My respect for Mr. Naseeruddin Shah would have grown in no small measure if he had asked Indians to save democracy by voting out Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his team in 2019. I would have lauded his courage to stand up and be counted for speaking the truth in his heart to the power he holds responsible for the decline in the social-fabric he inhibits. He has a right to reflect his echo chambers and beyond. Instead, we saw a peeling mask. I’ll come to this in a minute.
I am a fan of Pico Iyer, the British-born American essayist best known for his travel writing. His way with words leaves me deeply impressed and troubled as all good writing must. Now, I find an increasingly attractive philosophical presence in this wordsmith and his TED talks and the occasional tweets speak to that transition. They reflect deep scholarship, the kind that leads to the capacity to laugh at oneself in the most unexpected ways and times of difficulty. Not too long ago, he tweeted that ‘In ancient cultures no one is young enough to think that being a victim is the same thing as being innocent’. These are deeply philosophical words, even tumultuous, one might say.
The widely held view around the world that religion is the place to go for quick solace is a mirage, not a teaching - a quick fix for easy consumption and its corollary. Let us take the Hindu text the Bhagavad Gita (I text I know a little) as example that can be read by all. The first chapter is all about Arjuna complaining (a scholar recently told me it was a rant), filled with dilemmas, despair, duty, responsibilities and death. It is not until the second chapter that the reader gets an opportunity to hear what the Hindu god Krishna, Arjuna’s charioteer, has to say. The teaching unfolds in a battlefield, a superb metaphor stating that scholarship and enquiry is a roller coaster ride that must be engaged with care by each one of us as individuals. It is a didactic dialogue where there is no dictation.
Back to Mr. Shah. I write this column against the backdrop of one of India’s finest actor’s recent statement that the situation in India for Muslims is very worrisome, he fears for the future of his children and the ‘genie’ which is out of the bottle cannot be put back.
A few years ago another talented Bollywood couple Aamir Khan and his spouse Kiran Rao debated leaving India fearing for their child’s future. The very fact that they continue to live, entertain, thrive and prosper in India is a sign of their commitment to the country that made them who they are. Indians, common folk, love them. How can they see fear and hatred when there is love, respect and adulation?
I found Mr. Shah’s comment unfortunate and tweeted that his angst would have struck a deeper chord if he had used his vast platform and important voice to douse not fan sparks. It would be foolish to say Muslims in India and all over the world are not facing a challenge that questions their identity, their religion, their life and living. In Europe the conversation against Muslims is fierce ranging from xenophobia to racism and religious intolerance. Austria, France, Belgium and most recently Switzerland where I live for part of the year, burkas are banned. The Alpine nation has also banned mosques and minarets. All of them are democracies and I find it shameful. Mercifully, my country India, despite all its weaknesses, is not without vision. We celebrate all religions, cultures, practices and faiths in ways that Europe, which is a Christian construct, grapples with and may never understand.
So what should Mr. Shah have said instead, my ever-ever present critical children (both have lived and worked in India) asked and then followed a spirited conversation as is normal at home. Violence against women and children, rapes, unemployment, hunger, random killings on the streets, rise of religious extremism, the cavalier comments about India’s armed forces – India is a violent country in a violent neighbour. What could Mr. Shah have said instead? One of the ‘disadvantages’ of raising thinking children is to be questioned on a daily basis – Kurukshetra at home!
It would have been so very elegant if Mr. Shah had said as an Indian he was worried about the future of the nation in general and Muslims in particular (it’s his point of view and it’s as important as the next Indian). It would have been just so right to say as an Indian he was worried about the political slide. He could have been honest, gone the whole way and said as an Indian he wants to remind Indians of the rights and responsibilities enshrined in the Constitution and invite the nation to oust Prime Minister and his team in 2019. That, in my considered view, is true courage Mr. Shah that I expect from a person of your stature. My expectations may be wrong, but they are fired by the Indian Constitution that is a document that deserves daily reading. The Constitution, Mr. Shah – mine, yours and ours, is religion blind.
The Constitution of one of the modern world’s oldest democracies Switzerland has God in the Preamble. The American Constitution (Article V11) refers to God as do some 18 other states in America including California and Massachusetts. Other countries use an invocation of “God the Almighty” or the “Supreme Ruler of the Universe.” States in the Middle East begin with an invocation to Allah and in neighbouring Pakistan only a Muslim can be a Prime Minister.
In our Constitution, there are no such invocation or hope of blessing by any entity other than us, Indians. Ours is an old civilisation, but a young country. Be kind to the country that made you who you are and go to battle on principles enshrined in our Constitution Nr. Shah. Say you want a government change in New Delhi. Otherwise, you run the risk of becoming one of India’s chatterati who from the comfort of their secure homes and echo chambers extoll others to fight instead of taking the lead.
India’s future is in the hands of its young people, many of them in their 20s and 30s who have worked hard to make our country’s GDP gallop at 7% - rare in any other part of the world. India belongs to them. Many of them have the luxury of choice, like you to leave, but they want to stay to make our country one of the best in the world. During the recent Republic Summit where everyone from the Prime Minister, to Nitin Gadkari to Mukesh Ambani to P.V. Sindhu and Ritesh Agarwal spoke, I listened with closed eyes, placing myself in the shoes of India’s ambitious children who think big. The language I heard was in future tense, about work, responsibilities, duties and ambition. India’s children are already working to make the country a multi-trillion economy in the shortest possible time. They do not come from dynasties, they are willing to take risks, fight daily battles and ignore idle fear mongering so their dreams come true next year, not in 40 years.
Taking refuge in masks is shallow, Mr. Shah.