Saturday, April 04, 2009

A right can sometimes become a wrong

Byline by M J Akbar : A right can sometimes become a wrong

I don’t suppose the Christian principal of Nirmala Convent Higher Secondary School has looked at a picture of Jesus Christ lately, although it should be on more than one wall of the institution. If he had, he would have noticed that Jesus had a beard. The iconic prophets of the Old Testament certainly wore beards, at least according to the version of Moses popularised for the world by Cecil B. De Mille and Hollywood: Charlton Heston was given one as he brought the laws of God carved on stone from Mount Sinai. Not all prophets had beards; Solomon had one, but David seems to have shaved regularly.

There is nothing specifically religious about a beard in Judaism, Christianity or Islam. A beard is not a Quranic injunction, or a fundamental commandment of the faith. But some Muslims wear it out of admiration for, and in imitation of, their prophet, whom they adore as the true exemplar of humanity. There are those who keep it as a mark of identity, or even an assertion. Other Muslims keep their chins hirsute out of personal preference; perhaps the jawline is worth hiding from public view. Out of the six great Mughal emperors, Babar had a nicely cut beard; Humayun’s was more wispy (if the vague image I have of him is right); Akbar staked his visual reputation on the luxury of his moustache, as did his son Jehangir; Shahjehan had an immaculate beard which was clearly dressed by a superb royal barber; and only Aurangzeb had a beard that seemed straight out of a need for piety.

When the principal of Nirmala Convent forbade a student, Mohammad Salim, from coming to school in a beard, he was clearly objecting to what he considered was Salim’s aggressive assertion of a Muslim identity in a Christian school. He was, as the Supreme Court judgment confirmed, within the law. Article 30 of the Constitution gives a minority institution the right to determine the culture of its institutions.

Would this decision have become news if Justice Markandeya Katju had said nothing while dismissing the special leave petition in the case of Mohammad Salim versus Principal, Nirmala Convent Higher Secondary School? Salim’s appeal was framed around Article 25, the right to practice his faith. Justice Katju justified the decision by saying, “We don’t want to have Talibans in the country. Tomorrow a girl student may come and say she wants to wear a burqa — can we allow it?”

It was not a jocular aside made in an unguarded moment. It indicated the thinking behind the judgment. It is a bit of a mystery why he equated a beard with the Taliban: every Taliban might have a beard, but every Muslim with a beard is not a Taliban. Indeed, every terrorist does not appear with a beard attached, as the incidents in Mumbai last year indicated.

The judgment opens up an interesting can of minority rights. A large number of medressas in Bengal have Hindu students. Would the maulvis in the medressas be within their rights to demand that every girl come in a veil and every boy wear a beard? Should they make it compulsory for non-Muslim students to fast during Ramadan?

I would hope not. Hindu children in Muslim-run institutions come for an education in the three R’s, reading, writing and arithmetic, not in the fourth R, religion. Does the Supreme Court verdict mean that a Sikh child can be forced to shave if he joins a Catholic school?

It is curious how the most intelligent, balanced and learned among us succumb to stereotypes when faced with another’s faith. Perhaps this story of a lecture I gave at the Warsaw University might be instructive. It was around the time when the French government had stirred a huge controversy by banning the headscarf in state schools on the grounds that France was a secular nation and no symbol of religious identity could be permitted in a state school. The ban, incidentally, did not extend to wearing “small” crosses on a chain on the rather specious excuse that they were symbols of tradition rather than faith.

There are no mosques in Warsaw for the good reason that there are hardly any indigenous Muslims in Poland. There was surprise, therefore, when I mentioned that I had seen a woman wearing a hijab on my way to the University. Who? I had seen a Catholic nun, I explained. No one had ever viewed the nun’s dress as a form of hijab and abaya. The amazement widened to disbelief when I pointed out that the Virgin Mary, Jesus’ mother, would never have got admission in France’s state schools. There is no image, statue or painting, in which she does not have her head covered.

India’s definition of secularism is very different from Europe’s. Between Voltaire and Karl Marx, a huge swathe of Eurasia from the shores of the Atlantic to the edge of the Pacific, has separated state from faith. Indians are not obliged to set aside their faith identities when they go to a government office or a state school. A Sikh can wear his turban, a Muslim may fast during Ramadan, a Brahmin wear his caste thread. Religion is private space. The only requirement is that no religion can impose its will on another. Indian secularism gives a Hindu the right to be pro-Hindu, but not the liberty to be anti-Muslim. And vice versa.

Denial can be counter-productive. Common sense suggests where limits can be drawn. Where an individual’s identity is not intrusive, or an assault on the social good, there is little harm in permitting leeway. One of the more welcome facts about South India is the rising number of quality educational institutions financed with charity donations by Muslims. They stress vocational skills and are therefore in demand. A sizeable percentage of the students are non-Muslim, which is an extremely positive development. But it would take just one incident of a principal of a Muslim institution objecting to a Brahmin’s sacred thread or sandal paste on the forehead for a positive to become a negative. He would be within his legal right to do so; but he would not be in his right mind.

Postscript: As I finished this column the story of a girl being lashed mercilessly by fundamentalists in Pakistan appeared on television. I could not bear to watch or hear the screams of the young woman, who was being held down by her elder relatives while the punishment was being administered: is this brutality, this atrocity, this barbarism the final fate of Pakistan?


littleknown said...

I don't agree with you. But, I respect your views. You are a wonderful writer. Personally, I would prefer to keep education out of religion's corrupting reach and symbolism. But, I am a Hindu and I may be unable to fully understand a Muslim's mind, problems and opinions. You know it better.
But, if a Hindu wants to go to any school sporting tilak on forehead, or in saffron clothes, and if the school management stops him I would definitely support the school management.
We should allow religion in private life. But, we should not be allowed to make it a social cause.
Religion, all religions, including mine own, have caused enough harm. Pls. write against them. Pls. don't support them. Pls. help our children live in an era free of religion, religious symbolism, religious intolerance and religious fanaticism.
You are a great writer and definitely more secular than many. But, pls. stop analysing and defending religions and kindly don't quote from religious books to justify anything. The books were written long ago. All religions are same. Outdated. Why don't you write something to promote science, for a change?
But, I still like your writing. They are so scholarly. Only thing is I don't agree with them when you start writing about Muslims. Will you be humble enough to ask yourself whether you get biased when you touch issues related to your own religion?
Otherwise, you are so bright when you write about other issues. This is one reason why I want to see a day when religion is banished from our planet. Not by force. But, by spread of knowledge. Religion has already made most of the human kind blind. Not one sane voice among so many people, which could challenge all religions at one go as being illogical and completely out of sync with time.
Respectfully yours,
Your admirer.

arnamehsif said...

Sooner or later entire humanity will have to take a stand to discard all religions and religious rights from its domain and all rights to be determined on the basis of rationalism and secularism.Until then, we shall continue to see such inconsistency in public life

R.Alamsha Karnan said...

The Clash of Civilizations is a theory, proposed by political scientist Samuel P. Huntington, that people's cultural and religious identities will be the primary source of conflict in the post-Cold War world.


Huntington also argues that the widespread Western belief in the universality of the West's values and political systems is naïve and that continued insistence on democratization and such "universal" norms will only further antagonize other civilizations. Huntington sees the West as reluctant to accept this because it built the international system, wrote its laws, and gave it substance in the form of the United Nations.

India - A torn and over-burdened nation ?

According to Huntington, a torn country must meet three requirements in order to redefine its civilizational identity. Its political and economic elite must support the move. Second, the public must be willing to accept the redefinition. Third, the elites of the civilization that the torn country is trying to join must accept the country.

Today, India is NOT able to move forward mainly because of it's overpopulation burden, despite it's spectacular success in all walks of science and technology. The Hindu-Muslim divide is real and is the primary source for clash of civilizations.

The "unfinished business" of 1947 partition:

The caste system of the Indian subcontinent, Varnashram Dharma, is atleast 10,000 years old. It has survived intact despite 1000 years rule of Muslim invaders and 200 years rule of British invaders. The Hindu-Muslim conflict of the Indian subcontinent is atleast 200 years old, which lead to the partition of 1947 purely on the basis of religion.

Varun Gandhi is NOT the first person to ask Muslims to leave India. This is called "unfinished business" of partition. Several political leaders, irrespective of their political ideology have openly expressed this view, time and again. Varun Gandhi's outburst is nothing but the culmination of this frustration.

Ummah ideology:

Prophet Muhammed(PBUH) has clearly asked the followers of Islam to live and practice their faith peacefully in Dar al Islam to avoid conflict with other faiths. This is also clerly mentioned in Quran as "Lakum Dinakum Waliaddin - Let them follow their way and you follow yours".

Indian Muslims must accept this bitter reality and find a peaceful solution in their own interest. The proposed solution in my following blog looks like inevitable.

Nandini Mankale said...

Excellent article. I had not read the judgement in detail. It is wrong to stereotype the community. However, why do I see a lot of muslims educated and all, in their religious traditional outfits, including beards and burkhas. Even in IT companies, I see girls turn up in burkhas (pardon me if I have spelt it wrong). In a place like Bangalore, in the last 5 years there is a rise in the number of burkha clad women even in posh / cosmopolitan areas. Is it that there is a fatwa given by their religious heads to follow or else they will be punished?
Great, scholarly article.
Your admirer.

M said...

It this mentality of stereotyping a community. To you a jean or deep neack top is acceptable, why? If you say that that is in the currency, then you loose the right to even talk about the wrongs of the past, religious or otherwise. Moreover, a burqa is not baring anybody nor it asks others to do anything for the wearer. Still, if you think that the sight of a cap or beard or burqa puts you off, you are intolerant and communal because if people are not of your liking they become only objects and do not remain human being. You are lost in the lust of money and the practice of doing what you feel to do which is defined as 'lawlessness'. Please do not expect anything as help from the society you do not conform to. A gun would be handy for you to avoid troubles. Why not allow an eve teaser tease you because he too would be doing what pleases him. Give him liberty as well.

Nandini Mankale said...

This is in reply to the comments of M:
The intention of my previous comment was to understand the rise in the display of religious traditions in the last few years in Bangalore. This tradition of wearing Burqa by girl students / working women was not concspicuous in Bangalore ealrier. I was only wondering what could be the reason. This trend does not affect me in any way. I was wondering if the people are being forced to follow or it is of their own will. So the question of being lawless / not following societal norms does not arise.

Indian Vitchdokta said...

I think the judge did uphold the law but let down our culture of secularism with his comment.The difference in the western concept of secularism and the Indian one is that the western secularism expects the individual to distance themselves from religion/s or at least be equidistant whereas the Indian secularism is a more inclusive large hearted concept that encourages the individual to respect all relegions and allow space for others to practise their faith unhindered.
Like all human engagement mutual respect is the foundation for harmony and peace to be achieved

Unique Perception said...

"Postscript: As I finished this column the story of a girl..."

---Is this a retraction in retrospection?

R.Alamsha Karnan said...

Let us be honest for a change. India does NOT have enough even to feed the Hindus. One day, Muslims have to leave India.

Let us stop this hypocricy. Let us face it. How long can this madness go on?. Look at 1.2+ billion ever growing population. Can India ever be able to provide any good quality of life for the 70% of population living without access to clean water and toilet?. We all know that Hindu-Muslim divide is deep and irreparable. Neither Islam will change nor any other religion is going to change.

Don't you think, Muslims will be much better and prosperous, if they migrate to their 55 OIC nations which have combined lands and resouces 10 times more than India and less than 1/2 of India's population?. Don't you think, Indian Muslims should appeal to OIC to declare them as citizens of Dar al Islam?.

Already they are second and third class citizens. What difference is it going to make for them?. Atleast, they need NOT have to live under threat and suspicion. They can peacefully practice their faith in their own Dar al Islam.

In less than 20 years, Muslims will be driven out of their homes. Sooner or later, they have to leave India. Why NOT now?. Atleast, let them make a start. This is the best solution and both Hindus and Muslims will be happy. What do you think?.

Unique Perception said...

R.Alamsha Karnan
"Don't you think, Muslims will be much better and prosperous, if they migrate to their 55 OIC nations which have combined lands and resouces 10 times more than India and less than 1/2 of India's population?. Don't you think, Indian Muslims should appeal to OIC to declare them as citizens of Dar al Islam?...They can peacefully practice their faith in their own Dar al Islam."

---impressive Spoof.

Neyaz A. Farooquee said...

With reagrds to Karnan comment...
Why Muslims should leave India to OIC? Who gave Hindus right to be first class citizen leaving behind Muslims, Sikhs, Jains and christians? Non Hindus in India combinedly make upto 300 millions, does this guy know that this population is more than half of whole Europian Union?
Expulsion of this much population? tough job on hand buddy, why not open concentration camps? A very good and feasible idea, even Hitler was trying to save his country and race.
Yes, its a bitter truth that India may not be able to feed even its 70% hindus, so why not hindus leave India to any other part, which is ready to accept them, leaving Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, in the interest of all so that non hindus can live here and feed, at least, themselves properly?
A nonsense reply from me to an equally nonsense comment, and for that comment only.