Asymmetry and lack of information are the reasons Mr. Patwardhan

December 5, 2020

Rohit Dhankar

Mr. Anand Patwardhan’s article in The Indian Express is a well written informative article, which raises a very important question. This question has two parts:

  1. Why is Faisal Khan, a human rights activist, in prison for an act of peace?, and
  2. What explains Hindutva’s rage against Faisal?

Faisal Khan offered namaj to Allah in a temple in Mathura, the priest lodged a complaint and Faisal was arrested. Mr. Patwardhan’s article is raising these questions on the outcome of this incident. I will dispose off the first question first: why Faisal should be in jail for offering namaj in a temple? The direct and clear answer is he should not be. This is a motivated and unjust act, which is against the ethos of India, Indian constitution and Hindu-dharma.This is an act of injustice under public pressure, and possibly present day UP government’s unreasonable attitude to religious issues is also playing a part in it.

But the second question Mr. Patwardhan raises is more important and is not considered seriously by Indian intelligentsia. Even Mr. Patwardhan raises this question more as a rhetorical device to automatically indict what he calls ‘Hindutva’. He neither offers any analysis nor any insights into it. Though he offers a supposed to be ‘clue’ in Badshah Khan’s answer to why the original Khudai Khidmatgars suffered worst “massacres and persecutions” at the hands of the British. Badshah Khan’s answer, according to Mr. Patwardhan, being “because the British thought a non-violent Pashtun was more dangerous than a violent one”. Mr. Patwardhan wants to apply the same logic to the present situation.

This may have been true in the case of Badshah Khan and original Khudai Khidmatgars, but to offer it as an explanation of so-called “Hindutva’s rage” in Faisal’s case is less of a reasoned argument and more of emotional appeal to the respect and affection thinking Indians have for Badshah Khan. It works as a device to avoid thinking about present day communal problems in India. A full analysis of the issue will require perhaps several articles seriously analysing concepts like ‘Hindutva’ and ‘Brahmanism’, and their pernicious use in political discourse today.

Without getting into the longer discourse, however, I would like to hint at three very simple reasons worth exploring further.

First, there is a very serious asymmetry in Islamic and Hindu thinking on religious matters that reflects in behaviour of people. In the context of the issue being discusses, as far as religious thought goes, and the way most of the Hindus think there are no theological strictures against offering namaj in a temple. But one cannot offer an arati in a mosque. And that rejection of arati or pooja in a mosque is at the level of theology as well as the thinking of a common Muslim; thought I am not as certain regarding the thinking of a common Muslim as I am about the theological part of it.

I feel, at present may not have any strict proof, that if there were any possibility of offering an occasional pooja in a mosque most of Hindus will have no objection to offering an occasional namaj in a temple. In the presently surcharged communal atmosphere and due to this asymmetry, offering of namaj in a temple can very easily be interpreted as a kind of taking over, or at the least sharing unequally the temples, but keeping mosques exclusive. This exceptionalism is the problem.

This asymmetry runs deep. One would hardly find a human rights activist who is a Hindu and is particular to do his arti or pooja on prescribed times wherever he happens to be. And it would be even a rarer one who would like to express communal harmony though doing pooja in a mosque. There is no blame involved in these remarks, these are the ways of thinking and general spontaneous behaviours of Hindus and Muslims. And they have their right to their respective beliefs and thinking. When due to various reasons people become aware of these differences and start analysing the fundamental asymmetries become visible and naturally start bothering people.

Such asymmetries are one of the main reasons for worry of many Hindus caused by Hindu girls marrying Muslim boys. Without going into details, a Hindu (man or woman) may marry a non-Hindu without conversion as per her religious tradition, but a Muslim cannot. Also, due to punishment for apostasy a Muslim can not convert easily. Conversion is much easier for a Hindu for many reasons. This situation results an open-minded Hindu converting to Islam, and only rarely to a Muslim converting to Hindu-dharma.

Another problem cause by this asymmetry in openness in discourse on religion is the periodic eruption of communal problems for so-called insult to this or that religious figures. An article in OpIndia today quotes Saif Ali Khan saying  about an upcoming movie that “… we will make him [Ravana] humane, …, justify his abduction of Sita”. The Hindu mythology has aften been reinterpreted. Duryodhana is presented in positive light, Karna is justified in literature; and Mahabharata itself has enough room for this kind of interpretation. Similarly, in some not very well known attempts Mahishasur is portrayed in positive light and Durga is shown as marrying him to finally deceive and kill. Another example of is Aubrey Menen’s Ramayana that describes Sita herself going with Ravana in a bargain to save lives of Rishis who were being killed by Ravana’s soldiers. In this retelling of Ramayana Sita also admits sleeping with Ravana without being forced. The point I am making is that Hindu mythological texts—which are considered by large section of Hindus as holy scriptures—have a tradition of various retellings and interpretations. And in my view, this is a healthy tradition, Hindus should keep it alive.

But I am also certain that Saif Ali Khan’s remarks, and if the movie turns out to be as he claims, will raise controversy and anger.

Again, I think that the very significant part of this intolerance of such retellings is because of the asymmetry I mentioned above. Any comment, analysis and reinterpretation of Muhammad and Islamic thought generates huge anger and triggers riots and murders. Because of the past experiences of Rangila Rasul, The Satanic Verses and many other incidents no one explores hints available in Islamic history about Ayesha’s relationship with a camel driver or Muhammad’s killing of Jewish tribe. Thus, some Hindus feel that their religious figures could be reviled, but one can say anything of Islamic figures.

One can build an argument that, well, Hindu-dharma has that tradition of toleration to showing of their religious figures in ‘bad light’ but Islam does not. So, one should behave accordingly. The problem in this argument is that all religions are also political ideologies, identity building instruments and tools for attempted hegemony. These things have come on surface much more starkly in the current atmosphere. Thus, the tradition of openness can easily be used in loosening the faith of one people, and cannot be use for the same purpose for the other group. This makes the playing field unequal. It also reflects in numerous personal encounters of people, where egos flareup. Reflects in power of identity creation and generating unifying issues—right or wrong—and therefore in bid to political power. Thus, either all religions have to be equally open in these matters or equally closed. Asymmetry will not do. If we keep our constitution in mind and safeguard freedom of expression then the only logical course is equal openness, and not being cowed down by any threat of any group. Unfortunately our track record of this fair treatment is abysmally bad.

Two, people perhaps did not know the full story of Faisal Khan. If they knew, and were properly informed, about Faisal’s track record of harmony, it seems to me there would have been less public support to the people who want to punish him. However, here I am taking Mr. Patwardhan’s account of his work and intentions as accurate. (The problem is in the present atmosphere at least I am left with very little trust in whatever is published. This is because of the experience of people’s cherry picking and distortions in their writing. There are hardly any exceptions these days; be they right-wing, left-wing, liberal, non-liberal, or whatever. Without any prejudice to Mr. Patwardhan, I am reading his account of Faisal Khan in this general atmosphere. That is why the cautious comment that I am taking his account as accurate.) Lack of full information can be used for generating rage.

The third reason is complete blackout of any discussion of these asymmetrical issues. Anyone who mentions them is immediately dubbed as communal. In creating public harmony this is extremely important to understand the theological limits of all parties and working out a solution keeping that in mind.

The theological openness of Hindu-dharma is seen a vulnerability by many Hindus in the present day India. I know that there shall be an immediate reaction to my mention of ‘theological openness’ of Hindu-dharma here. But it can not be denied that as far as belief in the divine, ways of offering prayer and adherence to religious rituals is concerned, popular as well as philosophical Hindu-dharma is quite open. Accepting this does not mean closing one’s eyes from the caste problems, various other kinds of rigidities and objectionable elements in Hindu society. But this theological openness coupled with lack of knowledge of their own dharmas among Hindus and the theological-philosophical problem of non-availability of clear criteria for who is and is not a Hindu become vulnerabilities in the face of aggressive identity formation and proselytization. Many of these are internal problems of the Hindu society and Hindu-dharma. Part of the rage is also because of frustration with these problems of their own, being exploited by others.

What is interesting in India is that such problems of religious communities other than Hindus, even if they are because of their perception and not real, are discussed with adequate sensitivity. But when the issues of Hindus come, they are either outright dismissed or attributed to propaganda of Sangh Parivar or, worse still, blamed on some fundamental evil streak in the very idea of Hindu-dharma. A common Hindu in India is as good or bad, wise or ignorant, as anyone else. S/he certainly is more open as far as the religious views and commitments are concerned. Therefore, her perceived problems need understanding and then equally sympathetic attempts to dispel them, in case they be unreasonable. And need to be addressed in case they are reasonable. But the intelligentsia discourse, as said above, is unsympathetic to them. As a result, the pent-up anger.  An alternative discourse on social media is developing to address this issue. Which is often, through not always, unhealthy and unreasonable; but it appealing to people. I feel if the main stream intellectual discourse starts discussing these problem with fairness both anger will go away and the alternative discourse will become more healthy and better informed.

At the end: ff Mr. Patwardhan’s account of Faisal Khan is accurate, then we need more Faisal Khans who can offer namaj in temples. But we also need many open minded religious Hindus who are working for harmony and want to express that through poojas in Mosques.

********* 5th December 2020