By Syed Badrul Ahsan*
There are things which we can learn from India. Observe the manner in which all classes and sections of Indians came together to honour A.P.J. Abdul Kalam when he died last week. Everyone, right from President Pranab Mukherjee to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to L.K. Advani to P. Chidambaram, united around the memory of the former scientist and president — to convey the powerful notion that beyond everyday politics, India is a nation which does not forget to pay respects to its eminent citizens.
We can learn from India what it means to have political differences of opinion and yet be on the same dais on occasions that have to do with the overall idea of India. When Narendra Modi was sworn in as India’s new leader in May last year, there were around him prominent politicians like Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and, of course, his predecessor Manmohan Singh. It is only in India, within this subcontinent steeped in the richness of heritage, that an incumbent prime minister calls on a former prime minister for a conversation over tea.
All these decades after the trauma of Partition in August 1947, it is India which keeps on underscoring the beauty and desirability of democracy being the bedrock of national aspirations. All Indians respect Indira Gandhi, but at the same time they do not fail to excoriate her when they reflect on the consequences of the Emergency in which she kept the country confined between June 1975 and March 1977. It is in India where Amartya Sen can publicly declare his opposition to Narendra Modi’s taking charge as prime minister and yet not feel threatened by the powers that be. India respects individual self-esteem.
In India, despite everything, secular politics has by and large governed ideas. There have been three Muslim presidents of the country — Zakir Hussain, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed and A.P.J. Abdul Kalam — and innumerable Muslim and Christian ministers, lawmakers, jurists and civil servants. Muslims and Christians and Jews and Hindus and Sikhs have served in senior positions in India’s armed forces side by side, have fought on the battlefield beside one another. Religion has remained personal. The country has been a collective affair, beyond and above religious dogma. In India, you can publicly call yourself an atheist, as Amartya Sen has, and no one will ask for your head. Arundhati Roy can challenge the state over matters of principle; and the state will not charge her with sedition.
Yes, there are too the negative points you can raise about India. But note that positive thoughts have always outweighed and outdone the negative. That is India, a land where foreigners find a home to spend quality intellectual time in. Only in India can you have a Mark Tully and a William Dalrymple explore Indian mores and politics and write about them. In India, it is not easy for victors to forget the vanquished, which is why the hapless Subhash Chandra Bose, despite his misfortunes, remains among the pantheon of Indian heroes today. India has its difficulties with its caste culture and yet out of that straitjacket a B.R. Ambedkar can emerge to give the country a constitution. Indians are people who feel sad at seeing artistes like Bade Ghulam Ali Khan going off to the new state carved out of the original country for Muslims and, again, feel excited when such great souls come back home. Only in India can you have diehard Hindus like Atal Behari Vajpayee and Narendra Modi go to power and then reach out to every religious base in the country.
Tribalism, in that religious and political sense, is what you will not see much of in India. On your peregrinations across Delhi, you will spot roads named after Hindus and Muslims and Buddhists and Christians. It is a spectacle you will not experience in the two countries, on India’s east and west, which were once part of the original country. Indian Muslims do not turn their backs on their country, do not leave it, for the country is a guarantee of safety and political equality for them. In India, you do not have a dwindling Muslim or Christian population because Hindus are not grabbing their land and eyeing their women (ghar waapsi, if you must know, is an aberration and all sections of the Indian population have roundly condemned it).
Only in India is it possible to have three Muslims, all of them Khans, to dominate the world of Indian cinema. Muslim lyricists, musicians and thespians have scaled the heights in India, despite such cantankerous men as Bal Thackeray. A Dilip Kumar can live in dignity only in India because his talent and not his faith is the basis of life for him. A Mohammad Rafi and a Talat Mahmood will always think of India as home, for India has always held fast to its centuries-old classical traditions in the arts. In India, a nation rises from despair, adds substance to its soul, before going out in the world — to meet the world on its own terms.
In India, a poor Muslim boy like A.P.J. Abdul Kalam can rise in the world of science and drape his country in the colours of national pride, before going on to serve it as president, as a humble man who comprehends the universality ingrained in the vastness of the land and in the endlessness of the cosmos.
This, then, is India — A.P.J. Abdul Kalam’s India.
*Syed Badrul Ahsan is Associate Editor, The Daily Observer, Dhaka, Bangladesh. He can be reached at [email protected]