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Striking An Optimistic Note In Times Of Hate, Distrust

A scholar reminisces his growing up in a sleepy town in Bihar and how its secular fabric changed after loud-mouthed Hindu fanatic leaders landed there

Striking An Optimistic Note In Times Of Hate, Distrust
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Born in a Muslim family in a north Bihar village surrounded by Hindu majority and my family mixing up with almost all the upper-caste elites of the villages, I relate to Lord Rama in specific ways.

I received my initial primary education at the Government Urdu Primary School, in the middle of the village. Every working day, a sweet chorus of the daily prayer at the government Hindi middle school, a little more than a stone’s throw away, would introduce us to the myths and beliefs associated with the deity and with the musical instrument mentioned in the school prayer: “Maa Shaarde kahan tu Veena baja rahi hai (Where thou play the Veena O Mother Sharda!).”

At my Urdu school, we would sing Allama Iqbal’s poem: “Lab pe aati hai dua ban ke tamanna meri (My wish is the prayer to you O my Lord!).” The very same Iqbal who also composed a poem on Lord Rama calling him Imam-e-Hind, as also poems on Nanak and many other such heroes, history makers, thinkers and revolutionaries, totalitarians and what not. Then, we did not know Iqbal’s politics was contestably associated with India’s prelude to the Partition.

An essential attitude of the collective Hindu elite was that Muslims should come up and do better in education, economy and employment. There was a patronising tone to it.

Every year, towards the receding winter, the Hindi school would celebrate Saraswati Puja. We would rush to queue up in the Hindi school for prasad (of sweets and the season’s fruits). Neither the Muslim elders considered this to be unbecoming of a Muslim child nor did the Hindu elders perceive it as an offence to their goddess or to their belief that a Muslim mlechha (barbarian) is mixing up to spoil a Hindu ritual. This was absolutely unthinkable, at least in public spaces and in inter-community interactions. Privately, some individuals in each of the two religious groups would be talking about these issues in divisive ways, but these voices were muted and unnoticeable in public. Also, there was an element of guilt among those who harboured such thoughts.

The students of the primary and middle schools of these villages would join the local government high school. Almost all high schools were first built by the upper-caste Hindu landed elites, later taken over by the government after  Ind-ependence. My school was founded in 1955 by a Gandhian freedom fighter. In the same premises, in the 1930s, he had also built the Swaraj Ashram Bhavan. Our teachers and elders would instill a sense of pride in us for the school having been founded by a frugal and austere living Gandhian.

Another element of pride that was there in the collective consciousness, and frequently reiterated, was that this locality never had fallen victim to communal violence. If at all some tension on some trivial issue emerged, mutual dialogues resulted into resolving the dispute. This too was a matter of collective pride. Inter-dining was prevalent and hardly any Hindu was a strict vegetarian. Our high school also took special pride in the fact that Muslim students did relatively better than the Hindu elite who were scornful of our achievements. An essential attitude of the collective Hindu elite was that Muslims should come up and do better in education, economy and employment. But the tone was patronising.

Muslims, with their sense of history of having been rulers in the past, refuse to be subdued. Such a consciousness is also harboured by many affluent and upwardly mobile Pasmanda.

In 1986, the Ram Janki Rath for Shila Pujan (brick worship; collecting bricks from Hindus across the country to build a temple for Ram in Ayodhya) was making a tour across the country. It reached the playground (premises) of our high school as well. However, it was chased away by the Bhumihar–Brahman Hindus of the village, led by a grandson of the school’s founder. On Dec-ember 6, 1992, the mosque at Ayodhya was demolished. The Muslims of my village were both upset and scared that some harm may be inflicted upon them as well. The following day, the Hindus came to assure them that no matter what happened elsewhere in the country, Muslims in these parts shall remain absolutely unharmed and business as usual would prevail.

However, things have suddenly changed there. The loud-mouthed polarising parliamentarians of Bihar are invited to this place now. Why? Hitherto non-vegetarians also fiercely display their vegetarianism as a necessary element of Hindu religious practice. To make themselves appear as a “good” Hindu? Why? There is a growing competitive demonstrative religiosity and piety. Why? I ask these questions to myself.

In the post-Mandal and post-liberalisation era, traditionally eminent Hindus may or may not have done as well in education, trade, employment and local political representations. But the hitherto marginalised sections have visibly been doing better in every sphere, including electoral politics and representation. Before 1991, if a precise point of time is necessary to be identified, there was some understanding or essential consensus between the Savarna (Hindu elite) and the Ashraf (the Muslim elite), an alliance of the elites essentially popularised as the “Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb (Shared Hindu–Muslim culture)”.

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This elite arrangement worked well till the anti-elite revolt of the subalterns burst out, with the “rise of the plebeians”. Though the aspirations of the subalterns of both the communities to become “good” religious Hindus (Sanskritisation?) and “good” religious Muslims (Ashrafisation?) make them demonstrate their identities in public through certain kinds of religious processions, at times displaying some “crude” or traditional weapons, resulting in a competitive assertion to display religiosity and certain rituals in public. This is where some of the explanations for the resurgent religious conflicts may be traced or located. The hitherto poor Muslims have attained some degree of affluence and turned into lower-middle class through their self-employed jobs such as motor mechanics, taxi-drivers, electricians, plumbers, puncture-fixers and tyre-tube retailers, among others, and the relatively enhanced representation of the Pasmanda and other poor Muslims in the rural local bodies seem to have become an eyesore. Gulf remittances and savings being invested in local trading and elections is also a cause of growing conflict and anti-Muslim hatred. Moreover, a good number of Hindu professionals working overseas now think that their religious identity too should get adequate global acknowledgement. This segment of ‘New’ Hindu thinks that the Sangh Parivar is the one which really offers them the promise to satiate their religio-cultural aspirations, something which was thus far denied to them not only by the alien Muslim (Turks and Mughals) and Christian (British) rulers but also by the Western notions like secularism, which to them is basically a cultural conc­ession to the Muslims. This is why such type of resurgent ‘Hindu’ consciousness refuses to be convinced by the factual data of Muslim under-representation in the institutions and processes of power. Muslims, with their sense of history of having been rulers in the past, refuse to be subdued. Such a consciousness is also harboured by many affluent and upwardly mobile Pasmanda. This is where possibly lies one of the explanations as to why my ancestral locality in rural north Bihar, as also in many other parts of India, religiosity and religious politics have assumed certain features, the degree and intensity of which was much lower till a few decades ago, when we were growing up there as school students. However, I have reason to hope that this phase of politically induced social polarisation will pass off. I say so, because in my lived realities, we still turn to each other in our personal joys and sorrows. We are still there for each other. There is still a sense of guilt for harbouring mistrust against each other. Doubts are there in many minds, if the present generation of Muslims really owes an explanation for concocted or factual anti-Hindu misdeeds of the rulers professing the same faith centuries ago. This doubt, this sense of guilt and remorse, should give us hope that love and trust will triumph over politically inflicted mistrust and hate.

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(This appeared in the print edition as "Will Love & Trust Triumph?")

(Views expressed are personal)

Mohammad Sajjad teaches History at AMU, Aligarh

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