By Samar Halarnkar
Feb 22, 2017
Last week, on the campaign trail in Uttar Pradesh, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi demanded cremation grounds (for Hindus), not just graveyards (for Muslims), electricity not just for Ramzan but Diwali, when his party president Amit Shah declared that only people of a certain community (Muslims, of course) were getting laptops, I could not help but think of Hussain Haidry.
As Modi and Shah fell back on narrow, religious stereotyping that appears to come all too easily to them — those claims of taking everyone along, Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas, were always dubious — I could not but think of the contrasting, expansive vision Haidry offers. A Gujarati-speaking Bohra from Indore, Haidry has received widespread adulation from Indians of every persuasion this month for a poem he has written. Here are some lines:
Sau Main Se Choudaha Hoon, Lekin Chaudaha Ye Kam Nahin Padte Hain; Main Pure Sau Me Basta Hoon, Pure Sau Mujhme Hain, Mujhe Ek Nazar Se Dekh Na Tu, Mere Ek Nahin Sau Chehere Hain, Sau Rang Ke Hain Kirdaar Mere, Sau Kalam Se Likhin Kahani Meri, Main Jitna Musalman Hoon Bhai, Main Utna Hindustani Hoon; Main Hindustani Musalman Hoon.
(I am 14 of 100, but these 14 aren’t few; I live in 100, and 100 live in me, don’t look at me with one view, I have 100 faces, I play characters with 100 colours, 100 pens write my story; as much as I am a Muslim my brother, I am as much an Indian; I am an Indian Muslim.)
Within himself, continues Haidry on Kommune — a performance arts forum — is the essence of the Gita, within him is an Urdu newspaper; if one of his months is Ramzan, he also immerses himself in the Ganga; he is a cobbler, a tailor, a doctor.
Haidry’s accommodating view of India is particularly relevant at a time when its prime minister let hidden prejudices emerge — prejudices frequently expressed when Modi was chief minister of Gujarat. To recall some — Hum Paanch, Hamare Pachees (we five, our 25, a reference to the stereotype of fecund Muslims) and strange regret at massacres on his watch (will I not feel sad if a puppy comes under the wheels of my car?)
The almost euphoric adulation that Haidry attracts is a reflection that, as easily as hatred and separation are expressed these days, so, too, are common bonds and the feeling of being in it together. Many young Muslims say Haidry reflects their identities as proud Indian Muslims — this is not as obvious as it sounds, some plainly tell him he cannot be Muslim and Indian — and many young Hindus confess to goosebumps at the compassion and conviction he expresses.
Clearly, there is a market for shared experiences, especially among young people, and it bursts forth at events both online and in the real world. Last week, in New Delhi, organisers were pleasantly surprised when thousands flocked to Jashn-e-Rekhta, a celebration of Urdu as an Indian literary heritage. This in a country where Urdu is now regarded as a symbol of Muslim rule and wiped off even the boards of the Delhi Metro or any signboard in cities where Urdu speakers form a significant minority. Sajiv Saraf, founder of the Rekhta Foundation, was quoted as saying he was overwhelmed at the response over the past three years. He could see, he said, Urdu beginning to resonate again through age, religious and geographical divides.
This is not to say that all young people want to get along or are liberal — far from it. The schisms of Indian society are, often, on ugly display and illiberal, follow-the-mob behaviour is as evident among young Muslims as it is among Hindus. On Tuesday, we saw Right-wing Hindu students at Delhi’s Ramjas College attack a conference. At Jashn-e-Rekhta, Canadian Muslim-baiter Tarek Fatah was hounded out by young Muslims, and at the Aligarh Muslim University last week, a talk by former vice president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University students union, Shehla Rashid Shora, was cancelled after some students alleged that she had somehow insulted the prophet in a post on hate speech.
On the face it — and especially if you follow the mainstream media and listen to the shouting heads on prime time television — there appears to be little scope for nuance and understanding. Yet, at workplaces, in schools and colleges, at other meeting places, whether online or at my local park, I cannot help see that is not the whole truth. Indeed, sometimes, given the ease with which differences dissolve, it appears to be less than even the partial truth. Politicians would do well to realise the latent urges to belong and to get along and strengthen them.
To be fair to Messrs Modi and Shah, they only plant new seeds in a ground made fertile for hate and separation by the Congress, which knobbed secularism by encouraging obscurantist behaviour — from legislating against the rights of Shah Bano to allowing criminal cases against Facebook likes — and so fuelling the growth of the Right and of hate speech and thought. It may be too much to expect Modi, Shah and their even less circumspect colleagues to change how they really feel, but it is important for the rest of India to realise that buried within increasingly divisive religious or regional identities, there is an equally strong, if quiet, yearning for connection.
Haidry is only the latest poet to give life to the desire to reach out to other Indians and ruminate over identity. More than a century ago, another young man, called Rabindranath Tagore, had similar longings. In a now-forgotten second stanza of a song we know as Jana Gana Mana, he wrote:
Hindu Bauddh Sikha Jain, Parasik Musolman Christaani / Purabo Pashchimo Aashey, Tabo Singhaasano Paashey, Premohaaro Hawye Gaanthaa
(The Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Jain, Parsi, Muslim and Christian; the east and the west; come to your throne and weave the garland of love)
Samar Halarnkar is editor, Indiaspend.org, a data-driven, public-interest journalism non-profit