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The News International, February 13, 2002

The burden of history

Mahdi Masud

Referring to Prime Minister Vajpayee's call for shedding 'the historical baggage' and the 'old mindset' made during the Kathmandu Summit, President Musharraf had offered, during his January 12, address to join hands in this endeavour for the purpose of establishing durable peace and harmony in the region. South Asia, equipped with natural and human resources, continues to suffer from self-inflicted wounds. Instead of learning from history, the Sub-Continent continues to carry it like a burden on its shoulders. Severely restricting its manoeuvrability and freedom of action.

Sahibzada Yakoob Khan was told by I K Gujral, while Foreign Minister in V P Singh's Cabinet, that, "Don't forget, Minister, that every Indian carries on his shoulders the burden of a thousand years of history," an apparent reference to the psychological hangover of eight hundred years of Muslim and two hundred years of British rule (Page 225 "Trial & Error" by Ambassador Iqbal Akhund). While this hangover is understandable and would have characterised any other people in the same situation, the leadership in South Asia would have to rise above history, if it is not to be left behind in the dust of the fast moving global caravan, awaiting fruitlessly the winds of change.

Wisdom has been defined as an exercise of judgement based on common sense, experience and available information. To this must be added the element of sensitivity essential for having an instinctive appreciation of the feelings and interests of the other party, the breadth of vision and the ability to put oneself in the other party's position. This is an essential pre-requisite for the leadership of the two countries, if they wish to move away from the "beaten track" of the past, an expression used by Prime Minister Vajpayee himself in his "musings" published on New Year day, 2001.

If the 'historical baggage' to which the Indian Prime Minister has rightly referred, is not to become even more onerous and unwieldy, an important priority would be the need to curb the extensive re-writing of history, which has been underway in both India and Pakistan. The position in this respect regarding Pakistan has already been commented upon separately.

In India, a host of well known writers have recently spoken up against the doctoring in India of politically and communally sensitive version of history including Praful Badwai and Kuldip Nayyar, who have described the re-writing of history in India as an assault on the country's pluralistic and secular conception. India's National Council for Educational and Technical Research has suffered at the hands of the Vajpayee government's efforts to eliminate what are described as "unpatriotic distortion of history".

In order to understand the Indian attitude towards Pakistan, a brief reference to the division of the Sub-Continent is essential. To put it mildly, the reaction of the majority community to partition, seen as a vivisection of Mother India, was bitter and furious. They saw in the creation of Pakistan, a state based on memories of Muslim rule, an alleged source of the accentuation of communal passions in India and a possible precedent for other secessionist movements in the Indian Union.

Although from the Muslim point of view, the establishment of Pakistan was to be the prelude to a cooperative relationship between India and Pakistan, this was a misreading of the reaction of the majority community. The partition massacres dashed Pakistan's hopes of a harmonious beginning to the relationship between the two independent states. The Indian occupation of Kashmir paved the way for the wars of 1948 and 1965. The separation of East Pakistan, systematically engineered by India with the help of our own sins of omission and commission, was seen in India as the high water mark of their history, the partial rectification of the division of 1947 and a half-way house towards the final disintegration of Pakistan.

While some unemotional and thoughtful Indians realise the justice of the Pakistani case on Kashmir and the gigantic contradiction of India trying to annex Kashmir side by side with Hyderabad and Junagarh on diametrically opposite criteria, even this small minority is prevented consciously or sub-consciously from following the dictates of their conscience due to their instinctively deep rooted objection to the very establishment of Pakistan. "The original sin" of India's division does not allow in their eyes, the pursuit of the normal standards of justice and honesty where Pakistan is concerned. This is how the mental reservation about Pakistan comes into play.

The continuing discrimination against the Indian Muslims is another vitiating factor. What is at stake in India, following Ayodhya, is not the denial to the Muslims of their right to worship but the right of the Muslims and other minorities to live as equal citizens, in safety and dignity, in a secular, democratic polity, irrespective of what happened in the past; the mythological past, the legendary past or the real past. The issues are thus secular, though the symbols are religious.

The battle for Ram Janambhoomi is part of a wider struggle for the construction of Hindu tradition. Ayodhya is considered the most suitable site for erecting a Hindu counter-point to the Islamic Kaaba, as a rallying point and centre of Hindu solidarity.

The re-writing of history from the Communal point of view, has seriously vitiated the atmosphere, as stated recently by Indian writers themselves. In India the 700-year rule of the Muslims is perceived as a period of forced conversions, of destruction of temples and their conversion into mosques and of other symbols of national humiliation. The history of the Muslim period, which was distorted earlier by the administrator-historians of the British Raj, is currently being mutilated by their Indian successors.

The Muslims are generally perceived as having extra territorial loyalties, incapable of being loyal to India. A continuing threat perception from Pakistan is fostered and in this context, the Indian Muslims are seen as a fifth column. The rise of Islamic militancy in recent years in various regions of the world is seen as confirming Hindu perception of the threat from Islamic forces. Stepped up activism amongst the Indian Muslims adds to the prevailing concern.

The inter-caste conflict amongst the Hindus is sought to be diverted into a common anti-Muslim front. The Indian Press plays up allegations of subversion and related activities against Indian Muslims. The grant of financial aid by certain Gulf countries to Muslim charitable causes evokes suspicions.

The BJP needed more than its ideology to increase its following. It needed a symbol to unite the Hindus. The party used the Babri Mosque issue as a rallying cry and also as a factor to divert attention from the increasing inter-case conflict within the Hindu community in the post-Mandal era.

The weakening of the Congress party and the decline of the Left led to the rise of the BJP as the largest party in parliament. Secularism, now under frontal attack, had been wisely seen by India's founding fathers as necessary not only in the interests of the religious minorities but also for countering the dangers of religo-cultural orthodoxy to the unity of the caste-driven Hindu society itself.

Unlike action taken against extremist organisations in Pakistan by President Musharraf's government, no action has been taken against extremist organisations and violence preaching cadres in India. One of the fundamentalist Hindu organisations is the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP World Hindu Council). This was established in 1964 and gave an opportunity to the RSS with its disciplined cadres to align with the Hindu ecclesiastical community. The VHP espouses the retrieval of as many as three hundred (alleged) temples said to have been turned into mosques during past centuries.

Another Hindu chauvinistic party is the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra which has been responsible for viciously communalising Indian politics. It portrays itself as the Champion of Hindu rights and as a front against people from outside Maharashtra. Mrs. Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi themselves pandered to Hindu fundamentalism. They saw in the fast spreading Hindu revivalism a strong Hindu vote bank. The television programmes Mahabharat and Ramayana showed the way the wind was blowing.

The RSS was influenced by Nazi doctrine Gowarkar, as Chairman of the RSS, exhorted the Hindus to take a lesson from German policy towards the Jews. The RSS has maintained that "national frontiers are always in a flux, that Burma and Afghanistan used to be in the Indian sphere of influence, that Sri Lanka was never really separate from the mainland and that Iran was originally Aryan".

The RSS has expanded rapidly into most parts of the country and in most schools, colleges, offices and factories, as a semi-clandestine movement espousing anti-Muslim militancy. It is high time the Indian government took a leaf from example set by President Musharraf in launching a drive against extremist organisations and launched similar action against organisations responsible for hate campaign and violence against minority communities and groups, in India.

The writer is a former ambassador of Pakistan to many countries


Hindu Fundamentalism Index