Nationhood can't be built on charity alone

The suspicious timing of Justice S Muralidhar’s transfer revives the old question of whether Partition solved anything. Putting it differently, can Hindu and Muslim live in harmony as equals in the new India that we fondly believe was born on August 15, 1947? It’s a personally pertinent conundrum because of childhood memories of Delhi and communalism, family traditions in East Bengal that I didn’t experience but whose constant retelling shaped my consciousness, as well as of experience in Calcutta.

In the late 1940s, my father was attached to Pandit Hridya Nath Kunzru’s railway inquiry committee and began a peripatetic existence in Delhi, Simla and aboard the committee’s special touring train. In Delhi, my father was allotted rooms in Western Court but to save expense moved in with a nephew in the Lodhi Road clerical quarters that look exactly the same today, 70-odd years later. My maternal grandmother’s bearer Gafoor went with him as orderly.

We didn’t think of Gafoor as Hindu or Muslim. He was just a Simultala man, as we all were in a sense, for my grandmother’s father had built a house there in the 1890s and his friends and family followed suit. As a child in Simultala, I once found a small snake, bright green and yellow, curled up near the water vats in the back verandah and rushed to fetch Gafoor, expecting him to kill the dangerous creature. “It’s only a ‘Shiv-ki-jatha’,” he explained “and quite harmless”.

After a few months in Delhi, Gafoor suddenly reappeared looking distraught and haggard. They had tried to kill him, he said. He had escaped only by pretending his name was “Gokul”. Gafoor wouldn’t go back even to claim his official wages. When we visited my father shortly afterwards it was to find the atmosphere tense. Humayun’s Tomb and Purana Qila were out of bounds, packed with refugees.

I could understand the tension, having grown up with an awareness of the distance (and difference) between Hindus and Muslims that legend and lifestyle kept alive. A widowed aunt who lived with us would describe how Hindu and Muslim homes in the Tipperah district of her youth could be told apart by the poultry. Hindus kept ducks, Muslims hens. Eating together was out of the question. They didn’t distinguish between the right and left hands. They had no concept of ento/jhuta/unclean in a ritual sense. No matter how rich or smart, they always travelled with a spouted metal all-purpose badna or lota.

It seemed to me during visits to East Pakistan that despite having come into their political and economic own, Muslims there acquiesced in what Muzaffar Ahmed of the National Awami Party called the “two-hookah” culture with overtones of apartheid. Junior officials hummed and hawed about offering me hospitality, unsure whether a Hindu would eat in a Muslim home. A new assertiveness replaced this inhibition after liberation. A radical Bangladeshi politician’s squeamishness about beef was mockingly attributed to his Hindu ideological comrades. East Bengal Muslims were getting their own back for years of segregation.  

Calcutta had fewer complexes. But with so little mingling, one can’t be certain old attitudes don’t persist under the surface. Grumbling about Mamata Banerjee’s perceived pandering of Muslims cuts across all social strata. Even well-to-do modern Muslims complain of the difficulty of renting accommodation. Several marriages across the religious divide in my family say as little about general inter-community relations as Indira Gandhi’s elevation did about the female Indian condition.

There was an amusing exchange at one wedding. “Is the groom Bengali?” someone asked. “No, Muslim,” replied the Hindu bride’s aunt. “Absolutely right,” the groom, overhearing, interjected. “We are Persian!” That was deliberately to rebut the suspicion that many Muslims are lower caste Hindu converts.

Yet, that makes them even more of the soil of India and even less the ghuspaithiya (intruders) that Amit Shah calls them. There might have been less friction if Shah’s uninformed view were not shared by the hooligans in saffron headbands and tilaks who recently roamed the streets of North-eastern Delhi, stoning people, looting shops, ransacking houses and setting fire to a mosque after planting a saffron flag — symbol of Hindu supremacism — on its minaret to chants of “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” and “Jai Shri Ram”.

 If that rejectionist attitude persists, the situation can only drift towards civil war through increasingly frequent conflagrations. We can’t afford the perception of a righteous judge being punished because he inconveniently refuses to act as guardian of a Hindu Rashtra. Hindus who provided refuge for persecuted Muslims do suggest a silver lining except that nationhood can’t be built on charity alone.

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