As the world celebrates the advent of the month of Ramzan, my mind goes back to a day last month when I visited the Cheraman mosque in Kerala.
I am reminded of a plaque on the wall announcing that the mosque was set up in 629 AD, which, in case you did not realise it, was during the life time of the Prophet. The story goes that Cheraman Perumal, Chera king, sufficiently intrigued to hear about the Prophet from visiting Arab traders, decided to make the trip to meet the Prophet. He would never made it back home, dying on his return journey but by then, he issued instructions for this mosque to be built.
Christianity too was introduced to India early on and can be traced back to 52 AD when St Thomas, one of the 12 Apostles showed up. He came to Kerala where, as he would discover, there was already a Jewish settlement.
What do both of these say about this country ? It shows that this has been a country embraced seekers of all faiths. Some came to conquer, some to take refuge from the tyranny in their own lands. "I am proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the earth," said Swami Vivekananda. He defines the essence of India, when he went on to say, "We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true." Which is perhaps why conversions did not happen. Christianity has been around for ever but Christians in this land account for less than 2.3 % of the total. By any yardstick, the proselytzation agenda of the Church has failed. Islam fared better in terms of numbers. May be because of the Mughal invaders who ruled the country for long. Yet, Muslims, inspite of all the invasions and the forcible acts of conversion by successive Mughal kings, don't add up to more than 15 % of the total population. Both religions failed to get more traction because people may not have felt the need to convert. Except when forced to do so. The my-god-is-better-than-your-god theme of various proselytizers seems to have found no takers. Which is how even now, this plural society is over 80 % Hindu.
And in the Hindu belief, there is provision for as many Gods as one chooses. If you believe in one god, that is okay. If you believe in two, that too is okay. Three, sure. You don't believe in God, that too is fine. In every human settlement, they made up their own Gods. Every village had a God, a guardian god. Thats how as a country, we ended up with more than a million Gods and counting.
What then is secularism ? I honestly don't know.
But I can say that it cannot be about saying that among my Facebook friends or Twitter followers, 14.5 % are Muslims, which roughly corresponds to the national demographics.
I can say that it is about not looking at religious beliefs when hiring a CA or a techie. Religion should not matter.
So you could have your Rama while I had my Krishna or Shiva. It is this that laid the foundation for the acceptance of a Christ or Allah similarly. Whoever. Society gave each one freedom to find ones own truth. It was about self realisation. Over the years conflicts did happen. But the core essence remained. Of tolerance. Of co existence. Of recognising the need to allow each to find ones own path, to explore other paths.
Which is why what is happening around me is scary. The emergence of us and them. When some of my colleagues in the office talk in such terms, it makes me shudder. When I hear a retired Supreme Court Judge Markandey Katju talk about secularism not being a one way traffic, he talks of a balance rooted in reciprocity.
In asking Hindus to fast for one day during Ramzan while exhorting Muslims to fast one day during Navratri, he misses the point completely. It is not my recollection that we ever fasted for Navratri at home. I hail from a part of the country which is different from those parts where they do fast for Navratri. So what does the Judge suggest that Muslims do by way of reciprocity to make me happy? This tit for tat, however endearing a concept, is going nowhere. It is simply a variation of an eye for an eye approach, which ultimately makes the whole world go blind.
I was in Guruvayur not long ago where the ban on Yesudas' entry still holds. That is ridiculous. His tapes are playing ecverywhere but they wont let him in because he is a Christian. He should be allowed to go not because they allowed me to go into the Cheraman Masjid and that I wish to offer something to Christians in return, but because it is fundamentally against what this country has espoused all these years. In most temples around the country, non Hindus are not permitted. in my view, it should not matter what your belief system to be allowed into a sacred space. that is how this country has been forever,
What then is secularism ? Honestly I don't know. Though I can say that it is not what Justice Katju is proposing. Just as I can say vehemently that it is not about having Muslims make up 14.5% of your Facebook friends or Twitter followers arguing that that is reflective of the country's demographics. Where personal religious beliefs do not matter to perform a function, these considerations should not enter. For me that is secularism. Like when one goes to a lawyer or a doctor. One goes to them for their professional competence. Or when one hires a software engineer. Or a finance professional. Or even a maid at home. Or when someone is cast for a role in a movie.
Should we have taken this approach with our cricket team where at one point in time, more than 2 Muslims were playing? Or our hockey team where Christians have a greater presentation that their demographics would warrant. Or for many years, Sikhs.
To propose a you-do-this-for-me-if-you-want-me-to-do-this-for-you is a lousy approach and totally unbecoming of a retired Supreme Court Judge. This is not the test of a secular society. This is just plain silly and not what this country needs today. I would have ignored it if was just silly but the problem is that it is also dangerous.