Doosra Pehlu

An open letter to Sharmila Tagore

Dear Mrs Ayesha Sultana,

Having read a recent article of yours, which you have signed as “Sharmila Tagore”, may we humbly ask you some questions? We hope we can address you by the name you assumed in adult life though that’s not the one you signed the article in question with. Your article is in Bengali and was uploaded on the eve of Durga Puja which is the greatest festival of Bengali Hindus. On such an auspicious occasion, how sensitive was it to name your article “This is Not a Very Happy Time”(E boro anonder somoy noy)? We are aware that your article is about “intolerance” just as you are aware that most readers of your chosen media, viz. Kolkata-based Anandabaazar Patrika, are Bengali Hindus. While trying to guilt-trip Bengali Hindus about “intolerance”, when they were about to start their annual festivities, didn’t you feel any sense of guilt yourself?

When you declare that “Dadri incident has crossed all limits” (Dadrir ghotona somosto seemarekha otikrom kore giyechhe), do you mean that it crossed all limits of media coverage or monetary compensation? If you mean any of these, we agree with you. After all, it was because of the relentless media coverage that the victim’s family has been given an unprecedented compensation of Rs 45 lakhs and promised four flats of two bedrooms each in the posh township of Noida. However, if you mean that the Dadri incident has crossed all limits of “intolerance”, may we ask if Kupgaon’s incident was somehow within those limits that you talk of? In Kupgaon, which happens to be in the same Uttar Pradesh as Dadri is, 15-year old Sanju Rathore was shot dead on the evening of July 29, 2015 by armed men belonging to a “minority community” who fired at a “religious site of the other community” just hours after a scuffle “between the members of the two communities” over one’s cattle grazing in another’s field. Two others, Jitendra Singh and Raju Singh, had “sustained severe injuries” in the scuffle – but not only them, even the family of the deceased has not been given any compensation in the three months since the incident.

About the Dadri case, you shudder that “this incident is totally bone-chilling.” (Ei ghotona ekbarei har him kora.) If so, was the Kupgaon case so mind-numbing that you have wiped it off your memory altogether? Or did you not know about the Kupgaon case at all because the media did not raise any hue and cry about the killing of the Hindu boy by Muslim men? Or the murder of Prashant Poojary, the man butchered because he opposed a slaughter house, and the suspicious death of Vaman Poojary, eyewitnesses concerned in the Prashant Poojary murder case? Of course, even when the victim of a gruesome crime was a Muslim, such a hue and cry was not raised by the media – when the perpetrators were not Hindus. Lynching of a prisoner in Dimapur hardly interested our secular media. Was it because the incident was not a cudgel to hammer the Hindus?

Stepping back in time, let us remind you of a documented case of ethnic cleansing on a mass scale not too far off from Dadri either, which could not persuade you to use your eloquent pen:

Srinagar, January 4, 1990. Aftab, a local Urdu newspaper, publishes a press release issued by Hizb-ul Mujahideen, set up by the Jamaat-e-Islami in 1989 to wage jihad for Jammu and Kashmir’s secession from India and accession to Pakistan, asking all Hindus to pack up and leave. Another local paper, Al Safa, repeats this expulsion order.

In the following days, there is near chaos in the Kashmir valley with chief minister Farooq Abdullah and his National Conference government abdicating all responsibilities of the state. Masked men run amok, waving Kalashnikovs, shooting to kill and shouting anti-India slogans.

Reports of killing of Hindus, invariably Kashmiri Pandits, begin to trickle in; there are explosions; inflammatory speeches are made from the pulpits of mosques, using public address systems meant for calling the faithful to prayers. A terrifying fear psychosis begins to take grip of Kashmiri Pandits.

Walls are plastered with posters and handbills, summarily ordering all Kashmiris to strictly follow the Islamic dress code, prohibiting the sale and consumption of alcoholic drinks and imposing a ban on video parlours and cinemas. The masked men with Kalashnikovs force people to re-set their watches and clocks to Pakistan Standard Time.

Shops, business establishments and homes of Kashmiri Pandits, the original inhabitants of the Kashmir valley with a recorded cultural and civilisational history dating back 5,000 years, are marked out. Notices are pasted on doors of Pandit houses, peremptorily asking the occupants to leave Kashmir within 24 hours or face death and worse. Some are more lucid: “Be one with us, run, or die!”

Srinagar, January 19, 1990. …. Curfew is imposed as a first measure to restore some semblance of law and order. But it fails to have a deterrent effect.

Throughout the day, Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front and Hizbul Mujahideen terrorists use public address systems at mosques to exhort people to defy curfew and take to the streets. Masked men, firing from their Kalashnikovs, march up and down, terrorising cowering Pandits who, by then, have locked themselves in their homes.

As evening falls, the exhortations become louder and shriller. Three taped slogans are repeatedly played the whole night from mosques: “Kashmir mei agar rehna hai, Allah-O-Akbar kehna hai” (If you want to stay in Kashmir, you have to say Allah-O-Akbar); “Yahan kya chalega, Nizam-e-Mustafa” (What do we want here? Rule of Shariah); “Asi gachchi Pakistan, Batao roas te Batanev san” (We want Pakistan along with Hindu women but without their men).

In the preceding months, 300 Hindu men and women, nearly all of them Kashmiri Pandits, had been slaughtered ever since the brutal murder of Pandit Tika Lal Taploo, noted lawyer and BJP national executive member, by the JKLF in Srinagar on September 14, 1989. Soon after that, Justice N K Ganju of the Srinagar high court was shot dead. Pandit Sarwanand Premi, 80-year-old poet, and his son were kidnapped, tortured, their eyes gouged out, and hanged to death. A Kashmiri Pandit nurse working at the Soura Medical College Hospital in Srinagar was gang-raped and then beaten to death. Another woman was abducted, raped and sliced into bits and pieces at a sawmill.

In villages and towns across the Kashmir valley, terrorist hit lists have been floating about. All the names are of Kashmiri Pandits. With no government worth its name, the administration having collapsed and disappeared, the police nowhere to be seen, despondency sets in. As the night of January 19, 1990, wears itself out, despondency gives way to desperation.

And tens of thousands of Kashmiri Pandits across the valley take a painful decision: to flee their homeland to save their lives from rabid jihadis. Thus, takes place a 20th century exodus. … You remained silent then, when thousands of micro-minorities of a Muslim majority state had to flee to save their life and dignity. They remain as refugees in their own country till date. You remained silent all this while, but emerged to vociferously protest when one individual, Sudheendra Kulkarni’s face was smeared with black ink: “The same can be said about the incident of smearing ink on Sudheendra Kulkarni’s face.” (Sudheendra Kulkarnir mukhe kali lepe deoyar ghotonatir khetreo ei eki kotha bola chole.) If ink is what you have a particular aversion to, say much more than the rape and murder of thousands of Hindus, why have you ignored what happened to Baba Ramdev earlier? During the Baba’s press conference on black money in 2012 at New Delhi, his face was smeared with ink by one Kamran Siddiqui for ignoring the latter’s question on the Batla House encounter. Did Ramdev’s avoidance of the question, that too an irrelevant one, justify the smearing of his face with ink? Was his refusal to answer the question a more provocative act than Kulkarni’s launching of a book written by a former minister of a troublesome country which was created after partitioning ours and even now continues its policy of bleeding India through a thousand cuts? On the question of Pakistan, may we also know why you have never written against the forcible conversions of Hindu girls in that Islamic country? As someone with close connections with UK, you are probably familiar with the fact that similar protests are par for the course there. We share a video showing how leading UK politician Ed Milliband laughed off a protest where he was pelted with eggs during a public speech:

We wonder how a similar innocuous protest perturbs you to the extent you described.

You allege, “In the same planned manner, the voice of rationalist writers like Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare have been silenced.” (Eki bhabe chhok koshe kontho stobdho kore deoa hoyechhe Narendra Dabholkar, Gobind Pansarer moto juktibadi lekhokder.) Wouldn’t it be more accurate to describe Dabholkar and Pansare as anti-Hindu activists than as “rationalist writers” since almost all their work was specifically against Hindu beliefs and practices? However, if you insist that they were “rationalist” and not merely anti-Hindu, would you enlighten us about any substantial work of theirs against non-Hindu faiths like Christianity and Islam which are majority religions not only on the global scale but also in many Indian states and districts? Or do you believe that Christianity and Islam, both of which are financially much stronger than Hinduism, are so rational in themselves that “rationalist writers” do not need to criticise them at all? Are you sure that your listing of “rationalist writers” is rational in itself? Given your concern at the silencing of “rationalist writers”, how is it that you have been silent about the silencing of Taslima Nasreen in the Indian state with which you have familial links? Is she not a rationalist or is she not a writer or is she not in hiding? Why are you also mum about Sanal Edamaruku who had to exile himself not after he offended Hindus but after he offended Christians in 2012? As a convert, what would you say about Edamaruku’s Hindu mother who had to run away from her Christian in-laws in order to avoid being converted? Moreover, as not even a single person has been arrested till date for Dabholkar’s murder, how can you claim that the crime was a “planned” one or insinuate that he was killed for being a “rationalist”? Couldn’t personal enmity or even mistaken identity be possible reasons for that crime?

You insist, “If some cranks of a political party take the role of vanguard, it is inevitable that such things would happen.” (Kono rajnoitik doler utko kichhu byakti jodi vanguarder bhumika niye nay, tobe ja hoar tai ghotchhe.) How can you target any one party when the Dabholkar murder happened in an INC-governed state, the Pansare murder happened in a BJP-governed one and the Dadri murder happened in an SP-governed one? Aren’t murders a matter of public order and isn’t public order in the State List of the Constitution of India? Moreover, what makes you think that supporters of a political party cannot “take the role of vanguard”? Our country, being a democracy, doesn’t every democracy need political parties and don’t political parties need supporters? Isn’t it feudalistic to think lowly of political workers as if the supposedly apolitical lot are paragons of virtue? Isn’t it elitist to suggest that “the role of vanguard” be reserved for so-called apolitical people?

You claim, “It is sadder that leaders are not condemning these incidents but trying to hide them.” (Aaro dukhhojonok bishoy holo netara ghotonar ninda na kore borong take aral korar cheshta korchhen.) However, are you sure that “leaders are not condemning these incidents”? Didn’t the then CM of Maharashtra equate Dabholkar’s murder with Gandhi’s assassination? Hasn’t the present CM of Maharashtra ensured the arrest of a suspect in Pansare’s murder? Hasn’t the CM of Uttar Pradesh awarded the Dadri victim’s family a compensation of Rs 45 lakhs and promised four flats of two bedrooms each in upmarket Noida? More than any leader trying to hide these incidents, aren’t you the one who is hiding the incident of Kupgaon along with the silencing of Nasreen and Edamaruku?

When you claim that leaders “have become busy in giving reasons for these incidents. Sometimes it is being said that all these are accidents!” (Ei ghotonagulir karon dorshanor jonyo uthepore legechhen. Kokhono ei juktio deoa hochhe, e sob naki durghotona), we wonder why we did not hear you when gang rapes were shrugged off by multiple CMs of West Bengal – the state where your chosen media platform, AnandaBaazar Patrika is based. After all, Jyoti Basu had dismissed the gangrape of three women and lynching of two at Bantala on the evening of May 30, 1990 as an “unimportant” incident (Emon toh kotoi hoy). After college student Shipra Ghosh was raped and torn legs apart allegedly by one Rafiqul Islam and his gang on the afternoon of June 7, 2013, Mamata Banerjee ridiculed those who demanded action against the perpetrators as the proverbial “thief’s mom who shouts the loudest” (Chorer mayer boro gola).

About the Dadri lynching, you complain, “The victim of the crime is being put in the docks and the criminal is resting fine.” (Jini oporadher shikar, takei jeno kathgorai danr korano hochhe, aar oporadhi royechhe bohal tobiyote.) The truth, however, is that all the accused have been arrested, quite apart from the fact that the victim’s family has been given unrivalled compensation. Your statement appears therefore to be a classic instance of suppressio veri, suggestio falsi (first suppress the truth, then suggest the false).

You highlight, “Haryana’s chief minister has said, Muslims can stay in this country but they must not eat beef!” (Haryanar mukhyomontri bole bosechhen, Musalmanra deshe thakte chan thakun, kintu tnader gomangsho khaoa cholbe na!) Here, not only have you suppressed the apology which the CM tendered later on, you have also suppressed his original explanation for it. He had said, “They can be Muslim even after they stop eating beef, can’t they? It is written nowhere that Muslims have to eat beef, not is it written anywhere in Christianity that they have to eat beef.” What he was trying to explain is the fact that beef is not an essential part of any faith, though he later apologized for the entire statement. However, wasn’t the crux of his statement in consonance with the spirit of the Constitution, whose Directive Principles include “prohibiting the slaughter of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle”? It appears that you have close connections with Indian National Congress (your late husband had contested Lok Sabha elections on a Congress ticket, Congress was apparently considering you for the same honour in 2014; you had also been appointed as the head of the censor board during the regime of UPA government (2004-2011).

Thus, since Congress swears by the sayings of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, it would be pertinent to quote him from his autobiography here: “But it would be another matter and quite graceful, and reflect great credit on them, if the Musalmans of their own free will stopped cow slaughter out of regard for the religious sentiments of the Hindus, and from a sense of duty towards them as neighbours and children of the same soil. To take up such an independent attitude was, I contended, their duty, and would enhance the dignity of their conduct.” (Chapter 160, The Khilafat Against The Cow-Protection, My Experiments with Truth). Mohandas Gandhi had also quoted Maulana Abdul Bari as follows: “As a Maulvi, I say that, in refraining from cow-slaughter of our own free will, we in no way go against our faith.” Punjab Letter, [Around December 1, 1919], Maulana Abdul Bari, Navajivan, 7-12-1919. Mohandas Gandhi had also written in his autobiography: “But in spite of my warning Maulana Abdul Bari Saheb said: ‘No matter whether the Hindus help us or not, the Musalmans ought, as the countrymen of the Hindus, out of regard for the latter’s susceptibilities, to give up cow slaughter.’ And at one time it almost looked as if they would really put an end to it.” (The Khilafat Against The Cow-Protection, My Experiments with Truth). Do you think the Haryana CM differed in essence from the icon, whom the Congress party swears by or the Maulavi he quoted?

You argue, “There are a thousand important issues in the country like poverty, unemployment, development – nobody is saying anything about them.” (Deshe daridro, bekiritwo, unnoyoner moto hajaro gurutwopurno bishoy royechhe, ta niye keu ra karchhen na.) While you appear to be very concerned about “poverty”, will you tell us who is responsible for keeping that scourge alive even 68 years after India’s independence? When you claim that “nobody is saying anything” about issues of unemployment and development, are you sure that you have heard even a single speech of the prime minister? If you have never heard of his schemes like Jan Dhan, Make in India, Digital India, Swachh Bharat, Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao, etc, aren’t you making your ignorance very obvious?

You cry, “NGOs, educational institutions are coming under attack one after another.” (Eker por ek NGO, shikshakendro, protishthaner upor aghat aschhe.) Do you mean that NGOs should be above the law of the land, that too after 90 per cent of them not even submitting their financial details to the government? And, if some educational institutions are “coming under attack”, are you sure that they are not in West Bengal? Just one of the innumerable examples of such attacks in this state was the killing of unarmed policeman Tapas Choudhury at Harimohan Ghose College in Kolkata on February 12, 2013 allegedly by a gang comprising Mokhtar, Mohammad Subhaan, Mohammad Iqbal, Mohammad Aslam, Mohammad Mustafa, Abdul Rukman and others.

You go on to say, “Sudhakar Sharma, accused of financial and administrative irregularities and misappropriation, has been reinstated as Secretary in Lalit Kala Akademi.” (Ei to Lalit Kala Akademi-te arthik ebong proshashonik oniyom ebong tochhruper daye obhijukto Sudhakar Sharmake pher sochiber pode ene bosiye deoa holo.) Isn’t it interesting that you are so worried about the reinstatement of a mere Secretary in Lalit Kala Akademi while you were never worried about the appointment of the last chairperson of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) who had taken over from you in 2011? Why did you not write against Leela Samson who was facing allegations of financial and administrative irregularities while being appointed to the post of CBFC Chairperson on April 1, 2011?

You complain, “Those who want to think freely have to restrict themselves.” (Jara muktomone chinta korte chan tara gutiye jachchen.) On the contrary, we are glad to note quite the reverse in contemporary India: writers and artists are voicing their dissent in press and television all the time without any visible repercussion. As a Muslim and one with close links to the Congress party, the principal political opponent of the current ruling dispensation, the section of our populace whose opinion you insinuate is being stifled, isn’t the publication of your critical article an evidence that the reality is quite to the contrary?

You also claim, “Everywhere a kind of uncertainty and fear is being built up. As if all the time someone is keeping a constant eye over you, over your movements, over your thought.” (Sorbotro toiri hochhe ek dhoroner onischoyota ebong bhoy. Sob somoyei jeno pichhon theke keu kora nojordari rakhchhe apnar upor, apnar gotibidhir upor, apnar chintar upor.) As it seems that you are scare-mongering about a possible return of the Emergency, why is it that you did not object to your late husband becoming an election candidate of the party which did actually impose the only real Emergency that our country has ever suffered?

You say, “Uprooting the Constitution, projecting violence as democracy, changing the meaning of peace – such incidents cannot continue for a long time.” (Songbidhanke upre phele deoa, hingsake gonotontro bole chalano, shantir orthotakei bodle deoar moto ghotona deergho din cholte pare na.) If you are so concerned about something called “uprooting the Constitution”, may we once again ask why you were not concerned about your husband’s candidature of that party which has amended the Constitution the most number of times? As you appear to be so concerned about the Constitution, should you not support a nation-wide beef ban which would be in keeping with Article 48 of the same Constitution? May we remind you that the only party that even changed the preamble of the Constitution after locking up all opposition in prison was your late husband’s party?

You end with “All people should get united to demand the trial and punishment of Pansare, Kalburgi, Dabholkar.” (Pansare, Kalburgi, Dabholkarer hotyakarider bichar o shastir dabite oikyobodhho hon sob manush.) We join you in your demand and note with some relief that the BJP-governed state of Maharashtra has already made one arrest for Pansare’s murder. We remain concerned that the INC-led governments failed to make even a single arrest in the case of Kalburgi and Dabholkar till date.

At the end of it, technicalities aside, it becomes abundantly clear that your stated grounds do not pass the test of basic consistency. It is perhaps the case that your reservations are rooted elsewhere. It is a fact that you have rejected Hinduism, the religion you were born into, to embrace Islam. This does not alter your locus as a citizen in the secular, liberal society that Hindu-majority India is. And, penalty for apostasy -indeed, there is no apostasy per se in Hinduism – is an alien concept in Hinduism unlike that in Islam, the religion you have chosen as an adult. But when you write on Hindu-Muslim issues, it is essential that you reveal your conscious, well-deliberated religious choice as an adult. Your readers do deserve to know that you write as a Muslim, not as a Hindu despite your usage of the pre-conversion Hindu name, especially when you criticise Hindus, or a section thereof, of intolerance. It is also pertinent that your rejection of Hinduism was not merely nominal, but influenced critical decisions you undertook, which were devoid of respect for the diversity inherent to Indian culture that you so proudly proclaim: “Indian culture has been traditionally diverse. A nursery of all religions, complexions and communities.” (Bharotiyo sonskriti oitijhhogoto bhabe chirokali boichitromoy. Sorbodhormo, borno o somprodayer manusher anturghor.)

For, if you had ever practiced the diversity which you are preaching now, you would have told your mother-in-law at the time of your marriage in 1969 that you would retain your parental religion instead of converting to hers and would marry under the Special Marriage Act of 1954 which was already in force for fifteen years then. Was it not an adherence to the religion you adopted that you chose Arabic names for all your children, also in keeping with the traditions of your husband’s feudal family, and not Indic ones though you come from India’s best-known cultural family? Is it a proof of diversity that all your children know Urdu, their father’s mother tongue, but none of them know Bengali which is your mother tongue? If you truly adhered to the tolerance and diversity you espouse, shouldn’t you have ensured that your children were exposed equally to the teachings of the birth-religion of both their parents and they would be encouraged to make an informed choice between the two once they reach majority? Instead, we observe that your son proclaims that his paternal grandmother was “the centre for all our religious education” and “With my maternal grandparents I never discussed religion”. He does not mention receiving religious education from anyone familiar with Hinduism (including yourself).

Is this perhaps indicative of your rejection of the religion you were born into? What diversity is revealed in your household by your son’s statement that “the servants were all devout Muslims”? What tolerance did you show for the customs of the religion you rejected when you did not interfere with your “devout Muslim” servants frightening your children against Holi by saying that the kids would later be “flayed in hell with cat-o-nine-tails” for celebrating such Hindu festivals? Was it again diversity or indoctrination into intolerance against your original faith that your son got his first wife converted to Islam and gave Abrahamic names to both their kids? Your son is hardly an exception in your family in that your elder daughter reflects similar sentiments when she says, “I follow Islam” without the slightest hint of your Hindu ancestry? Your rejection of Hinduism does not alter you: how you raise your children is entirely your concern, but concealing your religious bias and indoctrination into intolerance while you assume public positions isn’t. If only you revealed the same while you wrote the above piece, your readers could have had a more honest conversation as to why you remained largely indifferent while an entire Hindu ethnicity was being cleansed off their ancestral homeland yet you were shaken to the core when one Muslim was murdered at Dadri.

Yours faithfully,

Saswati Sarkar, Shanmukh and Dikgaj.

#Writers Protest, #Dadri Murder, #Sharmila Tagore


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