Our own apartheid

Our own apartheid

Building Bridges

It was an extraordinary group of five that turned up at Delhi’s Jama Masjid at 3.30 am last week for ‘Saheri,’ or the last meal before the day’s fasting during the holy month of Ramadan. Saheri derives from Saher which means dawn.

Only those in the vicinity of mosques make it a congregational affair. And, when the mosque happens to be one of the world’s great monuments, Jama Masjid, people sometimes travel long distances to participate in this remarkable confluence of faith and aesthetics. The incentive to visit the area multiplies because of several well known restaurants, particularly Karim’s renowned for a special fare during Ramadan — Nihari, mutton cooked all night on slow fire and paya, or goat’s trotters, with ‘khamiri’ roti or leavened bread.

These may sound like mouth watering delicacies but not when one of us happens to be an Arya Samaji, acute vegetarian, Swami Agnivesh, from head to toe in his elegant saffron outfit. (I carried from home cooked vegetables for him.) Others in the group were Lord Meghnad Desai, a Nagar Brahmin from Gujarat, now member of the House of Lords who was in the reckoning to be the Speaker plus a distinguished professor at the London School of Economics.

His wife, Kishwar Ahluwalia a Sikh by origin, a writer and their daughter, Mallika, who has just completed her masters in politics at Harvard and wishes to plunge headlong into Indian politics — an eclectic group, you would say.

My qualifications as a Ramadan guide would be quite as suspect as Ghalib’s would have been. Asked by a magistrate to declare his religion, Ghalib said: ‘I am half a Muslim.’ The puzzled law officer asked him to clarify. ‘I drink but I do not eat pork!’ In his letters, he is frank about his attitude to fasts. ‘I keep the fast mollified – a piece of bread here, a gulp of water there.’

Let me place on record the fact the each one of the group except Meghnad (he had to travel) actually fasted that day in exactly the sort of spirit that many of us participate in Deepawali, Holi or Christmas. The simple compact is: your religion exudes a culture which decorates my spaces too and the other way around!

Every Ramadan, I visit Jama Masjid with family and non Muslim friends in pursuit of a singular purpose. This is my small contribution towards making ourselves aware of the apartheid system in which we live. Apartheid, as we know from South Africa and Rhodesia, means separate development.

In South Africa, apartheid, consisted in parcelling whites, Indians and African Blacks in totally separate compartments. It was in Lenasia, the prosperous exclusively Indian township (two swimming pools per bungalow were not unknown) that I first learnt how comfortable Indians can be with this kind of separation.

Preserving purity of race
Jayant Patil, a Lenasia businessman, told me in 1992 (on TV) that apartheid was ‘good’ because it ‘helps us keep the race pure.’ How would Mahatama Gandhi, who spent 21 years in South Africa, have reacted?

This annual ritual was triggered by an incident in Allahabad. I was jolted out of my shoes during a lecture to a group of youth during communal tensions in Allahabad soon after Babari Masjid was demolished. I asked for the Hindus in the group to raise their hands.

Half the hands went up. I asked how many had Muslim friends. Not one. I asked the remainder, all Muslims, if anyone of them had ever seen a ‘tulsi’ (Holy Basil) plant in a traditional Hindu courtyard. Not one had.

Does it not resemble apartheid? In fact, it appears to me to be even more pernicious because here separation has not been imposed. It has evolved voluntarily. Living in separate compartments, it is so easy for popular imagination to conjure up ogres, one about the other, during periods of stress. Worse than a negative image, however, is total disinterest in each other. This disinterest, at the level of governance, becomes benign neglect of the disadvantaged group, in this case Muslims.

What was the profit from this group’s visit to Jama Masjid? Well, we saw warm, smiling, hospitable people. Declining quality of cuisine. Total lack of any civic contribution to a sense of décor or cleanliness. It were not just the grimy streets, but even the wide stairs leading upto an ill kept gate opening onto a jewel of a monument, one of the very best in the world. History is being lost as the number of visitors, both Indian and foreign, decline in direct proportion to the squalor on the pavements.

There clearly has to be a muscular Jama Masjid in Ramadan Committee to take responsibility for lights, cleanliness, and general ambience. The Lt Governor and chief minister must at least visit the area to see what they can do.

As for corroding the apartheid system, Swami Agnivesh and others were quick to latch onto a social engineering idea the late Basheer Hussain Zaidi spelt out. ‘Let every Muslim family in the country find a corresponding Hindu one (and vice versa) as a friend to be visited every month — not just for a meal but even such serious consultation as fixing the date for the daughter’s wedding.’

I know this language is syrupy nonsense to most today, but not to Swami Agnivesh. Incidentally, is uninstitutional apartheid not part of the problem behind the current violence in Britain?

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