Thursday, April 02, 2009

The Success of Secular India

My mom sent me the article below, entitled "Indians and Pakistanis are no longer the same people" by Vir Sanghvi. There was a time when I naively believed that we were the same - ordinary people with similar aspirations. But today, I believe we are the same only in that we are all human; however, as a nation, that collection of human beings has chosen a very different path, one that only leads downhill.

Despite that, I still wouldn't go to the extreme of saying that EVERY Pakistani is an India-hating, West-hating, Islamic fanatic, just as I don't believe that EVERY Indian is true to the idea of India.

Recent events, especially here in Karnataka, show a growing and alarming intolerance on religious, gender and linguistic grounds. Our neighbours across the border are a glaring example of just what intolerance can deteriorate into, so we, as a nation, need continual reminders to not stray onto that path, consciously or subconsciously.

Which is why I liked this article. It reminded me that all our successes and achievements, whether individually or nationally, are at least partly rooted in our national ideals of democracy, tolerance and most importantly, secularism.



by Vir Sanghvi, Hindustan Times, The Mint

The same people? Surely not.

Few things annoy me as much as the claim often advanced by well-meaning but woolly-headed (and usually Punjabi) liberals to the effect that when it comes to India and Pakistan, "We're all the same people, yaar."

This may have been true once upon a time. Before 1947, Pakistan was part of undivided India and you could claim that Punjabis from West Punjab (what is now Pakistan) were as Indian as, say, Tamils from Madras.

But time has a way of moving on. And while the gap between our Punjabis (from east Punjab which is now the only Punjab left in India) and our Tamils may actually have narrowed, thanks to improved communications, shared popular culture and greater physical mobility, the gap between Indians and Pakistanis has now widened to the extent that we are no longer the same people in any significant sense.

This was brought home to me most clearly by two major events over the last few weeks.
The first of these was the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team on the streets of Lahore. In their defence, Pakistanis said that they were powerless to act against the terrorists because religious fanaticism was growing. Each day more misguided youngsters joined jihadi outfits and the law and order situation worsened.

Further, they added, things had got so bad that in the tribal areas the government of Pakistan had agreed to suspend the rule of law under pressure from the Taliban and had conceded that sharia law would reign instead. Interestingly, while most civilised liberals should have been appalled by this surrender to the forces of extremism, many Pakistanis defended this concession.

Imran Khan (Keble College, Oxford, 1973-76) even declared that sharia law would be better because justice would be dispensed more swiftly! (I know this is politically incorrect but the Loin of the Punjab's defence of sharia law reminded me of the famous Private Eye cover when his marriage to Jemima Goldsmith was announced. The Eye carried a picture of Khan speaking toJemima's father. "Can I have your daughter's hand?" Imran was supposedly asking James Goldsmith. "Why? Has she been caught shoplifting?" Goldsmith replied. So much for sharia law.)

The second contrasting event was one that took place in Los Angeles but which was perhaps celebrated more in India than in any other country in the world. Three Indians won Oscars: A.R. Rahman, Resul Pookutty and Gulzar.

Their victory set off a frenzy of rejoicing. We were proud of our countrymen. We were pleased that India's entertainment industry and its veterans had been recognised at an international platform. And all three men became even bigger heroes than they already were.

But here's the thing: Not one of them is a Hindu.

Can you imagine such a thing happening in Pakistan? Can you even conceive of a situation where the whole country would celebrate the victory of three members of two religious minorities? For that matter, can you even imagine a situation where people from religious minorities would have got to the top of their fields and were, therefore, in the running for international awards?

On the one hand, you have Pakistan imposing sharia law, doing deals with the Taliban, teaching hatred in madrasas, declaring jihad on the world and trying to kill innocent Sri Lankan cricketers. On the other, you have the triumph of Indian secularism.

The same people? Surely not.

We are defined by our nationality. They choose to define themselves by their religion.

But it gets even more complicated. As you probably know, Rahman was born Dilip Kumar. He converted to Islam when he was 21. His religious preferences made no difference to his prospects. Even now, his music cuts across all religious boundaries. He's as much at home with Sufi music as he is with bhajans. Nor does he have any problem with saying 'Vande Mataram'.

Now, think of a similar situation in Pakistan. Can you conceive of a Pakistani composer who converted to Hinduism at the age of 21 and still went on to become a national hero? Under sharia law, they'd probably have to execute him.

Resul Pookutty's is an even more interesting case. Until you realise that Malayalis tend to put an 'e' where the rest of us would put an 'a,' (Ravi becomes Revi and sometimes the Gulf becomes the Gelf), you cannot work out that his name derives from Rasool, a fairly obviously Islamic name.

But here's the point: even when you point out to people that Pookutty is in fact a Muslim, they don't really care. It makes no difference to them. He's an authentic Indian hero, his religion is irrelevant.

Can you imagine Pakistan being indifferent to a man's religion? Can you believe that Pakistanis would not know that one of their Oscar winners came from a religious minority? And would any Pakistani have dared bridge the religious divide in the manner Resul did by referring to the primeval power of Om in his acceptance speech?

The same people? Surely not.

Most interesting of all is the case of Gulzar who many Indians believe is a Muslim. He is not. He is a Sikh. And his real name is Sampooran Singh Kalra.

So why does he have a Muslim name?

It's a good story and he told it on my TV show some years ago. He was born in West Pakistan and came over the border during the bloody days of Partition. He had seen so much hatred and religious violence on both sides, he said, that he was determined never to lose himself to that kind of blind religious prejudice and fanaticism.

Rather than blame Muslims for the violence inflicted on his community - after all, Hindus and Sikhs behaved with equal ferocity - he adopted a Muslim pen name to remind himself that his identity was beyond religion. He still writes in Urdu and considers it irrelevant whether a person is a Sikh, a Muslim or a Hindu.

Let's forget about political correctness and come clean: can you see such a thing happening in Pakistan? Can you actually conceive of a famous Pakistani Muslim who adopts a Hindu or Sikh name out of choice to demonstrate the irrelevance of religion?

My point, exactly.

What all those misguided liberals who keep blathering on about us being the same people forget is that in the 60-odd years since Independence, our two nations have traversed very different paths.

Pakistan was founded on the basis of Islam. It still defines itself in terms of Islam. And over the next decade as it destroys itself, it will be because of Islamic extremism.

India was founded on the basis that religion had no role in determining citizenship or nationhood. An Indian can belong to any religion in the world and face no discrimination in his rights as a citizen.

It is nobody's case that India is a perfect society or that Muslims face no discrimination. But only a fool would deny that in the last six decades, we have travelled a long way towards religious equality.

In the early days of independent India, a Yusuf Khan had to call himself Dilip Kumar for fear of attracting religious prejudice. In today's India, a Dilip Kumar can change his name to A.R. Rahman and nobody really gives a damn either way.

So think back to the events of the last few weeks. To the murderous attack on innocent Sri Lankan cricketers by jihadi fanatics in a society that is being buried by Islamic extremism. And to the triumphs of Indian secularism.

Same people?
Don't make me laugh.


  1. what an amazing article. I've always been a fan of sanghvi's writing. He also writes at Some of those articles are really enjoyable.

  2. Very aptly written article by Mr Sanghvi. However I cant bring myself to agree with everything he says. He has glorified the famous people, but what about the common man? A common muslim is still eyed suspiciously whenever there is some kind of an attack some hindu dominant place...vice versa for hindus. Religious fanaticism is still prevalent in India, although not upto the disastrous proportions like in Pakistan. But if we let these fanatics go out of hand, we might well have a Pakistan like situation in India.

    More than the article, I liked your foreword to it. I think we must all remember we are human first, and then anything else. We cannot let any kind of prejudice come in the way of building a beautiful, powerful nation and a wonderful planet.

  3. lovely! hats off to sanghvi for not being in la- la land with the oft- repeated phrase "we're all the same". a gutsy, honest stance, that not many can take but who're we kidding, thank you for sharing:)

  4. Loved the article....Vir Sanghvi explained his point very well. I'm sure we all have at some point or the other had the same thoughts going thru our minds.
    Just the other day somebody was telling me that the Pakistani school textbooks were a disgrace...full of spelling mistakes everywhere & worse, Islamic thoughts expressed every chance they got.

    This post also reminds me of a post by a Pakistani Blogger which I had posted looooong back
    Seriously I felt really good reading it & was impressed enough to post it on my blog:-)).

  5. very well written and without any bias, its true that the type of freedom, liberty and opportunities we enjoy in India is not available in Pakistan, and for minorities life is not easy whereas in India we have free for all.
    With the diversity of people in India, there are bound to be certain tensions, but even then we had a muslim President and Vice president once, which nobody can imagin in Pakistan.

  6. my only real exposure to pakistani people is with the good friends i made after coming here and in the diverse workplace i have to say i was able to identify with them more than anyone else. i am sure this article has its points too though. i also think that i am still living in the time that i left india while the country has gone on much farther without me. the same must be true for pakistan and its people too.

  7. Mumbai Diva - hey thanks for the link!

    Smriti - Well put! It is sad that people mistakenly tend to put "religion" above humanity, when the heart of most religions IS being good to your fellow humans, regardless of any differences.

    Naperville Mom - yup, it does take guts to be not-so politically correct and Sanghvi has done it well this time. Thanks for dropping by :)

  8. Reflections - after 26/11, the media here too reported on the content of Pakistani textbooks, and it is truly shocking how they're corrupting future generations with this warped world view.

    Renu - yes, it made me re-appreciate the fact that we're a secular nation, and just how important it is for us to preserve that.

    Lan - I don't know any Pakistanis personally, but I guess that when you're in a neutral environment, you'd find them to be quite similar-minded. Also, like I wrote, they're not all fanatics; even Pakistanis living in Pakistan are not all fanatics (check out the link Nancy put up here), but at a national level, the current scenario is really bad. You said India has gone further since you left, and yes, in many ways it has. But Pakistan sadly has only gone backward.