Sunday, September 2, 2007

One tight slap on Ramachandra Guha's face

Last Sunday I woke up early and went to old Delhi to eat nihari in a little restaurant in Ballimaran, not far from Gali Qasim Jan, the street in which Mirza Ghalib’s old home dies slowly of neglect. Eating succulent nihari that cooks all night in its own juices and is served with fresh spices and thick bread is one of the pleasures I remember from my growing years in Delhi, but last week I went for reasons beyond nostalgia and gastronomy.

I went to see if the India I grew up in still exists or if it has become a place in which you only see Muslims at the movies. The reason for this exercise was an annoying article by our latest celebrity historian, Ramachandra Guha, which appeared in The New York Times on August 15. What better moment to rubbish India in a foreign newspaper than the day on which we celebrate our independence from foreign rule.

Guha, who says he grew up in Delhi, as I did, claims that he could not count a single Muslim among his close friends. He wrote: “The novelist Mukul Kesavan, a contemporary, has written that in his school in Delhi he never came across a Muslim name: ‘The only place you were sure of meeting Muslims was in the movies.’ Some of the finest actors, singers, composers and directors in Bombay’s film industry were Muslims. But in law, medicine, business and the upper echelons of public service, Hindus dominated.”

Hindus dominating should not surprise us in a country that has a population that is 80 per cent Hindu but it surprises Ramachandra Guha. Either he is a very dodgy sort of historian, the kind that have an ideology into which they fit their history, or he lives in an India that is a figment of his imagination.

In the India in which I grew up everyone had Muslim friends and if he bothered to do a little research before he wrote his articles, Guha may notice the number of Muslims there are in law, business and the upper echelons of life in general. He might notice also that in villages across India, Hindus and Muslims live together and ethnic tensions have been so rare that when communal violence spread into rural Gujarat in 2002 it was almost the first time this happened.

What depressed me about breakfast in old Delhi was not the absence of Muslims, but the desperate poverty in which they live and the way in which the most historical part of Delhi is being allowed to slowly die of criminal neglect. It never used to be this way. When I rang the MP from Chandni Chowk, Kapil Sibal, to ask about this, he said he had grand plans of restoration and municipal improvement and we would soon see results.

There is going to be a massive car park on the edge of the old city to keep cars from parking in its narrow lanes, and foreign architects and restoration experts are being brought in to revive that part of Delhi that was once Shahjehanabad. May it happen soon, because the neglect amounts to vandalism. I cannot think of another country where this would be allowed to happen.

The desperate poverty that so disturbed me would disappear because visitors would come in droves and establishments like the little restaurant in which I ate my nihari would flourish and prosper. In my childhood, the most famous restaurant in Delhi was Moti Mahal in Daryaganj, a street that still has some fine, old Art Deco buildings.

The Muslim problem in India is not that they have been treated as pariahs but that poverty and illiteracy have made them fall shamefully behind in India’s race towards modernity. My breakfast companion last Sunday was a poet called Zafar Moradabadi, who is genteel and refined in the old-fashioned way Indian Muslims used to be before Islamism hit.

When I asked Zafar Sahib what was the most important thing that could be done to help Muslims better their lives, he said, “What we need is free education in good, private schools. Most Muslims cannot afford to pay for private schools. And government schools. . . you know what they are like!”

So the madrasa comes into play and narrows learning and horizons down to the confines of the faith. It is not possible to be taught only about religion and emerge educated in any real sense. It would be beyond tragedy if the next generation of Indian Muslims learned nothing of their great heritage of poetry, literature and refinement and learned only about Islam.

If the prime minister is seriously concerned about the condition of Muslims let him invest in the schools the community desperately needs. They will bring immense change, and perhaps even the Muslim vote.

Indian Express: Tavleen Singh

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