As I write this, 4,000 Muslims are gathered in a dilapidated mosque somewhere in the Gujarat (I won't say where as the information could be used by well connected Hindu Nationalists determined to kill these bakre (goats) as they call Muslims), weeping, wounded and terrified that they will not survive this conflagration, the most recent manifestation of uncontrollable (or uncontrolled) hostilities between Hindus and Muslims, 100 million of whom live across India and have done so for countless generations.
Six days ago, 63 people were killed by a group of these Muslims who set fire to a train carrying some Hindu fundamentalists from Ayodhya, a place like Jerusalem, which is claimed by different faiths who regard it as sacred and theirs alone. If only earthquakes would swallow all such places in the world. The deliberately started inferno was a dreadful act – whatever the root grievances of the perpetrators- and it killed 14 children who never knew the word nationalism.
The fact that Muslims did it is yet one more reason to despair, another blot on our already charred landscape. That they never thought about how many lives would have to pay for this crime makes it doubly wicked. They knew how vulnerable Muslims now are in India and increasingly so (as are Christians too, an almost unreported truth. Churches in Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere are being attacked with congregations intimidated, beaten up and worse) and that Muslim victims of violence would not be protected by the state police or army because of institutionalised Islamophobia which is rampant across the country.
Shamsul Islam, an Indian journalist and activist who has spent his life bringing the communities together through street theatre projects, forwarded an email to me from the India Centre for Human Rights and Law: "We have been in touch with friends in Gujarat. The situation against minorities is completely out of control. The police are actively involved in perpetrating violence against the Muslims. At the moment there is a situation of state sponsored genocide".
The dispute has been rumbling for 10 years now and has much more to do with the malignant views and underground activities of those who make up the present government of India than with what happened in Ayodhya 500 years ago when, apparently, the Babri mosque was built on the site where Hindus believed their supreme deity, Ram, was born. Sure, during the Raj there were moments of serious claims and counterclaims and on this one the British did rather a good job first insisting that both faiths could use separate spaces in the mosque and then summarily closing the place down in 1949 when passions were high with Partition, to my mind the most destructive thing that ever happened to the sub-continent and one which showed the more devious side of perfidious Albion.
In 1984, hard line Hindus started campaigning to replace the mosque with a temple and, in 1992, they destroyed the precious old building. Riots which followed killed 3,000. Most of them were Muslims who were raped, burnt, their children torn in two like cooked chickens, by vegetarian Hindus who worship the right to life of animals and insects. There are ministers in the government today who encouraged this. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which swept into power in the mid Nineties is as committed to reclaiming India for one religious group as were the Serb leaders in ex-Yugoslavia.
We have such instigators on our soil too. Although we hear rather too much about Muslim fanatics, ethnic and religious hatred is also being preached by British Hindus and Sikhs and their campaigns are closely connected to the dangerous politics of modern India. Post 11 September, these people have got bolder about expressing their prejudices against Muslims in particular. Some intellectuals are no better. In February this year, VS Naipaul, Nobel Prize winner, said that he was glad the BJP was using his many denunciations of Muslims in India. "It is the beginning of self awareness," he pronounced.
Sidarth Bhatia, another writer, describes in her article, God or Democracy, in Index on Censorship (January 2002) how India is becoming lethally sectarian and may now be incapable of following the nuanced understanding of Hinduism which was projected by Gandhi and Nehru (remember, it was a Hindu nationalist who killed Gandhi for being too fair to Muslims) and that secular democracy itself is under threat.
As an East African Asian, I find all this incomprehensible. We were racist towards Africans (and still have to acknowledge that) but there was no religious animosity between Asian Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus and Christians. Even today, when tribalism has appeared with such vengeance, East African Asians carry on close relationships across the barriers which religious leaders are busy erecting. When I married my English husband, I asked Bhikhu Parekh (a Hindu) to take the place of my father who died many years ago. Fundamentalists from both communities were outraged.
My father was a clever man but an out of place bohemian who disappeared frequently, leaving us bewildered and impoverished. He went out to buy fags and came back two, maybe three years later. I was born during one of these disappearances and my mother had to wait in hospital until Ramankaka Patel, our Hindu next door neighbour, paid the bill and took us both home. My mother was inconsolable when he died a few years ago.
Sugrabai, our Sunni Muslim neighbour was a formidable, cigarette-smoking matriarch who had been on Haj and was more devout than we could ever be. She didn't think the rest of us had even a slim chance of entering paradise, but she loved me like I was her own, paying my school fees when there were hard times. Her children and grandchildren who live in Bolton call me didi (older sister) still. Goan teachers, Sikh carpenters, even Greek orthodox café owners were in and out of our doors, which were always open to them. One reason why we East African Asians have succeeded so well and fast in this country is because of this ease with diversity.
The irony is that we used to say this ease was a priceless inheritance passed on by the many migrants to Africa from the Gujarat after colonial policies and famines had destroyed what was once a fertile place. Gujaratis were known for being good at business and bad at war. These were not the people the British recruited into the army, too soft, too agreeable, that was their problem.
Many of my ancestors were Hindus who had converted to become Shia Muslims but they spoke Gujarati to each other (it is one of the four languages I learnt as a child) and culturally there was nothing to divide them from us. Gandhi and Jinnah, both fervent believers in secular states, went to school in the Gujarat. To think that this state now supports ultra-nationalist Hindu leaders and has descended into a pitiless, lawless place where mass murder is seen as an act of true faith.Reuse content