Friday, January 27, 2012

India: A secular nation.

Must India downplay its secular credentials?

January 28, 2012
By Kishwar Desai
As part of a secular nation, one must be able to respect and appreciate religions other than one’s own without prejudice or dismay. And what better way to do it than as an academic and intellectual exercise? But is India ready to display its multi-faith credentials in an analytical fashion?

So when a senior Indian official in charge of culture was visiting London, I had suggested that Indian museums should do well-researched exhibitions on all the various religions that have originated and flourished in India — just as the British museums do ever so often. The presentation of homegrown spirituality, in the historical context, would repackage India’s image in the world as an intellectual and spiritual powerhouse — not just of a country led by outsourcing and Bollywood. Why not have India-led exhibitions about the Ramayana or Buddhism or the myriad Sufi cults, for example?

But, to my surprise, I was very firmly told that this wasn’t possible, as the area of “religion” is still a minefield in India, and would lead to endless trouble. How terrible for us! Thus it is only “foreign” institutions such as the British Library and the British Museum which use their collections and curators to put up some wonderful exhibitions on aspects of various religions, including those which are uniquely Indian — and which rightly should have been done in India and by Indian experts. Not only do they acquire spectacular exhibits, but also display religious material and forms of worship that encourage thousands of people to flock to their doors.

Can you imagine the impact of different exhibitions if organised by Indian curators, dealing with Buddhism, Jainism, Sufism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Islam… they would be authentic and exciting. But apparently we are not yet mature enough to handle these and it is an area best left to the West!

Thus I cannot resist a twinge of envy every time a well-curated exhibition on any aspect of a non-Christian faith opens in London. How sad that in India we still shy away from all of this — even though the country has been a multi-faith hub for centuries!

Right now it is the Haj, or the holiest pilgrimage of the Islamic faith — on which all Muslims are supposed to go at least once in their lifetime — which has an exhibition devoted to it at the British Museum. It covers a myriad aspects of the journey in as much detail as was possible. Understand-ably neither the director of the British Museum nor the curator of the exhibition may have been able to actually go near the Kaaba, or participate in the rituals or the physical journey as they are non-Muslims. But that has not deterred either Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Musuem, or its lead curator, Venetia Porter, in any way. They maintain that is precisely why they felt the need for an exhibition like this — so that non-Muslims could also appreciate why such staggering num-bers go to Mecca each year.

In fact , last year, just in one week, over three million people had undertaken the journey. The exhibition covers all aspects of the pilgrimage — right from the accounts of early pilgrims to the histori-cal and traditional narratives. The attire, the arrangements and the rites have all been presented. It also fo-cuses on the travel diaries and photographs of several outsiders who did go on the Haj, including the best-selling accounts of the intrepid explorer and writer Richard Burton, who went in disguise in 1853.

MacGregor has said that Haj is “the high point of the intersection between theology and logistics”, and of course, the exhibition also captures the enormous arrangements required to accommodate the sheer number of pilgrims as well as the hardships suffered by the early travellers, including some early converts such as the Scottish lady, Evelyn Cobbold, who became the first British Muslim woman pilgrim in 1933, saying enthusiastically: “It seems that I have always been a Moslem.” One wonders when will we be able to have similar exhibitions in India — without the threat of either misrepresentation or violence?

Meanwhile, the controversy over Dow Che-mical as a sponsor of the London Olympics rumbles on and on — but from all signs, the London Olympics committee has little desire to call off the seven-million pound deal.

It must be remembered that there is also a 100-million pound sponsorship arrangement with the International Olym-pics Committee. The numbers are not small.

The excitement over the resignation of Meredith Alexander this week from the Commission for a Sustainable London 2012, while embarrassing for the London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (Locog), may be premature.

After all, it was an unpaid job, and while it has raised the pitch, unless there is a larger campaign against Dow, there promises to be little change in the current stance. In a statement, the commission said it was “sorry to confirm the resignation of Commissioner Meredith Alexander, whose remit covered supply chains and behaviour change.

“Meredith has stated that the reason for her resignation is that she does not feel she can remain with the commission in light of Locog’s appointment of Dow Chemical as the stadium wrap supplier, and the commission fully respects her decision to leave on this basis,” the statement elaborated, non-committally.

But the London mayor, Boris Johnson, has stated that he hopes that Ms Alexander will be persuaded to think differently. And then there are those sceptics who wonder why after 25 years the Indian government has still not got its act together and given the victims of the Bhopal tragedy a better life — or a secure environment or clean water. It is odd, to say the least, that while it allowed Union Carbide to escape almost without liability — it is now trying to use an international sports arena to settle scores. Will the activists, encouraged by Ms Alexander’s resignation, manage to push their agenda and will Boris Johnson — or the Olympics committee — blink? Right now, unless they find an equally big-ticket sponsor it doesn’t seem likely.

The writer can be contacted at

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