THE biggest news of 2016 came in towards the end of the year. Publicly, the key industrial house admitted the importance of the most powerful fundamentalist body. Rattan Tata flew in his own plane to Nagpur, the RSS headquarters, to meet Mohan Bhagwat, head of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The meeting lasted just 20 minutes but it gave a message that even a secular set-up, headed by minority community of Parsis, had thrown in towel. The hot wind blowing in favour of parochialism seemed to leave no alternative in country except a body which was akin to the Hindutva.
This is a sad commentary on our secular credentials. Even before independence, the national movement had drawn inspiration from the concept of pluralism and had Muslim leaders like Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and Rafi Ahmed Kidwai to anchor the movement. They withstood the pressure that the Muslim League had built up in the name of religion. The leaders were dubbed as Hindu show boys. I recall an incident from Mahatma Gandhi’s prayer meetings. He was a great exponent of Hindu-Muslim unity and even paid the price for his principles. A Hindu fanatic, Nathuram Godse, shot him point-blank for what the latter dubbed as appeasement towards the Muslims.
At the prayer meetings, there were recitations from the Bible, Quran and the Gita in that order. One day refugee from Pakistan objected to the reading of the Quran. Gandhiji said that there would be no prayer because the recitation of Quran was an integral part of meetings. It took nearly a fortnight for the objector to realize that he was in the way of others. Subsequently, he met Gandhiji and withdrew his opposition. The prayer meetings were resumed. With Gandhiji, the secular ethos was a matter of faith. His presence in today’s India would have been a challenge to the soft-Hindutva that has quietly embraced the country. The 20 crore Muslims, one fifth of the country’s population, do not matter in the affairs of the nation. They become relevant only at the time of polls because they are vital votes in the joint electorate.
The partition of the country has drawn on the basis of religion that bristles with vengeance and enmity. I commend every effort, however small, to reach out to Pakistan. On the first day of the New Year, young boys and girls gathered at India Gate to ride a bus to Wagha border to express their friendly feelings towards Islamabad. There was a time before the 1965 war, when the border was particularly soft, the boys and girls would go to Lahore directly from Delhi. The boys and girls had proudly put up a banner which said ‘Bus to Pakistan.’ Fifty boys and girls sat in the bus while another 50 rode bicycles. After every 10 kilometres they were to exchange places and stop at certain places before reaching the border. Local people were associated with the reception of the youth. They were treated like a bridegroom taking the baraat.
I do not know why relations between India and Pakistan are frozen. The partition was with the consent of both the Congress and the Muslim League, although the former was not happy about it. Seventy years since independence should have been a long enough period to accept one another and be decent neighbours, if not friends. True, Pakistan is a democratic state but the army which once ruled the country has the last word. In third world countries, the army goes back to the barracks after the coup but ensures that the real power resides with it. Bangladesh is a peculiar case where the army does not want to rule. A former army chief of the country told me that once they intervened it became the people versus the army. Therefore, it was better for the people to deal with the mess that they created.
India is fortunate that the three services are apolitical and professional to the core. They believe that their job is to protect the border and they do so to the best of their ability. In any case, the armed forces which are secular in training do not want to enter the field that smacks of parochialism. Unfortunately, the armed forces in Pakistan and Bangladesh have of late begun to reflect the religion, Islam, to which they belong. The distance between the mosque and the military is lessening and the democratic ideals are getting blurred. This is a dangerous trend which Prime Ministers Nawaz Sharif and Sheikh Hasina should suppress ruthlessly. But they are trying to ride the two boats at the same time. People in both countries envy India for the democratic traditions which have got entrenched. Similarly, the Indian judiciary has become an example that they would like to follow. The two countries do not have the collegium of judges that India is proud of. I often wonder how India came to appoint the best of judges even when the authority to do so vested in the government. The Supreme Court’s recent verdict, even though four to three has laid down that “religion, race, caste, community or language would not be allowed to play any role in the electoral process and that election of a candidate would be declared null and void if an appeal is made to seek votes on these considerations”. This has strengthened democracy and defeated once again the communal elements.
The nation, however, cannot take things for granted because Prime Minister Narendra Modi makes no secret about his preference for the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP). The party’s ideologues live in Nagpur and even he has sought them to give a message that he drew his inspiration from them. Therefore, it should not be a surprise that Rattan Tata goes to meet Bhagwat who guides the ruling party. Cyrus Mistry, once part of Tata group, seems to have knowledge of the inner working of the house. Obviously Rattan Tata does not want Bhagwat to be taken in by what Mistry says since his ouster. Probably, it is the other side of the story that Rattan Tata wanted to cover up. But, this would be worth knowing.
—The writer is a veteran Indian journalist, syndicated columnist, human rights activist and author.