Monday, December 22, 2008

Slokas After A Noon Namaaz

Muslim children study Sanskrit and Hindu ones read Quran in these UP madrassas

We arrive at Madrassa Anwarul-Islam Salfia at 12.45 pm, a little before namaaz. As the students gather around the row of taps to wash their hands and feet and line up for prayers, this modest building in the dusty, narrow bylanes of Chauri in Jalalpur, in eastern UP's Jaunpur district, looks exactly how we expect a madrassa to be: a place for rigorous study of Islam, Urdu, Arabic. What we encounter instead is a complete contradiction. The bare, red brick walls of the Standard 7 classroom are yet to be plastered, the window frames still to be fitted. Here, 12-year-old Nadima Bano and Hishamuddin are reciting, their pronunciation perfect and elocution chaste, this ode to India, "Yasyottarasyamdishibhati bhumao Himalayah parvatraj eshah..."

It's a sloka in Sanskrit that translated means 'the land shielded by the Himalayas in the north'. "Sanskrit padhne se zubaan saaf ho jaati hai (the diction becomes clear by learning Sanskrit)," Hishamuddin tells us. "Sanskrit is considered the mother of all languages," says their teacher Rabindra Kumar Mishra. "It's ironical that institutions like this madrassa should be nursing it while it's vanishing elsewhere."

That it's no exception we have stumbled upon becomes clear to us as we proceed north to Ambedkarnagar district, to Madrassa Azizia Islamia in Kamharia village. The hands of the wall clock might be stuck at 6.45 in this primary school or maktab, but the school itself has progressed in other ways. Space is obviously at a premiumClasses 2-5 are being held simultaneously in separate, little rows in a large hall. Sirajuddin is teaching Sanskrit grammar to Class 3. "It was my favourite subject when I was a child," he says with a smile. "Balakah pathati; Sah pathati; Balakau pathatah (A child studies, he studies, they study)...," his student Muhammad Shahid recites for us. They soon move on to another lesson. "Asmakam deshasya asti ateev shobhanah (our country is very beautiful)...".

However, this story is not only about Hishamuddins learning Sanskrit. It's also about 13-year-old Ravi Prakash Pandey, a Brahmin and the son of a Sanskrit professor, opting to learn Quran in Class 1. A former student of Azizia Islamia, he can now recite the holy text from memory and has a copy at home that he peruses religiously. "Quran teaches that we must help others and do good deeds and stay away from evil," he says, without batting an eyelid, and then rushes to wash himself and wear a cap before reading it aloud for us.

We hear this echo back in Salfia where two Hindu - year-old Arti Kumari and Anita Kumari - are writing about Prophet Mohammed in Urdu on the blackboard: "Jab hamare Hazrat ki umr paintees baras ki thi (when our prophet was 35 years old)...". "They face absolutely no problem in writing, reading or understanding Urdu," their teacher Kaiser Jahan informs us.

At Madrassa Arbiya Zia-ul-uloom in Mandey in Azamgarh district, sisters Manju and Ranju Kumari have been learning Urdu from Class 1. They mean it when they recite: "Urdu hai jiska naam hamari zubaan hai, duniya ki har zubaan se pyaari zubaan hai (Urdu is the sweetest of the languages in the world)." Passing by Class 1, you can hear Prashant Kumar explaining Urdu numerals to his classmates.

The teachers on either side of the linguistic divide find much in common between Sanskrit and Urdu: both languages, they say, have an evolved, complex grammar. "Their grammar must be the toughest," says Muhammad Tariq of Madrassa Arbiya. They see this coexistence of Sanskrit and Urdu as normal and not deliberately symbolic in these troubled, divisive times. "How can you associate a language with any religion?" asks Brijesh Kumar Yaduvanshi, a long-time resident of Jaunpur and president, All India University Students' Union."Urdu doesn't belong to Muslims nor does Sanskrit have to do just with Hindus."

Nevertheless, the focus on Sanskrit, a language that has long gone out of everyday use, is intriguing. "It's not about helping students get jobs," says Qari Jalaluddin of Salfia, "but about teaching them humanity, about great thoughts and the right way to live, about being able to distinguish right from wrong." Sanskrit is taught at Salfia till Class 9, Urdu is compulsory in Class 1-5, after which it's up to the Hindu students to decide whether they want to study it further. Well versed: Ravi Prakash reciting Quran.

This easy cohabitation of Sanskrit and Urdu in Jaunpur's madrassas could well be regarded as a legacy of the town's liberal Sufi past. "It was a centre of education in the middle ages," says Yaduvanshi, "has never witnessed a single Hindu-Muslim riot, and has always been a symbol of unity." The Salfia madrassa has, in fact, been built on land bought from a Brahmin family in 1987.

The Azamgarh-Mau madrassas too offer a counterview for an area that has of late been made infamous for its alleged association with terrorist activities. "After all, it's the land of Rahul Sankritayan, Maulana Shibli, Firaq Gorakhpuri," says Sanjay Srivastava, professor at the Poorvanchal University. "It's a literary and cultural centre and people here have been feeling humiliated for being targeted for all the wrong reasons."

At a time when stereotypes about madrassas, especially those in eastern UP, as breeding grounds for terrorists have been gaining currency and every succeeding terror attack has boxed Indian Muslims further into neat categories as either educated, patriotic liberals or misinformed, misled fundamentalists, these madrassas are a powerful rejoinder, a heartening testimony to the unspoken, uncelebrated, broad-mindedness and inclusiveness of the common, faceless Muslim. The madrassas we visit have a sizeable number of Hindu students. Salfia currently has 475 students, of whom about - 45 per cent - are Hindus. In Azizia Islamia, 35 of the 143 students are Hindus. The newly set up Madrassa Faizul Quran operates out of a small makeshift building in an obscure corner of Amari village in Azamgarh district. The maktab has 100 kids, of whom 20 are Hindus. At Arbiya, 22 of the 374 students are Hindus.

There is little to distinguish students. You know Vinky and Reena Yadav from Soni and Rehana Banu only by their names or in the way they wear their head scarves. "We don't believe in bhed bhav," says Salfia's Jalaluddin. "Tameez and tehzeeb are the same in every religion." And though the madrassas do teach hifz, or memorization of the Quran, all have a progressive vision too. "You can't move forward with religious education alone, our students need to be taught everything: science, geography, math, English," says Salfia principal Muhammad Saikat. It is the only school in the village which offers high school education for girls, or else they'd have to walk 10 km to the next school. The aim now is to start computers and electronics classes.

Like many others, these madrassas are yet to get government aid. There is no midday meal scheme, nor are students given free uniforms; it is all provided by the madrassa management boards. Azizia and Arbiya give students free books and charge no fee. In Salfia the fee's just Rs 5. Faizul Quran charges Rs 40 but only 10 per cent of the students pay up. The teachers themselves get no regular pay from the government but survive on the grants patrons give to the madrassas, the salary averaging from Rs 800-1,500. In contrast, teachers on the government payroll get a princely sum of Rs 3,000.

Humble and ill-equipped though they are, these madrassas are incredible examples of how Hindus and Muslims live as one than as separate entities in these forgotten hamlets."They represent the Ganga-Jamuni sanskriti of our villages. Why would anyone want to break the sacred thread of this age-old relationship?" asks Srivastava. Why indeed?

[From Outlook Magazine, 22 December 2008 issue]

At a Fork in the Road

By: Arundhati Roy

The Mumbai attacks are only the most recent of a spate of terrorist a
ttacks on Indian cities this year [2008] in which hundreds of ordinary people have been killed and wounded.

Though nothing can ever justify terrorism, it exists in a particular time, place and political context, and to refuse to see that will only aggravate the problem and put more and more people in harm’s way.

Thanks largely to the part it was forced to play as America’s ally, first in its war in support of the Afghan Islamists and then in its war against them, Pakistan is careening towards civil war. The Pakistani government is presiding over a country that is threatening to implode. The terrorist training camps, the fire-breathing mullahs and the maniacs who believe that Islam should rule the world is mostly the detritus of two Afghan wars. Their ire rains down on the Pakistan government and Pakistani civilians as much as it does on India.

If, at this point, India decides to go to war, perhaps the descent of the whole region into chaos will be complete. The debris of a bankrupt, destroyed Pakistan will wash up on India’s shores, endangering us as never before. If Pakistan collapses, we can look forward to having millions of ‘non-state actors’ with an arsenal of nuclear weapons at their disposal as neighbors.

How should we view the Mumbai attacks, and what are we to do about them? There are those who point out that US strategy has been successful in as much as the United States has not suffered a major attack on its home ground since 9/11. However, some would say that what America is suffering now is far worse. The US army is bogged down in two unwinnable wars, which

have made the United States the most hated country in the world. These wars have contributed greatly to the unravelling of the American economy. Hundreds of thousands of people, including thousands of American soldiers, have lost their lives. The frequency of terrorist strikes on US allies and US interests in the rest of the world has increased dramatically.

Homeland security has cost the US government billions of dollars. Few countries, certainly not India, can afford that sort of price tag. But even if we could, the fact is that this vast homeland of ours cannot be secured or policed in the way the United States has been. It’s not that kind of homeland. We have a hostile nuclear weapons state that is slowly spinning out of control as a neighbor, we have a military occupation in Kashmir, and a shamefully persecuted, impoverished minority of more than a hundred and fifty million Muslims who are being targeted as a community and pushed to the wall, whose young see no justice on the horizon, and who, were they to totally lose hope and radicalise, end up as a threat not just to India, but to the whole world. If ten men can hold off the NSG commandos and the police for three days, and if it takes half-a-million soldiers to hold down the Kashmir Valley, do the math. What kind of Homeland Security can secure India?

What we’re experiencing now is the cumulative result of decades of quick fixes and dirty deeds.

The only way to contain terrorism is to look at the monsters in the mirror: Kashmir, Gujarat and the demolition of the Babri Masjid. We’re standing at a fork in the road. One sign says ‘Justice’, the other ‘Civil War’. There’s no third sign and there’s no going back. Choose.

[Edited by Mahendra Meghani from Outlook : 22-Dec-2008]

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Death of a Salesman and Other Elite Ironies

By: Tarun J. Tejpal

Rohinton Maloo was among the 13 diners at the Oberoi, who were marched out onto the service staircase, ostensibly
as hostages. But the killers had nothing to bargain for. The answers to the big questions — Babri Masjid, Gujarat, Muslim persecution — were beyond the power of anyone to deliver neatly to the hotel lobby. The small ones — of money and materialism — their crazed indoctrination had already taken them well beyond. With the final banality of all fanaticism — AK-47 in one hand; mobile phone in the other — the killers asked their minders, “Uda dein?” The minder, probably a maintainer of cold statistics, said, “Uda do.”

Rohinton caught seven bullets. He was just 48, with two teenage children, and a hundred plans. In his outstanding career in media marketing, he was ever at the cutting edge of the new . The place was always Mumbai, and he exemplified its attitudes: the hedonism, the get-go, the easy pluralism.

For me there is a deep irony in his death. He was killed by what he set very little store by. He was bemused and baffled by TEHELKA’s obsessive engagement with politics. He was quite sure no one of his class — our class — was interested in the subject. Politics happened elsewhere. Mostly, it had nothing to do with our lives. Eventually he came to grudgingly accept we may have some kind of a case. But he remained unconvinced of its commercial viability. Our kind of readers were interested in other things — food, films, cricket, fashion, gizmos, television, health. Politics, at best, was something they endured.

In the end, politics killed Rohinton, and a few hundred other innocents. In the final count, politics, every single day, is killing, impoverishing, starving, denigrating, millions of Indians all across the country. If the backdrop were not so heartbreaking, the spectacle of the nation’s elite — the keepers of most of our wealth and privilege — frothing on television screens and screaming through mobile phones would be amusing. They have been outraged because the enduring tragedy of India has suddenly arrived in their marbled precincts. The Taj, the Oberoi. We dine here. We sleep here. Is nothing sacrosanct in this country any more?

What the Indian elite is discovering today on the debris of fancy eateries is an acidic truth large numbers of ordinary Indians are forced to swallow every day. Children who die of malnutrition, farmers who commit suicide, dalits who are raped and massacred, tribals who are turfed out of century old habitats, peasants whose lands are taken over for car factories, minorities who are bludgeoned into paranoia — these, and many others, know that something is grossly wrong. The system does not work, the system is cruel, the system is unjust, the system exists to only serve those who run it. Crucially, what we, the elite, need to understand is that most of us are complicit in the system. In fact, chances are the more we have — of privilege and money — the more invested we are in the shoring up of an unfair state.

It is time each one of us understood that at the heart of every society is its politics. If the politics is third-rate, the condition of the society will be no better. For too many decades now, the elite of India has washed its hands off the country’s politics. Entire generations have grown up viewing it as a distasteful activity. In an astonishing perversion, the finest imaginative act of the last thousand years on the subcontinent, the creation and flowering of the idea of modern India through mass politics, has for the last 40 years been rendered infra dig, déclassé, uncool. Let us blame our parents, and let our children blame us, for not bequeathing onwards the sheer beauty of a collective vision, collective will, and collective action. In a word, politics: which, at its best, created the wonder of a liberal and democratic idea, and at its worst threatens to tear it down.

We stand faulted then in two ways. For turning our back on the collective endeavor; and for our passive embrace of the status quo. This is in equal parts due to selfish instinct and to shallow thinking. Since shining India is basically only about us getting an even greater share of the pie, we have been happy to buy its half-truths, and look away from the rest of the sordid story. Like all elites, historically, that have presided over the decline of their societies, we focus too much of our energy on acquiring and consuming, and too little on thinking and decoding. Egged on by a helium media, we exhaust ourselves through paroxysms over vacant celebrities and trivia, quite happy not to see what might cause us discomfort.

For years, it has been evident that we are a society being systematically hollowed out by inequality, corruption, bigotry and lack of justice. The planks of public discourse have increasingly been divisive, widening the faultliness of caste, language, religion, class, community and region. As the elite of the most complex society in the world, we have failed to see that we are ratcheted into an intricate framework, full of causal links, where one wrong word begets another, one horrific event leads to another. Where one man’s misery will eventually trigger another’s.

Let’s track one causal chain. The Congress creates Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale to neutralize the Akalis; Bhindranwale creates terrorism; Indira Gandhi moves against terrorism; terrorism assassinates Indira Gandhi; blameless Sikhs are slaughtered in Delhi; in the course of a decade, numberless innocents, militants, and security-men die. Let’s track another. The BJP takes out an inflammatory rath yatra; inflamed kar sewaks pull down the Babri Masjid; riots ensue; vengeful Muslims trigger Mumbai blasts; 10 years later a bogey of kar sewaks is burnt in Gujarat; in the next week 2,000 Muslims are slaughtered; six years later retaliatory violence continues. Let’s track one more. In the early 1940s, in the midst of the freedom movement, patrician Muslims demand a separate homeland; Mahatma Gandhi opposes it; the British support it; Partition ensues; a million people are slaughtered; four wars follow; two countries drain each other through rhetoric and poison; nuclear arsenals are built; hotels in Mumbai are attacked.

In each of these rough causal chains, there is one thing in common. Their origin in the decisions of the elite. Interlaced with numberless lines of potential divisiveness, the India framework is highly delicate and complicated. It is critical for the elite to understand the framework, and its role in it. The elite has its hands on the levers of capital, influence and privilege. It can fix the framework. It has much to give, and it must give generously. The mass, with nothing in its hands, nothing to give, can out of frustration and anger, only pull it all down. And when the volcano blows, rich and poor burn alike.

And so what should we be doing? Well, screaming at politicians is certainly not political engagement. And airy socialites demanding the carpet-bombing of Pakistan and the boycott of taxes are plain absurd, just another neon sign advertising shallow thought. It’s the kind of dumb public theater the media ought to deftly side-step rather than showcase. The world is already over-shrill with animus: we need to tone it down, not add to it. Pakistan is itself badly damaged by the flawed politics at its heart. It needs help, not bombing. Just remember, when hard-boiled bureaucrats clench their teeth, little children die.

Most of the shouting of the last few days is little more than personal catharsis through public venting. The fact is the politician has been doing what we have been doing, and as an über Indian he has been doing it much better. Watching out for himself, cornering maximum resource, and turning away from the challenge of the greater good.

The first thing we need to do is to square up to the truth. Acknowledge the fact that we have made a fair shambles of the project of nation-building. Fifty million Indians doing well does not for a great India make, given that 500 million are grovelling to survive. Sixty years after independence, it can safely be said that India’s political leadership — and the nation’s elite — have badly let down the country’s dispossessed and wretched. If you care to look, India today is heartbreak hotel, where infants die like flies, and equal opportunity is a cruel mirage.

Let’s be clear we are not in a crisis because the Taj hotel was gutted. We are in a crisis because six years after 2,000 Muslims were slaughtered in Gujarat there is still no sign of justice. This is the second thing the elite need to understand — after the obscenity of gross inequality. The plinth of every society has been set on the notion of justice. You cannot light candles for just those of your class and creed. You have to strike a blow for every wronged citizen.

And let no one tell us we need more laws. We need men to implement those that we have. Today all our institutions and processes are failing us. We have compromised each of them on their values, their robustness, their vision and their sense of fair play. Now, at every crucial juncture we depend on random acts of individual excellence and courage to save the day. Great systems, triumphant societies, are veined with ladders of inspiration. Electrified by those above them, men strive to do their very best. Look around. How many constables, head constables, sub-inspectors would risk their lives for the dishonest, weak men they serve, who in turn serve even more compromised masters?

I wish Rohinton had survived the lottery of death in Mumbai last week. In an instant, he would have understood what we always went on about. India’s crying need is not economic tinkering or social engineering. It is a political overhaul, a political cleansing. As it once did to create a free nation, India’s elite should start getting its hands dirty so they can get a clean country.

[Edited from Tehelka Magazine issue of 13 December 2008]