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Cultural Terrorism: The Growing Threat of Intolerance

India, and for that matter the whole world, appears to be drifting towards bigotry and intolerance, laments poet and folklorist Ved Prakash Vatuk.

Author and diplomat Shashi Tharoor raised a burning question of our time in a recent article. Has India become a state of intolerance? Why India, indeed, has the whole world been drifting toward more and more bigotry? Each day we read in the newspapers so many horrible stories, each of which is enough to make our head bow in shame. The local newspapers carry news of murders, rapes, robberies and other such barbaric crimes and their cause is so trivial. In India, people are still being hanged for loving/ marrying someone of a different caste or class. Women are being burnt for not providing enough dowry. India lives in many centuries simultaneously where side by side the dark ages exist with the new modern rich India. On the national level we find all kinds of excuses to incite riots resulting in burning, looting and mass murders. It may be an issue related to language, provincialism, caste, religion, class — you just name it and the political leaders are ready to jump on it. Anything that can help them to reach the height of power or to keep it seems to be legitimate.

There was a time when people gave up everything including their lives in order to help India attain freedom and prosperity. Now it seems they are only interested in grabbing whatever they can. Many of those who did nothing or even helped the enemies to suppress the freedom movement are cashing in on their imaginary sacrifices or the sacrifices made by their fathers. Today the only patriotic thing seems to be to promote their self-interest by creating dissension among the masses resulting in bloodshed and destruction on a grand scale. Whatever can make them rich and powerful seems to be legitimate to them.

It is not even necessary that the behavior of our leaders be consistent. Today they can carry a nationwide movement of rathayatra to promote their agenda of the Hindutva, if that suits their purpose of grabbing power. Even if their deeds result in mass murder, they do not hesitate one bit. Tomorrow the same Muslim-hating leader can a put a wreath on the grave of Pakistan founder Muhammed Ali Jinnah and call him a great secular man. Other politicians can change their party affiliation shamelessly again and again like the fashion. Thinking of them once I wrote a couplet which said

“Never trust your leaders, if it suits their purpose, they may even speak the truth”. (rahnumaao(n) kaa kuchh yakeen nahee(n) / kuchh milegaa to sach bhee kah de(n) ge).

We can find literally thousands of examples that show that the country, which prides it self by calling the birthplace of so many apostles of peace and nonviolence — Mahavir, Buddha, Gandhi — is deeply mired in hatred and violence. If a Rajput finds anything that ever so slightly hurts his/ her feeling in the film Jodhaa Akbar, he does not wait to protest peacefully. Just gather a crowd and go burn the theaters where the film is being shown. If one feels that showing the reality of the miserable life of the widows in Varanasi in a film is an attack on Hindu values, organize a mob riot and burn the set, force the actors and filmmakers to run for their lives and shoot the film somewhere else. Their purpose is not to correct the situation or try to give a better life to the miserable ones. In fact to admit that there exists a problem itself hurts the feeling of Hindus. If you don’t like the conclusion of a historian about any of your favorite historical figure, don’t fight it with any solid argument. Just burn his book, ask the government to ban it. Issue a fatwa against the author. Even the famous Bhandarkar library in Pune, the pride of the nation which contains rare manuscripts, becomes the target and is burned to the ground, simply because the author did his research work there. If paintings of an artist hurt your feelings, burn them, his house and force him to flee to some other country. If the thoughts of a writer seem to be anti-Islamic, just make their life hell, as in the case of Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasrin. Perhaps Mullahs don’t have the time to minister to the needs of the backward women of their community because they spend an inordinate amount of time pouncing on stray remarks by Muslim celebrities like tennis player Sania Mirza.

Not only that, if one does not like the work that people like Shankar Guha Niyogi did for adivasis in Chhattisgarh, living among them and like them, kill them. Even the Hindu priest of Ram Lala Mandi in Ayodhya, which was the focal point of inciting Hindus around the globe, was killed because they did not like his comments about the leaders of the movement when he said that the whole movement was just politically motivated since none of the leaders of the movement ever came to offer even a flower to the deity in whose name so many people were killed. When an honest income tax officer asked about all the money collected from overseas Hindus for building that temple, he was forced out of his office.

The brutal fact is that today, India is so much in the grip of bigotry, narrow mindedness and cultural terror, that no historian or social scientist can honestly do his/her research objectively. Recently, the history department of Delhi University was attacked brutally because they had the nerve of assigning a reader, which contained an article by world famous scholar, late A.K. Ramanujan. I knew Ramanujan. He was in no way a leftist or an atheist nor he in any way a Hindu basher in any sense. He was a very sensitive poet, who translated the bhakti poetry from Tamil into English. His crime was that he studied honestly hundreds of versions of the Ramayana — from folk to elite in different languages of the world. And came to a different conclusion, which the orthodox Hindus did not like. Now if the description of different heroes of the Ramayana differs in different places, how is Ramanujan at fault? In Berkeley, Calif., Kaushalya Hart read a research paper on Kambar Ramayana, which the devotees of Tulsidas did not like and they called it an attack on their belief, an attack by a South Indian on northern Indians.

In this context I am reminded of another event that took place after the demolition of Babri Masjid. On the occasion of celebrating the hundredth birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad brought out a huge volume. In order to prove that Hinduism was a broadminded religion, they printed a Buddhist version of Ramayana, according to which Rama and Sita were siblings. When the same version was depicted in an exhibition titled Ham Sab Ayodhya by Sahmat, the same Vishwa Hindu Parishad along with other Hindutva organizations physically attacked Sahmat workers.

When I wrote an article on the myth and reality of Hindu tolerance, I was threatened with midnight calls. Either you admit that we Hindus are tolerant, or we will force you to admit by violent means, was their message.

A conference on Sikhism took place at the University of California, Berkeley. In that conference an anthropologist Sikh scholar read a paper based on her research among the Sikhs residing in London. Her conclusion was that in reality Sikh women were not treated equally by Sikh society. At this many Sikhs in the audience got so furious they pulled their daggers. In most abusive language they asked to apologize for her remarks, as “Guru Nanak said women were equal to men.” How dare she insult the Guru by stating the facts?

One result of the demolition of the Babri Masjid was the open acceptance of hatred and bigotry, So many persons who wore the masks of humanity and tolerance came forward in their naked form after the demolition of the mosque. Practically all places of worship- especially in the foreign countries overnight became platforms from which hatred could be preached openly. In a city of California the Hindu leader Balraj Madhok held a copy of the Quran in his hand and quoted a British prime minister, “As long as this book exists, there can be no peace in the world.” Another leader branded Islam as an incurable disease. On the other hand I happened to attend a meeting of a Muslim organization, invited by a friend visiting from India by mistake, where sentiments of the believers were aroused by a maulana declaring that all over India an holocaust was taking place and the whole Muslim community was in danger.  Glossy books were distributed in which heart rending pictures were on display. People were encouraged to donate as much as they could to save Islam. I was aghast at the wholesale demonization of Hindus.

After 9/11, the promoters of hatred in the U.S. have found another arsenal in their battle. In so many places I have heard from so-called intellectual Hindus in India that terrorism and Muslims are synonymous. Forget the fact that before 9/11 a horrible terrorist act was carried out in Oklahoma by a very devout Christian who claimed to be a pure red blooded American. Forget the fact also that the devil number one Osama Bin Laden and Taliban have been nurtured by the same U.S. which is now being haunted by their ghosts. As long as the fight was against the Soviet Union, America showered its blessing on these folks., because at that time they were considered “freedom fighters.” Now they want the kafir Americans to get out of their holy land and are branded terrorists.

If the definition of terrorism is using violent means including murder in order to achieve political ends, then who is a worse terrorist than the American government, which who has killed millions of people all over the globe, which has overthrown elected governments of so many countries because the elected persons were not to their liking and which has supported so many dictators because they were helpful in promoting America’s interests. India has been fighting a covert war with the U.S. through Pakistan since it attained freedom in 1947.

And if killing to achieve one’s goal is terrorism, then I would like to ask who killed Dayanand Saraswati, Mahatma Gandhi, Indira Gandhi, Rajeev Gandhi and many other such personalities? Who killed Niyogi, Datta Samant and other social workers? Who is murdering Christian priests and raping nuns? Who are the members of LITTE, which is carrying on a bloody war against the Sri Lankan government? Who is killing Hindi speakers in Assam? Who are murdering and torturing persons from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar living in Maharashtra for decades? Who forced even an icon like Amitabh Bachchan to apologize for his wife speaking in Hindi (even if the apology was rendered in English)? Who was it that put a mark on Muslim houses in Gujarat in order to burn them and the people in them?

And who was killing innocent people for more than a decade in Punjab? We can still find the scars of that bloody period in so many homes. And who was it that killed thousands of Sikhs in 1984 riots? Yes, there are also many killings by Muslim terrorists and Muslim bigots in Kashmir, but no religion is immune to committing these crimes against humanity.

For many years Indian immigrants in the U.S., Britain and Canada and other places have done immense harm to India. If VHP supporters were sending gold bricks to India to build a Ram temple, fundamentalist Muslims were financing madarasas of hatred and Sikhs were sponsoring the Khalistani movement. There was a time when many gurudwaras in the U.S. and Canada were forbidding people from entering them unless they openly supported Khalistan, when the portraits of freedom fighter gadar heroes were removed form the first gurudwara dedicated to all Indians founded in the first decade of the 20th century in Stockton and their place was given to Khalistanis. And at every celebration of India’s freedom the same people came out in force to disturb the 15th August events.

The same terrorists killed the most progressive/revolutionary Panjabi poet Pash. Of course, this is another matter that by murdering Pash they helped in making him more famous, his poems more popular and his thoughts more widespread.

The Mumbai attacks is another recent unfortunate event. When Mumbai was attacked by terrorists, Indians came together as one voice against the horrible act. Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, everybody were together. The Muslim organizations went so far as to say that the terrorist would not be allowed to be buried in their kabristans. But a little earlier, when some members of the Hindu community were accused of committing acts of terrorism in Malegaon and members of a Hindu outfit were accused of murdering Christian priest and nuns in Orissa, Hindutva supporters came out in support of them declaring “no Hindu can ever be a terrorist.” Instead of the law taking its own course, they branded the victims and the government as criminal.

Sometimes I feel India is going through the same phase of history that Germany went under Hitler’s rule. Jews were declared the root cause of all the ills of Germany at time. And what did Germany gain by that? Destruction. If we suspect the patriotism of Muslims day and night, and divide each and every city in such a way, people of different religions will have no contact with each other, and a thunderous volcano is bound to erupt one day. Today, India is the only country where every caste is fighting to be declared backward in order to gain a larger portion of government spoils.

There is another vicious poison in the minds of the majority. All the pundits of Hindutva keep telling us that we have been “slaves” for the last twelve centuries. First Muslims enslaved us, then the British. But my question is: When were we really free? Both during the so-called Islamic period and British period, there were hundreds of big and small Hindu kingdoms in India. Was the public under a Hindu raja any freer any time in history? “What harm (or good) does it do to me who becomes a king?” asks a maidservant of King Dashrath’s wife Queen Kaikeyi. A Hindu king can be as cruel as any other or a Muslim king can be as compassionate as any other king worshiping a different deity. As the founder of the Gadar Party Lala Har Dayal says, all our religious scriptures basically taught us to be faithful servants of the rulers and not to be free. We live so many layers of slavery in fact dictated by age, relationship in the family, caste, village and what not. Our age, our sex, our caste, our class, our status in the society all were obstacles in our freedom. If Sita or Parvati is worthy of being worshipped it is so only after they gave their lives for their husbands. For the masses there was no other way of living than to obey the rulers. And how easily we forget that it was under a Muslim king that the greatest Hindi writers like Surdas, Kabirdas, Tulsidas, Meera, Jayasi etc. flourished.

The truth is that the kind of freedom that we talk about today was not even dreamt two hundred years ago. Our society was not based on the basis of equality or social justice. For centuries so many shackles bound us.  Even after all the proclamations of constitutions we have not accepted the concept of equality fully. True, the British are gone, but angreziat has become even thicker around us. The media is giving us contradictory messages. On the one hand even more orthodox rigid religiosity is preached daily, on the other the Western traditions like Valentines Day is promoted both by the media and business. That has created new problems. The businessmen love Valentines Day. It brings them money. But the protectors of true dharma and the self-appointed guardians of morality come out in force to beat the ‘lovers.’ Even the police joins them. They beat the young boys and girls sitting quietly in parks to teach them lessons in morality. We talk proudly of the Vedas and teachings of Upanishads — the love for the world and all its creatures — and hang young lovers. Love is the most hated word in our day-to-day life.

The depth of this hatred can be measured by the fact that even among Hindus the followers of Dayanand Saraswati cannot tolerate the portrait of Vivekananda hanged next to that of their Swami. It seems that all efforts of the great people of the last two centuries — from Raja Ram Mohan Roy to Gandhi — have been nullified and we are going backward.

In this atmosphere there is an urgent need to go back to our great thinkers who taught us to be fearless in our thinking.   Every citizen should have a right to think for himself. We do not need the self-appointed guardians to tell us what we can read, what we can wear, what we can eat or drink. We should be free to worship the way we want, to believe what we want, whom and how we should love.

When Dayanand went to his guru Birjananad and wanted to be taught by him, Birjanand asked him if he could forget all what he had learnt. I want that right to be given to every one to forget all the brainwashing and start thinking again for himself. “Be your own lamp,” Buddha said to his pupils, as he departed for the other world. Not be bound by any book, by any sect, by any brainwashing, but just to be free to logically think and act again freely. This is the need of the time if we are to survive as human beings. It is imperative to break the chain of cultural terrorism suffocating us all around.

Poet folklorist Ved Prakash Vatuk’s many awards include the U.P. government’s Pravasi Bharatiya Hindi Sahitya Bhushan. “Essays in Indian Folk Traditions,” his collected writings, has just been published by the Folklore Institute, Berkeley, Calif.


Click here to read in the CURRENT ISSUE in PDF format

Cultural Terrorism:
The Growing Threat of Intolerance

India, and for that matter the whole world, appears to be drifting towards bigotry and intolerance, laments poet and folklorist Ved Prakash Vatuk.

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