A right can sometimes become a wrong
By MJ Akbar
April 5, 2009
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 DeMille 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 judgement 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 Taliban 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 judgement. 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 judgement opens up an interesting can of minority rights. A large number of madarsas in West Bengal have Hindu students. Would the maulvis in the madarsas 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 a ‘small’ cross on a chain on the rather specious excuse that it was a symbol 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?
Source: The Daily Pioneer, New Delhi, 5-4-2009
-- MJ Akbar is chairman of the fortnightly news magazine Covert.
A potpourri of religions
April 03, 2009
The electoral din has distorted these two words — secularism and communalism — into meaningless clichés and lazy fodder for TV debates. Talk about Varun Gandhi and it elicits the example of Sanjay Dutt. Bring up the shame of 1984, and be confronted with the counter-argument of Gujarat and the 2002 blot. Debate Mayaben Kodnani — and the Jagdish Tytler controversy comes up as a parallel.
Drowned in all the noise is any real understanding of just how complex the question of cultural co-existence can sometimes be. We have been so narrowly focused on the secularism debate as it has been defined by the polarisations of politics that we have missed a story that raises some genuinely complicated questions. How far should a secular society go in allowing religious symbols in public institutions?
The story began with the desire of a 16-year-old boy, Mohammed Salim, to sport a beard. Now, normally that should be no one’s business but the boy’s. Except, the government-recognised convent school that he studies at in Madhya Pradesh wasn’t prepared to hear of it. The school rules required boys to shave, and that’s how it would have to be. But Salim argues that being allowed to keep his beard is part of his religious identity. Shaving, his lawyer says, goes against “his religious conscience, belief and the custom of his family.”
The Supreme Court saw this as an example of “stretching secularism”. Justice Katju — widely known to be fiercely independent and often unpredictable in legal circles — declared that the danger of “Talibanisation” had to be fended off. “We don’t want to have Talibans in the country. Tomorrow a girl student may come and say that she wants to wear a burqa. Can we allow it?” he observed.
Now here’s the problem. My first instinct was to both agree and disagree. I do think that autonomous schools should be allowed to set their own rules without the pressure of religious diktat. But I didn’t think the court should have equated the desire for a beard with the vile fundamentalism of the Taliban. That observation clearly stretched the point.
Yet, scratch the surface of the subject and there are no easy answers. Why then — some Muslims are asking — do Sikhs have an unquestioned right to sport their beards and turbans in public schools and even in defence institutions like the Army and the Air Force. The answer, says well-known writer Rahul Singh — who himself is a Sikh who doesn’t wear a turban — is because the turban is much more central to the religious identity of Sikhs than the beard is to the identity of Muslims. In a recent TV debate, Rahul took on a representative of the Muslim Personal Law Board by demanding to know why almost every major Muslim leader on the global stage (Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt) did not sport a beard. Were they, he asked, any less Muslim for that? Interestingly, Justice B.A. Khan — the lawyer representing Salim is clean shaven, a fact that didn’t escape the notice of the Supreme Court.
Listening to them argue, I was getting more and more confused. I was no longer that certain of my original position. What if a sect in Islam does indeed demand the beard as a sign of the believer? What if a certain Church asks its followers to wear the Cross at all times? Isn’t the bindi — so beloved to us as an aesthetic statement — Hindu in its symbolism? Where do we draw the line between faith and dogma? On the one hand religious literalism infuriates me. I don’t believe these are the issues that should take up the time and energy of India’s Muslim minority. And each time some self-appointed gatekeeper of the faith holds forth on rigid rules and regulations, he ends up stereotyping his own community. On the other hand, I’m no longer that sure of where the markers divide religious freedom from sheer orthodoxy.
Liberal countries like France have dealt with the dilemma by banning all overt religiosity in public schools. So, no headscarves and no turbans and no crosses, no matter what — the French have stood firm on this despite personal petitions from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to allow Sikh children to tie up their hair in turbans. In America — a Christian majority country — the Bible cannot be read in many public schools due to exactly the same principles of secularism.
Could something like that ever work in India? I doubt it. The traditional definition of secularism may have been the separation of the church and the State. But frankly, in our country, secularism is much more about the colourful hodge-podge of multiple faiths and their ability to come together in a miracle of nationhood. Many of our symbols are more about culture and less about religion per se. I can’t imagine a sanitised approach to our secularism. Each time we have tried it, we have failed miserably. Our instinctive comfort with the intertwining of faith and everyday life is the
reason why when we were kids we didn’t even notice whether the prayer songs we said at school were Hindu, Christian or ‘secular’. Strangely I don’t remember any prayers from other faiths. Does that say something? I’m not sure.
But that’s what makes it all so tough. We agree that we don’t particularly need or want faith to be adjudicated. Yet, we don’t want cultural conservatism to define our happy, messy, all-embracing Indianness. We also want our schools to be modern, forward-thinking institutions that are able to set their own rules without getting stuck in the perils of orthodoxy. And we want to continue to boast that the tapestry that is India is woven together by a million different threads. What would you do if you were the Supreme Court? Honestly, I’m no longer that sure.
Source: The Hindustan Times, New Delhi, 5-4-2009
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV