Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Is religion to blame?

The Mumbai terror attacks have once again brought the spotlight on Muslims in India and abroad. Yesterday, on a private English news channel, one guest,during a discussion on whether tighter terror laws would help, said that he was very glad he did not have a muslim surname, for he feared what he might have been subjected to if that was the case.

Why blame religion, and a particular one at that, for the evils of today? Blame the interpreters, the so called 'custodians' or the self appointed keepers of these religions. In the same manner that we said 'NO taxes", can we also say "no mullahs, no priests, no pundits?"

We have been blessed with sound intellect, reasoning ability and logical skills. We have elders in our homes, who have a wealth of experience of life. Then why do we give more importance to rituals, ceremonies, God men than common sense?

Religion, to me, is actually a particular community's combined wisdom, there for the next generations to benefit from, so that they may go farther and do better than the previous ones.

Wisdom can be shared but never compared. In fact, like the English language, it can borrow from each other to become richer and more relevant. Exclusion always denies knowledge. Imagine if each religion studied others and borrowed from each other to enhance their own!

Can any of the terrorists claim to have read even one of the holy books? The fourth standard pass Kasab may not have read even the Koran in its original state, forget about the Ramayan and the Mahabharat. How many non-Muslims could claim to have read the Koran? How many non Christians would have read the Bible? Maybe the few sane voices that we hear belong to this tiny minority!

Since most of these texts are written in languages long forgotten, they are interpreted at will by manipulative people. The real terrorists are these people who manipulate the meanings of these old texts to suit their gory purposes.

When we logical beings always ask for proof for even the smallest of things, how do we accept opinions that have such a huge consequence without checking out for ourselves?

Also, are we brave enough to stand up and say that since some of these texts were written for a different time, they may not all be relevant today in totality? It does not mean that we are debunking an entire way of thinking, but adapting it to suit the times. Its like how we use a constitution or a school curriculum, constantly amending and reframing it to keep it relevant.

A knife is not evil by itself. It depends on the user and the use it is put to. In a chef's hands it is perfectly harmless, but becomes lethal in the hands of a killer. The intent of religion by itself is not bad. But in the hands of wrong and negative people it can bring in the end of the world.

The fault is ours, who persist in looking outside ourselves for a religious experience. All religious texts like the Koran, the Ramayan, the Bible, and others, were the result of deep meditation and introspection, and observation of the way of life. Religion was supposed to guide us to a more fulfilling and enriched life, not become slaves to it.If we allow our minds to follow our instints without insecurity, we can sense religion and spirituality deep within us, without the aid of texts, priests, mullahs and god men.

The trouble starts when our insecurities and fears, rather than a deep happiness at being born, make us seek religion. This makes us doubt our own ability to find it, and we turn to supposedly 'learned custodians.'

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Pride India

This happened a year ago. I was travelling by train from Indore to Mumbai. I had just concluded a hectic six day workshop at one of the city's premier schools.

As I stowed my suitcase under the aisle berth, I looked forward to a good night's sleep.

The coach was an A.C 2 tier, and the four passengers in the coupe were already in their seats. Two men, two women. Perfect.

One of the men, the younger one, looked a little weird, I thought. His face was a little lopsided, with the symmetry slightly askew. He had very short, almost crew cut hair.

Not wanting to stare, I hung my handbag on the peg above my berth, and settled down on it. I then pulled out my mobile phone and dialled my husband's number to give him a "sit rep"('situation report').
While I was on the phone, three well built young men came in and plonked themselves on my seat. Asking my husband to hold the line, I looked enquiringly at them. One of them pointed to the berth above mine, signalling that it was his. I nodded and went back to my conversation.

As I spoke, the three, while laughing and joking amongst themselves, slowly started hogging up more and more of the berth, while I shrunk more and more into one corner, until I reached the extreme limit of shrinking. Extremely cramped, I cut off my phone conversation, and declared to the three that I wanted to lie down and would they please move out?

One of them pointed to a notice stuck above the berth that said that passengers could use the berth to lie down only after 9 p.m. Until then everyone had to sit.

Before I could give a fitting reply, several of which were on the tip of my tongue, and without my realising it, the young man with the lop sided face was beside me. In a very soft, calm manner, but with a cold gaze, he asked the three to get up and move to the next coupe. The three men looked at my 'rescuer', one of them looked ready to say something, but one look at the young man's eyes, and they quietly moved out.

I turned around to thank the young man, and his "Not at all, Ma'am", gave away, to me, his profession.
"Are you in the services?"
"Yes, Ma'am. Infantry. Came to Mhow for a short course."
"My father and father-in-law were both in the Army."

One question led to another, and our conversation soon turned to the current situation in the country, and especially in Kashmir.

By now our co passengers (excluding the young man who had left with his friends) had joined in. None of them had ever been north of Delhi, and they more than I, wanted to get a first hand account of how bad things were in the valley.

The Army Major (whose name I shall not disclose) then held us spell bound for the next couple of hours with his experiences, of which a few are mentioned here.

As a young officer, his first day in the unit was also the first time he killed a man (a militant), that too at close range. After the incident was over, he was distraught, and it was the care and counselling of his seniors that brought him out of his depression.

He spoke of the utmost trust and camaraderie that he shared with his unit members, which was more valuable than any money in the world, because that was what their lives depended on.

Like a true soldier, he also spoke of values and just behaviour, even towards the enemy.

Once during the Kargil war, his unit had surrounded a post occupied by Pakistani soldiers. They fought fiercely, and finally overcame the enemy. The Pak soldiers, though in mufti, fought with all their medals on, as they knew they were going to die, and wanted to die a true soldier's death. After it was over, the Indian Major had his men identify the soldiers from their I- cards, and sent a letter to their unit in Pakistan praising them, requesting that they be honoured accordingly. It was later learnt that the request had been carried out.

His own face was lop sided because it was shattered by shrapnel during the Kargil conflict. He had a rod in his back and legs, which is why he could not offer his lower berth to one of the lady passengers.

He was full of praise for the Army doctors, who reconstructed his face, and "made it almost as good as new". We all asked him what his family had to say about his new face.

"My wife and six year old daughter feel I look more handsome now", he said with a laugh.
He said the toughest job was to flush out militants holed up in houses in villages. (I was reminded of this while watching the recent Mumbai carnage).

"It's a game of extreme patience and vigilance. The exercise takes place mostly at night and entire villages are cordoned off for the task."

While the army personnel grew more experienced at tackling them over a period of time, the militants too became smarter.

"These days they aim not for the chest or head, but for the thighs, where the main artery is located. At times, if a soldier injured in the thigh is not rushed to medical help immediately, we risk losing him."

I listened spellbound, my sleep long forgotten. I could see the other passengers similarly engaged; horrified, but unable to break away. It was almost an 'ancient mariner' kind of scenario.
At one point I asked him whether he had received a bravery award for all he had done.
"No Ma'am."
"Why not?"
"Ma'am, if the Army had to give out awards to everyone who has done what I did, they would soon run out of medals. "

His answer stumped all of us. What we thought of as extraordinary bravery was in fact an everyday and routine affair for most Army personnel in Kashmir and other insurgency-hit areas.
I sat quietly, reflecting on a real life example of selfless service.

"What motivates you people?", asked one of my fellow passengers.

"Love for our country, its people, and pride in being an Indian."

This simple statement brought out the goose pimples on my arms.

I remembered how as a child whenever we went to see a movie, the National Anthem played at the end, when we all stood up to attention.
Independence Day and The Republic Day were never holidays meant to sit at home, but to go out and march and hoist the national flag.
"Jai Jawan Jai Kisan", was the slogan that popped out almost everywhere, worshipping the two different kinds of people who protected and respected Mother Earth.

We still need these two people, one to feed us and the other to protect us.

"Love for our country, its people, and pride in being an Indian."

I'm sure each one of us has the same pride buried somewhere deep down inside. Its been in the attic of our minds for far too long.
It's time we brought it out, dusted it, and displayed it proudly in the mantelpiece of our hearts, so we can see and feel it with every beat, and have our actions governed by it on a daily basis.

"Jai Jawan, jai Kisan, jai Hind."