Beyond Borders

Published on: October 1, 1993

Illustration: Amili Setalvad
Hindu-Muslim conflict in the Indian sub-continent is only as real as the intra-faith struggle between the proponents of intolerance and the promoters of compassion

From several developments in Bangladesh and Pakistan, as also from certain misdeeds of Pakistani nationals on western soil in recent weeks, it is evident once again that communalism is a sub-continental malady. Between the intolerant Hindu and the intolerant Muslim there is little to choose.
At the same time, it is equally apparent that the Hindu-Muslim conflict is only as real as the struggle between the forces of bigotry and freedom in each of these countries.
When collated together, the events and responses to them within the borders of India’s neighbours simultaneously reveal both the ugly character of Islamic fundamentalism as also endearing profiles of India and Hindu – friendly, secular-democratic individuals and institutions ranged against it.
The Indian cricket team readily agreed to play a benefit match with Pakistan in the U.K. to help raise money for a cancer hospital which Imran Khan wants to build in his country in memory of his mother. Yet, Pakistani hoodlums invaded the field, torched the Indian tri-colour and disrupted the match on August 31 when India was just three runs short of a certain victory.
  • Religious minorities greeted the recently concluded Pak elections with a boycott call.
This was to protest against the fact that the separate electorate system -- which segregates voters and assembly seats on a communal basis – has reduced minorities in the country to the status of second class citizens.
  • In August, a Krishna Janamashtmi procession in Dacca was attacked by armed Muslim
fanatics who pounced on the peaceful crowd screaming, “Death to the kafirs”. The ugly episode heightened the insecurity of the 20 million Hindus of Bangladesh.
  • To protest against this intolerable state of affairs, Hindu organisations announced their
decision not to celebrate Durga Puja the most important religious festival for a Bengali – this year. It took such a drastic step on the part of a badly badgered minority to awaken the uncaring Prime Minister Khaleda Zia and her politically, the Jammat-e-Islami.
  • Hindus and other non-Muslims are not the only targets of hatred and violence for the
fanatical or the intolerant Muslim groups in Pakistan and Bangladesh. The Ahmediyyas, consider themselves Muslims but the Islamic establishment in Pakistan thinks otherwise. So, they are persecuted and their fundamental rights as guaranteed by the Pakistan constitution itself are denied.
If the ill-treatment of minorities in both countries is one part of the story, the other pertains to escalating conflicts between Islamic fundamentalists on the one hand and secular- democratic forces on the other. The reason why the Hindu-baiters of Bangladesh are enraged with a Muslims woman named Tasleema Nasreen, a writer, is identical to the cause behind the ire of Hindutava’s kar sevaks against “psuedo-secularists” in India. Both are being hated for their honesty and courage in speaking out as compassionate human beings against the demonising and badgering of minorities in their respective countries.
Nasreen had become extremely unpopular among the bigoted earlier for her writings on the oppression of women under an establishment Islam. Her recent crime consists of writing a novel “Lajja” (Shame), which highlights the plight of a Hindu family in Bangladesh following the demolition of the Babri Masjid. The country’s government, headed by a woman prime minister, promptly banned the new book but that was not enough for the zealots of Islam. A little known outfit, Shahaba Sainik Parishad headed by Maulana Habib-ur-Rahman, has announced a reward of Bangla takka 50,000 for the writer’s head. But over 15 student organisations and other liberal groups have demanded prosecution of Rahman for his incitement to crime.
The controversial author is not the sole instance of sharp conflicts between secular and communal Muslims in Bangladesh, an Islamic state. Over the last month or so, the Islamic Chhatra Shibir, the student front of the fundamentalist Jammat-e-Islami has clashed with rival student bodies on several campuses across the country.

(The other) Voice of Pakistan
Hasrat hai Pak-o-Hind ki sarhad pe ja basen
Hindu bhi hain aziz, Musalman bhi aziz
(I crave to settle on the Indo-Pak border Hindus and Muslims are equally dear to me)
- John Elia, poet; in The Hindu           
I will want to tell Pakistanis that Hindus are not automatically the “enemy” who go about tearing down mosques. I will want to convey to Indians that Pakistanis are not what the media make them out to be: fanatics
- Akbar S. Ahmed, antropologist-civil Servant in The Times of India
I still feel that I am exile who wanders between Karbala and Ayodhya
- Intizaar Hussain, novelist; in the Economic Times

Reacting sharply to the mounting aggression of the Shibir, student organisations affiliated to different opposition parties have come together to demand a ban on the Jammat-e-Islam and its student front. During a stormy parliamentary debate, opposition members, too, have demanded a ban on religion-based politics in Bangladesh. If it was the ruling party which introduced a Bill to delink religion from politics in India, it is the opposition which proposes to unitedly move a similar Bill now in the neighbouring country.
Whether it be India, Pakistan or Bangladesh, it is an oft-forgotten fact that not every member of the majority community is opposed to the minorities living in their midst. As in the past, several secular-democratic opposition forces in Bangladesh have risen to the defence of the vulnerable minorities, castigating the government for its callous inaction and demanding severe action against those responsible for perpetrating atrocities on the Hindu community. Dr. Kamal Hossain, a former stalwart of the Awami League, the main opposition party in Bangladesh and president of the newly-floated People’s Forum recently accused the government of committing “an unpardonable offence by not foiling attempts to create communal feelings”.
Severely reprimanding it for its failure to re-build Hindu temples destroyed by Muslims in Bangladesh following the Ayodhya demolition, Hossain also demanded that the government identify and punish miscreants who attacked the Janamashtmi Procession in August. Rasheed Khan Menon, the general secretary of the Workers Party and an MP has gone a step further in his denunciation of the government’s failure in ensuring the safety of Hindus. In the first week of October, he warned that if the government abdicated its responsibility, his party workers would form defence squads to protect their Hindu brethren during the coming Puja festival.
Following the public outcry, even Khaleda Zia and the Jammat-e-Islami have been forced into making belated noises about how Hindus can celebrate the Puja festival without any fear. As far as most Indians are concerned, Pakistan is seen as the embodiment of all that is evil. For more than a dozen years, successive governments in Pakistan have made attempts to destabilise and fragment India through their support to secessionist movements in Punjab and in Kashmir.
The bomb blasts in Bombay this March and the explosion inside the RSS headquarters in Madras in August indicate that Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence is now trying to convert all of India into its theatre of operation. In view of these developments, it becomes difficult for most Indians to distinguish between the Pakistan government and Hindu-baiters on the one hand and the India and Hindu-friendly majority in that country on the other.
Friendship messages arrived from Pakistan nonetheless last month, brought to India by two of the country’s prominent men of letters Intizaar Hussain, a highly reputed fiction writer and John Elia, an unrepentent communist and a front rank Urdu poet. From what both of them had to say in interviews they gave to Indian newspapers, it is difficult to resist poet Elia’s proposition that the border between his country and ours “is only a state of mind”.
“Sab khuda ke vakil hain lekin /Admi ka koi vakil nahin” (Everyone claims to speak for God / but no one speaks for human being). This couplet Elia written some two decades ago remains an apt description of the grim sub-continental reality even today. Intizaar Hussain expressed much the same sentiments:’’ I am a Muslim, but I always feel that there is a Hindu sitting inside me.....I still feel that I am an exile who wanders between Karbala and Ayodhya......If we purged our (Pakistan’s) heritage of all unIslamic Hindu influences, what would remain of our music, painting, poetry or architecture?”
Hussain and Elia are no stray voices. Pakistan is an Islamic state no doubt but one in which the Pakistan Islamic Front and other religious outfits have fared miserably in the recently concluded national and state polls. Some of its laws, ostensibly based on Islam, are extremely oppressive against women. But representatives of strong women’s group have challenged the Hudood ordinance, the most repressive of the Islamized laws against women.
In a protracted public debate over the cultural roots of Pakistanis, conducted through the mainline national press two years ago, there were many who argued that while most Pakistanis may share their religion with Arabs and Turks, culturally they belonged only to the land of the Ramayana and the Mahabharat.
When asked to comment on communal strife in his interview with The Hindu, Elia responded with: “Beech men parne wale to bas bin karan hairan huye / Sayyed ji tha sara jhagra aap ka aur Brahman Ka” ( Meaningless was the agony of those who came in between / The conflict, in fact, was only between the mullah and the pandit). 
Forty six years after the bloody partition of the country along communal lines and three wars later, it often seems that there is enough hatred yet between the two major communities inhabiting the sub-continent to blow it to smithereens. But the Hussains and Elias of Pakistan, the Nasreens of Bangladesh and their numerous counterparts in India also raise hope that someday mullahs, pandits and opportunist politicians who manipulate religion to excite mass passions will be kept out of the way and people of the sub-continent will be able to live as good neighbours, at least.
The story has been archived from the October 1993 issue of Communalism Combat where it appeared as the cover story.