By Usman Liaquat
July 7, 2012
When the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya was demolished in December 1992, for Prof. Ram Puniyani it was not only a sacred edifice that had crumbled before him, but a part of secular, democratic India as well. The incident galvanised him into making an effort to work towards cohesion among religious groups.
Since that fateful day, the human rights activist has written nine books on communal violence and received a number of awards for his work, including the Indira Gandhi National Integration Award 2006. Prof. Puniyani is currently in Pakistan to share his experiences and discuss how the rights of minorities can be protected.
On Friday, he delivered a lecture at the Area Study Centre for Europe at Karachi University in which he attempted to highlight the lessons that can be gleaned from the secularisation of Europe. Prof. Puniyani started off by lamenting the fact that secularism is often confused with ‘atheism’. “Secularism does not oppose religion, it opposes the clergy, who claim monopoly over knowledge and hence power,” he said. It is this power which allows the elite to suppress and take advantage of vulnerable groups. “Hundreds of ‘god-men’ in India earn million of rupees and could give the country’s big industrialists like Tata and Birla a run for their money. Look at Baba Ramdev – the spiritual leader earns a lot just by wearing saffron clothes.”
He added that the main difference between the secularisation of Europe and South Asia is that in the former, the rise of secularism was concomitant with the decline of a feudal order and was natural. In the latter, feudal politics were not done away with as secularism started to emerge and this was not an organic process, but was induced by the colonial powers. “We can’t cry over spilt milk. We can’t bring back the guillotine to get rid of the feudal lords either. We have a problem and we have to find a solution around it.”
When asked how he propagates the message of secularism among the youth of India, he told The Express Tribune that he mainly uses interactive workshops which aim to shatter erroneous stereotypes. Apart from this, he conducts video lectures in which films on minorities are screened. “And then of course the youth can refer to my extensive writing on communal violence. In my books, I have attempted to siphon reality from pervasive myths,” Prof. Puniyani added.
He feels that a large chunk of the Indian youth is quite receptive to the rhetoric on secularism. “You just have to know how to approach them properly,” said Prof. Punyani. “The only problem is that my reach is quite limited in comparison to that of the right-wing groups. They have been able to channel the energy of the youth into activities that are detrimental to India.”
When asked about the degree of opposition to his work, Prof. Puniyani told The Express Tribune that he has his fair share of detractors. “Certain right-wing groups are aware of my activities and have projected me as the enemy on their websites. Though I have not been threatened, I have received derogatory e-mails,” he said. “Sometimes I even receive postcards which have hateful messages scribbled on them.”
Prof. Puniyani also stressed peace between the two historically belligerent neighbours was the key to the eradication of communalism because sentiments often spill across state borders. “When a Hindu girl in Pakistan is forced to convert, I am castigated heavily for my efforts to improve the lives of the Muslim minority in India. Likewise, when Muslims are harmed in India, many Hindu worship sites come under attack.”
He acknowledged that the situation in India was at least better than that in Pakistan, where political leaders used religion to whitewash state rule with legitimacy and quell ethno-national movements. Though he could not offer a plan of action to combat sectarian and ethnic violence in Pakistan, he did say that “some people in this country are very pessimistic. But the important thing is to keep trying to push for pluralism.”