Hanooz Dilli dur ast (Delhi is long way off)

Do what you will, this world’s a fiction and is made up of contradiction. William Blake, English Poet.

Great cities are invariably those that stand on ruins of history — like Delhi. A city without history may have opulence and glistening high-rises but will lack a soul. Some years ago, I had interviewed then Canadian trade minister Jim Scott Peterson, who told me what his prime minister had told ours during their meet at Delhi. Peterson quoted the Canadian PM as saying to Manmohan Singh: “What a majestic city the British have left.” To this, Singh reportedly said: “We cherish these grand British monuments but we would have preferred more years of freedom.”

Yet, there can be no dispute about the hand of history in making Delhi what it is –a place where you can breathe.

So, despite its rustic ruffians and terrible touts, Delhi is my emotional adopted home, having always liked it. Pardon my patronizing caricature of native Delhi’ites but manner-less and rude people are frequently encountered here. Its schools have air-conditioned rooms, but give little by way of core values. Yet, there is an X-factor about Delhi’s air that tugs at my heart-strings.

Its roads are the widest in the country, monuments oldest, and amid chaos, the city still has some islands of tranquility, some quiet, pleasant places of peaceful meditations. Its monuments draw thousands from around the world. What a majestic city, Delhi, where walked many greats, from Ghalib to Gandhi.

In the north, you have an explosion of controlled confusion in Chandni Chowk. In the south, you have upscale shopping arcades for the well-heeled Delhi citizens. It’s all there.

John Hickenlooper, the iconic restaurateur who became Mayor of Denver, had said thus about his goals as mayor of a great US city: “Today we’re dealing with metropolitan Shanghai, metropolitan New Delhi or Paris. If we’re competing at that level, our diversity, that richness of people coming from so many different backgrounds, is one of our greatest advantages.”

To Tina Turner, Delhi “came as a shock. There were so many people, and oh, the traffic”. To Pope Paul VI, who visited Delhi in 1964, he “met a hundred men going to Delhi and everyone is my brother”. Amartya Sen left Delhi in 1971, and his stint in the capital produced one of his best works, Collective Choice and Social Welfare.

To me, Delhi is a changing city, whose past may be glorious, but as a microcosm of an onward marching India, it will be defined by its future.

But from long being a melting pot, Delhi appears to me to be slowly steeling itself. And to my vast discomfiture, I have discovered, after placing my idol “Delhi” on a pedestal, that it has its own feet of clay. Infact, it is developing cold feet, if you will.

Despite its rich, mixed Muslim-Hindu legacy, it can be a surprisingly difficult city for non-native Muslims. One can seldom speak one’s mind without paying a price for it. But I don’t mind paying the price for speaking up. I have never been attracted by Muslim-only neighbourhoods, not because they are less salubrious and exhibit the so-called “cattle class” traits but because I want my growing daughter to experience a diverse, cosmopolitan and multi-cultural life.

So I chose predominantly Hindu districts. I generally do not like to crib about personal experiences, the “Imraan-Hashmi experiences”. But the truth is, finding houses was a challenge. And most residencies would be short-lived, the seven to eight addresses. And as many house moves later, I finally hit upon a place I could call home.

Over the years, we pitched tents in different quarters and moved several apartments, once because the maid stopped coming. The reason: neighbours had collectively told her she could either work in a Muslim household or theirs. Obviously, she preferred dumping one source of livelihood to dumping all six. To retain her services would have required us to pay her entire salary from six households. Cruel, I should say.

Yet, I have liked this city for, as stated earlier, its X-factor. The bond cannot be quite explained in certain terms.

Another reason behind Delhi’s goodness is the pre-dominantly money-minded orientation of a majority of its citizens. “Business class” takes on a whole new meaning here. Delhi’ites not just earn money, they also create wealth. And when money is your best friend, religious and cultural differences are naturally cast aside. It ought to have been like that but it is not so, as I was to discover.

A few days ago, an unseemly incident confirmed my déjà vu of a city hardening itself. In Rohini — a west Delhi suburb that is rapidly being filled in, with its nice leafy roads and sprawling malls, matters almost came to a head. Every year, a few dozen Muslims offer their Eid namaz at a park in Sector 9. There’s no mosque you see. The other day, some unidentified men stormed one Mohd. Fahim’s house. Fahim is the president of the local organizing committee for Eid namaz. Fahim was assaulted and asked to refrain from using the park for Eid prayer.

A park certainly is not a place for a mass prayer, even though only twice a year, each time lasting half an hour. Well, if one gets down to hairsplitting technicalities, offering prayer in a park meant for recreation purposes certainly does/may constitute a violation of its permissible usage.

My own view is that rather than insist on offering namaz at a public park, it would be proper for the devotees to head out to various mosques in the city, even though that may not be the most practical thing to do. People generally prefer a neighbourhood congregation. That’s how it is.

However, I fail to understand one thing about Delhi’s urban planners. Suburbs like Dwarka and Rohini were planned, well thought out and are artificially created localities. When the Delhi Development Authority could earmark well-defined residential areas, institutional plots, hospital land and even demarcated areas for temples in each of the 24 or so sectors, why did they fail to allocate land for mosques and churches? Probably because it never occurred to them. We are sorry to realize we never existed in their minds. We are sorry they forgot that India is a land of Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, Jews, Sikhs, animists (you will find them in Arunachal Pradesh), believers and non-believers.

But who were these people who roughed up Mr Fahim? What business did they have to criminally assault and issue threats, which could have very much snowballed into a riot? Following this, a delegation of the CPI(ML) had staged a peace march and met Mr. Atul Katiyar, the deputy commissioner of police (Outer Delhi) to apprise him of the situation and appeal to him to make suitable arrangements to ensure that the namaz prayers can proceed peacefully.

I do not think the objections to the prayers were from ordinary citizens per se. Such acts are done by ‘professionals’ — people who practise more politics than piety. Paul R. Brass, Professor Emeritus of Political Science and South Asian Studies, University of Washington Seattle (http://paulbrass.com/) had in great detail unraveled the DNA of such professional trouble-makers in his book <The Production of Hindu-Muslim Violence in Contemporary India>.

Brass has 15 books and numerous articles on South Asian politics, ethnic politics, and collective violence. His works are based on extensive field research in India during many visits since 1961. His most notable works are The Production of Hindu-Muslim Violence in Contemporary India (2003), Theft of an Idol: Text and Context in the Representation of Collective Violence (1997); Riots and Pogroms (1996); and The Politics of India Since Independence, 2nd edition (1994).

According to Brass, the “best explanation” for recurring riots in places where they are endemic — such as Aligarh — in India and elsewhere in the world (including the 20th-century US and 19th-century Russia) is the presence of what he calls “Institutionalized Riot Systems”.

Brass states that these “Institutionalized Riot Systems” are composed of “networks of specialists who play varied and multifarious roles in the instigation and perpetuation of communal animosities, in the enactment of riots, and in the interpretation of riots after they occur”.

I suspect such an Institutionalized Riot System or a network that has the capacity to become one was behind the threat against offering Eid prayers at the Rohini park.

Brass says Muslim networks too contribute to Institutionalized Riot Systems in India, though they are less well organised and potent, compared to Rightist Hindutva networks.

So, according to Brass, where ever such well-composed riot systems take roots, the places become a tinder-box and violence-prone.

On the other hand, another India scholar Ashutosh Varshney, inverses the same logic and argues that cities that have generally been communally peaceful have “Institutionalized Peace Systems”.

Varshney is Professor of Political Science, Brown University, and previously taught at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and also at Harvard University as assistant and associate professor of government. His work Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life; Hindus and Muslims in India (Yale University Press, 2002) won the American Political Science Association’s Gregory Luebbert Award for the best book in comparative politics.

Varshney’s theme investigation involved finding out why some cities in India witness savage Hindu-Muslim riots while others manage to go clash-free, even during trying times like the post-Babri Masjid demolition.

Varshney concluded that where there are “Institutionalized Peace Systems”, there are fewer chances of faith clashes. He found that in areas where there were built-in civic Hindu-Muslim networks, like “integrated business organizations”, “trade unions”, “political parties” and “professional groups”, cutting across communal lines, violence was less likely.

He also concluded that such “integrated associations” served as Institutionalized Peace Systems by reigning in powerful politicians who are out to “polarize Hindus and Muslims along religious lines”.

So, how do we check such communal passions? By thoroughly institutionalizing such peace systems. Even though it may seem far-fetched, I advocate the setting up of a ministry for communal harmony. It’s workable. If there can be a minister for less expedient issues like corporate affairs, there can very well be one for communal harmony, considering the violent clashes we sometimes have.

What would such a ministry do? Well it could keep a check on Institutionalized Riot Systems by unearthing them, identifying them and nipping them in the bud. Think about it.

Till such a thing happens, what we could do is to enhance our peace networks by more free associations and having joint Hindu-Muslim councils at the local level. Let’s keep Delhi going like it has been. A butt-kicking great city. And until we can secure our childrens’ future, as the famous Farsi saying of another famous Delhi’ite Hazrat Nizamuddin goes, Hanooz Dilli dur ast (Delhi is still far away).

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