Coexistence and Conflict: Hindu Muslim Relations in India

Hindu-Muslim tension in India today. (thebigdurian/Flickr)

New York: October 29, 2002

Vishaka Desai, Sr. Vice-President & Dir. of Museum and Cultural Programs, Asia Society

Bill Ferguson, Group Marketing Executive, Citibank Asia-Pacific

Shabana Azmi, Social Activist, Film Legend and Member of India’s Parliament

Introduction by VISHAKA DESAI

Good evening and welcome to the Asia Society. My name is Vishaka Desai and I am the Senior Vice-President and Director of the Museum and Cultural Programs here at the Society, and it is a great pleasure for me to welcome all of you.

As you know tonight’s program is in fact the second lecture in a new and a very important, and I would also add timely, series called the Citigroup Series on Asian Women Leaders organized by our Asian Social Issues Program Staff. And we are thrilled that we have been able to attract such special guests to the series such as our speaker this evening, Shabana Azmi. This new series focuses on the vital role that women are playing in Asia and in Asian-America featuring leading social activists, policy-makers, business figures, artists and community leaders from Asia and the U.S. On behalf of the Asia Society I want to thank Citigroup for their very generous support of this new exciting program and for giving us the opportunity to feature prominent leaders like our speaker tonight, Shabana Azmi. I want to especially thank Victor Menezes, Chip Raymond and Bill Ferguson of Citigroup for their support of the Asia Society and our work here. Before I introduce Shabana Azmi, let me just turn to Bill Ferguson who is the Group Marketing Executive of Citibank Asia Pacific to say a few words about the program.

 

Introductory remarks by BILL FERGUSON of CITIGROUP

Thank you Vishaka and good evening ladies and gentlemen. I am very please to be representing Citigroup for the second event in the new speaker series of Asian Women Leaders that is being offered by the Asia Society and sponsored by Citigroup. Tonight is part of a multi-year program in the Asia Society’s tradition of promoting understanding in the U.S. of Asia, its people, it cultures, societies and the issues that are facing the region. Citigroup has a long association with the Asia Society going back to its founding, and an even longer association with Asia, where we first began business in 1902. We think it is particularly appropriate to launch this program during our centennial year. As Vishaka said the program is intended to showcase Asian women and the key role they play in politics, media, the arts and human rights. We believe the people in the U.S. need to know more about the work these women are doing…it is innovative, it is forward-looking and it is courageous. The first speaker in this new series was Dr. Sima Simar of Afghanistan, and tonight’s address will be delivered by Shabana Azmi from India, who will be introduced formally momentarily by Vishaka Desai. Citigroup is honored to be sponsoring this program that features speakers of this caliber who can raise the U.S. awareness of critical issues in the region as well as the role which women are playing in dealing with these issues. Thank you very much and I will now turn the proceedings back to Vishaka.

VISHAKA DESAI

I know whenever you have to introduce a very distinguished speaker, especially somebody who is as well known as Shabana Azmi, often you want to say, “well, she needs no introduction.” However, I think it is very important to say a few words about her and also about the topic at hand. As you know Shabana Azmi will speak tonight on Coexistence and Conflict: Hindu Muslim Relations in India. What can you say about Shabana? Well, you can say first and foremost that she is a remarkably, an amazing woman who really brings her personal and professional commitment together in a way that is truly unusual and remarkable. She is a social activist and a leading actress of India’s fine cinema; she is a member of the upper house in the Indian Parliament, and as most of you know, of course, a world-renown actress. It is not very often that an actress or an actor would be in fact celebrated as she was recently at Lincoln Center. There was in fact a whole series in which she was celebrated as the actor as activist at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center. It is the kind of honor that only a handful of people have been awarded.

I think that-to mention a word about the topic and why it is very important that we discuss this. I think that it goes without saying that one of the very special qualities of India is its kind of polyphonic, multi-various voice that we always feel one is very proud of. It’s a kind of cultural diversity at its best, when it works, that was the vision of the fathers, of the makers, of the Indian independence movement. That very idea of pluralism in recent years, in recent months, has been deeply threatened, as most of us know, and it has to do with the kind of communal violence that has been raging in India-especially the way it sparked in my home state of Gujurat, the home state of Gandhi. This is the kind of violence that in fact one had no words for because one felt “how could this happen in a country that is supposed to have the tradition of inter-connections, a kind of syncretism that one is very proud of?” Those of us who are historians, historians of culture, have thought about this as the kind of ways that Hindus and Muslims have worked together over almost one thousand years, how did this really come apart in the way that it has. These are some of the issues that Shabana will address. I think it is fair to say that what she will talk about is an informal observation because she has been working at the heart of these kinds of issues, and on how to really promote communal harmony on the subcontinent in a more interesting and unusual way. This informal conversation is really to start a dialogue with you so we will have a chance to actually have a discussion with the audience and you will have a chance to ask her questions as well. So please join me in welcoming Shabana Azmi. Thank you.

SHABANA AZMI

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.

I’ll give a personal example just to tell you what it did for me. Like I said I came from a family where we always celebrated all the holy festivals. And because the riots had happened and because so many innocent lives had been lost, my mother said that she was not going to celebrate two of the upcoming holidays. And suddenly I was told by well-wishers, and my mother was told by well-wishers, that that would give a very wrong signal because what it would do is that it would make all my friends who had suddenly become Hindu-and I had never known any of my friends as being Hindu or Muslim or Sikh or anything, they were just friends-but that the signal that it would be giving my Hindu friends is that finally we have become communal and we no longer want to celebrate their holidays. And my mother said, “It has got nothing to do with that. It is to do with the fact that my heart is full of grief and full of pain, and I do not want to celebrate these upcoming holidays.” And ultimately we did celebrate, but with a heavy heart, and to me that is the tragedy, that something that I take for granted as my culture, as my right, as who I am, finally had to be reduced to a token of my secular credentials. And that is the real tragedy, that is the danger, that we are now managing to create divides in our hearts. It is said that if you put a frog in boiling water, it jumps out and saves itself. But if you put a frog in tepid water and slowly turn the heat on it doesn’t realize what is happening and finally gets killed. That is what is happening with communalism in our country at the moment. We wake up and riots occur and we are horrified and we run from crisis to crisis, and then everything settles down and we think that things are all right. But things are not all right. And what happens in its wake is that there is a subversion of the democratic institutions in the pursuit of sectarian violence, and we give up our civil liberties, and so that everything that happens in its wake slowly starts corroding our civil liberties. So when you have political groups that are dictating which books can and cannot be read and which films can and cannot be watched, when you have a political party dictating to you, “this is acceptable as Indian, as being national” we are in trouble. We are in trouble because India is really about pluralism, and we cannot have one narrow definition of what nationhood is. And it seems very strange if Muslim fundamentalism and Sikh extremism are considered anti-national then how come Hindu fundamentalism hides itself behind the garb of being national? We have to wake up to this and we have to realize that, here particularly staying in the United States, many of the Indians living over here, they haven’t really got the facts of the case. And a lot of them are ending up supporting organizations that are giving money for right-wing activities in India without even recognizing. And that I think is happening because people do not want to get involved in politics, but people are interested in culture. And I think that in staying for so many years in the U.S. we recognize that there is a great need to hold onto one’s Indian identity, and particularly now with the growing confidence of the Asian community. When they first came in, it was more important for them to become part of the melting pot, not to stand out, because they were getting into jobs and things like that. But now with the rate of success there is a growing recognition that we no longer need to be a melting pot. It is better to have a salad bowl, for instance, where individual identities are not submerged, but are retained. Now in this pursuit of that individual identity and holding on to what is Indian culture, we can look at any cultural space that is given to us-so whether it is women’s meetings, whether it is children’s camps, whether it is any one of these activities-what is happening is that this campaign of hatred is being carried out through those channels, and I think that it is very important for us to recognize that we shouldn’t side with that. I think it is time, like I said, that the silent majority should speak up. We should decide, stand up and be counted, and say, “What kind of Muslim am I?” Am I the Muslim who believes in Islam and what the Koran teaches me or am I the Muslim who will be led by the Taliban and its distorted Islam and the bad name it gives Islam?” I think the Hindus should stand up and say, “I am Hindu, but is the Hinduism that I want to practice the one propagated by Mahatma Gandhi or is it the one by the right-wing Hindu forces?” I think we have to stand up and we have to say that we belong here.

Secularism in India was for a long time regarded as an alien concept, as something that came as an import from the west and something that would be very difficult to deal with. And so finally Nehru came up with this whole idea of secularism meaning equal respect to all religions. Now there was an operating ideology over here where religion was considered something that we didn’t have to deal with. There was a very strong secular-liberal group that believed that religion was something that we need to stay away from. And I think what happened in the process was that we gave up this space to the fundamentalist. Religion is too potent a weapon to be left to the fundamentalists alone. So it is important that people operating within their religious definitions also stand up and say, “This is how I am different from you and I still belong.” I think that person has a much greater right to speak up for the community that space was given up for. What happened in the wake of the partition of India is the Muslim liberal (my father and people of his generation) who did speak up against Muslim fundamentalism, as they did against Hindu fundamentalism, were still I think so concerned about establishing the secular credentials that they did not come to the rescue of the community when riots happened-as they continued to happen periodical-for the fear of being called communal. That space was usurped by the fundamentalists; so you see these fundamentalist groups coming to the rescue of the community in whatever token way possible. But after the Babri Masjid demolish, I think this secular liberal group recognized that it was extremely important to now come and get connected to the community without fear of being called communal, because otherwise this space was being exceedingly given away. And for the first time you saw the secular liberal, who so far had always spoken from the seminar room, actually get into activist mode. And because of that I think there was a resurgent confidence in the community.

The role that the press has played has been I think, insensitive. But I think there has been a great change now and I think there has been a great sensitization. And particularly in the Gujurat case the press was absolutely, totally honest and fair.

But we have noticed that government after government after government, every time they want to respond to a Muslim crisis or a Muslim situation, they only find the fundamentalist leaders to speak to, and they do not include the liberal moderate voice. These people are not the leaders of the communities and they need to be rejected. But why is it constantly touted in India that there is an absence of Muslim leadership? Who is the leader of all Hindus is what I want to know? And why should the Muslims have a leader? Why shouldn’t it be a secular leader who is looking after the interests of this large democracy? Why are we being pushed into these corners? One thing that is constantly being said is that, “we question the loyalties of the Muslims”, and I have been subjected to that as well. My parents participated in the freedom struggle of India. And at the time of partition they had a choice-they could go to Pakistan-but they didn’t go because they believed that India is their country and they believed that that is where they should be. They stayed back and they had a stake in the future of the country. And in 1992 you ask their daughter, who was not even born during partition, to prove her loyalty to the nation, as some did to me. Who are they and how dare they ask me this question? I’m not going to give up this space to them. (applause) I will not accept my loyalty being constantly questioned. I am not going to accept this having to give proof. Yes, there have been many misguided Muslims, as there are misguided Hindus, and we have to rectify that. And yes, there is a constant criticism that when Pakistan wins the cricket match, the Muslims clap. So one hundred Muslims clap, and you are going to haul over the coals all the Muslims in India because 100 misguided people do that? It is for me a complete violation of everything that I know India to be. Even today in India, in Rajasthan, when scarves are made the Muslims do the dying and the Hindus do the printing-they work together even today. In many parts of India the shoes that the Hindu priests wear in those temples are made by the Muslims. Now that is the reality in India. And we, because we are keeping quiet, because we are the silent majority, because we are not speaking up enough, we are allowing all that to disappear.

Yes, what is happening is because of politics; what is happening is because vote-bank politics is happening. I remember that when this carnage was happening in Gujurat, I was totally shocked. I was thinking, “Why, why is this happening?” And there was a Member of Parliament with me and he said that it was consolidation of the vote-bank. And now that elections are happening in Gujurat, it is vital that these forces do not gain strength. And for that I think we need to inform ourselves. We need to make sure that democratic institutions in India, which have been subverted, are not allowed to continue to be.

I know I am making this sound very grim. It sounds like all of India is falling apart, and that is not true at all. There is a very vibrant section of India’s people which does not want this. People have come out at great risk to themselves. And we must recognize that what we need to do is sustained work in times of peace, because what we are battling with is something that has gone on for 80 years. There is a whole campaign of disinformation and propaganda, and these things have not been properly addressed because we think that propaganda is so obviously so. But we must counter it; we must counter fact from fiction and make all the facts available. And we have to see that these divisive sectarian forces in India are not allowed to rule because it is a tolerant country. It is a country that has existed peacefully, co-existed, and that is what we need to get that space back. Thank you very much.

VISHAKA DESAI

How do we even begin? I will open up the floor to all of you, but I think I have a prerogative, so I am going to ask the first question. You talked about that you feel that there is work going on in India, and I wonder if you might talk a little bit more specifically about what is going on in India now to promote this notion of giving bigger voice to the liberal moderate voices and if there are coalitions being built. One has the sense, as was true here in the early 90’s, that the very extremists forming are actually so much more disciplined than the moderate forces, and that often it is harder for the moderate liberal voices to organize themselves. So I wonder if you could speak about what is going on and how people are actually coming together to create an alternative voice to the extremist groups?

SHABANA AZMI

You know, I think that when people are angry they have much more intensity, and they go out, and there has been this systematic work-and this has not been the case with the liberal moderate voice because by definition it is moderate. But I think what is important is that we need to get into activist mode. We are in an emergency situation and we have to say that we have to form coalitions and partnerships. We have to understand communalism-unless it relates to issues of social justice, you cannot counter it on its own. And so you need to see the various people-academics, the intelligence, people working at the grass roots-because there has been a great divide between these groups and there was a lack of being in touch with the realities of people’s lives. And I think a lot of that is being addressed. And I think, like I said, that there has been a great transition of the media post-September 11th. What happened is, just as the word Muslim was being seen as synonymous with terrorism; there was a great concerted effort to change this. We turned that crisis into an opportunity and decided that we really needed to tell the world about Islam, that it resides in 53 countries around the world, that it is not a monolith, that it takes on the culture of the country in which it resides. In some places it is moderate, it is reformist, it is intolerant, it is various things, but you cannot just have one opinion of it. And I think the media, at least in India, is making a great effort to make that difference known. The liberal moderate voice is getting greater visibility and expressing, most importantly, that the real issues facing the communities, whether they are Hindu or Muslim, are about housing, employment and food. It is not about this emotional frenzy. And there is a rejection of the fundamentalist leader because he has never addressed the real issues of unemployment and poverty and education particularly. So there is some growing strength there, but I think we need to continue working on that.

VISHAKA DESAI

Are you cautiously optimistic?

SHABANA AZMI

I am an optimist by nature, but I think it is realistic to be optimistic. Because of the situation is very grim, but I know that this is the darkest time and we should be able to come out of it.

VISHAKA DESAI

Thank you. We have some microphones and what I will to is to recognize you first. Please make sure that it is a question, not a long comment, and please identify yourself. And only if you get the microphone, will you be able to speak.

QUESTION

I was wondering if you could comment on the whole issue of religious identity and Bollywood actors and actresses-their identity or non-identity with their religion?

SHABANA AZMI

The film industry in India, particularly in Bombay, has really been free from these kind of communal overtones. And it seems, thank God, that we don’t think of the actors as being Muslim or Hindu, and thus having separate identities. Mercifully that has been spared completely. And the Hindi film industry is really about getting the largest number of people in, so you cater to the lowest common denominator, and you do not deal with issues that frighten people away.

QUESTION

I wanted to know what you think about how the ongoing conflict in Kashmir affects the issue of communal violence, and also the increase in the vote for religious fundamentalists in the most recent elections in Pakistan. Do those two external issues affect what is taking place in India?

SHABANA AZMI

See it is very disturbing that for the first time you see an emergence of electoral gains with fundamentalist religious extremists, because all along we did find comfort in the fact that this did not happen. Then when it actually came to electoral politics-whether it was Pakistan or Bangladesh or India-it all goes badly for the nation. And we have to wake up to that and see a result of when fundamentalist forces come into mainstream politics and how that hurts the fabric of a nation.

What is happening in Kashmir is really extremely complicated. There has been a systematic attempt at communalizing the Kashmir issue and into making it into a Hindu/Muslim case. You have to go into the long history of Kashmir. We have to understand that these people have a right to live in their own homeland and we have to address that there is cross-border terrorism happening from Pakistan. Then there is a very strong movement in Kashmir itself where people want independence. There have been excesses of the state. It is such a complicated situation. But it all goes well-the recent elections in Kashmir where people have actually, at great risk to themselves, gone out and voted-so I think there is a step forward.

QUESTION

I wanted to ask you about the younger generation’s perception of India and Pakistan as being such completely different places, and the idea of Pakistan being “the Muslim country”?

SHABANA AZMI

See first we need to realize that this is the age not only of countries, but regions. And it is in our best interest that we have a strong South Asian region, and for that it is vital to resolve the conflict between India and Pakistan. And there are political problems, but politically it is being dealt with, not very successfully, but that is happening. But people in India and Pakistan have so much in common. We have a common language, culture and heritage. And it is extremely important that at a people to people level that dialogue must constantly ensue. And it is vital that people say to their governments, “we do not want to get involved in this politics of yours”; people must dictate to the governments; it is not governments dictating to people. It is not a monarchy; but within that it is particularly important for the younger generation to be able to come and see for themselves. A lot of my relatives are in Pakistan, and I can see over the years that they are seeing themselves as totally separate from anything that they know in India. And they do it with a kind of viciousness which really, really upsets. One of the things that you saw in Pakistan is that they love Hindi movies. And we love their television serials and their music. So we have so many things in common. We have to be able to have exchanges, particularly student exchanges between the two places, so that the young can see that the other country is not the ogre that it is being made out to be for political gain. I think then confidence building among the youth can happen.

QUESTION

Hello. I was born in Bangladesh but raised in the United States. Actually I have not visited South Asia in many years, but I would imagine that this is a relatively new construct…how much would you say, if at all, are Hindu extremists associating themselves with this “War on Terror”?

SHABANA AZMI

Well, every single incident of violence that happens is immediately ascribed to the Islamic terrorists…and that is coming from Pakistan. That atmosphere has been whipped up and that is very dangerous, because when it is indiscriminately applied it can push the Muslim into being somebody who is not nationalist and has an identity that belongs to Pakistan. Pakistan actually hurts the Muslim cause over and over again, and so it puts us in a very peculiar kind of situation. I think the trouble with us is that we have far more opinion than we have information. And what we can start doing is gathering information before we rush to have an opinion. I think that is what we need to do.

QUESTION

You have talked about secularism and the foundation of India being based on pluralism. Based on that I know there are many groups, multi-religious groups in India. Do you think the issue is only restricted to Hindus and Muslims-or are there Christians, Buddhists, Jews and others-how are the relationships in those communities? Why is it is it only that the Hindus and Muslims periodically resort to this sort of communal conflict and violence?

SHABANA AZMI

No, there is a targeted attack against minorities. If you see what was happening in Gujurat, then it is not just Muslims. It was really what happened with the Christians in Gujurat as part of the laboratory tests. But they speak of a critical mass-the Muslims are so large in number in India-they are the second largest population in the whole world, more than in all of Pakistan. That is why this conflict keeps happening…because history is constantly used over and over again…with the Muslim particularly. You see that there is a distortion in the telling of how the Muslim “invaders” came in; there is a distortion of how they came, they looted and they went away. When actually the truth is that there was a great contribution from them as well. But you see it is because of their number I think that it becomes like that.

QUESTION

Could you talk a little bit about what Indian universities and schools are doing to foster a secular Indian identity-what kind of role, if any, they are playing in this movement?

SHABANA AZMI

At the moment that is in real danger because a serious attempt has been made to communalize education. There is a serious attempt being made to rewrite history. And that is really the long-term danger-that on the one hand we have a constitution that is committed to secularism and on the other hand we are using institutions to communalize that. That is a very real danger that is happening in India with the BJB-led government.

QUESTION

As a Member of Parliament you have been very active. You mentioned the vote banks, and I think that is a very key issue. What role have you played, Shabana Azmi, in educating the politicians and trying to keep away this Hindu/Muslim problem-educating the politicians and trying to convince them not to use it as a ploy to further their own interests?

SHABANA AZMI

You see I wonder what we need to do in regard to that because politicians use that as a very real thing because they are really looking for vote banks all of the time. But I think that there is a mistake in thinking that Muslims vote en masse, and I think it is this belief-that Muslims vote as a block-which leads to manipulation by the parties. Actually if you look at the pattern, and that is where systematic work needs to be done, you see that the pattern of Muslim voting is often the same as that of the majority. In many instance they voted along with the majority, but yet they are treated as a vote bank, and that leads to their manipulation. And that is where we need to do further work.

Regarding the education of the politician…the politician jolly well knows the truth of the situation. Because of her or his own political gain, he is working toward destroying the secular fabric of the country and that is bad news.

QUESTION

Hello, my family is originally from UP and we later went to Pakistan. That is where I was born, in Karachi, but I grew up my entire life in Brooklyn-so I’m a New Yorker. I actually live around here. I am a medical student at Cornell Medical School, and the reason why that detail is relevant is because more and more I see among my well-educated and socially responsible peers an interest in these social and political issues, but also confusion as to how to go about implementing our concerns. I go to lecture after lecture, and participate in discussion after discussion, however I am not sure how that is helping the world.

SHABANA AZMI

You know it is helping the world. The fact that you are raising questions, the fact that you are attending the fact that you care-that is really central to the concern, that you care-and obviously there are no easy answers, but the fact that you are making an attempt is important. And that is what I really would like to see, that every single one of us would see that we have a stake in this, that civil society has a stake in this, and that all of us have a responsibility in whatever way to deal with this. You know, I think constantly we have been told to love our neighbors as ourselves, and I think that is a problem. I don’t think you need to love your neighbor as yourself. You should not kill him and you should not destroy his property. As long as you can see that certain ground rules are there, that should be enough. We should then be able to see that law and order are maintained. Hindus and Muslims are different…I am not saying better or worse…I am saying different. Men and women are different…not better or worse…but different…and that difference needs to be celebrated. It should not become a way of beating the other community. Law and order should be maintained; the guilty should be punished; the government should be doing their job. And as people we have to rise above that and constantly try and address differences. There are bound to be differences, and because there are differences the world is so much more interesting, and we have to be able to address this.

QUESTION (continued...)

I know all of this is affecting the world somehow in a philosophical sort of sense…but the reason that I personally went into medicine was that I wanted to feel at the end of the day that I had accomplished something and made a difference. So I was wondering if you have any suggestions for the young people in your audience as to how we can participate in this movement.

SHABANA AZMI

You know firstly I want to say that I am so glad that there are so many young faces today. That is important, because youth traditionally is against the establishment and youth really should be coming together to say, “no, we do not want what is happening to continue”-and just the fact that you are present and that you can work in very important ways, particularly in the countries of our neighbors Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal. We need to develop what is a South Asian identity and to say that that is important. That is what we need to build together rather than be burdened by what is happening at the political level of the country. And so you have to make conscious efforts to build these associations, form study groups, have cultural festivals or whatever.

QUESTION

I actually wanted to ask you to talk about the issue of women and the violence that they go through due to communalism. I feel that in the Gujurat riots and others women are often innocent victims of communalism, and my question is what are the concerns that you have about the violence that is affecting women, and what efforts have been taken to mitigate that violence?

SHABANA AZMI

In the Gujurat case of communal violence, more cases of women being raped were reported and talked about. Rape was used as an instrument to establish the humiliation of the community, and this was a very terrifying thing. It is a very difficult thing in India because a rape victim does not often openly come out and speak about that. It requires a lot of courage. And because in the Gujurat case there were so many NGOs and groups like that which went in to research the situation, more of this information came out. There was a total failure of any sort of confidence-building efforts by the police or any part of the state administration. It was because of these NGOs and other groups that women felt secure enough to come out and speak about it. Even in Parliament, some of the political parties were saying that there was a gross exaggeration of the facts or that none of it actually happened. I saw a police officer on television being interviewed. He was asked why they had not been registering individual cases of rape against the women. And he replied very callously that when a whole building is burning you do not register every single shop individually that is being burnt. He said this so callously and it was really frightening. Rape is being used as an instrument of communal violence, particularly in regard to the women’s honor as a representation of her community’s honor. In India women’s groups and NGOs have been working very hard to see that work on this issue gets done. I think many groups have been reporting on these issues, but they are still greatly understated. This type of violence is being used increasingly against women and that is very terrifying.

QUESTION

I found your talk really interesting and refreshing in the sense that you exhort the liberal moderate voice to come forward and form coalitions. You also talk about resolving one’s religious space. I wanted you to say a little bit more about how you would reconcile these two because it is really a slippery slope when you start preserving your own religious space in order to go down the path of extremism.

SHABANA AZMI

That has been the traditional mistake. The moderate liberal has felt that he should not go anywhere near religion, and that is why I said that religion is too potent a weapon to be left to the zealots alone. And also what happened is that the moderate liberal was kept out of the dialogue, because particularly with Muslims, the liberal was told that he was not a practicing Muslim and so therefore did not count. That is not true! Why does only a practicing religious identity make somebody a Muslim? There are other definitions of how you become a Muslim. But this kind of self-consciousness is problematic-because of how you said that you should keep these two apart, and there is still a very strong argument for that-I think one should do it more as a recognition that in a deeply religious society like India, to give up that space would really be a mistake I think. So that is the balance that you need to maintain. I think that to practice religion in you’re your private sphere, but in the public sphere to say that the state should have nothing to do with it, is possible.

QUESTION

I am Canadian, but I live in New York. I recently spent some time in India…in a relatively mellow and seemingly benign town…but I kept coming up against anti-Muslim comments amongst Hindus that I was meeting, because mostly I was spending time with Hindus. I was thinking about what you said about too much opinion and not enough information, and I’m concerned about issues of bias, and I am wondering if you recommend any sources of information.

SHABANA AZMI

Bias and prejudice are built into the atmosphere around us, and attempts are now being made by groups that are working at the school level to make certain that these prejudices do not become the form of an organized community. It is very interesting that biases exist for communities. I have seen that people say things like, “My neighbor is a Muslim but she is really nice. The rest of them are bad.”

QUESTION

Thank you very much for giving this last question to me. I am from Karachi, Pakistan. You talked about building a stronger South Asia. Given that I am asking you this question. Myself as a Pakistani, and you being an Indian, what message would you like to send to us so that we can work to improve the situation that are two countries are faced with? Because just saying that there is a cross-border terrorism taking place-granted that it is hard to accept but I do accept it-but what can we do to work to better that situation?

SHABANA AZMI

I think that you have an advantage because you are out of the country and you are here, so you have a perspective that you can discuss with the people back home. Plus within this country, the opportunity given to you, particularly as students, to recognize that excesses are created on both sides. See when Partition happened Muslims went away to Pakistan because there was this atmosphere of fear created that they would not be safe in India. And there was also sort of the idea of building a country on the basis of a religious identity. Then when the Babri Masjid demolishment happened Pakistan was ecstatic, because Pakistan could say, “see we told you that you would not be safe there.” And yet we have to see that when Bangladesh happened, the Indians were ecstatic because they said that religion cannot be the basis of identity, and if that had happened Bangladesh would never have happened. So of course there are all these factors constantly occurring, but we have to make certain that this discussion does not effect what we do personally. The way we can do that is by recognizing that our strength is in coming together in the people to people dialogue. In saying that we want to come together, it does not mean that we usurp our rights to criticize what is wrong whether it is happening in this country or that country. You still have to forge friendships and consciously make bridges rather than taking on the prejudices of what is happening in the countries back home. And I think that the youth have an extremely important role to play in that. And the first thing that I can suggest is just to start participating in cultural dialogues that are taking place because that is the basis of everything. I have said for a long time that we really need to start making films, co-productions with India and Pakistan…that would really help us.

VISHAKA DESAI

On that note, that perfect note, I want to say what a fabulous evening it has been. (applause) Thank you so much. And please join us now for a reception in the back of the room and also please join us next week for the third part in the Citigroup Series on Asian Women Leaders.