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A liberalism reliant on photo-op moments cannot but be flimsy

In our polarised world, we fall back on moments like Zakir Hussain saying goodbye to Shiv Kumar Sharma for reassurance that all is not lost

Ustad Zakir Hussain (left) and Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma, both with Dogra roots, had a long and rich friendship.
Ustad Zakir Hussain (left) and Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma, both with Dogra roots, had a long and rich friendship. (Hindustan Times)

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In a world drowning in a glut of images, the photograph of the tabla maestro Ustad Zakir Hussain bidding goodbye to his friend and fellow musician, Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma, gave us pause.

He was standing quietly in front of Sharma’s funeral pyre, alone, dressed entirely in white, arms folded across his chest, face masked, his eyes fixed on the burning pyre in front of him. The anguish was palpable.

It was truly a picture that said more than a thousand words.

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But they were not the same thousand words for everybody. Social media quickly became fixated on the image of a Muslim ustad bidding goodbye to a Hindu pandit. Congress leader Abhishek Manu Singhvi tweeted out the image of Zakir Hussain as a pall-bearer for Shiv Kumar Sharma, calling it “a photo that epitomises the idea of India”. Some lamented it as a symbol of a vanishing Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb (culture). Others claimed they knew Muslims who said they would not pray for their Hindu friends because their faith did not allow them to pray for a non-believer. Yet others got into petty arguments about the propriety of wearing footwear near a funeral pyre.

And it occurred to me that so many of us, across the ideological spectrum, whether liberal or conservative, now saw a Hindu and a Muslim in that image rather than the heartrending poignancy of one master musician saying goodbye to another. Ustad Zakir Hussain and Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma, both with Dogra roots, had a long and rich friendship. There are so many videos of the two playing together, the santoor and the tabla almost fusing into one instrument, the sound from one rippling into the other. Many wrote about what a treat it was to hear them play together, their deep and special bond apparent in their impromptu jugalbandis. “Holding Sharma till the end was perhaps Hussain’s way of being there; like he was while performing the sweet and pensive raag Kirwani in 1979,” writes Suanshu Khurana in The Indian Express. It was like holding on to a note even as it fades into nothingness.

And yet how easy it has become to only see their respective religions. The same thought had come to me a few months ago when actor Shah Rukh Khan came to pay his respects to the great Lata Mangeshkar. Some saw the image of Shah Rukh Khan offering duas while his manager Pooja Dadlani offered her prayers as an image of “their India”. But as the television cameras beamed out an image of Khan in a gesture of phoonk at Mangeshkar’s body, a vicious social media chorus started buzzing about whether he was spitting near her body after reciting a dua. It was a ridiculous accusation, obviously meant to stir up trouble. Phoonk, some news articles quickly clarified, was an Islamic funeral ritual to blow away bad spirits. And soon we were back in the usual Hindu-Muslim free-for-all on social media.

But what struck me at that moment was that I too did not know exactly what Khan was doing. When I asked some Hindu friends, neither did they. It simply drove home the fact that even many of those who pride themselves on their liberal values know precious little about the other’s community (beyond Ramzan food walks). Khan’s act of prayer in front of Lata Mangeshkar’s body could have been an educational moment for all of us. Instead, it was milked by troll armies to spew hate and unleash an online spitting war. But it was also clear that many liberals rising to defend Khan were themselves not quite sure what exactly they were defending.

It sometimes feels as if in an image-heavy culture we now invest more in photo-friendly symbols than the deeper values. Take the debate that dogged Narendra Modi when he first started campaigning as the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate. Would Modi, known for his penchant for all kinds of headgear, ever wear a Muslim skull cap, the way many other Hindu politicians have done on the campaign trail? His steadfast refusal to wear one was seen as proof of his hardline Hindutva beliefs. But the question should never have been about whether Modi (or any other politician) would wear some cap. The important question should always have been about whether the politician would uphold the Constitution with the same zeal and fervour for all faiths. That’s where any politician needs to be held accountable. In this case, clothes do not necessarily make the man.

In his book Elusive Nonviolence, Jyotirmaya Sharma writes that M.K. Gandhi was quite upfront about the fact that he would “not eat or drink anything cooked in a Christian or Muslim household except bread and fruit”. Yet, Sharma writes, none of this “jeopardised his close relationship with Muslims and Christians”. Muslims and Christians knew he had no hesitation about putting his own body on the line for them. When the Meo Muslims of Mewat were planning to leave en masse for Pakistan after 1947, Gandhi is said to have vowed to lie down on the road so they would have to step over him if they left. In the end, that mattered much more than lunch photo-ops at Dalit homes.

As Gandhi himself said, “The true beauty of Hindu-Mohammedan unity lies in each remaining true to his own religion and yet being true to each other” (the emphasis is mine).

It’s a complicated statement and Gandhi was also against Hindu-Muslim intermarriage, afraid paradoxically that it would hamper Hindu-Muslim unity. In a strange way, though, it was his own deep religiosity which allowed him to have such abiding relationships with other figures who were equally religious but of different faiths. Their faiths may have been at loggerheads but they were still brothers-in-faith. It also enabled him to take on a maulvi who said he had no right to speak about Islamic law. The liberals who looked down on religion with palpable distaste (even if they wore the headgear for photo-ops) were far more alien in comparison. That is probably why some of Gandhi’s greatest foreign admirers, like Samuel Stokes and Dick Keithahn, were originally men who came to India as missionaries. In his book Rebels Against The Raj, Ramachandra Guha writes that Keithahn went to the ashram of the saint Ramana Maharishi and said he experienced “the same fellowship with devout Hindus that I have had with Christians”. He saw more of Jesus Christ’s teachings in Gandhi’s lifestyle than in the luxurious life of many of his fellow missionaries.

While we might remember Gandhi for his interfaith meetings, that was not part of some unity-in-diversity performance piece. It was about expanding his world view without letting go of his own traditions. His solidarity with other groups was based on a vision of an India where all faiths were at home, as opposed to a hope that solidarity could grow organically from sharing haleem and halwa. He was building a society, while many of us give ourselves brownie points for attending an iftar party. A liberalism reliant on photo-op moments cannot but be flimsy.

Now, in an increasingly polarised country, we fall back on moments like Zakir Hussain saying goodbye to Shiv Kumar Sharma for reassurance that all is not lost. We mark each other’s presence at an iftar party or a Diwali dinner almost as if that is the new line in the sand. Gandhi could simultaneously be against both cow slaughter and a ban on cow slaughter, saying “cow slaughter can never be stopped by law”. We are reduced to pointless #JeSuisSteakEater slogans of protest that help no one and achieve nothing.

Years ago, I remember visiting the music school founded by sarod maestro Ali Akbar Khan in California, US. As I looked up at the school building, the first thing I noticed was the stained glass window which had an image of Goddess Saraswati. At that moment, all I thought was how appropriate and how beautiful, Saraswati in a house of music in a Californian town.

It feels strange now to remember that I thought of it as a musical tribute, not a political statement.

Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.


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