Thank you. Thank you friends. (Ms. Azmi recites a short poem in Hindi.) My father, the noted poet, wrote this piece almost fifty years ago, but I think it is even more relevant today in its urgent appeal for sanity to prevail, for saner council to prevail, for the art of coexistence that we have practiced for so many years to find center stage again, to be able to resolve differences in a manner where we do not have to resort to violence. India’s greatest strength is her pluralism, her composite culture, her commitment to secularism, but as we all know in recent times these very honorable principles are being attacked, and we seem to be in our darkest hour. The recent communal carnage in Gujarat, in the wake of the torching of a train in Gujurat, claimed 2000 lives officially. Unofficially they say it is about 4000 lives. Millions of rupees went down the drain. Places of worship were destroyed. Relief and rehabilitation still needs to see the light of day, and it has led to a lot of insecurity and a lot of fear.
In India’s brief history we have seen communal riots occur over and over again. We barely got out of the Bombay riots in the wake of the Babri Masjid demolish, and I was personally involved in the relief and the rehabilitation measures and I know how horrific the whole thing was. I was also in the anti-Sikh riots in the wake of Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination. And one has seen that the worst thing that happens out of communal riots is that riot, after riot, after riot, the guilty get away with it. Commissions of inquiry are instituted but the guilty get away with it. And I think that leaves a very dangerous signal in society because what it says basically is that there are two kinds of laws operating in this country. If you kill one person you are likely to be punished, but if you are involved in mass murder than an amnesty of sorts is going to be granted to you. And that is what is happening at the moment and that is the danger that all of us need to wake up to. None of us want the sectarian violence. We are horrified by what happens, but the silent majority really needs to stand up and speak, to stop watching from the sidelines, and say, “we all have a stake in this and we must stop it.” India is a country wherefore hundreds of years we have lived peacefully with each other. Why are we now saying that the main problem has become between Hindus and Muslims and why is everything been projected as a Hindu-Muslim divide. We have to first understand that communalism really is not about religion so much as it is a political ideology. It is about using history and grievances in the past, some of it imagined and some of it real to…grievances in the past that need redress in the present times and thus become the means of contemporary political mobilization. And it is this vote-bank politics that is responsible for using religion in a way where you divide people who belong to different religions, and this is not the truth of India.
If you ask me who I am, I will say, “I am a woman, I am an Indian, I am an actor, I am a Muslim, I am a Member of Parliament, I am a mother, I am a daughter, so many things.” But in India it seems as if a concerted effort is being made to confine identity into the narrow confines of the religion only so that you become Hindu, I become Muslim, she becomes Sikh, and that of course is not the truth of India. The truth of India is her composite culture. How else do we explain that a Kashmiri Hindu and a Kashmiri Muslim have much more in common with each other...because of the factor of Kasmiri-ty, because of the common composite culture that they share…than a Kashmiri Muslim and another Muslim in India? In spite of the fact that both of them share the religion of Islam, their cultures are so diverse that they have much less in common with one another. India’s composite culture is her greatest strength and that is what we need to build on to and stop from disappearing.
I think if we understand fundamentally that the fight today is not between the Hindu and the Muslim. The fight is between the liberal voice and the extremist voice, and if we can keep our focus on that then we will stop being divided on Hindu-Muslim lines. And for that what we need to do is to make sure that fundamentalism of all hues is criticized. For far too long what has happened is because of the politics of the country. Hindu fundamentalism came in for criticism, but when it was Muslim fundamentalism-for various reasons, vote-bank politics again-Muslim fundamentalism wasn’t criticized so strongly, and that of course led to a lot of anger. And I think the time is come when we need to understand this. It was also believed that minority communalism is not as dangerous as majority communalism. And I think the time has come today for us to recognize that it isn’t between Hindu and Muslim; it is between the fundamentalist extremist opinion and the liberal, tolerant, moderate opinion.
I come from a family where I have always celebrated every single festival (of various religions)…all of them with a lot of joy as part of my being an Indian and enjoying my Indian culture. And I grew up in a very cosmopolitan family and I did not have a religious identity imposed on me. And then when the Babri Masjid abolishment occurred, for the first time in 1992, I had the word Muslim hurled at me like it was an accusation. I had the word Muslim hurled at me sometimes with sympathy, but it always came with a self-consciousness that I had never known had existed. And I was completely taken aback and I was really shocked by it…because for me being Muslim meant the celebration of certain holidays, but it did not have anything to do with my religious identity. And then of course I dug my heels in and said, “yes, I am a Muslim, what do you want to do about it?” And I was horrified at what was happening, my friends with whom I had grown up with, my friends when I would walk in a room would hold their breaths for fear that I would start talking about the riots that were occurring in Bombay because they knew that I was actively working on the relief and rehabilitation. And they would deflect the conversation because it was something that they didn’t want to talk about. As long as it was something that was in the slum areas in Bombay-which of course was the first phase of the riots in 1992-but of course when 1993 happened and then when the middle classes and the upper-middle classes started getting affected, then they realized what it had actually meant.