An invitation to embrace reason

Published January 2, 2024
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

AS Prime Minister Modi leads the inauguration of the Ram temple in Ayodhya this month — built on the rubble of the Babri masjid upon the supreme court’s directives — another landmark mosque in the sights of the old parliament house is gasping for the luck of the turkey at the White House. A solitary bird is traditionally spared the knife on Thanksgiving Day, a symbol of the US president’s generosity.

The Sunehri Bagh mosque has enjoyed the status of a heritage monument of Delhi, but the city municipality has proposed to raze it to ease traffic on the road frequented by VIPs. Historic mosques in Varanasi and Mathura, on the other hand, are facing the fate that befell the Babri masjid.

Among the Sunehri Bagh mosque’s historic claims is the fact that Maulana Hasrat Mohani slept and prayed there when attending the constituent assembly. The maulana wouldn’t take money for his stay even from the Communist Party of which he was member as he went on political errands often riding pillion on a comrade’s bicycle.

With this mosque in the crosshairs of a right-wing government, this New Year column hopes to offer a handy fact sheet on a truer India to celebrities like Amitabh Bachchan, Sachin Tendulkar and Virat Kohli who have been invited to the inauguration in Ayodhya.

Communist Party chief Sitaram Yechury has turned down the invitation, saying he wouldn’t want to be a part of any political exploitation of religion. Sonia Gandhi is also invited, reports say, but she too would likely forgo the visit on similar grounds.

Historic mosques in Varanasi and Mathura are facing the fate that befell the Babri masjid.

The influential invitees might want to look beyond the Hindu-Muslim chasm, some real but mostly cooked up, to glean less familiar facts about Lord Ram in India and abroad, and about the enrichment of Hindu motifs and cultural expressions by Muslim writers, old and new. There’s no gainsaying that general elections are due in May, and the event in Ayodhya is primed to mobilise gullible voters.

Two dates are important to bear in mind, one that seeks to conflate muscular Hinduism with muscular nationalism, and the other as a thinly veiled assault on a campaign to expel caste hierarchies from Hindu society. Jawaharlal Nehru was the target in the first instance.

The dismantling of the special status of Jammu and Kashmir on Aug 5, 2019, was followed next year by a ground-breaking ceremony for the Ayodhya temple by Mr Modi, also on Aug 5.

Nehru had strongly warned the UP chief minister that the communal strife triggered in Ayodhya by the officially aided but surreptitious installation of idols inside the Babri masjid in 1949 would have an adverse impact on relations with Jammu and Kashmir, a likely reference to Sheikh Abdullah’s support for India’s secular promise as opposed to religiously conceived Pakistan.

With the Kashmir and Ayodhya moves, Modi ground Nehru’s idea of India into dust. That the Ayodhya mosque was destroyed on Dec 6, 1992, drowned out an important day in the Dalit calendar — the death anniversary of Dalit leader Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar.

Gandhiji pleaded with Ambedkar to join his efforts to press for a Temple Entry law that would remove the Brahmanical bar on Dalits entering Hindu temples. Ambedkar described his community as ‘Depressed Classes’ and refused Gandhi’s overture in February 1933. The decision hasn’t lost importance.

Ambedkar’s reply: “The Depressed Classes think that the surest way of elevation lies in education, higher employment and better ways of earning a living. … Proceeding on these lines … they will not spend their resources on such an empty thing as Temple Entry.”

Ambedkar recounted how Europeans barred Indians from entering their clubs, and also noted that Indians didn’t grovel to be allowed in. “Why should an Untouchable beg for admission in a place from which he has been excluded by the arrogance of the Hindus? … He is prepared to say to the Hindus: To open or not to open your temples is a question for you to consider and not for me to agitate.” Ambedkar en masse converted his community to Buddhism.

As for the Muslims, they were by far more indulgent to Hindu culture and religion than Ambedkar could be. In fact, it’s difficult to find a Muslim writer who didn’t express respect and adulation for Hindu traditions. From Wali Dakhani (1667-1707), whose grave was flattened during the Gujarat pogroms, with a road built over it, to Mir and Ghalib, Iqbal to Hasrat Mohani and Majaz, there’s no dearth of affection for Hindu motifs.

Ram was Iqbal’s Imam-i-Hind. Krishna was Nazir Akbarabadi’s muse. Muslim scholars translated the epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata into Urdu and Persian during Mughal rule.

Rahi Masoom Raza penned the popular serial of Mahabharata for Doordarshan, watched with keen interest in Lahore with the help of good TV antennae. We should translate Reema Abbasi’s book into Indian languages about the Hindu temples of Pakistan. It’s an eye-opener.

I once accompanied BJP politicians Sushma Swaraj and K.R. Malkani to the Katasraj temple off the Lahore-Islamabad highway. She offered prayers at the well-preserved ancient temple as the atheist Malkani watched with amusement. Swaraj later danced at Basant revelries on the crowded terrace in Lahore where Benazir Bhutto had just finished celebrating the advent of spring.

Muslims are not blameless, of course. When puritan minders at the Islamic affairs’ ministry in Dubai protested a Hindu temple in the 1980s, the protesters were fired, and the temple preserved. A Hindu temple is coming up now in Abu Dhabi, for which Mr Modi has predictably taken credit.

A 17th-century temple in Iran’s Bandar Abbas port city is thriving under the Muslim clergy’s rule, as is the Sikh gurdwara in Tehran, quaintly called Masjid-i-Hindan. It would be good for India if during the prayers in Ayodhya a bit of history is also remembered with the allure of mythology.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

jawednaqvi@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, January 2nd, 2024

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