By Jawed Naqvi
Today, it has less to do with organised religion and is more about the music and revelry that goes back to the 19th century court of Wajid Ali Shah, the last Muslim king of Oudh. There are a dozen religious legends to explain the festival but a more convincing one is that it celebrates the changing of a season.
Perhaps the most popular Holi song is the one filmed on a Muslim actress in the 1950’s movie Mother India. A Muslim director made the film and it missed the Oscar by a whisker. The song’s lyricist, music composer and singer were Muslims though until very recently it was not required to underline that fact. Indians were more unselfconsciously secular then. ‘Holi aayee re Kanhaai, rung chhalke, suna de zara baansuri’. It’s Holi again, O Krishna, time to mesmerise me with your flute, the heroine wooed her lover. The sensuous tune composed in the late afternoon Raag Mishr Piloo still reverberates on the radio as a classic.
A more traditional musical tribute to Krishna and his consort Radha is sung in an even more exotic raag called Kaafi. My hunch is that clerics of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Hind or any other will be clueless about this genre of discourse on Indian culture. That Delhi’s city elite applauded a leading Jamiat cleric when he had an angry exchange with Gen Pervez Musharraf at a conclave last week reveals a bit of sociology as well as a slice of history.
The cleric may not know that Muslim women from Morocco to Indonesia still love to dance and sing like women of other communities. This was the uniform practice until a puritan version of Islam (which the Jamiat propagates) struck roots in different parts of the world.
In the 1960s, when Umme Kulthoom sang on Egypt’s radio, President Nasser’s broadcast would be suspended because listeners were glued to her, so the legend goes. Belly dancing is an art form from the same region. Locations where puritan Islam spread subsequently are facing a different situation. A popular female dancer was murdered brutally by the Taliban in Pakistan’s picturesque valley of Swat. The bigots thought her art violated their religious code.
The tense exchanges between Gen Musharraf and Maulana Mahmood Madani were rooted in pre-Partition history. Jinnah had opposed Gandhi’s campaign with the Jamiat for the restoration of the Khilafat in Turkey. Many Indians would not know this bit of communalism. They believe that khilafat was Urdu for opposition. ‘Humne angrez ki khilafat ki’ i.e ‘We opposed the British’, many an MP is still heard telling parliament inanely. Very few are aware of ‘mukhaalifat’ as the word they are looking for.
Last year, the Jamiat and 6,000 muftis issued a declaration against terrorism. It is not clear if it has given up its core beliefs for the new precept. In 1939, it adopted a resolution to rebuff Gandhi’s non-violence saying: ‘We have accepted non-violence only as a policy. This cannot be accepted as a creed. This is against the teaching of the Quran which encourages the Muslims to jihad.’
The Jamiat also said secular education was dangerous because ‘the children will be indoctrinated in such a way that not only would they be friendly to other religious groups, but they would also consider every religion of the world a true religion. This belief is un-Islamic’. In the 1980s, the Jamiat opposed the Supreme Court verdict to allow alimony for a divorced Muslim woman on the grounds that a secular court could not comment on laws pertaining to Muslims.
However, these factors from the Jamiat’s past could not be the reason for the Indian elite’s resounding applause for Maulana Madani. They were in all probability cheering the fact that an Indian Muslim cleric had stood up to Gen Musharraf, that too when the Pakistani visitor was beginning to count the factors that he thought were responsible for the growing scourge of terrorism in his country and in India.
Why was the Indian political class bristling with rage at Musharraf? One wishes it had to do with the general’s misleading claim that Muslim extremists had fared poorly in last year’s elections in Pakistan. What he did not say was that he had personally enabled the fundamentalists to gain strength in the first part of his tenure. So Musharraf could be criticised here on a valid point, but the applause seemed unrelated to it.
We can count three possible elements that have contributed greatly to the marginalisation of Indian Muslims, something that Musharraf hinted at but was unable to clearly spell out. One set of reasons are contained in the Sachar Committee report requisitioned by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
It vividly described the hapless state of India’s 150 million Muslims and recommended urgent measures in education and employment to stem the rot. Another element in the Muslim issue is the Shrikrishna Commission’s report on the 1993 violence in Mumbai. It found the state and police complicit in brutal violence against the city’s Muslims, mostly slum dwellers. No one has been indicted. Nor has anyone been held responsible for the demolition of the Babri mosque in 1992 in spite of numerous commissions and court cases that are going on. Gen Musharraf did not list these issues but he was, probably broadly hinting at some of them as factors that required focus to weed out the threat of terrorism in India.
It would not be difficult to accept the applause for Maulana Madani had he made some progress on any of the issues. One could accept the credibility of the applause if any single member of that audience had the credentials to have worked on just one of the factors. Yes it could be considered fair to tell Gen Musharraf to mind his own business and to not lecture India on how to treat its minorities. After all, the deplorable state of the minorities in his patch is all too well recorded by Pakistan’s vigilant and independent human rights commission. Musharraf’s polite suggestion to everyone to abstain from hypocrisy applied equally to him.
Yet, to applaud Maulana Madani, seemed akin to celebrating the ghettoisation of several million Indians that his group and other clerics represent. Mercifully, occasions like Holi keep India’s secularism from faltering. Neither the state nor its ally, the clergy, has been able to dampen the spirit or quell the song.n
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.