When I was a judge in the Allahabad High Court, a criminal appeal came before me in which some Muslim boys had been convicted by the trial court of gang-raping a young Dalit Hindu girl. In Uttar Pradesh (UP, which is the largest state in India of about 200 million people), Muslims are about 18 per cent of the total population but in that particular village in UP where this incident happened, 90 per cent of the people are Muslims and only about 10 per cent are Hindus, most of them being Dalits (or low caste Hindus). I upheld the conviction and observed that a hallmark of a civilised society is the protection it gives to minorities. It is the solemn duty of every person belonging to the majority community to ensure that minorities in their areas live with dignity and respect. In this case, it was the duty of the Muslims of that village to ensure that the Hindus could live with respect but instead of doing so, the accused gang-raped a Dalit girl. Hence, they deserved harsh punishment.
I also observed in the same judgment that had the Hindus been the majority in the village, it would have been their duty to see that Muslims, Christians or any other minority in the village could live with dignity. If Hindus committed a similar crime, they would also be given harsh punishment.
The judgment assumes importance in view of the growing intolerance in many parts of the Indian subcontinent. The treatment of northeast people in many parts of India, of Muslims in Gujarat and the terror created in the tiny Hindu and other minorities in Pakistan are a disgrace to all of us. It shows that we are not really civilised. Thomas Jefferson, in his book, Notes on Virginia, writes: “It does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg”.
The spirit of tolerance is particularly important in our subcontinent, which has such tremendous diversity — so many religions and so many sects in these religions, so many castes, languages, ethnic groups, etc. In my article, “Ecrasez L’infame”, (which is also the title of this article), I said that the ill-treatment of the northeast Indians by many of us is a disgrace. The atrocities on Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 and on Sikhs in 1984 are a disgrace. Similarly, the ill-treatment of minorities in Pakistan (whether Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Ahmadis, Shias or any other minority) is a disgrace and invites Voltaire’s famous comment: ‘Ecrasez L’ infame’ (‘Crush the infamy’).
In my article, “What is India”, I said that India is a country of immigrants (like North America) whose 92-93 per cent population today consists not of the original inhabitants but descendants of immigrants, who migrated to India because people migrate from uncomfortable places to comfortable places. India was a paradise for agricultural societies because it has level land, fertile soil, plenty of water for irrigation, etc., unlike countries like Afghanistan, which are rocky, cold, covered with snow for several months in a year and hence, very uncomfortable. Thus, for thousands of years, people kept coming to India, mainly from the northwest. This comment is also true of Pakistan and it explains the tremendous diversity in our subcontinent because each group of immigrants brought its own language, religion, customs, etc. As the great Urdu poet Firaq Gorakhpuri wrote:
“Sar Zameen-e-Hind par aqwaam-e-Alam ke Firaq
Qafile guzarte gaye, Hindustan banta gaya”.
The only policy, therefore, which can work in our subcontinent, is secularism and giving equal respect to all communities, religious, lingual, regional or racial. This was the policy of the great emperor Akbar, who gave equal respect to all communities. Secularism does not mean that one cannot practise one’s religion. It means that religion is a private affair, unconnected with the state — which will have no religion — and everyone has the freedom to practise one’s own religion without harassment or coercion from anyone. But secularism means something more than merely accepting the rights of others to practise their own religion. It also means that minorities will be entitled to lead a life of dignity and respect. Hence, every incident of ill-treatment of minorities in India or Pakistan is a disgrace to the majority which has failed in its solemn duty of protecting minorities.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 24th, 2012.