India at the Crossroads

cross road

Returning from India after visiting my elderly parents each winter, is always filled with mixed emotions; a confluence of feelings, that of regret for not being able to care for them as I should, that of missing the comforts of having served bed tea and appetizing meals, evening tea with friends and neighbors, being greeted by a barrage of relatives and the convenience of hopping on a rickshaw to fetch an errand and the many small pleasures of a simple Indian life of a small town. 

My heart was heavy, as I dragged my feet at New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport, looking at the porters, the staff, and the people around me as though I knew them all and wanted them to tell me to not leave. Like a zombie I walked through the immigration line and went to the gate to board the plane to the United States. As I sat on the plane I started to scroll through the photos in my phone looking at the memories I made during this visit; the Jaipur trip which included the adventures of the elephant ride at the Amer fort and the interesting encounter with a fortuneteller, visit to mustard farms and the ancestral ruins in Barabanki, Tunday Kabab and Kashmiri Chai in the Chowk area of Lucknow and of course my hometown Aligarh which subsists in every ounce of my blood and resonates in my being. As I looked at each picture occasionally zooming in to see my expressions more clearly, I paused at a video my cousin had captured of me enjoying Qawwali of Amir Khusro’s Aaj Rang Hai being sung by the Qawwaals of Dewa, an event always organized by my cousins during my visit as a gift for me knowing my love for poetry and sufi music.  “Des bades mein dhoondh phiree hoon; Toraa rung man bhayo ri, Jag ujiyaaro, jagat ujiyaaro, Main to aiso rang aur nahin dekhi ray……..” The lines stuck with me and I started to wonder if India will ever see a poet like Amir Khusro or will ever celebrate or appreciate a genius like him whose poetry is a testament of what India was- diverse, inclusive, tolerant and brilliant. 

As much as I regretted leaving India, somewhere in my heart I felt relieved that I am no longer a party to the vitriol that flows in today’s India. During the visit, every morning, I would read newspaper with my eighty-four-year-old father and would have long discussions with him about what India has become and where it is going and the future of Indian Muslims. A hot topic these days was the “Pran Pratishtha” issue. Apparently $4.2 billions in donations have poured in to support this project with the government is arranging train and air transportation services for approximately 100,000 devotees to attend this event, contracts for new five-star hotels had been granted, daily prayer sessions were being held in schools, all government buildings had been ordered to be decorated, devotional music was being played on loudspeakers on the streets and the malls, staffers and devotees dressed in Ramayana clothes were seen all over the UP state. The honorable Prime Minister Mr. Narendra Modi has declared that on Jan 22, when the consecration of Lord Ram’s idol takes place (in the same area where Babri Masjid once stood), Ram Jyoti must be lit in everyone’s house (just like the thaali banging, flag hoisting charade of COVID). Interestingly, dozens of pregnant women have requested surgeries such that their child is born on this auspicious day. The theatrics unfold despite the boycott by senior priests who dispute the sanctity of the event. But the Hindutva brigade could care less. Their agenda is clear and the goal well-crafted, that of the creation of a “Hindu Rashtra”. They are unstoppable. Clearly, we learn nothing from history. India doesn’t have to look very far; Pakistan stands as a bold reminder of what happens when religion is mixed with politics. Unfortunately, the shaky ground that Pakistan was built on continues to struggle for stability to this day. But in the game of hate, everything is fair. In today’s India revenge is the order of the day. Everyone understands that all this pomp and glory around “pran-pratishtha’ is nothing religious but purely political, yet, everyone is playing with it as it is a matter of pride and revenge, pride for one’s religious identity and revenge against Muslims for alleged atrocities inflicted centuries ago by foreign “invaders”. Seemingly, for the Hindutva brigade this is the right time to settle the score for once and for all. Their claims are two; first, when Pakistan treats its Hindu population as second-class citizens with fewer rights, Indian Muslims should bear the same fate, second, Indian Muslims are the descendants of “foreign invaders” hence should be treated as such. The people caught in this gemish are Indian Muslims. While they are ostracized by Modi’s India for having chosen to stay in a secular Indian nation, they are ridiculed by Pakistan, for not choosing to migrate to the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. How Pakistan views Indian Muslims does not concern me, what worries me is the future of Indian Muslims in Modi’s India. Indian Muslims find themselves in a grim situation struggling on how to poise themselves in this environment? Resist or submit? A new development I noticed is that Muslims have stopped being reactionaries and seem to be ambivalent.

A new trend has emerged, as more and more young college age Muslim men and women are leaving India to study abroad. This is great, only if this was not a result of fear and intimidation. It is my belief just like that of many others that the soul of India resides in its commitment to secularism, misguided fools who are searching for an identity in a “Hindu Rashtra” do not understand that the identity that India chose on August 15, 1947 represents what India is and the identity it should retain.

Samina Salim is Associate Professor, Department of Pharmacological & Pharmaceutical Sciences, University of Houston

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