but to me this is always the place I wanted to be. It’s where I belong. But now... I don't really know now where I belong...

Best regards,


Dear Zehra,

Thank you. My family felt I was wrong, others felt I was right. Most kept quiet about the edit you have mentioned. If there was one reaction I was waiting for, it was yours. So, let me explain.

When my daughter was born, I named her Zara not to establish my secular credentials, but because I discovered the beautiful meaning of that name. Zara, I was told by the khadim at Nizamuddin, where I am a regular, is jo ziyarat karti hai. I read in that meaning: one who has an audience with god. And I believe that god is not a hindu, muslim or christian, but the one that rests within.

Having said that, let me tell you one more thing: People did not vote on my opinion. They voted either for or against what Narendra Modi represented. And I simply wrote what their vote really meant for India, 67 years after it gained independence.

If you really look at it objectively, hindus have actually lived in denial of their faith for a very long time, when there has been really little reason to do so. This vote reverses that denial. Does a muslim feel ash­amed calling himself a muslim? Does a christian feel ashamed? And still they identify themselves by their faith and feel nothing is really wrong with that.

Even today, we talk of Pakistan with so much hatred. But when you get down to the meaning of pak-i-stan, there could hardly be a purer place on earth than the entire landmass from the Hindukush to the Indian Ocean, where so many diverse languages, identities, religions, cultures and civilisations have flourished through the ages.

At independence, the hindus were brainwashed into calling themselves secular, in denial of the consequences of an unwanted partition. And that denial is the reason for so much hatred and discrimination that we find the so-called hindu society harbouring today. It would possibly have been so much better had the people of India or Hindustan simply called themselves hindus instead of swearing by the alien creed of secularism which they hardly believed or understood. For had they done so, the complex hindu-muslim-sikh-isaai distinctions that we still make would have blurred long ago.

Because when you truly accept who you are, you open your doors to others, just as you do, in your letter to me... more open to celebrating the festivals outside your religion, than the hindus usually are.

When I look at myself, I actually never have had a problem being a hindu, and a brahmin, at that. Being so, I truly believe, gives me the faith to accept all others as extensions of my identity. Calling myself secular gives me a sense of being neither this nor that.

So, who is really a hindu?

Look deeper. There ne­ver was a hindu religion. People in the region around the Indus, where much of our history and civilisation originated, were variously identified by the invaders as the people of the land of the Indus or Hindu — Sindhu to us in the subcontinent —depending on whether they were Greek or Persian and pronounced the word with an ‘i’ or an ‘h’. Through ages, these people have held several beliefs. Some believe in the divinity of animals, others of plants, some others of humans like their own, and still others of superhumans like Hanuman or Spiderman. And then there are those who believe in the power of nothing, which is variously ascribed as darkness or light, which is another way of looking at the formless god, as many muslims do, perhaps.

But then, the vote this time round endorses a brand successfully marketed by Modi. He certainly hasn't marketed a secular brand, to begin with. And a majority of the Lok Sabha seats have gone to him. That’s what this general election is about. There can be no two opinions on that. And I find nothing wrong with that either… because elections give people the right to make a choice.

But this election also tells another story… As it turns out, 31 per cent or thereabouts of those who actually voted (that is, 171 million out of the 554 million votes cast) supported Modi and his band of hindus. Which also means that 86 per cent of our 1.2 billion people either did not endorse Modi or reserved their opinions on him. We must rest our faith in that magic number to walk us into the future.

Thank you and take care.



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