“THERE is a certain kind of secularism which sometimes scares me even more than the militant fundamentalism of the mosque-bashers”, began an e-mail I received the other day in response to my recent series of columns on Hinduism and Indianness. “It wears a smiling face and speaks in a tender voice, asking Muslims to participate in Hindu `culture’ rather than `religion’. `Celebrate Deepavali with us,’ these secularists say, and they perceive no irony in the way Deepavali takes over civil life in India the way Id or Muharram can never aspire to. They are proud of the fact that rural Islam is almost indistinguishable from Hinduism, but they do not stop to wonder why it is not the other way around.”


I sat up and took notice. I am used to criticism from all sides in our wretched national agonising about secularism, but rarely in such terms from an Indian Muslim. The author of these words, Shahnaz Habib, went on: “You write about the Amritraj family, `To give their children `Hindu’ names must have seemed more `nationalist’.’ You have just equated Hindu with nationalist, a religion with the country, the part with the whole. You go on to add that Muslim Indians still `feel obliged to adopt Arab names in deference to the roots of their faith’. I wish I knew how you defined `obliged to’. Is it merely a compulsion of faith as you seem to see it or is it a joyous affirmation of being able to participate not only in a local heritage but also in a culture that goes beyond national boundaries? Or could it be a political act? Could it be the insecurity of living in a country where you walk into a nationalised bank to be faced by a huge oil painting of goddess Lakshmi? Why are there so few Muslim or Christian symbols in our public spaces if cultural assimilation has been so successful?”

And there was a particular poignancy to Ms Habib’s concluding paragraph: “I wish for you the knowledge of what it feels like to be a minority. What it feels like to be on the wrong side of an accident of numbers. On one hand, the adventure of having more than one culture to call mine. The magic of constantly challenging my preconceptions. And the pain of wishing that my Hindu friends knew as much about my Muslim festivals and customs as I know about theirs, of wishing that I didn’t have to explain my actions in my own country. And worse, feeling guilty for feeling this pain.”

The e-mail gave me much to think about, both because of its own thoughtfulness and because it is always salutary for a writer to be reminded that one must never become too complacent in the belief that one’s own good intentions are self-evident. I responded by pointing out that certain cultural symbols are identified with a religious community but used by both — I mentioned the smashing of coconuts in my piece; I know Muslim women who wear the bindi for decorative purposes, and Hindu men who wear an achkan. I have written elsewhere of Hindu worshippers at Sufi shrines and the Dagar brothers singing Hindu devotionals. Though I did not do so in my “Hindu” column, in my novel Riot I have cited a Hindu exponent of qawwali.

That kind of cultural mingling, I suggested, is not particularly one-sided. As for festivals, most Hindus do join in Muslim celebrations when invited politicians suggests both tokenism and opportunism.

In my column I had put the “Hindu” in “`Hindu’ names’ within quotes because the names of the Amritraj trio are actually no more Hindu than the names Bashir or Jamal are Muslim. Vijay and Anand are merely Sanksrit words connoting victory and bliss respectively, which have been used as names for millennia. Ashok in fact is the name of a Buddhist king. They are indeed names with a hoary pedigree on Indian soil, which is why I suggested their use might have seemed more “nationalist”. I believe my entire published work would demonstrate vividly that I have never identified Indianness with Hinduness, “a part with the whole”.

Having said that, though, I told Shahnaz Habib that I was concerned by her reference to the Muslim use of Arab names as “a joyous affirmation of being able to participate not only in a local heritage but also in a culture that goes beyond national boundaries”. First of all, what is the culture she refers to? It is not Islam, because Arab names are pre-Islamic and the same names are used by all Arabs, Christian, Muslim or Druze. Was she suggesting, I asked, that an Indian Muslim should feel more affinity with Arab culture than with Indian? I hoped not, because then she would be giving ammunition to the worst bigots on the Hindutva side.

Ms Habib’s reply was impressive. “If we go back to the linguistic and geographical roots of `amrit’ and `bashir’, there is inde

Source: The Hindu