A tolerant and secular India is a myth to make real

Shoba Narayan (Writer)

Mar 29, 2010


While the roots of Hindu-Muslim enmity in India run deep, every now and then – and dishearteningly, with increasing frequency – certain events serve as touchstones. These events become both symbols and a shorthand; a single word or phrase that encapsulates a community’s anger. For my parents’ generation, it was partition; for mine, it was Babri Masjid, the demolition of a mosque in 1992 by a large group of Hindu fundamentalists. For today’s thirty-somethings, the event was Godhra, where 59 Hindus aboard a train were burnt to death in 2002. Hundreds of both Muslims and Hindus died in the riots that followed.

The partition of India in 1947 was initiated by a small group of Muslims led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, resulting in carnage that my parents’ generation would never forget. A cycle to the violence has continued with a narrative of its own. With partition, the Muslims were at fault; at Babri Masjid, the Hindus were to blame; at Godhra, both communities were culpable. The Hindu-Muslim divide within the subcontinent has become an irreparable chasm. Or has it?

Recently, there has been reason for hope. For secular Indians such as myself, who abhor the religious sentiment that the BJP has foisted upon national politics, that party’s resounding defeat in the last elections is cause for celebration. Recently, the Liberhan Commission’s report on the Babri Masjid killings, 17 years in the making, was handed to the Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh. The report indicts many of the top BJP leaders including the party boss LK Advani, who incited Hindu mobs that eventually rased the mosque. Mr Advani later called the demolition of Babri Masjid “the saddest day of my life”.

At about the time that Mr Advani solidified his status as leader of the BJP in 1988, I was a college student in America with a crush on a Muslim man. Ahmed and I tried to gauge family sentiment towards any future union by asking a rhetorical question of all our family elders:”If you could come up with a hierarchy of castes and cultures that your child could marry, what would it be?” Ahmed and I asked our parents, aunts, uncles, friends’ parents, and grandparents. The mother of my best friend, a Kashmiri Brahmin, told me that “obviously” it would be good if her daughter married a Kashmiri Brahmin. Second on the list was a Kashmiri “non-Brahmin”. Even though the caste was different, at least they would share the same language and state. Her third choice would be a North Indian, then a South Indian, then a Caucasian – perhaps someone that her daughter had fallen in love with while studying at Oxford. Jewish boys were good, then Asians, then Blacks, then Hispanics and finally, last on the list, an Indian Muslim.



This was telling because my friend’s mother had lived her entire life in Kashmir, the only Indian state with a Muslim majority. As a Brahmin in Kashmir, Sanjana’s mother had many Muslim friends, some of whom she had known for decades. Still, she preferred that her daughter marry almost anyone else but a Kashmiri Muslim. Different family members gave me different versions of this list. One uncle preferred that his son marry a black woman to a poor, white one. Some didn’t care about caste or vegetarianism. What they all shared was where Muslims appeared on their lists.

Ahmed’s family had the same opinion about Hindus. He told me that his family would oppose our union because of misconceptions about the way Hindus venerate cows. They thought we were infidels because we didn’t pray five times a day and assumed we that we were kanjoos (stingy) because we were not required to give a percentage of our income to the poor. They preferred a Caucasian bride to a Hindu one.

Both my family and Ahmed’s were sophisticated and well-travelled. Ahmed’s family was from Lucknow but lived in New York. They celebrated all the Indian holidays in a community centre, wearing saris and dancing to Bollywood tunes. They spoke Hindi at home but didn’t want their son to marry a Hindu girl. Our romance fizzled out but the way our families perceived each other has stayed with me. As a Hindu mother, I am trying to raise my two daughters without the same prejudices. Secular and tolerant India was a myth that I grew up with – one that reality frequently contradicted.

I cannot prevent the Hindu-Muslim hatred that exists in my parents’ generation but I can influence my children. I can influence the way my daughters choose their boyfriends. I can make the myth of a secular, tolerant India more of a reality.


Shoba Narayan is the author of Monsoon Diary, a memoir about growing up in South India

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