The talk is of madness. The powerful hold it can take on one, and how the fear caused by the idea of madness can in itself be maddening.
Mohammad Amir, physically nondescript, with a triple Masters in History, Political Science, and English, and an itinerant pilgrim, should know what he is talking about: Long ago, 25 years to be precise, he had a dalliance with insanity.
We are sitting, deep into the night, in the well-carpeted office of one of Amir’s well-wishers in Malegaon. Among those ringed around him are a mechanic, a fruit-vendor, some traders and the loquacious principal of a junior college in Malegaon with a penchant for the dramatic and for hijacking the conversation.
Earlier that evening, Amir had addressed a gathering at the Mecca Masjid at Madhavpura. “Woh toh zameen ke neeche ki, aur aasman ke upar ki baate karte hain,” says one of his admiring audience.
Meditations on the afterlife — and on the ethics of Islam and social conduct of Muslims — might dominate his talks, but Mohammed Amir is often at the pulpit because of the torturous chrysalis he has emerged from, he now says.
Twenty-five years ago he was not Mohammad Amir but a certain Balbir Singh, and the highlight of his life until then was that he was among the handful of kar sevaks who had clambered up the dome of Babri masjid to strike the first blows. The same kar sevaks who were lionised by Bal Thackeray as his men.
“I am a Rajput. I was born in a little village close to Panipat,” he discloses. “My father, Daulatram, was a school teacher and a man of deep Gandhian leaning. He had witnessed the horrors of Partition, and went out of his way to make the Muslims in our area feel secure. He had wanted me and my three elder brothers to do the same.”
When he was ten, Balbir’s family moved from the village to Panipat so that the children could complete their secondary education. Panipat, he says, was a hostile city, especially to children from rural Haryana. Barbs were made about their clothes and gaucheness, and none of the other children played with them. The only place Balbir found he was not discriminated against was at the local RSS shakha. “I remember the first time I was there, they addressed me as ‘aap’. That made me feel so good. It marked the beginning of my association with them.”
About a decade or so later, Balbir, who had by then joined the Shiv Sena, started working with his brother in the family’s loom business and got married. He continued his studies on the side, garnering the triple MA degrees from Rohtak’s Maharishi University. To all appearances, it was the life of normal middle class householder. But a rank bitterness, unseen to the outside eye, ran through the family because of his political views. In that Gandhian household, he was the ‘chaddiwallah.’
The truth of the family lay somewhere in between. “People thought I was a hard-core Hindu fanatic, but that was not really the case. As my father never believed in idol worship, we didn’t go to temples,” he says. There was a copy of the Gita at home but he rarely, if ever, read it. His anger at the beginning of the tragically momentous Nineties was against historical wrongs, against Babur, Aurangzeb and the other conquerors.
“Brainwashing me was easy, because yeh bhavnayen (these emotions), they are deep-rooted. Back where I come from, if you did something that was not considered acceptable, even a simple thing like eating a roti with your left hand, people would ask, “Tu Mussalman hai ke?” (What is this? Are you a Muslim?) I thought that these Muslims came from outside India and had snatched our land and destroyed our temples.”
Plus, in a state like Haryana that valorises machismo, he said he wanted to do something that would effectively show his ‘mardangi.’ “When I left for Ayodhya in the first week of December, my friends told me, ‘kuch kare bina wapas na aana (Don’t come back without achieving something)’,” says Balbir who was among those being tracked by the Intelligence Bureau.
“Ayodhya was abuzz on December 5,” he recalls. “The men from VHP ruled the town and Faizabad. We stayed with thousands of other kar sevaks, heard the chatter going around. Advaniji was not important because he worshipped Jhulelal (the community god of Sindhis), and hence was not considered to be a Hindu; Uma Bharati was a drama queen. I was there with my close friend Yogender Pal. We were all impatient, we wanted to get going.”
A few distinct shards of the following day are still embedded painfully in his memory of it. One of them is an aural one, of the rousing slogans (‘Saugandh ram ki khai hai, mandir yahin banayenge’; ‘Kalyan Singh kalyan karo, mandir ka nirmaan karo’); he remembers mocking senior police officials as he walked along with the other kar sevaks towards Babri Masjid on that cold afternoon; and then the final rush and the frenzied scramble atop the central dome.
“I was like an animal that day. Only briefly, I got scared when I saw a helicopter approach us from a distance. Then, the rallying cries from below reached my ears and I felt emboldened again and plunged my pick-axe into the dome.”
A heroes’ welcome awaited Balbir and his friend Yogendra Pal when they returned to Panipat. Two bricks that they brought back from the rubble in Ayodhya were kept at the local Shiv Sena office, he says. At home, though, his father issued an ultimatum. “It was either him or me. One of us had to leave the house, and I decided that it would be me. I looked at my wife but she just stood there, so I left home alone.” As riots erupted across the country, Amir sought places of refuge where “Muslims wouldn’t be able to get him.” He remembers solitary wintry nights spent in fields, decrepit old buildings, drains…
“I would be scared of anyone with a beard.”
He was on the run for a couple of months and only returned home when he learnt that his father had passed away. But his other family members no longer wanted him. His father had specifically instructed that his second-born son shouldn’t be allowed to attend his funeral. “They said I was the reason for his death.”
But an even bigger shock awaited Balbir. His close friend and collaborator at Ayodhya, Yogendra Pal, had become a Muslim. The aftermath of the December 6 frenzy and the riots had left Pal deranged. When Balbir went to meet him, Pal told him that embracing Islam had helped soothe his mad thoughts and fears. “While talking to him, it occurred to me, would I too go mad because of the sin I had committed and what I had helped unleash? In fact, was I already going mad?”
It was at Pal’s instance that in the June of 1993, six months after the climax at Ayodhya, Balbir travelled to Sonepat to meet Maulana Kalim Siddiqui who had converted his friend Yogendra Pal.
Siddiqui heads the Jamiat Imam Waliullah Trust for Charity and Da’wah, which is based in Phulat, near Muzzafarnagar, and runs several madrasas and schools across north India. Siddiqui was in Sonepat for an event, and Amir went up to him and told him what he had done. He asked the maulana if he could come and stay at the madrasa in Phulat for some time. “I was still not sure if I wanted to convert, but he accepted my request. He told me that I had contributed to the destruction of one mosque, but I could always help build several others. They were such simple words. I sat down and began to cry.” After spending a few months at the madrasa, Balbir converted and was given the name Mohammed Amir.
“Aur meri zindagi phir se chal padi (my life got back on the rails again),” he says simply.
While at Phulat, Amir learnt Arabic and read the Quran, and, since he had majored in English, he taught at the madrasa. In August 1993, he reconciled with his family, and his wife joined him at the madrasa the same year. She converted to Islam soon after (Amir claims that she did it of her own accord). Their four children were all born in Phulat.
His life, anything but calm, took another turn in the early 2000s when his elder brother’s wife died. Amir convinced his own wife to get remarried to his elder brother. “My brother had children who would have become motherless. If not for her they would not have been able to cope. I owe her a great debt.” His brother, too, converted to Islam before marrying Amir’s wife.
After his wife left, though, his health began to fail and he was advised to move to the more salubrious south, which he did before going on to remarry, a widowed woman called Shahnaz Begum. But Amir, whose family sends him a monthly stipend, still often travels to Panipat to meet with them and his friends.
Between 1993 and 2017, he claims to have identified and restored several decrepit mosques in north India, especially in Mewat, with the help of the Waliullah Trust. Forty so far, he says, adding that he is especially proud of the work that he has done at a mosque in Mendu, near Hathras, Uttar Pradesh. “There are several mosques in various stages of disrepair across north India that even the Waqf Board is not aware of. I seek out such places, clear them of encroachments, tidy them up and get people to start worshipping there again. At some places, I also set up madrasas, and that is especially important for me, since I believe the bane of the Muslim community is their total disregard for education.” Sometimes, he says, he is helped by Muslims in and around the area; at others, he does it alone. His goal is to repair and rebuild 100 mosques. That would get him something close to atonement.
People associated with the Jamiat Imam Waliullah Trust, describe Amir as a quiet, committed man. “I met him in the early 2000s, and I would call him a gentleman and a social worker. He renovated the mosque near Hathras, which was abandoned after Partition. Some sixty students are now taught at the madrasa in Mendu,” says Zia-ul-Islam, a former section officer at the Aligarh Muslim University. Maulana Wasi Sulaiman Nadvi, who still teaches at Phulat, remembers Amir as a studious man who preferred his own company.
Presently, he says to the gathering at Malegaon, “When my health allows me and when I am not busy restoring decrepit mosques, this, talking to members of my community, is what I do. I always travel on my own money and return home as soon as my commitments are through.”
What does he talk to them about?
“Look at me, sir, I’m a ghissa-pita aadmi (a man who is worn out). What can I preach about but aman (peace)? That is what Islam has given me, and that is what I want to talk about. I tell my people that I was once a Hindu filled with hatred towards Muslims and ignorant about them, but people like me were, and are, in a minority.”
He advises them on the importance of not getting provoked. “I fear the worst, but I also tell them that Muslims are strong, too, and that while they can retaliate, a better way to engage with your oppressor is to forgive. It is a difficult thing to do when you consider yourself strong, but it sends out such a powerful message.”
Would it be accurate to describe his last 25 years as a quest to forgive himself?
“That would be one way to look at it, for letting down my father, for contributing to the deaths of so many people. But I also know that it’s a work in progress.”
The toughest kind of forgiveness is self-forgiveness and the road that leads to it is a lonely one, but it is also where mad meets the divine.
Being fair and transparent
By Navin B. Chawla
Two phases of the 2019 general election have been completed. Polling has finished in 186 out of 543 parliamentary constituencies. Polling in Vellore, Tamil Nadu, has been cancelled for corrupt practices. Five phases still remain till counting is comprehensively undertaken for all the seven phases of the election, on May 23. The reason to complete all the phases is that the result of any one phase should not influence the choices that electors may make.
Having served the Election Commission of India (EC) for five-and-a-half years during which I conducted the 2009 general election, I have an insider’s view, but of course am not privy to the inputs that the EC has and on which its decisions are made.
As I have argued in my recent book, Every Vote Counts, several negative features of our electoral scene have worsened. Since the Model Code of Conduct came into effect, in just the first two phases this time, money power has so reared its ugly head that seizures made of unaccounted cash, liquor, bullion and drugs amounting to ₹2,600 crore have already surpassed the entire seizures made in the nine phases of the general election in 2014. Most depressingly, this includes huge hauls of drugs, the vast majority smuggled into Gujarat. Uttar Pradesh is awash with liquor. Tamil Nadu has seen the largest seizures of illicit cash —over ₹514 crore.
These vast sums intended to bribe or influence voters prove several things. The first is that these sums almost certainly represent only a fraction of current illegal spending, a tip of the iceberg as it were. They have been detected by the EC’s machinery acting on the basis of tip-offs, or else by the vigilance of electoral officials in the States. Unfortunately, the bulk of illegal tranches of money, liquor or freebies would have reached their destination. Second, political players have refined their methods in being many steps ahead of the EC’s observers and their vigilance teams by moving their funds to their destinations even before the elections are announced.
Does this not make a mockery of the statutory limit of ₹70 lakh that each Lok Sabha candidate has as his poll expenditure limit?
As a country we need to ask ourselves some hard questions. When every rule in the book is being broken, when there is no transparency on how political parties collect or spend their funds, when limits of candidate spending are exceeded in every single case, then the time has come to debate whether we need to re-examine our rule book. In order to supervise the matches in play, the EC has had to deploy over 2,000 Central observers for the entire duration, drawing them out from their ministries and departments at the cost of their normal work at the Centre and in the States. Thousands of vigilance squads are set up and must act on the information they receive, which is why the current level of seizures have already made this India’s most expensive general election yet. An intelligent guess may lead us to a final tally of spending in excess of ₹50,000 crore, the bulk of which is made up of illicit funding and spending.
It is by now clear as daylight that electoral bonds, far from enabling a legitimate and transparent means of political funding, have proved to be the reverse. The EC, in its own affidavit before the Supreme Court, has admitted as much. The Supreme Court’s order has made sure that full disclosure, albeit to the EC, has already effectively killed further funding along this route. Nothing is a better disinfectant for camouflaged funding than sunlight itself.
With my experience this compels me to say that any serious reform with regard to funding must come from the EC itself, for it is very unlikely that any government will take an initiative in this direction. The EC must take stock after this election is over. It should convene a conference of all stakeholders, including of course all recognised political parties, both Central and State. But this should not be exclusively confined to them, for they will tend to support the status quo or they will be unable to reach consensus. The list of stakeholders must also include the best constitutional and legal minds in our country.
In my book I have also raised the twin problem of candidates fielded with criminal antecedents. The 16th Lok Sabha that has now passed into history, saw almost 30% of its members declaring, in their compulsory self-sworn affidavits, the list of criminal cases registered against them. They are also legally obliged to declare their wealth and their educational qualifications. This is the result of two vital orders passed by the Supreme Court in 2002-2003, the result of a battle that the Association for Democratic Reforms fought tenaciously. Unfortunately, in the first phase of this election, 12% of the candidates perforce declared that they had heinous cases pending, while in the second phase the figure was 11%. It may be noted that these cases include murder, attempt to murder, dacoity, kidnapping and rape. Have we forgotten Nirbhaya and 2012 already?
The matter of the Model Code of Conduct and its administration by the EC has been the most frequently reported single issue in this election. For those of a certain generation, the 10th Chief Election Commissioner (CEC), T.N. Seshan — he once famously declared that “he ate politicians for breakfast” — was the man who made the country sit up and take note when he decided to level the playing field as never before. There is little doubt that he reminded the EC that it had powers inherently enshrined in Article 324 of the Constitution — powers so great that there is arguably no other electoral management body with similar powers.
I learned this during my years as Election Commissioner, and these are the powers I exercised during the course of the 15th general election in 2009; I was successfully able to confront three Congress-ruled State governments and one Congress ally too. One of them even convened a special press conference to declare that his government would move the Supreme Court against the EC’s “arbitrariness”, but I personally had no doubt about its outcome. As it happened, he chose not to in the end.
The point I seek to make, by virtue of my own experience, is that the powers of the EC are so enormous and so all-encompassing that they exceed the powers of the executive in all election-related issues during the course of the election period. Of course, these must be exercised judiciously, fairly and equitably, not least because every decision is analysed in every “adda”, every home, every street corner and every “dhaba” across the country, where the EC’s decisions must be seen to be fair and transparent. During the years precedent to becoming CEC, I was fortunate that Mr. Seshan advised me whenever I called on him. As a result I never felt any need to make reference to government or court, once the process was under way.
If there is anything for me to applaud thus far in this election, it is the decision made by two political parties which have selected over 33% women candidates — Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (41% for 42 Lok Sabha seats) and Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal (33% for 21 Lok Sabha seats). After years of patriarchy or at best lip service, these parties have taken a vital step towards empowering women politically.
Why Imran bats for Modi
By Ayesha Siddiqa |
It seems that people from very odd quarters — such as Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan — want Narendra Modi to win the upcoming elections. Khan’s recent comments, in which he desired victory for his counterpart as good for the future of a peace initiative, may be driven by pragmatic reasons, but it indicates the separation that exists between the two countries. Following comments by the Opposition and in segments of the social media, the federal information minister intervened and pretended that Khan, who can often open his mouth before engaging his brain, was misunderstood.
Intriguingly, despite India being the most significant country in the neighbourhood, its election outcomes have marginal impact on the region. Khan’s statement, in fact, indicates that disconnectedness in which the head of the government of a neighbouring state refused to measure the implications beyond tactical effect. It seems a right-wing government in India does not matter to Pakistan. Or, perhaps, a Modi-led right-wing government is a wish come true for the ideological right-wing in Pakistan. For the first time since 1947, people do not have to convince each other of how right Muhammad Ali Jinnah was in creating Pakistan: Not that Pakistan was ever designed for all Muslims of the Indian subcontinent, but it now sees its formula for ideological nationalism justified in the face of rising religious-ideological nationalism next door in India. I have lived through the times when Pakistan’s intelligentsia was confused in the face of Indian secularism and democracy. Despite having their own country, there would be an internal conversation about the Indian experiment being better. The last four to five years has brought about a change in that thinking.
The BJP leadership of the last five years cannot be held entirely responsible for all the political and sociological change. If anything, the last four years have helped expose the true colours of the rising Indian middle-class that does not necessarily think very differently from the Hindutva supporter on certain issues. There is no sign that the Congress under Rahul Gandhi would have the gumption to change the course of society. Hearing the young Congress leader speak at a university in London, he did not seem to possess the temerity to deviate markedly from the ideological path that the BJP has chosen for India. However, there is an opinion in Pakistan that a Congress-led government, or any dispensation other than the present formulation, may be more cautious in how it approaches issues in the region.
Meanwhile, the general sense is that with Modi at the helm of affairs, war and conflict will mark the tone of relations between the two countries. However, this would be beneficial for Pakistan’s nationalist project that gets strengthened with every news of mob lynching of Muslims and other minorities, from India. This is not to argue that the state of minorities in Pakistan is any better: But New Delhi no longer represents a secular ideal. For Islamabad, a non-secular India is easier to contest.
The only limitation that Pakistan faces in fighting a BJP-led India is its own internal problems, like the dearth of financial resources, and not the intent. This also means that conflict cannot remain the only shrill refrain: A resolution would have to be negotiated for which the establishment in Rawalpindi prefers a BJP-governed India. Khan’s statement basically means that he, and others who share his thinking, believe that a strong right-wing government is the only credible element with which Pakistan could settle its matters. The question then is, what happened after the Lahore declaration? Wasn’t it a BJP-government that was willing to talk peace? Or, what happened to the peace initiative between the A B Vajpayee and Pervez Musharraf governments?
Seen purely from the Pakistani establishment’s perspective, Kargil happened because the military wanted an equaliser at a time when the political government had not taken it into confidence. As far as the breakdown of talks at Agra are concerned, the right-wing in India was divided at the time and the segment represented by L K Advani did not want peace. For Rawalpindi, Modi represents a neat synthesis of India’s right-wing. Hence, the negotiations would be more comprehensive than ever before. The only problem, however, remains that how does one predict Pakistan’s deep state — whose contours, today, are even more difficult to define.
This understanding goes hand in hand with the thinking that the pragmatism of the Hindu right-wing would not stop Delhi from talking to Pakistan despite the latter’s habitual U-turn from peace initiatives. While the emphasis following most track-II dialogues, particularly after a bilateral crisis, is on the Indian members of the group to apprise their counterparts of the anger in India, the Pakistani side has always maintained that it is possible to pick up the conversation thread from where it was dropped. A decade into this behaviour, there is barely anyone on Pakistan’s side with the capacity to remind their own the highly problematic nature of this approach.
Not unlike today’s India, the cost of dissent in Pakistan is very high. There is little traction in the corridors of power towards an alternative approach to resolving the conflict. The deep state in Pakistan — which is not necessarily the entire military, but is symbolised by it — has gained excessive control of all discussions and dialogue. There is also the confidence that international and regional geopolitics allows Rawalpindi the opportunity to continue with its old approach. Money matters are critical, but it will not force a course correction unless Pakistan reaches a breaking point.
The Violent Misuse of a Sacred Symbol
By Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee
A friend had pointed it out to me, in an Arya Samaj Mandir. It was more than a decade ago, when a roommate in JNU, who hailed from Haryana, was entering into an inter-caste marriage with his long-time, Bengali girlfriend. The wedding was taking place against the wishes of their respective parents. There were only friends from the university, who were present to take part in the couple’s happiness. Such is the price of love, in a society where the celebration of “family values” and “religious values” have for generations, meant the celebration of patriarchy, caste interest, and economic interests. It inevitably meant the refusal to accept, the free laws of love. We were in the middle of the short ceremony when my friend drew my attention to a poetic line written on the wall: “Om means a thousand things. One of them is, welcome to the abode of the gods.”
Growing up in a Hindu household, I was of course aware of the symbol. It used to be drawn in red, on small urns made of copper, and placed before a deity. On the urn, Dūrvā (or Darbha, or Kusha) grass would be dipped in water. The Dūrvā grass comprises of three blades, which symbolises the sacred trinity for Hindus. Om, I slowly learnt, was considered the primordial sound, the sacred syllable, that would precede all chanting. The word has been associated with cosmic significance in the Aitareya Brahmana of the Rig Veda, as something that connects the liberated human spirit with the universe, as “essence of breath, life, everything that exists”.
It shook me from inside, to see the photograph of the Om symbol, being violently engraved on the back of a man I learnt is Nabbir, an undertrial Muslim prisoner in Tihar jail. Nabbir was forcibly marked and denied food for two days on April 12, allegedly by the jail superintendent. This is not just a terrible incident, but marks of a sickness that can quickly, if unchecked and not punished by law, spread into a fascist method of torture and humiliation. This is a bizarre act of classifying a non-Hindu victim.
It is necessary to pay attention to what is taking place in this incident. A language of horror is being established through this act of power. By engraving the symbol, the Muslim prisoner’s body was robbed of its sovereignty. Sovereignty here is political in the religious sense. The invisible presence of the sacred exists in the prisoner’s body. The marking of the Hindu symbol on his back, is a violation of the prisoner’s sacred world, where the meaning of sacred becomes territorial. The body is no longer the body of a man who can exist within his ‘human rights’, despite his lack of political rights as a prisoner.
What is ‘human’ within the man’s belief system is intrinsically his ability to exist as a man who belongs to a god. It is a spiritual relationship that belongs to the realm of another law, where governmental power is marked off, and ideally has no control over. What has occurred in this case is precisely this ‘human’ breach between governmental power and sacred power. The superintendent did not limit himself to the task of holding juridical authority over his prisoner. That limit was overcome by a violent superimposition of another authority (or power) that the superintendent had no right to use over the prisoner.
The act of marking a Muslim prisoner’s back with a Hindu symbol is not a sacred but a territorial act, where the mis/use of power involves marking someone with sacred symbols as proof of dominance. The act of marking the prisoner’s shoulder with the sacred symbol that does not belong to the world he inhabits within, is to humiliate his inner sense of sacredness by deliberating implanting an alien symbol on his body. That symbol is also torn from its own sacred universe, and made to symbolise something territorial.
In the Tihar jail incident, everything is reduced to the trembling of a body, where the sacred is turned into a mark of horror. It is a space where everything corresponds to nothing, where symbols are reduced to bones, where the holy is reduced to what in the Book of Revelation (13: 16-17) is called “the mark… of the beast”. The “essence of breath, life and everything that exists”, what is symbolic of Om, is violently taken away from the prisoner. He is left to breathe, and live, only his humiliation.
Whether you believe or not in the human soul, we can name the soul as an invisible entity that remains in correspondence with something unnamable. It is this soul that all forms of barbaric power want to control and humiliate, in order to reduce the human to a nonhuman status. Even in the Germany of 1938, Jewish prisoners were marked by a yellow star, which was a perverted form of the Jewish Star of David. When history repeats itself, it is not just as tragic or farce, but sometimes pure horror.
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