Tu Hindu Banega Na Musalman Banega
Insaan ki aulad hai, insaan banega (You will grow up neither Hindu nor Muslim, The only identity you will have will be that of a human)
Sahir Ludhianvi’s lines, given a soothing quality by Mohammad Rafi’s voice, come to me as I read about the horrific attack that has left writer Salman Rushdie battling for his life. In recent years, I have reprised the lines many times – when Mohammed Ahlaq was lynched, when communally-frenzied mobs burnt down houses and took more than 50 lives in northeast Delhi, and after the numerous incidents that have virtually normalised hatred in the country. But I can’t also help turning to Sahir’s call for humanity when debates over how to express community identity and restrictions on individual choice rent the air, not just in the country but in other parts of the world – these are times when even choices on food and dress are embattled.
As a non-believer, who leans towards atheism, I am perhaps an outsider of sorts to these conversations. Why should anyone distant to – and I dare say, critical, at times even irreverent towards – religion even have a stake in such matters? But then the almost primal urge to question identities takes over. History tells us that just as humans have forged identities, they have also tried to push at the boundaries of these relationships, and find faults with them. The genealogy of heresy is nearly as old as that of religion. For, as Sahir wrote, “qudrat ne to banaai thi ek hi duniya hamne use Hindu aur Musalmaan banaayaa” (Nature made the world, it’s we humans who create Hindus and Muslims). And on another occasion, “Aasmaan pey hai Khuda, aur zameen pey hum/ Aaj kal woh is taraf dekhta hai kum” (God lives in the skies, we on Earth. These days, he looks rarely at us)
Artists and writers – Rushdie, for instance – have at times made their craft the oracle for apostasy. Unsurprisingly opprobrium has followed. Not just from the savants of religions. But, also from fellow artists. In a well-known war of words in the pages of The Guardian, John Le Carre referred to Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, and said, “there is no law in life or nature that says great religions may be insulted with impunity.”
There was much that was salient about Le Carre’s criticism, particularly his plea for empathy for religious beliefs, and his calling out of the advocates of artists’ freedom for being blinkered towards the power relations that push people to violence to “defend” their belief – though the leanings of Rushdie’s assailant are not clear, he has lived with death threats from more than 30 years now. But calls for a suspension of criticism of religious beliefs, especially that of the more embattled ones, speak of a deficit in today’s world. It tells of the lack of safeguard, for which modernity, at best, sought to provide fleeting advocacy: The freedom for the heretic to speak her mind. A few weeks ago, her party, the TMC, distanced itself from Mahua Moitra’s comments on goddess Kali after the MP had supported a heretical take on the deity. The unwritten manifesto of tolerance today has very little space for the apostate.
Heretics, of course, have not always been unspiritual. In fact, spirituality has been at the core of some of the most trenchant criticism of the power practices and the forced boundaries between people that religions often create. The Bengali mendicant, Lalon Fakir, for instance, sang, “Shunnot dile hoy musholman/Narir tobe ki hoy bidhan/Bamun chini poita proman/Bamni chini ki prokare”. (Circumcision marks a Muslim man, what then marks a Muslim woman? One can recognise the Brahmin by the sacred thread. But how do I recognise the Brahmin woman?)
Lalon was born about the time the East India Company conquered Bengal and by the time he breathed his last – after a life of more than 100 years – an attenuated form of modernity was taking shape in India, as in many other parts of the colonised world. It seems in the more than two hundred years between Lalon Fakir and Rushdie, societies have lost the ability to take offence to religion. The heretic has paid the price.
This is, of course, not to trace the lineage of Rushdie’s criticism to Sufi-influenced thinkers like Lalon. They lived in different epochs and writing in English, in any case, bestows privileges of its own. Codes and norms governing behaviour towards religion are different today, and increasingly fraught. Lines between blasphemy or irreverence and bigotry are not always clear. Perhaps they never were. But in times, when narratives of hatred seek to widen schisms between communities, how does one protect the critic – like Rushdie – caught in the crossfire? Is it by an appeal to suspend criticism, like Le Carre who described the Satanic verses as “pointless”? Or is it by looking at the auteur’s heresy as something as elemental to humankind as the belief in religion so that the language of toleration finds a way to embrace the apostate? In 1959 in the wake of decolonisation and socialist experiments in several parts of the world, Sahir – a Communist himself who wrote several songs critiquing religion — talked of that possibility: “Tu badle hue waqt ki pehchan banega, Insaan ki aulad hai insaan banega” (You will be the marker of a new age. One in which the progeny of a human has no identity but that of a human).
As Rushdie fights for his life, we are nowhere close.