In praise of a brand new spring offensive
09 March, 2007
By Jawed Naqvi
|Swami Agnivesh, the saffron clad social reformer, activist for secularism and Dalit rights busy in subverting the Indian system.|
Swami Agnivesh, the saffron clad social reformer, activist for secularism and Dalit rights was busy subverting the Indian system last week. Muslims should marry Hindus, he exhorted his interactive audience in a TV programme that was recorded for state-run Doordarshan. Brahmins should marry Shudras. The money-lending Baniyas should marry farmers of the Jaat community.
To narrow their geographical aloofness, Naga tribals from the northeast should marry Tamil Christians from the south, and Kashmiris should marry Keralites. Shias and Sunnis should marry too, like their many Iraqi counterparts, and the upper caste Syeds should not hesitate in taking a groom or a bride from the Mehtar community of India’s caste-bound Muslims, many of whom still work as lowly scavengers.
There was no need for conversion to anyone’s faith. Lord Wavell, the British Governor General, had opened up the possibility of taking religion out of marriage. He had instituted the Special Marriages Act, primarily to give legitimacy to the children of British “Tommies” by letting the soldiers take Indian wives. Today the law enables millions of Indian couples to defy the system which is otherwise heavily loaded in favour of religious and caste prejudices, to marry in a pact that assures unbridled gender and social equality.
The TV programme hosted by Swami Agnivesh is appropriately called Manthan, the churning. If he succeeds in his mission most mainstream Indian dailies would lose a huge chunk of their revenues they siphon off from matrimonial ads. These newspapers wilfully promote caste and religious affinities by carrying notices that are rooted in deplorable social divisions. In the passing a well-known movie actor was also slammed for making his future daughter-in-law, also a successful “bollywood” star, go through degrading religious rituals so that his son would not die as a result of the “ill-starred” matrimony. The heroine’s date of birth is considered inauspicious according to the Hindu calendar, hence the obscurantist antidote to ward off the evil shadow. Agnivesh also rapped the media for not targeting the issue despite its obvious social importance. He thought TV channels and newspapers implicitly endorsed this religious fumigation of the poor woman and failed to question the demeaning rituals involved in making her “marriageable”.
In this sense the popular movie star was not being any better than Najman Bua, the illiterate governess in our Lucknow home. The 80-year-old taskmaster, who clearly could not have read the Quran nor observed a single fast, would caution us nevertheless against playing Holi, the Hindu festival of colours. Najman claimed that “Allah Mian” would slice away a part of the skin if it got tainted by the pagan colours of north India’s spring festival. If Najman Bua is right then millions of Indian Muslims, and goodness knows how many Pakistanis would lose portions of their skin in the next life. Cricketers Rameez Raja, Muhammad Khalil and Yassir Hameed should be heading for hell in the hereafter for allowing their Hindu friends to sprinkle them with colours when they were touring India a few years ago.
And what about the erstwhile Nawabs of Awadh who spent all of 13 days in celebrating Holi? Wajid Ali Shah’s court played Raslila for Lord Krishna. The most famous Hindu dharmic play, Indra Sabha, was composed in his court by a Muslim writer. The Sufis of India celebrated Basant Panchmi by singing in praise of Saraswati, the deity of knowledge. They revived the festival of Basant, by bringing ‘sarson’ flowers and saffron chadars to the dargahs. The great poet, Amir Khusro, has written numerous Holi poems to his Guru, whom he compared to Krishna: Mohe suhagan, rang basanti rang de Khwajaji/ Aao, Sufiion sang Hori khelo.
Mediaeval poet and intellectual par excellence Ras Khan was one of the many Muslim “Krishna bhakts”, not unlike Malik Mohhammed Jayasi who wrote the Padmavat. He renounced everything to live in Vrindavan, upon seeing a Baniya’s son, whom he idolised as Krishna.
Sectarian zealots stalk citizens of Lahore across the border and other venues of Pakistan’s Punjab province where the festival of Basant is observed with gaiety. India’s rightwing Hindu politician Sushma Swaraj was blamed for stirring trouble against the Agra summit because of the loaded statements she made on the meeting between President Musharraf and Prime Minister Vajpayee. Yet, we had seen the same lady in a different avatar in Lahore. It was a day or two after the Lahore summit of February 1999, I think, when Sushma Swaraj was dancing away on the decorated rooftop at a Lahori Basant party. She had missed Benazir Bhutto by a whisper because the bus from Islamabad had brought us late. It wasn’t the fault of the bus though. Ms Swaraj had commandeered all its passengers to the ruins of the ancient Katasraj temple en route. You should have seen her being idolised by Pakistani and Hindu devotees at the shrine.
In this context I came across an absorbing exchange of ideas by young Pakistanis on the website run as Pakistan Defence Forum. Some of the ideas are illuminating. Here’s a sample: says someone called “visioninthedark: “Just as Basant is celebrated in Lahore and the Punjaab; there are many parts of Pakistan where Nawroz is celebrated as the New Year; specially in the Northern and Western regions. I for one come from a family that celebrates Nawroz and therefore would like to wish all those who celebrate this day a very Happy New Year.”
Thus responds Chursy: “Yes I do celebrate Nawroz and would like to congratulate you on this occasion. As far as Basant goes it was glamorised recently. Initially Basant was limited to Lahore, Gujranwala, Kasur etc. Now I even see people in Karachi celebrating Basant (which is quite odd). Anyway I guess it’s up to us to promote the Nawroz to the extent where people start taking it seriously.”
Ilyas has reservations: “Yaar it is an Iranian thing, why should we celebrate it? I know most of the shias in Pakistan think that they are direct descendant of Persian people so they celebrate Persian events just to show that we are Persian. It is the new year in Persian calendar which we have no business using cause we already have two different calendars that we Muslims use. If somebody makes a case about celebrating Nawroz then why shouldn’t we celebrate ‘diwali’, ‘holi’ and other subcontinent events since most of the population is more closely related to sub-continent culture than the Iranian one?”
The exchange is too long to be reproduced here but for those interested it can be found on the weblink: http://www.pakistanidefenceforum.com/lofiversion/index.php/t9018.html
So what does this debate on Holi, Basant and inter-religious marriages signify? For one there is a new kind of, shall we say, spring offensive under way, one that would make both the Taliban and their American pursuers squirm. No one would be more delighted than Swami Agnivesh and a growing number of like-minded folks across India, Pakistan and even of course Afghanistan.