A statement dated Friday January 19, 2024, a day before she launched her fast of pain and penitence to fellow Indian Muslims and a proud assertion of love of Mughal heritage
Dear friends and fellow travelers,
With the forthcoming event in Ayodhya on January 22, the atmosphere here in Delhi, already famous for being polluted in a material sense, has thickened to a spiritually poisonous and unbreathable concentrate of Hindu chauvinism, malice and bullying. I am deeply anguished by all this as an Indian and as a Hindu. And after thinking hard about what I can do, I have decided to go on a fast starting Saturday the 20th and ending on Tuesday the 23rd a day after the January 22nd production at Ayodhya.
I am doing this first and foremost as an expression of my love and sorrow to my Muslim fellow citizens of India. I cannot let this moment pass without saying as loud as I can to my Muslim brothers and sisters that I love you and that I condemn and repudiate what is being done in the name of Hinduism and nationalism in Ayodhya.
I am also doing this as an expression of my love for my Mughal heritage. This is not only about feeling protective towards someone else. It is about my culture and my ethos. I love dhrupad and khayal music. I love kathak. I love the Mughal and Sultanate buildings in my city of Delhi – I cannot imagine Delhi without the Qutub Minar or Humayun’s Tomb, or the Sabz Burj. Not to mention the Taj Mahal next door in Agra.
I revere the magnificent culture spawned by the court of Awadh under Nawab Wajid Ali Shah. I see the Delhi Sultanate as also having given something precious to India, as it was with them that the Sufis and Amir Khusroe’s father came here. In North India we owe so much of our language and culture to Hazrat Amir Khusroe. He adopted Hindavi into a language of poetry which later spawned the grand languages of Hindi and Urdu. He made innovations in music that laid the foundation of Shastriya Sangeet – the classical music of North India – of which we are all so proud. The list is endless.
There is no part of our high classical culture in North India which does not bear the stamp of the Sultanate, the Mughals, the nawabs and the nizams. This is not to say that any of these traditions were the sole product of these rulers, or that it was Muslims that enlightened us. On the contrary, this culture is the result of the mingling of the native arts, traditions and languages with those that were brought by the Sultans and the Mughals. A mingling which only happened because of the embrace by them of the existing culture.
Can we speak of Amir Khusroe’s music without speaking of Gopal Naik, the famous Hindu court musician from whom Khusroe learnt so much? Can we speak of Hindustani Classical music or Kathak without speaking of the Dhruvapadas or the Rasas of the Natya Shastra? Can we speak of Tansen without speaking of Pandit Haridas? Can we have Kathak without the traditions of the raasleela, and the performance of the Ramayana and the Mahabharat in India from times immemorial? Can we have Dhrupad without the worship of Lord Shiva? Can we have Dhamar without Holi? Read the writings of Abul Fazl, the court biographer of Akbar. See how he sings praises of Hindu beliefs, practices, sciences and philosophies. Do you know that Akbar commissioned a Persian translation of the Mahabharata to showcase what a great culture the Hindus had? And he was such an admirer of the Mahabharata, that when the translation was read to him he scoffed and said that it was not good enough. Look up the work that Nawab Wajid Ali Shah did with kathak compositions, dance dramas and kavits (poems) – they were all inspired by the traditional celebration of Radha-Krishna by his Hindu subjects.
This is not meant to be a lecture in history so I will stop here, but the examples go on and on. And I have given them to explain that when I say that I love my Mughal heritage, I am saying that I love the composite culture that grew out of the Hindu and Muslim traditions of this land. A culture in which you cannot pick out what is Muslim and what is Hindu anymore; or what was native and what was foreign. It has been a millennium of intermingling, and of reciprocal inspiration and admiration. Influences are from everywhere. This is not an imposition of foreign things, it is how a culture develops in conversation with other languages, aesthetic traditions, faiths and philosophies. The dramatic form that is described in the Natya Shastra emerged from a culture that branched out of the encounter of the subcontinent with the Greeks. If you keep throwing things out by calling them foreign or non-Hindu, then what will we be left with? The culture that grew under the Mughal empire was not imposed, it was not developed anywhere else, it grew here, from this soil and is unique to this land.
And let me tell you that I do not consider my only heritage to be Mughal. I come from a mixed background of Tamil Brahmin and Punjabi Sikh – and I love and cherish all those parts of my heritage too. My husband has mixed Rajasthani Jat and Jath Sikh heritage with a family history in the military and I have been delighted to adopt his legacy, with all his tales of valour and chivalry as my own.
In the work that I do helping Indian families abroad whose children have been snatched by cruel foreign child services agencies, I inevitably end up learning about the culture and religion they come from, and I found that they would seep into me. From my Bengali families I was introduced to Maa Durga whom I now celebrate with as much joy as my Bengali friends. From a recent case involving a Jain family, I have been intrigued enough to start studying some Jain scriptures. And this life history is not unique to me. It is repeated in countless Indians of all ethnic and religious backgrounds all over the country for centuries.
Hindutvavadis insist that you need one religion and one culture and one language to develop a coherent identity. It is simply not true. You can equally develop a cosmopolitan and porous identity. It is not a question of what you exclude or include, but of values and conviction. And this is not some new, modern idea. India has always been a land of diversity and these question of identity, community, authenticity and social division have always been there. And we have always been faced with a choice to be open or to be closed. This is a conversation going back millennia. Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BC said पियदसी राजा सर्वता इचति सवे पासंडा वसेयु, सवे ते सयामाम च भाव- सुधिम् चइचति । Meaning: It is always my wishfor persons of all faiths live on my lands. For they all essentially believe in good thinking and good conduct. पूजेतया तू एव पर-पासंडा तेन-तेन प्रकारणेना। Find numerous ways of honouring those of other beliefs. एवम् हि देवानंपियस इच्छा किंति सव – पासंडा बहु – स्रुता च असू कलाणागमा च असू । Be broad of knowledge and seek to understand others’ beliefs.Cultivate an attitude of friendliness and openness to all.
Two millenia later in the 16th century, Emperor Akbar is saying the same thing:
“He is a man who makes Justice his guide on the path of inquiry, and takes from every belief what is consonant with reason. Perhaps in this way the lock, whose key has been lost, may be opened.”
“Notwithstanding that at all periods of time, Hindustan has never been lacking in prudent men with excellent resolutions and well-intentioned designs, there are misunderstandings and quarrels between its different religions.
“Through the apathy of princes each sect is bigoted to its own creed and dissensions have waxed high. Each one, regarding his own persuasion as alone true, has set himself to the persecution of other worshippers of God.
“Were the eyes of the mind possessed of true vision, each individual would withdraw from this indiscriminating turmoil and attend rather to his own solicitudes, than interfere in the concerns of others so that dissensions within and without can be turned to peace and the thornbrake of strife bloom into a garden of concord.
Five hundred years later Gandhiji said “The essence of true religious teaching is that one should serve and befriend all. I learnt this in my mother’s lap. You may refuse to call me a Hindu. I know no defence except to quote a line from Iqbal’s famous song: मज़हब नहींसीखता आपस में बैर रखना, meaning, religion does not teach us to bear ill-will towards one another.”
I have found no difficulty in embracing diverse ideas and practices while all the time thinking of myself as a Hindu. In my personal practice, for wedding or functions in my family I have rituals conducted in the manner of my paternal grandmother – as the homam is done among Tamils because, personally, I prefer the way Sanskrit is pronounced by the Tamil purohits and the way the puja is done. But that is because that is how I grew up seeing pujas. This does not stop me from feeling shraddha, astha and comfort in any place of worship – whether Nizamuddin Dargah or the Vatican or Jama Masjid or the Ganeshji Mandir built by my grandfather here in Delhi on Baba Kharag Singh Marg or my personal favourite temple – the magnificent Brihadeshwara temple built by Rajarajachola in Tanjore which is a few minutes’ drive from my ancestral village in Tamil Nadu.
I am not an orthodox Hindu, I do not know all the mantras or observe the fasts or dietary taboos or pray every morning or regularly go to any temple. But I don’t see the votaries of Hindutvavad as being very orthodox either. All our saffron twitter influencers, actors and news personalities live very modern lives – and are not living the traditional orthodox Hindu way, whether in marriage, food habits, clothes or lifestyle. Even the January 22 function is not following the Hindu orthodox way – the Shankaracharyas are complaining that it is not being done according to the strict traditions.
For me this is not an issue. Hinduism is not a hidebound faith. For every shastric way of conducting some prayer there is also an upay around it. This is the openness of Hinduism and its constant reminder to remain focussed on the spirit of things and not the material side, even in conducting prayers.
For me Hinduism is all the stories of our gods and goddesses which somehow define my very existence. It is like they are always present with their epic stories and great wars and loves and philosophical dialogues like an unseen but very real drama that is always going on around me and filling my inner world with colour, counsel and comfort. Everything comes alive with them, and becomes an offering to them. When I bow to my harmonium or the stage (as my Muslim Ustads have taught me to) Devi Saraswati comes before my eyes. When I was exhausted and frustrated as a young mother with my naughty toddlers, it was the tales of Yashodha driven to distraction by the mischievous Krishna that gave me comfort and understanding. Feminists will start groaning when I say this, but when I gave up work to become a full-time mother, and everyone looked at me as though I was an alien, I found a wellspring of strength and self-assurance in the feminine Hindu ideal of seva – of devotion, sacrifice and service – in which you forget yourself and give everything – tan, man, dhan – to serving those, whom it is your duty to serve. So I am sincere when I say that I think of myself as a Hindu. This is what Hinduism is to me. And if I am not a Hindu or if this is not Hinduism then you have to say that to my face.
Again and again we are reminded by the Hindutvavadis that the Mughals invaded us. Yes, the first Mughal came here as a conqueror. But he did not take Delhi from any Hindu ruler. Whom did Babar fight in Panipat? It was Ibrahim Lodhi. Before that he defeated Daulat Khan in Punjab. Let us be clear, the Mughals entered India with the conquest of a Muslim by a Muslim. In fact, it was the conquest by a Muslim of several Muslims. Before defeating Lodhi, Babar had conquered the Afghans in Kabul. Some historians say that there might have even been proposals of an alliance between Babur and Rana Sanga, the Rajput king, to fight Ibrahim Lodi. That alliance did not happen, but when Ibrahim Lodi was defeated, his brother joined forces with Rana Sanga in order to try and defeat Babur. So Babar’s was not by any means a simple story of a Muslim conquest of India.
I am not going to say that Babur’s victory here was not without its pathos. Conquest is terrible in its violence and destruction. No doubt each conquest is the end of something, the death of something. I can imagine that there would have been an adjustment that Hindus would have had to make, especially in the initial years, being ruled by non-Hindus. But Mughal rule in India was never particularly focussed on Islam. Though that would have already taken place under the earlier Muslim rulers who had started coming here since the 9th century. That was the time of kings and conquests. It was the age of imperialism. And it was precisely to end imperialism, blood feuds and war that people turned to ideas of democracy, pluralism and secularism. Ideas that we in India are recklessly rejecting in the name of invasions from 1000 and 500 years ago. Is it not possible to say: can’t we just move on from all this?
The Mughals were also not enemies of the Rajputs for all the 500 hundred years that they ruled here. They entered into marriage alliance with Rajputs. Some of their senior-most generals and officials were Rajputs. Their clothes, architecture and culture took so much from the Rajputs. Get into your car and drive out of Delhi; within minutes you are in Rajput territory, with their forts, palaces and temples all around. Were they erased? Were they taken over by the Mughals? No. They were right there, a stone’s throw from the Mughal capital.
This is why the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation was such a lie when it claimed to be fighting 500 hundred years of Hindu ghulami. Mughal rule was nothing like that. It was about the ambitions of kings and conquerors; and neither Hinduism nor Islam played any other than an ancillary role in all this. Except for Aurangzeb none of the Mughals were very observant. They drank wine, consumed opium, preferred the Sufis over the Ullema, Akbar was even accused of being un-Islamic, his Din-e-Ilahi was seen as a direct challenge to the Muslim orthodoxy, his very name, Akbar, was seen as an irreverent appropriation of Allahu Akbar.
Whatever you say about the pain of Mughal invasion, it did not give birth to centuries of Hindu repression or enslavement. It gave birth to a beautiful culture that took nothing away from Hindu religion or culture.
And now we come to the vexed question of conversions and breaking of temples by invaders. From today’s point of view, both are wrong. But let us be clear, first and foremost, about the limits of the claimed historical wrong. We are not talking about hundreds of years of repression of Hinduism, or a state policy of conversion to Islam or of mass building-over of temples with mosques. While such things did occur both before, during and after the Mughals, it was not the policy of the Mughals to convert Hindus or break temples in India. In fact, they built temples, patronised native arts and many of them, like Akbar, made huge efforts in stopping religious prejudice, persecution and maintaining communal harmony here.
So, at most we are talking of a handful of mosques, built hundreds of years ago on the one hand in a context and society that does not exist today, and causing hurt, mistrust, instability and division in the fabric of our society, along the length and breadth of our country, on the other. Look at what has happened in Manipur where old antagonisms have been provoked.
There is no justification for stoking such deep and lasting social turmoil for the sake of destroying a few mosques. It never ends. You heard what the Karnartaka BJP MP said about wanting to demolish mosques in Karnataka. Why can’t we simply say that we have better things to do than to endlessly fight over mosques and build temples?
The worst thing about these temple agitations is the ugly feelings they provoke; feelings that take us as far away as it is possible to go from religion. I was about fifteen years old when the Ram Janma Bhoomi agitation started, with LK Advani’s Rath Yatra. My entire school was for it. There is no ugly statement about Muslims that is made today, that I did not hear from my fellow students in school. I will never forget the malice in their eyes; the spite dripping from their lips. I will never forget the glee with which they would wave the tapes of Sadhvi Ritambra’s speeches, which they would play in their cars on the way to school. But I never ever, before, then or after, heard them talk about Lord Ram, or any other god.
It was the same with BJP supporters when I went to college. That was when the Babri Masjid fell. The saffronites were never short of snarky comments about Muslims but I never saw them express or demonstrate any devotion to any god, or any eagerness to go to any temple. And there was nothing particularly dharmic or Indic about these people and their families either. They lived a life which was no different to any secular, liberal family save in their abuse of Muslims.
It was never about devotion to Lord Ram. It was all always only and only about Hindu chauvinism and insulting Muslims.
How can anyone celebrate a temple built on the back of such lies, violence, spite and vengefulness? How can this be squared with the teachings of Hinduism? If there was cause for revenge in building this temple then how is such a motivation of revenge and anger justified in Hinduism?
Take the Bhagavad Gita? Do those rejoicing at the building of the Ram Mandir consider the Bhagavad Gita to be a Hindu text? Well, what does the Gita say about morality in action? It says that your acts can be moral only if you perform them selflessly, in the spirit of duty, as an offering to god, not to fulfil your own desires and wishes. According to the Bhagvad Gita no act of revenge or anger or with an eye to the fruits of action is a moral act. Karmenyev aadhikarastey, maa phaleshu kadachana.
This is what the Gita says about acting in anger: क्रोधाद्भवति सम्मोहः, सम्मोहात्स्मृतिविभ्रम:| स्मृतिभ्रंशाद्बुद्धिनाशो, बुद्धिनाशात्प्रणश्यति || Anger plunges you into Delusion, Delusion erases Knowledge. With loss of Knowledge, is Reason lost, With Reason lost, you Fall.
The Gita starts with Arjun saying to Krishna that he does not want to fight. And Krishna’s first response is तस्माद् युध्यस्व भारत. Get up you are a warrior, you must fight or you will be reviled by the world. This is the 18th shloka in the 2nd chapter of the Gita. So if that is the message of the Gita then why does it continue to 18 chapters? What more was there left to say that the Gita carried on for 16 chapters more?
Does Krishna repeat his sayings about the duty of the warrior not to run from the battlefield? No. The dialogue goes on because there is so much more to the question of what is moral action; what is a Dharma Yudh. Even when we breathe we kill so many tiny beings, so how can we humans ever speak of moral action?
All the chapters that follow the initial exchange between Arjun and Krishna are a deep reflection on this question. And the answer that emerges is that you can never truly renounce action; you can never be free of karma. Simply in living and by existing you perform karma. But equally, you must always be ethical in your actions. How can you do this? How can you keep your moral purity while engaging in any action, whether eating and breathing; or killing your brothers and uncles in war? And the answer is what we call ‘nishkaama karma’. Acting without desire, without greed, without anger, without any selish interest. Does the slogan ‘Mandir vahi banega’ strike you as anything but angry and vengeful?
What does Hinduism say about how to fight wrong? अक्रोधेन जयेत् क्रोधम्, असाधुं साधुना जयेत् ।जयेत् कदर्यम् दानेन, जयेत् सत्येन चानृतम् ॥ This is from the Mahabharata. It means Defeat anger with calm, bad conduct with good; Win over meanness with generosity, and falsehood with truth. And we all know “Ahimsa Parmo Dharma” which Gandhiji was so fond of quoting.
The Manu Smriti – there is a tendency these days to mock the Manu Smriti because of its description of the caste system. But all Hindu scriptures and epics have caste. If that is a reason then everything has to go – the Gita, the Valmiki Ramayana – everything. What I say is follow the Manu Smriti, but follow all of it. See what it says about the 10 principles of Dharama: धृति: क्षमा दमोऽस्तेयं शौचमिन्द्रियनिग्रह: । धीर्विद्या सत्यमक्रोधो दशकं धर्मलक्षणम् ।।Patience, forgiveness, self-restraint, not to take that which another’s, purity, abstention, righteous action, pursuit of knowledge, truth, renouncing anger.
So for all these reasons I call what is happening in Ayodhya on January 22nd a lie, a celebration of wickedness, a desecration of Hinduism, and an affront to our civilisational heritage. I am fasting as an act of protest and sorrow. I will take liquids and some sugar and salt to keep my health in balance.
I have some family matters that need to attend outside my home, I hope I will be able to do so. Otherwise, I will be at home, and I will log on from time to time. I will do readings from Tagore, Gandhi, Martin Luther King and other great people who have come from this land and been inspired by the people of this land, in the hope that it will give us all some margdarshan in these dark and hopeless times.