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Extremism will die in violence

Is our hatred turning us into a mirror image of what we most hate? There is a rising wave of intolerance, of narrow-mindedness, of puritanical censorship and oppression, across the country - indeed, even across much of the democratic world - today, and an increasingly aggressive assertion of exclusionary religious identities among large segments of all communities, including those that take great pride in their 'culture of tolerance'. In our revulsion and our desire to defeat it, are we all going the way of extremist Islam?  

The militancy and the violence of perspectives - if not of the scale and pattern of actions - that characterise Islamist extremism today, appear to be becoming a model for the radical fringe among all faiths, including the inclusive, panentheistic traditions of the East, in a process that has sometimes been described - inaccurately - as the 'Semitisation' of these Faiths.

The desire to impose a narrow set of values, rituals, dogmas and pattern of relationships is everywhere visible, and is increasingly translated into violence. The language, idiom and political iconography of the Islamist extremists is quickly picked up and absorbed into communal and sectarian political movements elsewhere, even where these militate at the most fundamental level, against the prevalent culture.

Notice, for example, the dark puritanism of the Khalistanis in Punjab, who sought to banish all revelry, music, the bhangra, and the frenetic celebrations that have traditionally marked weddings, festivals and celebrations in the State. For 13 dark years, a dour, cheerless 'code' was inflicted through the power of the gun and the bomb, on an unwilling people. And the first and most dramatic sign that the Khalistani terror had been comprehensively defeated was when dance and music programmes came back to the State, and the Punjabi's traditional love of life was once again, manifest everywhere.

Indeed, the sheer intensity of resentment against the long suppression of these native impulses was visible in the scale and spread of the resurgence of Punjabi music and dance in the post-terrorism era, and their domination, in the years following, of so much of popular culture - including Bollywood - across India.

Regrettably, while the Khalistanis have been defeated, and Sikh Puritanism has been marginalized (though it still exists and seeks constantly to reassert itself), segments within other communities, particularly the Hindus, are seeing a revival of fundamentalist thinking, and its imposition through political intimidation and violence.

At the same time, the organisations leading such movements continue to make sweeping assertions regarding the greatness and antiquity of their culture, muddying the lines between contemporary culture and a cultural history. It is, no doubt, the case that 'Hindu culture' has a rich, indeed, opulent, and variegated history that goes back to the earliest records of human civilisation, and perhaps beyond. But this is cultural history, not living culture.

Living culture is what we practice today - and in this, our achievements are, in most ventures, at best, modest, and at worst, appalling. Culture, it has been remarked, is what remains in a man when all else is forgotten. In this, we are deeply impoverished, and there is an active effort at further constriction by aggressive religious-political groups and organisations.

There are, today, still some people who are familiar with the cultural history of ancient India, but few who would have the courage to live by the values that marked that history. Hindu fundamentalists need to remind themselves that this is the land of the Kamasutra; of the amourous Lord Krishna; of Khajuraho. A land that produced some of the world's first treatises on taste, music, dance, sex, art, and even thievery!

It is a land that recognised a multiplicity of 'ways of knowing' and rejected the idea that any single conception or explanation could ever comprehend all of reality. It is a land where atheism and agnosticism have coexisted in easy philosophical intercourse with monotheism, pantheism and panentheism. A land in which the freedom - including the freedom of sexual preference - offered to women at the time that we now imagine as the 'Golden Age of Hinduism' would amaze even the most permissive of modern cultures.

It is, moreover, a land where, even today, fragments of these practices and beliefs, albeit in forms that have been substantially perverted, continue to survive among small cults and movements - such as the aghoris and the tantriks. And where these have 'religious' pretensions even the most bizarre conduct does not attract the censure of the larger community.

On the other hand, what extremists regard as 'secular aberrations' attract enormous and organised ire. When a history textbook correctly mentions cow sacrifice and consumption of cow's meat in ancient India, there are protests. An alien and oppressive ethic is sought to be imposed on people across the country in the name of 'Hindu values' that would be completely irreconcilable with ancient 'Hindu' culture.

Even as caste polarisation remains an integral element of all our electoral politics, large segments of Hindus are being mobilised by whipping up hatred against Islam, or around campaigns against 'conversions' by Christians.

There are, of course, significant elements - the extremists and terrorists, as well as the radical Islamist states such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia - within Islam that are problematic. And the issue of religious conversion through inducement or force is one that needs to be openly debated without partisan posturing. But constructing 'our ghetto' against 'their ghetto' is no part of a solution. And seeking to impose rigid codes of conduct and narrow dogmas on society will go no way in restoring the glory of 'Hindu culture'.

Indeed, the trajectory of radical Islam and, in some measure, of the 'Islamic world' at large, is a cautionary tale in this context. At the highest point of its history, Islam was a great fountainhead and disseminator of ideas, and it was through the Islamic world that the mathematics, the sciences and the arts of India (and of the Eastern world) found their way into what was then a relatively primitive, even barbaric, Europe. Islam was the first religion in the world to become a true melting pot of races.

It was the source of an egalitarian and universal philosophy - no doubt with gender aberrations from our contemporary perspective, but radical even on this count in terms of the values of the age of its origin. Out of it, great poetry and literature, calligraphy, art and architecture sprung forth in what at one time seemed to be an endless stream.

Today, this great Faith is associated with human bombs and terrorism; with gender oppression and the hijab; with a tyrannical, colourless, morality that destroys the variegated canvas of life; and with an intellectual desert in which no rain of innovation or imagination ever refreshes the barren dunes of the mind.

The reduction of any great religious or intellectual tradition into a handful of dogmas and catechisms, of rites and rituals, and into an enveloping atmosphere of intolerance, control and coercion spells its death-knell. Many, today, argue that we will have to adopt the methods and values of extremist Islam if we are to effectively resist these - but extremist Islam itself is in its, no doubt extraordinarily violent, death throes, and it is inflicting enormous harm on the larger body of Islam itself. This is not an ideal or exemplar for other Faiths to emulate, but an abnormal deviation, a monstrous anomaly, that all cultures must shun and work to destroy.


(Published in The Pioneer, January 21, 2006)






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