A MADNESS is sweeping over our magnificently diverse nation, shaking its very foundations. It’s a weird, dehumanising and divisive phenomenon that should disturb all of us who value decency, compassion, equality and an inclusive society. The first sign was a lilting and uplifting jewellery TV ad celebrating happiness and communal harmony. In it, a Hindu girl was being welcomed on Diwali to the Muslim household of her husband. Her mother-in-law adorned her with a Diwali gift, a gold necklace. Pleased but mildly surprised, the girl says, “But I did not think you observed such customs.” “Our custom is to bring happiness to you,” the mother-in-law replies, smiling.
A lovely and heart-warming exchange, celebrating an inter-faith union. But not, it seems, for some Hindu hardliners who have only hatred and violence on their mind. Their protests compelled hasty withdrawal of the ad. A pity, but one supposes commercial considerations come first for any corporate house, even one of the largest and most-respected. Freedom of expression takes only second place. Soon after, an excellent film series directed by a Padma Bhushan awardee, Mira Nair — one of whose films “Salaam Bombay” had been nominated for an Oscar — was the object of ire of the same kind of toxic characters. The series was based on a critically-acclaimed novel, “A Suitable Boy”, by Vikram Seth. He is a Padma Shri awardee and his mother, Leila Seth, was the first woman judge to be appointed Chief Justice of the High Court of an Indian state, Himachal Pradesh. What was found objectionable? A scene in which a Hindu girl kisses a Muslim boy, with a temple in the background. Both are adults and in love with each other. Note that, again, it is a Muslim boy and a Hindu girl. If it had been the other way round, a Muslim girl and a Hindu boy, those hardliners who evidently don’t believe in the concept of love would not have minded, thereby displaying their misogyny, which the dictionary defines as “hatred of women”. Two senior officials working for streaming service Netflix have been asked for an explanation by the police. Explain what exactly? That Hindus and Muslims cannot be intimate, especially if the girl is a Hindu and the boy a Muslim? And if explanations are called for, why don’t the police summon Nair and Seth? Nair, incidentally, is married to an Indo-Ugandan Muslim, perhaps another red flag for this hatred-filled lot.
Worse has followed in the same communal vein. Four states ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party, namely Haryana, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and UP, have indicated that they intend to bring in a law to prevent “forcible” inter-faith marriages. The fact that it is labelled as “love jihad” clearly indicates that it is only targeting Muslims. In fact, UP has already come up with an ordinance, under which those convicted face long terms of imprisonment, up to 10 years, and a hefty fine. The government spokesperson, Sidharth Nath Singh, said disingenuously that the ordinance was “necessary to ensure justice for women, especially from SC/ST categories”. Few people will be taken in by that. The reality is that it is only Muslims who are being singled out. Another provision says that for “willing conversions”, the district magistrate has to be notified two months in advance. This would give goons plenty of time to put pressure on anybody planning to convert and get married.
Fortunately, the Allahabad High Court has come to the rescue. Almost at the same time as the malevolent ordinance, the High Court said, “The right to choose a partner, irrespective of caste, creed or religion, is inherent under the right to life and personal liberty, an integral part of the Fundamental Right, under Article 21.” The HC was ruling on a petition by a Muslim man and his wife, who had converted from Hinduism, against a complaint by her father. It went on to say, “We do not see them as Muslim and Hindu, rather as two grown-up individuals, who out of their own free will and choice are living together peacefully and happily…. interference in a personal relationship would constitute a serious encroachment into the right to freedom of choice.” In other words, the UP ordinance is unconstitutional and highly divisive.
The Delhi High Court followed this up with a similar judgment, in which it stated that an adult woman was free to live wherever and with whoever she wished. It related to a 20-year-old Hindu woman who had left her family, to join her husband. The family, who tried forcibly to get her back, was warned “not to take the law into their hands or threaten the couple”. Hopefully, these two powerful judgments will make the UP authorities withdraw their ordinance and restrain the other BJP-ruled states. Otherwise, the Supreme Court will need to step in.
Let me end with another instance, not of dividing Hindus and Muslims, but of a different kind of toxicity, a foolish one meant to garner publicity. In Mumbai, a Shiv Sena legislator, one Nitin Nandgaonkar, objected to a store which has called itself for decades “Karachi Sweets”. Fearing violence, the owner covered up the signboard with newspapers. The legislator was clearly attempting to show his “nationalism” against the “enemy”, Pakistan. But isn’t China also a foe these days? So, why not close down all Chinese restaurants?
If there is a “tukde tukde gang” around, characters like Yogi Adityanath and Nitin Nandgaonkar clearly belong to it. They are the true dividers who don’t believe in “unity in diversity”. There will always be fundamentalists and hardliners around in any society. But let us at least marginalise them as much as possible, and keep them on the fringes, not in the mainstream.
— The writer is a veteran journalist
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