Saturday, June 7, 2003
T H I S  A B O V E  A L L

The hullabaloo over conversions
Khushwant Singh

WE Indians have a penchant for turning trivia into issues of national importance: baat ka batangar, making a mountain out of a molehill. The latest example is the hullabaloo being made over conversions from one religion into another. Whose business is it besides that of the person who wants to convert to another faith? Is not forbidding him to do so an infringement of his right to worship gods of his choice? No, says Jayalalitha Jayaram (Brahmin), Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. No, says Arun Shourie (Brahmin), Union Minister, and many others belonging to the upper castes; Shourie says, quite rightly, that conversions create social tensions. So do inter-religious marriages. According to their logic, the next step should be to ban Hindus marrying Muslims, Christians or Sikhs — or the other way round. I know dozens of Muslims married to Hindu or Sikh women as well as Hindu and Sikh men with Muslim wives. In none of these cases were there any conversions. And to the best of my knowledge, differences of religion never became an issue and they continue to live happily together.

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Why Indians turn into achievers abroad
May, 10, 2003
The Naked Triangle fetched him more foes than friends
May, 3, 2003
When will the Arabs rise from medieval slumber?
April, 26, 2003
Lies in the guise of war reports
April, 19, 2003
Villain of yesteryear becomes a hero
April, 12, 2003
He has lived life on his own terms
April, 5, 2003
Birthday celebrations that leave a bad taste
March 29, 2003
Why deny ourselves sensual pleasures?
March 15, 2003
Gaumata and the beef-eaters
March 8, 2003

Let us be clear in our minds about a few points before we decide whether a ban on conversions is morally justified. First, all those who support the move belong to the higher castes; they are those very people whose ancestors subjected Dalits to humiliating discrimination and forced millions to opt for other religions. Mayawati, Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, is right in castigating them as Manuvadis, so named after Manu, the best known apologist of the caste system. Though upper caste Hindus are very pleased when white Christians or Jews embrace Hinduism — as are Sikhs when they meet Yogi Bhajan’s blond-bearded American men and blonde women who have embraced Sikhism, they turn very sour when one of their flock leaves them to join another faith.

Conversions of well-to-do and educated people are a rare phenomenon and usually motivated. I know of three such examples: one of Mahatma Gandhi’s son who briefly converted to Islam to spite Bapu: the Mahatma was not a very good father. There was K.L. Gauba, eldest son of the millionaire Harkrishan Lal Gauba, who likewise converted to Islam to spite his father and make political capital out of it. He won the Muslim seat from Lahore to the Punjab Legislative Assembly. His strongest support came from the city’s red-light district Heera Mandi. He married a succession of Muslim wives, spent a few months in jail for contempt of the judiciary, migrated to India in 1947 and died a pauper in Mumbai. The most celebrated convert of recent times is the Malayalam poet and novelist Kamala Das. Her appetite for publicity is proverbial. With great fanfare she announced her conversion to Islam, taking on a new name Sourayya. She donned a burqa which neatly framed her face. Overnight, she became the pin-up girl of Malabar Muslims. I do not know how much Arabic she has learnt to perform the namaz. I make no secret of my dislike for the educated, affluent who change their religions.

The real problem is the attitude of upper caste Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims and Christians who look down upon people of their own faith belonging to lower castes. To this day, we have temples and gurdwaras where Dalits are not welcomed, wells from which they cannot draw drinking water and localities they may not enter. How then do they have any right to perpetuate the vicious hold of the caste system by the subterfuge of banning conversions of people who want to break out of its shackles?

Bush whacking

It is intriguing why some politicians become the butt of jokes while others more laughable than they go scot free. I believe it has more to do with their names than with their lack of intelligence. And yet there are characters like Laloo Yadav whose name lends itself to joke-making but I have yet to hear any that succeed in making him sound ridiculous. He is a joker who can hit back more powerfully than those who try to make fun of him. Now we have George W. Bush, President of the USA. He has generated a vast corpus of Bush jokes, making him out to be a moron. It is true that when he was being considered as a candidate for Presidency he admitted he did not know the name of the Prime Minister of India. So what? There are almost 200 countries in the world. I could not name Presidents or Prime Ministers of more than a dozen — nor, I am sure, could most of my readers.

All I know about George Bush is what I see of him on the television screen. Far from appearing foolish, he comes across as a forthright person who does not mince words. For him human beings come in two species — good guys and baddies. His list of baddies begins with Osama bin-Laden and his Al Qaida gangsters, Saddam Hussain and his 55 courtiers, Gaddafi of Libya, President Assad of Syria and a few others. He is not given to euphemisms, he calls them killers.

One reason why Bush has become the target of joke makers is the widespread sympathy for the Iraqis. It is forgotten that while no one had a kind word to say for Saddam Hussain, no one was able to rid himself of him. When the US-British-led coalition did the dirty job, they were severely criticised by the peaceniks. And nothing hurts more than being made fun of.

Indians have made their contribution to Bush jokes: Shock and Aw! Roli has published a compilation introduced and edited by Suhel Seth. He begins with an imaginary interview with the US President (aptly entitled "Foreplay") and collected from the Internet and other sources. He lays no claim to originality but has put together jokes which will keep you smiling for half an hour. I give a few samples:

"Bush came to India for the first time...and was taken to a hotel. Bush had a hearty meal and then went to wash his hands but began washing the basin instead. The manager came running on seeing the President, surrounded by a thick black cordon of his secret service bodyguards, around the wash basin. "What are you doing, sir?" he asked with evident consternation. Bush gave the manager a cold presidential stare and replied, "Don’t confuse matters. Haven’t you written, ‘wash basin’ on the board."

* * * *

"Bush and Powell were sitting in a bar. A guy walked in and asked the barman, "Isn’t that Bush and Powell?" The barman said, ‘Yep, that’s them."

"So the guy walked over and said, "Hello, what are you guys doing? Bush said, "We are planning World War III." The guy asked, "Really, what is going to happen?" Bush said, "Well, we are going to kill 10 million Iraqis and one bicycle repairman." The guy exclaimed, ‘Why are you gonna kill a bicycle repairman?’ Bush turned to Powell and said, "See, I told you no one would worry about the 10 million Iraqis!"

* * * *

Asked by his teacher to compare three US Presidents, Jonny thought for a moment and said, "Well, George Washington couldn’t tell a lie. Richard Nixon couldn’t tell the truth. And George W. Bush can’t tell the difference."

* * * *

A British doctor says, "Medicine in my country is so advanced that we can take a kidney out of one man and put it in another and have him looking for work in six weeks. A German doctor says, "That is nothing, we can take a lung out of one person and put it in another and have him looking for work in four weeks.’ The American doctor, not to be outdone, says, ‘You guys are way behind. We just took a man with no brain out of Texas, put him in the White House, and now half the country is looking for work and the other half is preparing for war."