HAD our politicians been like their Indian counterparts, they would have taken a dip in the waters at Attock (the confluence of the rivers Indus and Kabul) or at Panjnad (where the rivers of the Punjab merge), without having to worry about Swiss authorities, NAB, FIA, or the courts. In that single act of immersion, they would have laundered all their sins.
Devout Indian Hindus did just that on Feb 10 during the Kumbh mela at Allahabad, where the Ganges and the Jamuna rivers combine. That date was especially auspicious. It is only once every 12 years that the Kumbh mela is celebrated at Allahabad.
Knowledgeable astrologers predicted that the conjunction of the planets occurring on that day is unlikely to recur for another 176 years. It was the one day, pundits said, upon which the entire Hindu pantheon would come down invisibly and bathe with their worshippers. No wonder 30 million pious pilgrims felt impelled to compress themselves there and to wash the slate of their lives clean.
Allahabad is known as India’s city of prime ministers. Seven Indian prime ministers have had a direct association with Allahabad: Jawaharlal Nehru, his daughter Indira Gandhi, her son Rajiv Gandhi, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Gulzarilal Nanda, Vishwanatha Pratap Singh and Chandra Shekhar. All them were either born there, studied there, or were elected from there. It is a city where rivers meet and merge, where the spiritual overlaps the temporal.
To manage the Kumbh mela at Allahabad even every 12 years must be a logistical nightmare for the local administration. It is used to managing a resident population of 1.8 million. However, for a period of just a few days, 30 million devotees converge on the city. Congregations of naked ascetics smeared with ashes jostle with rotund multimillionaires smeared with riches.
Surprisingly, despite such a large concourse of hyper-charged human beings, there were less than 25 fatalities.
On Feb 9, the previous day, however, another man — a Kashmiri Muslim — lost his life. Early that morning, at Tihar, as the same sun rose on the assembled pilgrims at Allahabad, Afzal Guru bathed himself, said his prayers, and was hanged. He had been sentenced to death for his part in the attack on the Indian Parliament building in 2001, the year of the last Kumbh mela.
As soon as the news of his hanging was released, a representative from every major party in India’s parliament came on the television channels to laud his execution as an example of Indian justice in action — delayed, but not denied. Simultaneously, the streets of Indian Jammu & Kashmir where the Indian mega-star Shahrukh Khan had been cavorting last autumn were emptied by a police curfew.
Afzal Guru’s death will close the file the police had on him. Certain Indians, though, among them the renowned activist Arundhati Roy, have expressed doubts about the integrity of the evidence presented at his trial. She has written with the courage that now underlines her signature, questioning “this pile up of lies and fabricated evidence” used to obtain Afzal Guru’s conviction. “Like most surrendered militants, Afzal was easy meat in Kashmir — a victim of torture, blackmail, extortion. In the larger scheme of things he was a nobody.”
Afzal Guru may have been a dispensable nobody; Shahrukh Khan is not. The actor, who happens to be a Muslim married to a Hindu, complained in a very forthright article that appeared in The New York Times recently: “Whenever there is an act of violence in the name of Islam, I am called upon to air my views on it and dispel the notion that, by virtue of being a Muslim, I condone such senseless brutality.”
He finds himself, like Jinnah once was, a spokesman for his co-religionists: “I am one of the voices chosen to represent my community, in order to prevent other communities from reacting to all of us, as if we were somehow colluding with or responsible for the crimes committed in the name of a religion that we experience very differently from the perpetrators of these crimes.”
Most Indian Muslims share his predicament. Most Pakistani Muslims empathise with his plight, except in their case, it is not their loyalty that is under fire. It is their very nationality. As Pakistani nationals, they are regarded by Indians as the Jews were once by Christians. They bear the stains of blood; they are required to carry the weight of guilt in their genes.
There are millions of rational persons on both sides of the border to whom religion is a matter of personal conviction, not state policy; to whom terrorism is a violation of societal norms by individuals, not state policy; to whom state policy is the expression of a nation’s will, not the furtive forays of selective interests.
Shahrukh Khan is a Muslim called upon to prove that he is an Indian. He might find solace in the predicament of a fellow Muslim in Pakistan. Dr Tahirul Qadri — a born-again Pakistani-Canadian-Pakistani — is being asked by the Supreme Court to prove his unequivocal loyalty to the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.