May 4, 2003
wordplay
The New Indian Express on Sunday

Shreekumar Varma


Driving down the Marina one night, two men jumped across my path, forcing me to swerve sharply. The car hit a temporary metal barrier they had placed on the road. The barrier leapt up, hit the windscreen and the roof, then crashed into the back of the car and thudded noisily on the ground. They were cops, one of them in plain clothes. They stilled my stunned protest, saying something bad had happened in Gujarat and they were checking every car here in Chennai. Calming down with difficulty I drove on home. The car was in bad shape. Why should something in far-away Gujarat touch me so painfully in Chennai?

The next morning I read about the terrorist attack on the Swaminarayan temple. If I hadn't been driving down that road that night I would have absorbed the news item and filed it away like so many unfortunate headlines that are so common in our newspapers today.

We read and feel bad and want to do something, at least lodge our protest with someone or the other. But there are so many of them and we have our own lives to live. As a writer I could write about it. As an artist I could paint a picture or make a movie or sing a song to express my point of view. I could send money for the victims or start a signature campaign. And then what?

Well, all I had to show for it was a car full of dents. That was the extent of my participation in an incident which had claimed lives, injured the bodies and spirits of so many people.

In times of siege

It happened last September. Seven months later, the whole of the Gujarat trauma — beginning with Godhra and followed by its vicious backlash and then the Swaminarayan temple violence — was brought back to me as I sat in the back row listening to an April reading of Githa Hariharan’s In Times Of Siege. She pits the Hindu fundamentalists (whom she calls “fundoos”) against the sane voice of secularism and tells the story of a university professor caught between the two. Of course, the professor soon rises to the occasion and raises his voice in a manner worthy of the sane.

It is a painful truth, I thought, that God today is putting too much pressure on man. Thinking of all these things, I realised there is actually something we can do to help. And that, to put it simply, is to look at facts and stop intellectualising the problem. It is the politically correct thing today to blame Hindutva and promote secularism. Secularism includes every other religion but not “Hindutva”. When we use blanket terms like this, we are in danger of sending the wrong signals to those who are waiting to pick them up, whether in this country or outside.

The dictionary meaning of Hindutva does not include the baggage we currently ascribe to it. Those who don’t see this will soon conclude that India is a rogue Hindu state bent upon cleansing itself of other religions. If the fundamentalists are damaging the fabric of our nation by misreading the tenets of Hinduism, the secularists are equally guilty of ignoring every other crime but the ones committed by Hindu fundamentalists. It is time we paused and saw fact.

I am a Hindu

I am a Hindu. I am proud of this and I think that my religion has the most complete philosophy ever given to man. At the same time, I realise that my neighbour belongs to a different religion and he thinks his religion is the most fulfilling one around. If I accept this fact and find no contradiction in it, where is the conflict? After all, we are, each one of us, unique human beings, individuals with our own points of view and our own different sets of reactions. When we understand ourselves, we are halfway to understanding others.

There is a tendency among intellectual Hindus to "protect the minorities" and take responsibility for their problems. As long as we see them as minority groups and not as an essential and inalienable part of our country, we are perpetuating the myth that "they" are different. This is like segregating women and addressing "women's problems" without putting them in context and seeing them as human problems. Extending this idea, we will have minority languages, minority abilities, minority professions and minority ideologies. Our goal to live together as a single human component of the natural scheme of things will never be realised.

When we apologise for being Hindu and handle everyone else with kid gloves, when we say we are sorry for what we are doing to them, we are already making the division between "them" and "us". Whereas, in actual fact, we are one and the same people with different paths to our purpose. Geography or history or ways of thinking should not rob us of the company of people whom science has brought so close. We did it once when we allowed professional distinctions to crystallise into caste differences. Let's not allow this sense of alienation to erode our present relationships as well that reformers and humanists have fought so valiantly to maintain.

A looter is a looter

All this may sound simplistic given the complexity of the religious divide. But we have only ourselves to blame for allowing the problem to bloat to such proportions. By recognising the truth that the fundamentalist (or the militant or the political instigator or the average looter who takes advantage of a turmoil) has his own agenda to fulfil and is not acting under any official authorisation from the religion he professes, we can easily separate religion from its corruption. The looter is a looter, the arsonist is an arsonist, the rabble-rouser is a rabble-rouser. They have nothing to do with the religious cause they purport to support.

If we can effect this distinction in our minds we are on the path to sanity. We are then poised to enter a golden situation where religion is essentially a private domain, where its tenets are open to healthy debate and elucidation, but not violent dispute. Where people are people and not labelled caricatures. It takes effort and understanding to bring about such a situation. We need to transcend the politics of pettiness and avoid the temptation of blanket characterisations. More than anything, we need to see man as man and not as a mere bundle of contrary convictions. It needs a broader vision than we find at present.

Because the dents in my car have since been repaired but there are other dents which need a different kind of attention.

Shreekumar Varma is a novelist, poet and playwright. He can be contacted at varma@shreevarma.com


For God’s sake!
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