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INDIA POLLS: The times are a-changing

Publication Date : 22-04-2014


Last week, I spent two evenings with Naseeruddin Shah, India's most refined actor.

With Singapore businessman George Abraham on guitar, and joined by our wives, we drank, sang Bob Dylan songs and talked about India's changing social fabric, how the country was morphing in not-always pleasant ways and of our sons who were House mates at a boarding school in Dehradun, northern India.

The following evening, we watched as Naseer, directed by his wife and actress Ratna Pathak Shah, held a sellout crowd at the NUS Cultural Centre spellbound as he portrayed a Pakistani peace negotiator tangling with his Indian counterpart in an adaptation of Lee Blessing's play, A Walk In The Woods.

The play, brought here by De Ideaz, could not have been better-timed, or the casting more perfect. For Naseer's persona and success goes to the very heart of the idea of India that is so under challenge, more so as the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seems poised to take power in New Delhi.

From the novelist Salman Rushdie, whose writings so angered some clerics that they issued a fatwa against him, to prominent thinkers, ordinary folk and leading and lesser lights in Bollywood, the phenomenon of Narendra Modi, the Hindu nationalist politician tipped to take power in New Delhi, looms large.

There is a sense that India is at a crossroads, that Modi, whose Gujarat state witnessed terrible anti-Muslim riots in his first term, may take India down an unfamiliar path which stresses one religion over the rest, distorts the Hindu ethos of assimilation and tolerance, stresses one deity over the rest of the gods in the Hindu pantheon and somehow, gives more importance to the Hindi-speaking heartland over the rest of the vast and varied nation.

The stress is particularly heavy on people who've never identified themselves through their community or caste and perhaps Naseer, a Muslim in a nation that's predominantly Hindu, is no exception.

Born in 1950, three years after Independence and the bloodied Partition of India, his parents were people who'd rejected the so-called Two Nation theory - that Muslims constitute a separate nation from Hindus, and hence needed the new homeland called Pakistan. Educated at Christian missionary schools, he grew up in an India where his minority status never seemed much of an issue. At Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), set up around 1877 as an institution for progressive Muslims to be educated in English and "Western sciences", Naseer's acting talents were obvious from the beginning, says George, who remembers the budding actor going onstage to deliver an 80-minute soliloquy on Socrates.

After AMU, Naseer went to the National School of Drama in New Delhi and migrated from stage to movies, starring in several notable films, including the 2001 hit Monsoon Wedding and, more recently, Dirty Picture.

His oeuvre, which exceeds 100 films, includes at least two Pakistani productions.

Even as his own career bloomed his older brother Zameerud-din progressed in the Indian Army, battling Pakistani forces in the Rajasthan sector in the 1971 war, and rising to three-star general and deputy chief of the Indian Army. After retirement, Lieutenant-General Shah was appointed vice-chancellor of AMU.

In this India, other Muslims have thrived as well, as have others from the minority community. The current intelligence chief, the country's top policeman, is a Muslim. So too, Vice-President Hamid Ansari.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is a Sikh.

In the seventh decade of their Independence, most urban Indians accept this diversity without a second thought.

"When my sons met a couple where the husband and wife were both Muslims, they were taken by surprise," says Naseer, whose wife is Hindu. "Until then, they thought the normal thing was for husband and wife to be from separate faiths."

Modi's rise, however, makes people examine their own identities, and particularly, religious identity. His celibacy, the teetotal ways, the reports of early indoctrination into the ways of the militant Hindu outfit RSS or National Volunteer Corps, suggest a rigidity of personality that somehow sits uneasily with the relatively free-wheeling Indian ethos.

For this reason, the current elections in India hold more than ordinary interest for not only Muslims but even perfectly integrated communities such as Christians. Even deep-thinking Hindus have a sense of unease of what is to come.

Yet, to harbour a special suspicion for Modi, who was born in September 1950, two months after Naseer, is also not quite fair. For the India of today is a product of many forces, external and internal.

Hindu nationalism's external dimensions can be framed in the backdrop of a subcontinent where nation after nation opted for identities based largely on the majority community. Pakistan is an Islamic Republic, Primarily Buddhist Ceylon changed its name to Sri Lanka and put the Sinhala lion on the flag; even tiny Bhutan purged hundreds of thousands of its Hindu Nepalese.

Compounding the sense of siege, within India, even the most "secular" parties were tempted to play the communal card.

The southern state of Kerala, known for the country's highest literacy, has had a history of peaceful coexistence among the faiths. Keralans, or Malayalis as they like to be called, even refer to Muslims as moplahs, a word derived from mapillai, the Tamil and Malayalam word for son-in-law.

Trust the politician to muddy these peaceful waters. In 1969, Kerala, then under a Marxist-led coalition eagerly looking for Muslim support, bowed to pressure from the Muslim League to carve out the district of Malappuram, grouping areas with large Muslim settlements.

Today, of the 16 state legislature constituencies in the district, 12 are held by the League, and only two each by "secular" Congress and the Marxists. Anecdotal evidence suggests Hindus are pressured to sell their land to Muslims and the intake into schools and colleges is overwhelmingly, and sometimes, exclusively, Muslim.

Likewise, Sikh separatism was fanned in the 1980s by the Congress party under the late Indira Gandhi, who used it as leverage against the incumbent Sikh Akali Dal group. After Mrs Gandhi was slain by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984, massive killings of Sikhs ensued in the national capital, where Mrs Gandhi's older son, Rajiv had just taken office as prime minister and appeared to have done little to stop the carnage.

Two years later, Gandhi caved in to pressure from orthodox Muslims and enacted legislation that overturned a Supreme Court order granting the right of alimony to divorced Muslim women.

Few Indian political parties can escape blame for leading India to this situation. As a common Urdu saying goes, everyone is naked in this hamaam (bath).

This was the background against which the BJP, and Modi, found fertile ground. In the 1984 elections, the BJP won just two seats in the 543-member Lower House of Parliament. Today, 30 years later, who knows, it may get upwards of 230 seats, enough to hold power with coalition support.

Indeed, both Shahs and Velloors are acutely aware of the consequences of sharpening communal awareness.

In 2006, when our boys were at the hallowed Doon School, the discovery that halal meat traditionally has been served at tables led to protests from some Hindu and Sikh parents. They demanded non-halal, visibly angering headmaster Kanti Bajpai, now a professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

The boys themselves cared about just one thing - that there was enough meat to go around.

Perhaps it is not surprising that when the majority community begins to act like minorities, the real minorities withdraw even more into a sullen shell. Naseer was shocked when he visited AMU, his alma mater, some months ago.

"The talk was all about Hindus doing this, and Hindus doing that," he says in thoughtful distress, pulling on his cigarette.

Worse, the students there jeered and shouted abuse when his daughter Heba Shah went on stage for a performance - they just did not like to see a modern Muslim woman doing that.

The students quietened only when Naseer, perhaps AMU's best known alumnus alive, came on for his part.

Perhaps India's communal sentiments would be more at ease if Pakistan and India had a better relationship.

But, as A Walk In the Woods depicts, there seems little prospect of that happening in a hurry.

Under the expert direction of Ratna Pathak Shah, daughter and sister of Bollywood notables herself, Naseer plays Jamaluddin Lutfullah, a colourful and capricious Pakistani peace negotiator who, infuriatingly for his Indian counterpart, seems more interested in centuries-old Linden trees, assorted wildlife and the natural beauty of Switzerland, venue for the talks.

When the two fail to find common ground, they leave together - so the press does not get wind of the broken talks. When they agree and return to brief their political masters - they leave separately, lest the press hear of a possible breakthrough and fan public sentiments that could crush the deal.

In the end, unable to gain the political sanction to seal an agreement, a weary Jamal announces his retirement to his baffled Indian counterpart, Ram Chandra Chinnappa, played by the talented Rajit Kapur. Even as they part as friends, the issues that divide them remain alongside the solutions that stare them in the face.

The evening before the play, we ended a long night singing Dylan's The Times They Are A-Changin', with Rajit backing on a pair of bongo drums. Where we faltered, Naseer's polished voice came in to guide us back to the lyrics.

God, did he know every line of that song!


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