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.