POLITICS

Calcutta HC's Order On Durga Puja Immersion Highlights A Basic Existential Question

How should a diverse country in India live together?

21/09/2017 4:42 PM IST | Updated 21/09/2017 4:59 PM IST
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"Let them (Hindus and Muslims) live in harmony, do not create a line between them," acting Chief Justice of the Calcutta High Court, Rakesh Tiwary, told the West Bengal government.

The line Tiwary was talking about related to processions –- Muharram processions on the one hand and Durga immersion processions on the other.

The Bengal government had decreed that Durga immersions would not happen on October 1, which happened to be Muharram. And they would cease after 10 pm on September 30 which is Vijaya Dashami. They would resume again on October 2 and 3.

That was the state's solution to maintaining law and order and peace. The court disagreed. Hearing three PILs challenging the restrictions the court said the government had no business imposing restrictions just because it fears something can go wrong. Every group has the right to practice its religious activities and the government had better have a solid reason to curtail it.

The court argument makes complete sense on a philosophical level. The state fears that in practice it makes far less sense on the ground.

We live in a time when rather than accommodation we place greater faith on assertion. We assert our rights rather than accommodate others who are different from us.

Without going into who is right or who is wrong, the state government's decision, the court cases, and the judge's statements all point to how tattered and tested the fabric of our secularism is these days.

India is not a country where secularism means the absence of religion. India's secular experiment has been about honouring all religions. We do not think it strange if our national leaders offer prayers at Shiva temples and then put on a Muslim skull cap or a Sikh turban. In an ideal country, if we truly honoured all religions, we would not be nervous about the fact that both Hindus and Muslims were commemorating important festivals at the same time. That would be a testimonial instead to those unity-in-diversity lessons we had been spoon-fed through our school years. We would celebrate these occasions as moments when our country's religious diversity was in full display for the world to see. It could be exemplary.

Instead when these religious calendars overlap, we get nervous. Whether that nervousness is justified or not, it points to something far more tragic. It's a fast eroding sense of accommodation and adjustment that is key to maintaining communal peace in a country as large and as boisterous as this one. That was always going to be a tricky balancing act between a muscular majoritarianism on one side, and minority pandering on the other.

We seem to be moving ever further from that ideal. Instead we live in a time when rather than accommodation we place greater faith on assertion. We assert our rights rather than accommodate others who are different from us. This could be Hindus insisting that their katha programmes at the local temple also have loudspeakers because Muslims get to use it for the call to prayer. It quickly leads to an argument about bhajans on the loudspeaker at the time of azaan for Friday prayers. That leads to the counter argument that the Hanuman bhajan is only for a few days, the azaan is all year-long. An Indian Express survey in 2014 found that a loudspeaker had been "transformed into an effective instrument of polarization" in a communal tinderbox. Out of 600 communal incidents in Uttar Pradesh, studied by the Express, 120 were triggered by loudspeakers.

The point is in the name of tolerance we are unable to tolerate another community's practice. And each time we do that, we weaken the idea of tolerance itself.

Tolerance is rapidly becoming a bad word on either sides, a passive approach at odds with a more belligerent assertion of identity. It's not just about Durga Puja and Muharram. It could be about Jain festivals and the shutting down of butcher shops or social media anger about why Bengalis eat meat during Durga Puja while others go vegetarian. We use political muscle to enforce those shutdowns rather than persuasion and courtesy. It basically turns into an "I am fasting and therefore you cannot eat meat" argument. The point is not whether Bakhr-Id falls in the middle of Paryushan. And the point is certainly not what they do in Saudi Arabia because we don't live there.

The point is in the name of tolerance we are unable to tolerate another community's practice. And each time we do that, we weaken the idea of tolerance itself.

The high court remarked that Mamata Banerjee always insists that Hindus and Muslims are living in peace in Bengal. That should be all the more reason to not curb religious activities of one to allow the other. Religion should not be forcibly made a one-way street through which only one group could pass at a time.

Durga Puja and Muharram falling together could be an occasion for all political parties to also come together, show leadership and ensure that both communities could observe their festivals in peace.

Yet it is also entirely fact that there are plenty of political actors happy to stir up trouble in the name of religion. In a time of fake news, we have seen over and over again how passions are easily inflamed by sharing old WhatsApp videos and false Facebook posts. Whether that leads to a full-scale riot or a localised lynch mob is anyone's guess. And once we have cried havoc and let slip those dogs of war, a state's administration is hard pressed to push that genie back into the bottle.

The bench has offered a way out. It said the administration could regulate the routes for the Durga immersion processions and the Muharram tajia processions. That's a practical solution, but does not resolve the larger existential question of how a diverse country lives together.

Durga Puja and Muharram falling together could be an occasion for all political parties to also come together, show leadership and ensure that both communities could observe their festivals in peace. If that had happened, we might have had a real conversation about the difference between tolerance and appeasement. That would have strengthened us all.

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