The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, April 1, 2001
Speaking generally

Making places pleasant for pilgrims
By Chanchal Sarkar

IF you have not been ever to the Mahabodhi Temple at Bodh Gaya then you must go, and at night. Hundreds of small diyas or candles lit by the devotees light up the temple and its surroundings, the stupa stands proudly in the middle and even the most irreligious cannot but think of the man who attained enlightenment there, not for himself but for the world and whose message, in ever- widening circles, went to country after country especially in the East like Japan, China, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Tibet, Ladakh and Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Mongolia.

Most Indian holy places and temples are irritating, crowded, noisy and dirty. The Mahabodhi Temple is not without some of these symptoms but still it is different. There is a large, wide courtyard outside the temple from where roads lead to the office, library and some guest houses. There are many shops with their plaintive salespeople but these souvenir shops do not carry much that is remarkable. There are many STD, ISD booths and eating houses. And, horror of horrors, there are also magnified filmi songs which assault the ear and sensibilities. Why these are not controlled, I do not know.

Yet, somehow, when you go down the steps to the famous temple first built, it is said, by Emperor Ashoka in 3 B.C. and reconstructed and repaired many times since, a sense of peace envelopes one.


Monks and pilgrims come for many countries. Japanese and Koreans and Tibetans wear robes that are darker than the saffron ones worn by Sri Lankans, Cambodians, Thais and Burmese. Most fingers twirl prayer beads. Some women pilgrims, may be from Japan, wear white. Seeing the devotees sitting quietly in the half-light meditating is a deeply moving experience. Elsewhere, Buddhist scriptures are read by groups from old documents. Particular groups like the Sri Lankans sit together, while a leader or monk explains the texts in Sinhalese. Men and women do the sashtang pranam, not once but continuously.

Flickering candles lit by the devotees give a beautiful light; the pilgrims pray but softly so that no one is disturbed. While I was immensely moved, I wondered, as I have often done, why we do not make things attractive and beautiful for the pilgrims. It is the Buddhist countries who have taken pains to construct good roads, temples and guest houses, why can India not do that? There is nothing like the cleanliness that one sees in St Peter’s Rome or the Bahai Temple in Delhi or Belur Math in Calcutta. We can do this, but we don’t. I did not see a single pilgrim being taken around in a wheelchair; maybe there are such facilities but I did not notice any.

I hear that the famous Angkar Vat Temple in Cambodia is to have casinos. How humble. I hope the idea will not strike those who administer Bodh Gaya.

Dealing with dowry deaths

Certain statistical figures are horrifying, but if they are repeated often enough they lose their horror-content and become everyday statements. One such is that in India a bride is done to death every 20 minutes, the total number in the year being more than 22,000. About 90 per cent of these murdered women are Hindus but there hasn’t been any strong desire on the part of the Hindutva upholders to do something to stop the cruel practice. Passing a law is usually the cheapest way to fulfil one’s obligations and those who burn brides in India know that, if they go about their business carefully, there will be no prosecutions. As for taking and offering dowry, of which there were some 9000 cases in 1998. About 80 per cent of them remain pending and in 18 per cent cases was there even a trial. Convictions? Just 5.7 per cent.

As is usual with us, we look around for someone to blame and after picking upon the police, say that the police make it difficult to apprehend or punish offenders. They arrive late on the scene. They are reluctant to file a First Information Report. They register cases under wrong sections of the law. They manipulate the evidence. They discourage the victims from making a dying declaration. They try to make it appear that the killing of a young woman was not murder but suicide, and they try hard to treat the incident as a "family matter". We will not be able to do much about dowry deaths ,unless we set up a compassionate, strong and incorruptible police force, but that may not happen for a long, long time.

This much is certain, dowry deaths and the trend of taking and giving of dowry — which take place most often in educated and upper class homes — will not be discouraged by law alone. It is entrenched in the mind set of India’s people and no amount of preaching about religion will stop it. Women, it would seem, are no less cruel than men. After, a bride is burnt, accused husbands do not find it difficult to find another, who comes with a suitable package of dowry.

So the fight for reservation of seats for women in the Lok Sabha, speeches about ‘empowerment’ of women, the slogan "equal pay for equal work" seem just so much guff when women are stripped and displayed on the streets, when they are the worst sufferers of caste-discrimination and as workers in the fields in road-making and earth-digging.. With this there can be a little lessening of cruelty if three things are ensured: Speedy trials, dowry-giving and taking cases tried by a special court and short-stay homes for battered women. But will these happen? Very unlikely.

Catch the criminals

That nothing was done for about 23 years to catch the people who assassinated Sheikh Mujeeb and almost his entire extended family is a terrible story. High honour to his daughter Sheikh Hasina for setting in motion a trial even though most of the accused were settled quite comfortably abroad. In fact they could escape abroad and remain there due to the known complicity of President Khondkar Mushtaq Ahmed, President Zia-ur-Rahman and President Ershad. Though a trial has begun and some of the murderers have even been sentenced in absentia, pulling them out of their comfortable pads abroad will be next to impossible. Countries like Bangladesh and India have extradition treaties with very few other countries. Although the law and actions against international militants and assassins are now much stronger than before — see Kosovo, Serbia and Rwanda — notorious criminals are still hard to get hold of.

No one would doubt for a moment the great love and veneration in which Sheikh Hasina holds her father. But the law which her government has passed, surely under her leadership, that anyone who speaks ill or disrespectfully about Shiekh Mujeeb can be sent to jail, is surely taking matters to far. Under the law bequeathed to Bangladesh and India, even the defamation of a dead person can be a crime under certain circumstances, but it is a rare crime and there is a judge to oversee it. In Sheikh Mujeeb’s case it may be as unfair as the Blasphemy Law in Pakistan and judges may be anxious to please Sheikh Hasina. In any case, the line between criticism due to free speech and defamation can be thin.

What is regrettable is that no group in Bangladesh has taken it upon itself to discover who were the perpetrators of inhuman crimes during the liberation struggle in Bangladesh in 1971 and the year after and then round them up one by one. They were allowed to go unscathed. This is not what Simon Weisenthal, for instance, and his colleagues did. The criminals of the Holocaust against the Jews were sought, traced and brought to book no matter where they had tried to escape. Sometimes the countries where they sought refuge were forced to try them. Some trials go on even now, 56 years after the end of World War II.

The ‘comfort women’, so called, from Korea and the Philippines have raised the flag of protest and Japan, powerful Japan, is embarrassed, but the criminals mainly Pakistanis, who dishonoured women — and others — in Bangladesh are still untouched. In some cases, like Fichman’s the criminals were even abducted by Israeli commandos and brought to trial in Israel. This is what one would expect of Bangladesh, not fruitless, long-drawn trials. But in the meanwhile a law convicting those who speak critically of Sheikh Mujeeb doesn’t really do much to enhance the Sheikh’s great reputation.

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