All Religions are not same, but Fundamentalists Are
By M J Akbar
Given the staggering backlog of cases that clog the Indian judicial system, is it necessary to put Sri Ram Sene chief Pramod Muthalik through the full rigours of the wrench? Here is a suggestion for cruel and unusual punishment that can be administered immediately: he should be forced to see a collection of item numbers from Hindi movies.
Alternatively, he could be subjected to six hours of solitary confinement in front of MTV. A serious study of pole dancing to the strains of Kaal kaal mein hum tum kare dhamaal might open his eyes. When those eyes are open, he might recognise that popular culture in India has moved far beyond pubs. Every government in the past two decades has endorsed this advance: the once-beady eye of the censor board now winks merrily at the exploding screen. The censor cannot lag behind the audience, or the entertainment industry will become defunct.
All religions are not the same; but all fundamentalists are. They share an aversion for modernity and a hatred of gender equality. It is entirely logical that the Ram Sene should find an ally in the Jamaat-e-Islami; their ethos is not dissimilar, no matter how different the imagery their rhetoric might contain. The same mindset persuades some maulanas to issue a fatwa condoning divorce through triple talaaq even when the husband is drunk. The very clerics who will damn you to eternal hellfire for touching alcohol are ready to rationalise any diktat that amounts to subjugation of women. Eminent Islamic scholars have repeatedly proved that instant triple talaaq is bad in Islamic law, and such variations even worse. Islam institutionalised the rights of women; such distortions are at variance to its liberating spirit. But the issue is not law: this is conservative, male domination over women.
Sex, or an ugly offshoot, vulgarity, is not modernity. Since sex began with Adam, it must be as old as existence. The pub, or tavern, can claim a bit of antiquity as well. The four principles of a modern society, which is a necessary prerequisite of a modern state, are gender equality, political equality, religious equality and economic equity.
India is one nation among the many who emerged from the ruins of the British empire capable of claiming the mantle of modernity. This is not because Indians are superior to their neighbours, but because the idea of India is better. Democracy, secularism, equality and freedom are an Indian's non-negotiable birthright. There is only one serious weakness: poverty has to be reduced at a much faster rate than the growth in prosperity. As long as we are burdened with this wretched malaise called poverty, we cannot call ourselves a modern nation. Economic equality is a fantasy; but an equitable distribution of national wealth is a compulsion. A civilised nation cannot divide its people by a hunger line. Citizens must live in various categories of a comfort zone, and the most basic comfort is a full stomach. Freedom is incomplete without freedom from hunger.
The poor are never unreasonable. They do not believe that there is any magic wand that can suddenly make them wealthy. But they have every right to economic justice. When they find India rising, but they are not rising along with their country, there is envy and anger. The young men who become the club-wielders of socially regressive organisations are motivated by more than one reason, but a principal cause is denial of the liberties and pleasures that a disposable income brings. They may not realise it, but they want what they seek to destroy. It is a familiar paradox.
Social reform has not come to all Indian communities at the same pace. Groups like the self-appointed All India Muslim Personal Law Board have used evocative sentimentality and identity politics in order to block reform and gender equality among Muslims. They have received patronage from politicians with a vested interest in the status quo. But there is a new murmur among Muslim youth, who are ready to reject this false equation between identity and regression.
This is an age of information. If they cannot go out to the world then the world can come into their drawing rooms through the television set. They want to be a happy and creative part of a modern India: engineers, managers, technocrats, writers and sportsmen building the emerging nation around them. They will not be held back by the discrimination of others or the frozen minds within their own. For evidence, read the story of cricketer-brothers Yusuf and Irfan Pathan. They are the flavour of the present and the prescription of the future.
Appeared in Times of India - February 15, 2009