Tuesday, Oct 24, 2017 | Last Update : 09:14 AM IST

The wretched of the earth

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in New Delhi
Published : Oct 4, 2017, 12:49 am IST
Updated : Oct 4, 2017, 12:49 am IST

In their popular message, both events — Muharram and Ram Lila — are observed as marking the triumph of good over evil.

Malerkotla Indian Shiite Muslims flagellate themselves during a procession on Muharram in Malerkotla. (Photo: PTI)
 Malerkotla Indian Shiite Muslims flagellate themselves during a procession on Muharram in Malerkotla. (Photo: PTI)

When someone offers us a gift, we apply our sense of propriety before accepting it or politely turning it down. The minority community of Hindus in Sindh decided to not observe Ram Lila celebrations this year because it coincided with Ashura, the 10th day of Muharram. The community’s leaders offered the generous decision as a gesture to promote interfaith harmony.

It goes without saying that the move was at least partly necessitated by the security detail for Ashura, which goes ballistic, though not without reason, in cities like Karachi. Simultaneous Ram Lila and Muharram processions, in the age of suicide bombers, would have made it that much more challenging to monitor or protect two instead of one vulnerable group.

Camaraderie like that shown by the Hindu community towards the Shia mourners deserves to be hailed, particularly so in our troubled times when religion has been used to coerce and terrorise people instead of bringing them together. Suppose, however, that the mourners of Muharram had refused the offer by Sindh’s Hindus to forgo their Ram Lila celebrations. There are compelling reasons that come to mind for this noble prospect.

In their popular message, both events — Muharram and Ram Lila — are observed as marking the triumph of good over evil. There are Muslims, of course, who do not hold that view about Muharram. My neighbour in Delhi who runs a publishing house for children’s books on Islam invited me to his daughter’s wedding on Ashura.

This would surprise many Muslims, be they Shia or Sunni. But this is not so with many others. Muharram has strangely enough become an occasion for the doctrinaire Muslim rulers of the Gulf emirates, for example, to send New Year greetings to each other, a ritual enabled by the advent of communications technology, no doubt.

Similarly, there are those in southern India who worship Ravan, the demon king, and are still accepted as Hindus. We all know that the legend of Ram is played out before eager audiences in Indonesia by all-Muslim teams of stage actors. In West Bengal, too, Muslims organise committees and raise funds to celebrate Durga Puja, which roughly coincides with Ram Lila, or Dussehra.

The Shias, albeit a minority among Pakistan’s Muslims, are far more powerful politically and economically than the miniscule Hindus. If they are not convinced of the idea of being more generous towards the Hindus, they could turn to the example of the hero of Karbala. My limited knowledge of the story of Karbala tells me of Imam Hussain’s generosity at a time of great adversity. When the thirsty Hur and his soldiers approached the caravan of Hussain for water, he did not grudge them the limited quantity his small caravan had. He made the water available to the men of the enemy camp, which is not what the Hindus of Sindh are, by the way.

“Mat ranja kar kisi ko, ke apney to eteqaad/Dil dhaae ke jo Kaaba banaya to kya kiya.” Mir Taqi Mir was a devout Shia Muslim apart from being a great poet. What was he saying here? Don’t break the hearts of others to build your Kaaba, a sentiment Mir had borrowed from Bulleh Shah.

The advantages of a generous spirit are countless. There is the legend of the Hindus who call themselves Hussaini Brahmins. While I cannot vouch for the veracity of this narrative, we are told that a few Hindu men got the title after fighting for Imam Hussain in the battle of Karbala. Indian actor Sunil Dutt saw himself as a Hussaini Brahmin. Was he one? What I do know about him makes for a quaint and fascinating story.

It was decades ago that I met this very old spiritual Shia lady in Lucknow. She was a zakira, someone who recited soz and salaams at women’s gatherings during Muharram, and lived on a retainer at a small-time nawab’s home. She used to tell me about the days when Sunil Dutt took refuge with her in Lucknow during the Partition violence, and she called him Akhtar to protect his Hindu identity. Apparently the two stayed in touch long after Dutt became a famous movie star.

Had there been no generosity in Karbala, what would Hindu poet Munshi Channulal Dilgeer have written? Would he have written his famous noha, Ghabraaey gi Zainab?  Dilgeer lived before Mir Anees, who was born in 1803, and also penned 417 marsias. I am told that Ghabraaey gi Zainab used to be recited in Lucknow processions in a quick tempo. When Nasir Jahan recited it for Radio Pakistan in 1956, he changed the delivery to a slow rendition that fluctuates between the heart-tugging raga Ghara and Bhatyali Dhun.

When we listen to Faiz’s lines — Hum ahl e safa mardood e haram, masnad pe bithaae jaange — it is difficult not to think of Frantz Fanon’s discourse on the Algerian revolution and what the peasants hoped to get out of their struggle — justice and equality. Fanon’s book The Wretched of the Earth was translated by Iranian scholar Ali Shariati as Mostazafin e Zameen.

It is this political concept of equality and justice, which Faiz refers to, that rattles and frightens the Gulf oligarchies among his other quarries. It is another matter that the Western media has helped along by projecting the Iranian revolution as a sectarian threat rather than as a popular challenge, one which boasts of a huge Sunni following, both sides opposed to regional dictators and feudal satraps.

Borrowing from Shariati, Ayatollah Khomeini began to depict the pre-revolution Iranian society as formed of two antagonistic classes (tabaqat): the oppressed (mostazafin) and the oppressors (mostakberin). As far as I can tell, the Hindus of Sindh, and Christians of Punjab qualify to be embraced as mostazafin.

By arrangement with Dawn

Tags: minority community, muharram, ram lila