Perhaps you could say it was the Islamic Republic of Iran that made me an Indian. If it wasn't for the Islamic Revolution in that country I would probably have grown up in Tehran rather than Hyderabad. So would my many cousins who ended up becoming French, American and Australian. At the time when the Revolution broke out, my father was an Iranian student who had just got his MBA from Delhi's prestigious Faculty of Management Studies. He was married with two young children. In better times, he could have looked forward to a prosperous life at home. But post-1979, he, along with his 300,000 co-religionists, who formed Iran's largest religious minority, were left in no doubt of what future the Islamic regime had in mind for them. He was a Baha'i, and being a Baha'i henceforth was reason enough for the state to arrest or even execute you, to seize your life savings, to usurp your businesses, properties and possessions. Baha'is could no longer get government jobs, their trading licenses were cancelled and their children were barred from admission to universities. Baha'i holy places were destroyed, their institutions were annulled, their burial grounds were desecrated.
"As we struggled to build our lives in India, stories started to filter in of loved ones being tortured - their nails pulled out, their skin peeled off, their bodies burned with cigarette butts..."
Some of my father's close friends were among the more than 200 Baha'is killed after the revolution. As we struggled to build our lives in India, stories started to filter in of loved ones being tortured - their nails pulled out, their skin peeled off, their bodies burned with cigarette butts before they were executed. In one case the family of a friend who was shot in prison had to pay for the bullets used to kill him before they could reclaim his body. A few weeks into the revolution, friends in Iran told my father that his name had been called out on the state radio. He was asked to report to the Revolutionary Guards. It was clear to him that he could not return home and was now one of the thousands of Baha'is the world over who had to build a new life in a new country.
To justify and normalise these human rights violations against its own citizens, Iran launched a vast propaganda campaign against the Baha'is. The media and the education system, both state-controlled, became channels for disseminating outrageous misrepresentations of Baha'i beliefs and aims. The entire community is accused of being agents of an assortment of powers and groups depending on who the ruling leaders considered their most current enemies - America, Britain or Israel are the regulars while more recently it has been pro-democratic opposition parties. Needless to add, Baha'is are given no means to respond to these accusations.
In 1993 Reynaldo Galindo Pohl, the United Nations special representative who was investigating the human rights situation in Iran made public a secret government document titled "The Baha'i Question" drafted by Iran's Supreme Revolutionary Cultural Council (This document has been reprinted in its entirety in numerous sources including the International Federation of Human Rights' "Discrimination against Religious Minorities in Iran".) "The government dealings with them (the Baha'is)," it said, "must be in such a way that their progress and development are blocked." While the intensity of persecution has varied in response to international criticism, the intention of Iran remains to slowly suffocate this religious minority, deploying to this end both the coercive and persuasive powers of the state.
The international community's response to these atrocities has been prompt and unstinting. The United Nations General Assembly has passed numerous resolutions asking Iran to desist from persecuting Baha'is. Sympathetic governments and heads of state, the European Union, human rights organisations, the international media and intellectuals have lent their voices to a global campaign seeking the protection of Iran's Baha'is.
"What has allowed this community to survive is the pressure of international opinion that has restrained the Iranian state from wholesale genocide."
Most recently, this campaign has focused on the imprisonment of the Yaran, the seven former leaders of the community in charge of its internal affairs. The Yaran who were otherwise law-abiding citizens have been sentenced to 20 years imprisonment on charges of, among other things, espionage and propaganda activities against the Islamic order. The circumstances of their trial made a mockery of justice: they were given very limited access to their lawyers and the trial itself was held 20 months after they were arrested. Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi, whose Defenders of Human Rights Center represented the Yaran, told Amnesty International that she found the seven's file empty and the accusations baseless.
What has prompted a growing number of prominent Iranians such as Ebadi to speak out in favour of the Iranian Baha'is, sometimes at great personal risk, is that the community's response to oppression presents, in the words of an academic observer, "one of the few documented cases of a minority that has managed to resist peacefully" a campaign of genocidal intent.
Despite unrelenting persecution, the community has not entered into a violent confrontation with the state or its agencies. It has also not been passive. Baha'is have used every available legal means to demand their right to exist. The Baha'i leadership has published numerous open letters challenging the government to uphold their rhetorical human rights declarations. It has also successfully rallied world public opinion in its struggle for survival. At the same time, the members of the community are urged to focus on being constructive agents of change.
The following words from a letter of the Baha'i leadership to the youth of the community deprived access to higher education, reflects this call to uphold nobility in the teeth of oppression:
With an illumined conscience, with a world-embracing vision, with no partisan political agenda, and with due regard for law and order, strive for the regeneration of your country. By your deeds and services, attract the hearts of those around you, even win the esteem of your avowed enemies, so that you may vindicate the innocence of, and gain the ever-increasing respect and acceptance for, your community in the land of its birth [Iran]... Opposition to a newly revealed truth is a common matter of human history; it repeats itself in every age. But of equal historical consistency is the fact that nothing can prevail against an idea whose time has come. The time has arrived for freedom of belief, for harmony between science and religion, faith and reason, for the advancement of women, for freedom from prejudice of every kind, for mutual respect between the diverse peoples and nations, indeed, for the unity of the entire human race... Service to others is the way... Strive to work hand-in-hand, shoulder-to-shoulder, with your fellow citizens in your efforts to promote the common good.
Such a positive orientation has helped the community find creative ways to overcome restrictions. To meet the educational needs of its youth, for example, the community started its own decentralised university with the living rooms of Baha'is becoming classrooms and Baha'i professors fired from government service serving as faculty.
This then for me is the reason why in a world where a tale of tyranny lies under every stone, the story of the Baha'is of Iran still deserves its 1000-odd words of print space. What has allowed this community to survive is the pressure of international opinion that has restrained the Iranian state from wholesale genocide. This pressure remains the community's lifeline. But more than that, given the moral cynicism of our times, the constructive resilience of this community restores faith in the Gandhian ideal that the way to overcoming oppression is not by adopting the ways of the oppressor.