As a one-time ardent watcher of TV programmes of pravachans delivered by our godmen and godwomen, I came to the conclusion that most of them support Right-wing Hindu political parties like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the BJP. That is understandable as all of them preach their own versions of Hinduism. But their Right-wing leaning is less comprehensible. Some are outspoken in their support, others more subtle.
Amongst the outspoken supporters is Asa Ram Bapu, now in dire trouble, charged with amassing property and abetting murders of his detractors. I don’t know much about his past except that he is a Sindhi settled in Ahmedabad, and at one time ran either a bicycle repair shop or perhaps a chai stall. He found preaching religion and goodness more profitable. He grew a long beard, wore loose white robes and cultivated the benign image of a bapu.
He gathered a large number of admirers, mostly women, built a large ashram with a temple and sponsored educational institutions. He became much respected. I watched Asa Ram Bapu many times. Huge audiences, largely females with a sprinkling of males, attend his discourses. He could be quite amusing at times with his mimicry and gestures. There was nothing startling in what he said but his beady bright eyes pierced into watchers’ eyes.
He occasionally broke into song in a totally unmelodious voice but it did not seem to matter. One time I noticed that Rajmata of Gwalior (Vasundhara’s mother) sitting in the audience listening to him in rapt attention. Another time it was Uma Bharati in the front row. At the end of Bapu’s discourse, Uma stood up and said loudly in English: "Bapu, I love you." Bapu beamed a rapturous thank-you smile. I wonder if Uma Bharati still loves Asa Ram Bapu as she did a few years ago.
Not one people yet
I often ask myself: What is a truly integrated society? I put our own society through different tests to see if we as a secular state are also integrated. When communal tensions are chronic and periodically break out in violence, claims to be integrated sound hollow. So do our displays of cordiality.
We have non-Muslims throwing Iftar receptions during Ramadan; we see them offering chaddars at dargahs of Muslim saints and embracing them on Eid-ul-Fitr and Bakr-Eid. We have Muslims celebrating Holi and Divali by inviting Hindu friends and offering them mithai. I dismiss all this as politically motivated display of open-mindedness without any substance.
I have come to the conclusion that the nitty-gritty of integration is when people of different races, religions, beliefs, castes and speaking different languages marry, and there are no tensions created.
Using this as a criteria, I conclude we are far from being an integrated society. Every inter-religious marriage is looked upon as a kind of battle. If the boy subscribes to one faith, the girl to another, the boy’s kinsmen regard it as a victory; the girl’s kinsmen regard it as surrender. I know of dozens of inter-faith marriages — Hindus and Sikhs married to Muslims, Christians or Parsis. And a large number of Muslim men married to Hindu and Sikh women.
In any case if one or the other party converts to the faith of the spouse, it is making mockery of religion. I regard conversions as demeaning to the dignity of the person who converts.
The worst example of refusal to integrate are the khap panchayats of Haryana. They are relics of the past when elders of a village, mostly illiterate peasants, sit on their charpoys, smoking hookas and pronouncing against boys and girls of different gotras getting married.
The couple is often exiled from the village, declared outcast and occasionally murdered. What we can do is to rid society of these self-appointed arbiters of matrimonial affairs. I am not sure if we can abolish them by legal enactment.
In any case, many legislators depend on the votes of these rustics. Perhaps the best way to handle them is by massive media campaign, mostly on TV channels, exposing them to ridicule. It will be worth trying because making Indians a truly integrated people is a noble ambition.
Manjitinder Singh of Ludhiana has written to me of an incident while he was on pilgrimage to Sikh shrines in Pakistan. He was travelling by bus from Lahore to Panja Sahib near Rawalpindi. At a midway halt, a beggar woman came around asking for alms. He gave her a Rs 5 note. The woman looked up at him, saw he was a Sikh and returned the note. When she came again, Manjitinder Singh pressed the note in her hand. Again she gave it back, saying in Punjabi: "Nahin sardarji, asseen mehmaana ton nahin mangdey (We don’t ask for money from our guests)."
Teacher: "Ghanta, what is common between Bhagwan Ram, Buddha, Jesus and Guru Nanak?"
Ghanta: "All were born on holidays."
(Contributed by J.P. Singh