You have touched upon something which I never merely classify as a ‘topic’. Secularism forms the bedrock of the ethos of all progressive countries of the world. It is the life force of a nation that identifies itself with the fabric of its country as made of many colours of politics, religion and culture. So all discourse involving secularism has to have the gravitas that we associate with all things life consequential.
Your recollection of ‘Ram Leela’ brought back to me memories of ‘Ram Leela’ organized on the grounds of HAL in Lucknow on the eve of Vijay Dashami or Dusshara. A professional Ram Leela troupe would come and perform. The owner of the ‘Ram Leela’ company was a fellow Indian named Imtiaz Mohammed Khan. He also was one of the wholesalers for Diwali fireworks. It doesn’t surprise me that the firecracker laced effigy of Ravana, which brough delight to many children and their young parents, was built by his company. He seemed to be popular with the patrons in HAL as you could hear everyone calling to congratulate him for the spectacular show. Some members of his troupe were muslims.
In Lucknow I went to a school run by catholic missionaries. The school day started with an assembly where the Lord’s prayer was read. The fervour of the prayer was especially high during the exam days. I don’t recall any person of any faith objecting to standing in line and reciting the morning prayer. There were children of all types – the very faithful, the less so and the ones whose time for day dreams had started. Until the senior grades, I didn’t even know that Irfan Mohammed, Shahnaz Bano, Sohail Ahmed, Walter Dennis and many names that escape me were people from a different religious background than me.
Oh how the world has changed since the year 1990! Secularist ideals and practice gradually began to be looked upon as a malaise afflicting India. Today India has the ‘rastra bhakts’ on one side and the ‘so called secularists’, ‘so called intellectuals’, and in Delhi ‘Lutyens’ on the other side. People espousing secular ideals are the ‘enemy within’ who must be tamed. Jawaharlal Nehru University, Jamia Milia Islamia, St. Stephen’s College and Aligarh Muslim University are the new hotbed of anti India. The pages espousing separation of the Church (read temple) from the State have been glued together. Every major government inaugural activity ranging from commissioning of a new building, to a new technology centre, to the launch of a space mission is accompanied by breaking of a coconut, recital of vedic prayers and/or visit of the head of the institution along with press to the local deity. Watching the news clipping of the delivery of the first Rafale in France, I heaved a sigh of relief that the minister did not break the coconut on the airframe itself.
Stone pelting and localised communal flare ups (ref Rahim whose hunger knew no religion) have given way to something far bigger and more sinister. It is the incessant badgering on social media about the ‘enemy within’. University alumni groups consisting of serving professors and teachers are openly proselytizing communal hate. It is even more shocking that hate messages are being exchanged in full knowledge that the groups have members of minority communities as well. Unlike the poverty stricken stone pelters, the ‘digital age’ stone pelter is the well fed trader, engineer, doctor, lawyer, teacher/professor and the employed in government service. Unlike the hungry stone pelter whose motivation was to feed his family, the new age stone pelter is chasing the Quixotic dream of tearing up the social contract enshrined in the constitution and liberal, secular democracy that underpins it.
I remember that upto the junior high grades there was compulsory reading of a Hindi text book – ‘Gyan Bharti’. It was sanctioned by the state government and all schools were meant to teach it. The stories ranged from the humorous to the inspiring stories of the brotherly duty of Humanyun, the greatness of Akbar, the justice of Jehangir, the valour of Rana Pratap and his trusty steed Chetak, the war craft of Shivaji, the steeliness of Maharaj Ranjit Singh and the ultimate sacrifice of PVC Abdul Hamid. The stories were meant to inspire the ‘Indian’ in us in the best traditions of secular thought and practice. I remember the song ‘Mile sur mera tumhara’ – joining Indians from coast to coast espousing unity in diversity – not only of language and culture but also thoughts.
I have a vested interest in the well being of India that goes beyond the safety and prosperity of my kith and kin living in India. It is how my son and generations from him will view India and its modern history. I would very much like them to have a healthy respect for my roots. And for that to happen India will have to choose to be a modern progressive democracy.
With much patriotic consternation,