The international outcry at the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas — the magnificent statues carved out of an Afghan mountainside by devout monks 1400 years ago and described by the intrepid Chinese traveller Hsuen Tsang as amongst the greatest achievements of human civilization — has now died down. There is not much point to it any more: the statues are gone, and the Afghan people are starving. Better attend to the living than to mourn the destroyed, many say. And who can blame them?
But one of the saddest features of this outcry, to an Indian, must be the extent to which the world’s critics and commentators linked the event to another act of destruction, this time on Indian soil. I refer, of course, to the tearing down, by a howling, chanting mob of Hindu fanatics, of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in December 1992. Many foreign analysts drew a direct parallel between the two events. To take but one prominent example, the New York Times’ editorial observer, Tina Rosenberg, wrote of the Taliban’s action that “such irreversible destruction of cultural and religious property has ample recent precedent.” She cited Ayodhya and its blood-soaked aftermath as her principal example, and added, “Mobs often seek to destroy religious and ethnic sites, both to intimidate the people who hold them sacred and to send the message ‘you do not belong here’.” Shamefully, that is just what an Indian mob did, and we who allowed it to happen will never be able to live it down.
Others too saw India’s passionate denunciations of the Bamiyan destruction as tainted, if not undermined, by the fact that they issued from the lips of leaders who had condoned (and in some cases incited) a comparable act of cultural barbarism on their own soil. What have we come to that a land that has been a haven of tolerance for religious minorities throughout its history should have sunk so low in the eyes of the world? India’s is a civilization that, over millennia, has offered refuge and, more important, religious and cultural freedom, to Jews, Parsis, several varieties of Christians, and (particularly in the south) to Muslims. Jews came to Kerala centuries before Christ, with the destruction by the Babylonians of their First Temple, and they knew no persecution on Indian soil until the Portuguese arrived in the 16th century to inflict it. In Kerala, where Islam came through traders, travellers and missionaries rather than by the sword, the Zamorin of Calicut was so impressed by the seafaring skills of this community that he issued a decree obliging each fisherman’s family to bring up one son as a Muslim to man his all-Muslim navy! The India where the wail of the muezzin routinely blends with the chant of mantras at the temple, and where the tinkling of church bells accompanies the gurudwara’s reading of verses from the Guru Granth Sahib, is an India that is entitled to lament and to condemn what happened at Bamiyan. But that India must resist those Indians who pulled down the Babri Masjid.
The central battle in contemporary Indian civilization is that between those who, to borrow from Whitman, acknowledge that we are vast, we contain multitudes, and those who have presumptuously taken it upon themselves to define (in increasingly narrower terms) what is “truly” Indian. The central tenet of tolerance is that the tolerant society accepts that which it is does not understand and even that which it does not like, so long as it is not sought to be imposed upon the unwilling. Those who persecute young boys and girls trying to celebrate Valentine’s Day have no right to claim they are doing so in the name of a culture which has long been a byword for tolerance. I cringe that an Indian state has self-righteously banned the Miss India contest, even if I believe that such contests enshrine a very limited aspect of Indian womanhood. I am appalled that a government minister intimidates a French television channel into altering its fashion programming because its models’ attire is “contrary to Indian sensibilities”, as if the minister is entitled to define what those sensibilities are, and when the only ones affected are those who voluntarily tune in to that channel. All this is being done in the name of “Bharatiya sanskriti,” a notion of Indian culture whose assertion is both narrow-minded and profoundly anti-historical.
For where, in Ms Sushma Swaraj’s definition of “Bharatiya sanskriti,” do the erotic sculptures of Khajuraho belong? Should their explicitly detailed couplings not be pulled down, as FTV’s cable signals have been? What about the Kama Sutra, the tradition of the devadasis, the eros of the Krishna Leela — are they all unIndian now? I wonder how many saw the irony at the recent Maha Kumbha Mela of Naga sadhus parading their nakedness in front of women and
Source: The Hindu