Monday, October 11, 2010

Trip to Varanasi and Azamgarh

Varanasi is an age-old town with narrow criss-crossing lanes that intersect, very much like the town's complex social fabric, with various faiths. The ancient town is now full of youngsters who have aspirations beyond religious dogma. With the Ganga-Jamuni Tehzeeb, the culture of the Ganga-Yamuna plain, holding sway, the town's residents have not been prevented from working closely despite the awareness of each other's difference in faith.


Though Muslim youth feel strongly about the Ayodhya title verdict, they thankfully do not blame Hindus for it. They blame the judiciary instead, for what they see as giving in to appeasing the majority Hindus.
The best part of my trip was to visit the house of shehnai maestro and Bharat Ratna awardee, the late Ustad Bismillah Khan, in Benia Bagh which is not very far from the Kashi Vishwanath temple that shares a common wall with the Gyanvapi mosque. The place had a positive vibe, the light flooding in from the open door filled the room, and the walls cluttered with pictures of presidents and prime ministers with the shehnai maestro.
The most interesting of these is a collage of photographs with Shiv Sena chief Balasaheb Thackeray, "Khan Sahib was the only Muslim Balasaheb honoured by touching his feet," says Mehtab Khan, the late maestro's son. He sat with his legs folded on a rickety sofa talking about his father like revering a sage, addressing him as Khan Sahib. On the small wall of the room, four square frames of the same size are lined tightly next to each other, each of them carrying Government of India seals embossed in gold.  These are the four top civilian honours bestowed on Khan Sahib by the Central government over a span of 50 years.

The first frame on the extreme left carries the Padma Shri citation conferred on him by India's first President Dr Rajendra Prasad. The one on the extreme right shows the citation of India's top civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna, conferred on him by then President K.R. Narayanan, the honour has been conferred to only three non-political figures since Independence.

Mehtab Khan resists being drawn into talking about the Ayodhya verdict, but as an afterthought he says, "Allah blessed the three judges; because they came out with an artful verdict that effectively prevented communal bloodshed."  He had a profound message to move on and not get stranded in an age-old dispute that has only caused mistrust and ill will.

40 years old sociologist Dr Mahfooz Alam, has a saree factory with 30 workers, 20 of them Hindu, is worried. This verdict is a symbol of cheat against the Muslim community, he feels. The Muslims are not able to ‘digest’ it. The whole of Varanasi went into a shell when the verdict was announced, there was a kind of self imposed social curfew. Alam describes that lanes of Varanasi engulfed into pin drop silence. The silence was ominious.

Fact of the matter is that people are too poor to fight it out; earn their livelihood on a daily basis, thousands of workers cycle daily to reach work place in Varanasi from adjoining areas. Alam explains that Varanasi is the focal point economic life of the whole puruvachal region, if anything goes wrong here the whole region suffers.Nobody wants any dispruption.

There is a three-months long period of uncertaintyand anxiety, that is the time the concerned parties have to decide whether they want to go to Supreme Court or work out an out-of-the-court settlement.

Azamgarh
Azamgarh has not seen development initiatives the rest of India has taken for granted, like flyovers and residential colonies. It has remained stuck in a colonial age set-up and is a dusty, dense town with crammed lanes crisscrossing each other randomly, lined by tall houses staring at each other. Its looks defy the city's reputation as the hotbed of homegrown terror. Western Union outlets jot every nook and corner of the city, like the STD/ISD booths in the pre-cellphone era. This points to a huge influx of expat money that gets sucked into activities that are not so apparent.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that college-going boys here are looking beyond Islam as they aspire for a fruitful career as computer engineer, doctor or a lawyer. Boys move around in jeans and t-shirt but college girls, mostly burkha-clad, move about in a group of four-five. But in rural areas, the youth are still focused on their religious identity. With religious fervour, they believe that Hindus have wronged Muslims at every opportunity.
There are many conspiracy theories doing the rounds in rural Azamgarh, particularly in Saraimeer (the village of underworld don Abu Salem, the accused in the 1993 Mumbai blasts case) and Sanjarpur (the village of Atif and Sajjad, the alleged terrorists who were gunned down in the Batla House encounter two years ago in Delhi). The problem is that Muslim youth here treat them as unmitigated truth. According to one such conspiracy theory, the Archaeological Survey of India lied to the court that there was a temple before the Babri Masjid. The other conspiracy theory is that the verdict was to be in their favour and was changed at the eleventh hour in favour of Hindus. This was done at the behest of the Intelligence Bureau which feared communal bloodshed, this theory says, adding that this is why the verdict had to be postponed twice before it was made public on September 30.
When one asks them if it is possible to redo 5,000 pages of the judgement on such a complex issue in just a week or that lawyers representing the Muslims were not well prepared or that they failed to present a compelling, cogent case for Muslims, the Azamgarh youth stop a while to ponder. But they resist this line of thought and instead pass the buck onto someone else.

Muslim youth in rural Azamgarh assert in different ways that the Indian State and, now, the judiciary have shown that they are not secular. This is serious because it indicates the complete erosion of trust in the judiciary and the government when it comes to religious issues vis-à-vis Hindus. They are also acutely aware that high profile political parties and their leaders want to use their resentment to build their vote bank. There have been periodic visits by the likes of Mulayam Singh Yadav and Digvijay Singh.
The judgement may have succeeded in preventing violence but the calm is not peace. Because with every passing day, the perceived injustice done to Muslims by this verdict has made each one of them seethe with anger. But the fact that the appeal in the Supreme Court still lies ahead, and the hope that the apex court would deal with facts and not the myths, has given them something to look forward to. This issue is vexed and close to the hearts of Muslims and Hindus that one gets the feeling that a lasting solution should be worked out of court. And this verdict has given some basis and a broad formula for a negotiated settlement.