One man’s meat is another’s poison…



Travelling through Britain earlier this year, I had occasion to visit Bradford which is today almost entirely a Pakistani-Kashmiri settlement, with just a handful of Jews and Christians who still make their homes among the vast majority of Muslims.

Lunching at a restaurant named ‘Agra’, owned by a Sikh with Bangladeshi chefs serving up the most delicious savouries (the spiciest that I had had through that tour, though still not spicy enough!), I thought I had spent the nicest of afternoons discussing sub-continental politics with an array of Punjabis, Kashmiris and even Sindhis from across the border. They had made a good life for themselves in the UK, did not exactly care for India but did not love Pakistan much either. So we could hold reasonable debates with groups of people from the town – young, middle-aged and old, boys, girls, men and women – who could engage the visiting Indian journalists in intelligent conversation.

But as our bus pulled away from the town and I cast a last glance back at the majestic mosque that had recently come up in Bradford, I thought the British government was bending over backwards to accommodate their minorities. Of course, I was familiar with Southall and Wembley (which is full of Indian Sikhs and Gujaratis) from earlier visits. But while I felt comfortable at the sounds of loud Bollywood music blaring from various shops and restaurants in Southall and was delighted to discover all manners of typically Indian cooking instruments in a shop in Wembley, my interaction with the people there was nothing compared to those living in Bradford.

The latter were clearly aware of their rights and asking for more. The recently issued `stop and search’ orders by the British government had bothered them a lot but they were coming to terms with it and there was a lot of stress on being allowed to wear their traditional attire to work.

Of course, I believe Britain has done a better job of accommodating their Muslim citizens than France has with its own – Paris has been rather ham-handed about scarves and burquas (women in Bradford, I saw, donned both as well as jeans and skirts), but still I felt that, as liberal as I pride myself on being, I could not have sat by quietly and watched any Indian town being deliberately settled by one community or the other, either by enforced demographics or just plain gerrymandering.

I said as much to Peter Beckingham, the British Deputy High Commissioner in Bombay, who turned thoughtful at that and did not really offer me any real insights into the matter. But when I repeated my observations to my sister sometime back, she said, “That’s because the British government gets scared of any one who shouts them down. And with their Muslim parliament and all, British Muslims certainly have the government where they want it. I do not think Sikhs and Hindus are so privileged in the UK for they do not make themselves heard at all.’’

Not quite true, I told my sister, even if they are not shouting down either the Brits or the other minorities. For, more than a decade ago, I recall being in London when a delegation of villagers from Watford, where the Hare Krishna temple in the UK was situated in a manor house donated by the Beatles, had visited then Prime Minister John Major with a petition complaining that their Sunday morning sleep was disturbed every weekend with the clashing of cymbals and loud bhajans sung by devotees who made a beeline for the temple each Sunday. “They drown out even our hymns and sermons at church on Sundays,’’ they whined.

As I recall, Prime Minister Major turned them away, saying every one had a right to their own form of worship and if the non-Hindu residents of Watford did not like the bhajans, they could move out and resettle elsewhere. Cars of devotees of Lord Krishna continue to make for Watford every Sunday morning and the bhajans and cymbals continue to resound in the British countryside even today.

So I was very startled when early this week, Islamic preacher and televangelist Dr Zakir Naik was denied a visa by British authorities to visit the UK and I noted the change in the British attitude with interest. I do not know if I support that decision but I certainly was not surprised by it. I had occasion to meet Dr Naik in his early days as a preacher and I agreed with writer and columnist Sadanand Dhume (The Trouble with Dr. Zakir Naik) entirely in his assessment of what Dr Naik has since become.

Even then, in a rather civilised debate with me, Naik had given me a glimpse into the makings of an Islamic supremacist, telling me how scientific a religion his was and how Islam cared for the rights of women more than any other religion did. I recall arguing with him that while we may have gone by the Manu-Smriti for centuries, Independence had corrected the wrongs done to Hindu women over the millenniums and that now we were the complete equals of men in India — while the Indian Muslim woman was the most deprived of all Muslim women anywhere in the world because of the backwardness of the community and their insistence on standing by archaic laws which even the Pakistan Law Commission had corrected in favour of women in the 1960s.

And to his statement of the science within Islam, I pointed out that India – and by extension Hinduism – had given to the world Aryabhatta and the zero long before even the Europeans had got off the trees, Christianised and/or cleaned up their civilisation.

I never responded to any of his invitations to his lectures thereafter because I sensed he had the makings (and was at the beginnings) of radicalism but his education as a doctor armed him with enough intelligence to insult without giving offence or, indeed, in most cases letting the other know how he/she was being reviled for not belonging to Naik’s own religion.

So I was even more thrilled when on Thursday, a retweet on my Twitter home page turned up this message from noted lyricist Javed Akhtar (@Javedakhtarjadu): `Ask Zakir Naik in his “ideal society” will they allow an atheist to speak, if not how can he ask for this right from others.’ As unfussy and matter-of-fact as that.

I do not yet know the context for that comment but I am glad that there are rational voices among his own community that are taking Dr Naik on for his absolutely unacceptable views on various issues, including terrorism and for glorifying and lauding Osama Bin laden. I was also comforted by the fact that various groups of Muslims in Bombay had descended on the British Deputy High Commission offices – no, not to protest but – to congratulate the British authorities on denying him a visa and asking them to stand by their decision.

I agree with Dhume when he says rabid communalists on the Hindu side are shot down by liberal Hindus before they begin to spread their poison through society. I believe it is time that the moderate voices among Muslims now rise up, like in the case of Dr Naik, to similarly demolish the charlatans and pretenders among them. Or else the story of Nazi Germany where moderate voices remained silent as Hitler’s Brown Shirts ran riot will be repeated all over again, not just in India but across the world which Osama Bin laden desires to take over and crush underfoot!

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