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Identity politics

A NUMBER of readers have asked why I allowed the 10th anniversary of the destruction of the Babri Masjid to pass unremarked in this column. After all, one wrote, it was an episode that went to the heart of the concerns I have repeatedly written about: how could I neglect it at such a time? Well, I responded somewhat feebly, I had an equally topical subject to address last time, the just-concluded tour of France by 19 Indian writers. Having been one of them, I was in a better position to write about it than on a subject from which I had to admit I was geographically removed. And, let's face it, I had written about the Babri Masjid tragedy at the time and afterward, and I assumed the Indian papers would have said everything there was to say.

But what about your personal thoughts? One of my correspondents persisted. Surely you have your own recollections of 10 years ago? That got me thinking about December 6, 1992. I remember vividly an American friend at a function in New York that day telling me he had seen on the news that the Babri Masjid had been destroyed, and my simply refusing to believe it. "You must have heard it wrong," I asserted confidently. "That sort of thing simply wouldn't happen in India. And if some mob had actually tried to attack it, the police would have stopped them well before they destroyed the mosque. Maybe the TV reported it was damaged?" "It was destroyed," the American retorted. "I didn't just hear it on TV. I saw it. It was destroyed in full view of the cameras." It took a while for my initial disbelief to dissipate. This couldn't have happened, I agonised, in the India I had grown up in. Of course there had been riots in my youth, but they were spontaneous eruptions, and for the most part had been quickly brought under control. But an organised effort to pull down a mosque? The very thought was appalling — something I did not believe Indians, as a collectivity, were capable of contemplating.

And if they were, surely they wouldn't be allowed to complete the task? The destruction of a substantial building takes time, and I couldn't believe the authorities would have let the mob have the hours they needed to fulfil their malign intent. The India in which this could happen was an India that had changed immeasureably from the country in which I had reached adulthood. It was from a profound sense of loss and betrayal that I wrote, and spoke, of my anguish at the time.

Indians in New York were just as exercised as Indians in India. I recall two events in particular. I was invited, along with others, to speak at an event at Columbia University one Sunday that December at which artists and writers responded to the tragedy. In the time allotted to me I chose to read three extracts from other writers — Tagore's immortal "Let my Country Awake", from his Gitanjali; a poignant short story by Saadat Hasan Manto about looters at the time of Partition who are helped and encouraged by a kind man who turns out to be the owner of the house being looted; and a brief passage from Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, in which he talks about the Indian "overpainter", using art as a metaphor for the palimpsest that is the Indian identity. To my astonishment the organisers, an anti-communal group, came to me afterward to say that a number of Muslims in the audience had been outraged by my choice of the last passage. Did I not know that Rushdie was anathema to them? Could I disavow him and apologise? It was my turn to be outraged. I had not come to lend my voice to a denunciation of Hindu intolerance in order to condone Muslim intolerance.

There was nothing remotely offensive to anybody about the passage I had read; its content, its evocation of Hindu and Muslim artists painting over each other's work, was precisely what I had come to affirm. In choosing this passage by a great Indian Muslim writer I was seeking to uphold the idea of the pluralist, tolerant India that had been attacked along with the Masjid. I refused to apologise, let alone disavow what I had read. But it was a sobering reminder that intolerance comes in many shades.

The second episode at the time was an address I was invited to make to the Indian community at the Consulate in New York. A number of Hindutva sympathisers turned up for the question-and- answer session that was to follow, prepared to denounce the "pseudo-secularism" that they would underlie my critique.

Instead I spoke as a believing Hindu — and I spoke passionately of my shame that this could have been done by people claiming to be acting in the name of my faith. I had prided myself on belonging to a religion of astonishing breadth and range of belief; a religion that acknowledged all ways of worshipping God as equally valid — indeed, the only major religion in the world that did not claim to be the only true religion. Hindu fundamentalism was a contradiction in terms, since Hinduism is a religion without fundamentals; there is no such thing as a Hindu heresy. How dare goondas of Ayodhya reduce the soaring majesty of the Vedas and the Upanishads to the petty bigotry of their brand of identity politics? Why should any Hindu allow them to diminish Hinduism to the raucous self-glorification of the football hooligan, to take a religion of awe-inspiring tolerance and shrink it into a chauvinist slogan? My speech startled both the secular leftists in the audience and the acolytes of Hindutva. Some of the latter who had come to protest were chastened into silence; only one rose to question me, saying that he agreed with my vision of Hinduism but that such a faith could have only one logical outcome — support for the positions taken by Hindu political leaders. To which my response was simple: I was brought up by a strongly devout father in the Hindu belief that each of us had to find his own Truth. No true Hindu, I averred, would allow a politician to define his dharma for him.

That's where I rested my case. Ten years later, it seems the right place to rest these reflections.

Shashi Tharoor is the author of India: From Midnight to the Millennium, The Great Indian Novel and other books. Visit him on the web at www.shashitharoor.com.

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