In my young age, I had a fascination for mandirs (temple). I wished to see one. I didn't know why and I didn't bother to dwell into reasons. Fascinations are anyways hard to understand and explain. When I joined a college in Lahore in early 1980s and shifted to its hostel, I ventured on to many firsts in my life. And one fine morning, accompanied by a class mate, I went to see a mandir, somewhere on the outskirts of the city along the banks of drying up river Ravi.
A mundane one room building made of brick and mortar with no marked architecture and in rather dilapidated condition, that's what it was. The priest greeted us with a smile that was welcoming but it subsumed the feelings of surprise and suspicion as well. There were no idols there and instead the interior walls displayed a collection of colorful flashy posters depicting various gods in different myths. Since I was a student of visual arts, I took keen interest in these.
The priest realised that the visit was more than just a curious peep into a neighbor's courtyard. He put some effort in explaining the poster that I was looking at from close range. Probably based on his experience of handling 'religious tourists' like myself, he knew that I won't be able to relate with any of the painted images. So for each mythical character that he explained to me, he would draw a similar one from the history of Islam. This is God abc who helps people in distress like Hazrat xyz in Islam and so on. This simple man had a narrative of the two religions running amazingly parallel to each other as if it was only a matter of replacing a few names or looking at things from a slightly different angle.
My expedition to the unassuming mandir of Lahore proved to be memorable. It was my first lesson in how to discover unity hidden within our differences. I have been following happenings in Myanmar since long because I admire Suu Kyi. But as I approached my sources recently for a different reason, that is to understand what's going on with Rohingyas, I had an eerie feeling of déjà vu that I could only understand with the help of that priest. Let me share it with you.
Burma, renamed as Myanmar, has only rarely lived as one united country in its history. The land is inhabited by a number of ethnic groups, warring and feuding with each other since eons. One of them, Burman, with over half the share in present population dominates the rest and all the three great kings in the history of that region who could hold this area as one country for brief periods, belonged to the same Burman tribe. The British defeated Burmans in 1885 and annexed this area to British India. To sustain their rule the British did what they did best. They pitched one group against the other; stereotyped some as martial race, pampered others as agrarian while sidelining the least useful ones as savage tribals. By the time of World War II, the ethnic differences were rife and no one believed that Burma could sustain as one country, if and when the British quit. Sounds familiar, doesn't it? The same held true for the other nations-to-be of the region at that time.
Suu Kyi's father Aung San, who was the leader of the Burmese struggle for freedom, gathered most of these groups at a conference and struck a deal with them. The Panglong Agreement defined the basic principles to build a democratic Burma. Aung San however was assassinated months before Burma won its freedom in January 1948. His successor U Nu who ruled till 1962 could not live up to the spirit of the Agreement. He increasingly found democracy untenable and time and again relied on military power to silence political differences and hold Burma together. Do you know how long did Pakistan take in writing its first constitution and why? None of the Bengali, Punjabi, Sindhi, Pakhtun and Baloch was ready to trust the other with power and during the first decade of our existence the biggest question was whether Pakistan was one nation, what language will it speak, who will get what share?
U Nu realised that finding a common ground would remain impossible if everybody continued to identify themselves the way they do - that is as Burman, Shan, Chin, Karen and others. Since most of them are dominantly Buddhists, he thought religion could help him build the much 'desired nation'. One religion, one nation. U Nu declared Buddhism as the state religion. Remember, the Objective Resolution of 1948 that decided that Pakistan's raison d'être is Islam as that was considered as the only cross-cutting cause among the politically divergent provinces. The minority religions in both the countries were terrified and those who had the means migrated out elsewhere.