Sunday, December 2, 2007


Mirza Ghalib was indeed a lucky man to have lived in the dying years of Mughal rule in Delhi. Had he been born in secular, independent India, not only would the world have been deprived of his masterly Urdu poetry, he himself would have been driven into oblivion, if not death, by the new defenders of religion.

Take this immortal couplet that this liquor-loving genius wrote: Mat pi sharab Ghalib masjid mein baith ke; Ek hi botal hai, kahin khuda na mang le, meaning, Drink not Ghalib inside the mosque; God might ask for the only bottle you have. Can anyone dare to write something like this today and expect to be lauded and not hounded with fatwas and cries baying for his blood?

Just last week, Taslima Nasreen, the fugitive Bangladesh author, withdrew a few controversial passages in her book ‘Dwikhandita’ that had offended some fanatic religious leaders of Islam. After Kolkata erupted in communal frenzy, the Left Front government made her leave Bengal. Government of India did come to her rescue, but at a price. Intolerance had won again.

Close on the heels of Nasreen surrendering to fundamentalism, we had another unique spectacle of a few state governments banning Madhuri Dixit’s comeback film Aaja Nachle because of one line in song which says: Mohalle mein kaisi maramar hai; Bole mochi bhi khud ko sunaar hai (What is this chaos in the locality; Even the cobbler is calling himself a goldsmith). The ban was lifted only after the controversial line, which was considered offensive to low caste cobblers, was removed form the song.

Don’t be surprised if someone next takes an offence to the use of the age old proverb Sau sunaar ki, ek lohaar ki, which means that a “Hundred hammerings by a goldsmith equals one by a blacksmith”, though as of now I am not sure who will feel offended, the goldsmith or the blacksmith. Does it matter anymore?

Earlier, Sikh religious leaders had raised a hue and cry over the title of the Hindi film Jo Bole So Nihal, which, according to them, had hurt the religious sentiments of Sikhs. Recently, the entire Sikh religious leadership had got into a combat mode because the Dera Sacha Sauda head had administerd Rooh Afza laced milk to his followers, in a manner and dress which resembled that of the tenth Sikh Guru, Sri Guru Govind Singh. The reaction was so strong that the Dera followers can no longer practice their faith in Punjab where the writ of Sikh religious leaders is virtually unchallenged.

Come to think of it, in the India of today, perhaps even Guru Govind Singh may not have been able to give Amrit (Nectar of Immortality) to his followers because some Hindu body would have claimed that Amrit was a divine ‘Hindu’ product which had emerged during the churning of Kshir Sagar, the Celestial Ocean. No mortal, they would have cried hoarse, had a right to offend Hindu sentiment by doing something blasphemous like calling the holy water which he was giving to his followers Amrit.

Indian Christian groups are not lagging behind in this display of paranoid intolerance. They have successfully stopped the screening of the Da Vinci Code in a number of Indian states and have prevailed upon the Discovery Channel to not telecast The Lost Tomb of Jesus in India. Jesus Christ Superstar could never have been made in India. Is it not blasphemous to degrade Jesus, the Lord and Master, to the level of ordinary humans by referring to him as another superstar, they have would have screamed.

The saffron Brigade is not to be left behind either. They successfully hounded MF Hussain out of the country for painting Hindu Goddesses unclothed. It does not matter to them that for thousands of years, such depictions have been made and can be found everywhere even today. It does not matter either that Hussain’s works are not prurient or offensive at all. What they did recently in an arts college in Gujarat on similar grounds is no less despicable. Who can forget that they did not allow Deepa Mehta to shoot for her film Water in Varanasi?

The examples of our increasingly competitive intolerance are many more. What has happened to this country which has always prided itself on its spirit of tolerance and accommodation of differing beliefs and practices?

To a large extent, the responsibility must rest with politicians for the divisive politics of the vote banks that they have created and nurtured along the many fault lines of religion, region, caste, class, language, tradition etc. Anything which appears even mildly offensive to anyone is quickly pounced upon by them and politically savvy religious leaders as an opportunity to strengthen the voter/follower bank represented by the offended lot. Seeing one group get away with its pressure tactics spurs another to invent more new grievances and hurts, even those which were never an issue earlier.

Arguably, the genesis of the politics of competitive intolerance lies to a large extent in the banning of Salman Rusdhie’s Satanic Verses and the Shilanyas of the proposed Ram Mandir at Ayodhya. Or was it even earlier in the Punjab or in the government’s decision to go against the ruling of the Supreme Court in the Shah Bano case?

Be that as it may, there is no escaping the fact that it has now become a vortex which is boring into the secular fabric of the nation. Along all fault lines, newer and newer battle lines are being drawn almost every day, positions from which there is no withdrawal, as politicians are seen readily succumbing to pressure every time.

Zaahid sharaab peene de masjid mien baith kar; Ya woh jagah bata de jahan par Khuda na ho. (Zahid let me drink in the mosque; Or tell me the place where God is not). This beautiful couplet asks the profound question that seems to interest none of our religious or political leaders today. All that they would have seen in these few lines had they been written in the secular India of today is that the writer has hurt religious sentiments by encouraging drinking in a mosque/temple/church/gurudwara,take your pick!

No one knows which statement, article, book, poem, film or act will next be interpreted as blasphemous or hurtful to some individual or section of society.

The way things are headed, I will not be surprised if someone somewhere sometime finds this article itself blasphemous or injurious to societal health. Till that happens, let me try to find the answer to the question that an inebriated Zaahid had asked!