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Why it’s time to bring back national integration

Remember the India in which the saleability of national integration was bigger than Swachh Bharat? It's time to bring it back

A screen shot from Mani Ratnam’s 1995 film, ‘Bombay’.
A screen shot from Mani Ratnam’s 1995 film, ‘Bombay’.

I am Hindu and Muslim. Actor Salman Khan said this in a courtroom in 2015, according to a news report in The Indian Express. Khan was referring to the fact that he’s a product of an interfaith marriage, but I can see it as the tag line of a government-run public service advertising campaign aired in movie theatres across the country. Children born from interfaith marriages can chant this line (and its variations) in sweet, innocent voices until we’re so inspired by the syncretic fabric of this nation that we leap up for the national anthem before Justice League without being nudged. Cut to reality.

My cornball idea probably originates from my 1970s’ and 1980s’ childhood, when we were all subjected to an unfaltering dose of animated propaganda on state-run Doordarshan that highlighted this country’s diversity.

Remember Films Division’s Tree Of Unity (1972), where a bunch of different-coloured potato-head characters get together to plant a sapling that grows into a big strong apple tree? When the bad guy comes with his axe, they capture him together. He fights them off until an apple falls on his head. That makes him abandon his desire to fell the tree and they all happily scrunch apples together. Moral: An apple a day keeps divisions at bay.

Another short, Ek Anek Ekta (1974), has 5.8 million views on YouTube, most of them probably nostalgic parents clicking to show their digital-age children the India they aren’t growing up in. Also, who can forget that fabulous 1980s’ production Mile Sur Mera Tumhara? Piyush Pandey, the lyricist on that project, recalled the beauty of the brief in an interview earlier this year: “It was single-minded: ‘we are talking of national integration and nothing else,’" he said.

Remember the India in which the saleability of national integration was bigger than Swachh Bharat? It’s time to bring it back. Constructing toilets is definitely an important national activity, but learning to live together is an idea in which we need a critical refresher course. Let’s enrol politicians first to remind them that elected representatives shouldn’t use their office to spread hatred or display their appalling ignorance about any particular religion.

While receiving the Indira Gandhi Award for National Integration last month, Carnatic musician T.M. Krishna said that growing up, national integration was a significant part of his vocabulary. “Leaders from across the political spectrum spoke about this with great vigour, re-enforcing its centrality to India…. But I say with regret that as we entered a new millennium, this idea of national integration lost its sheen, it did not attract anyone’s attention, it did not matter any more…. We spoke much about development and soon national integration became passé." Bring it back, he added, and let the new definition encompass Dalits, tribals, ethnic and linguistic minorities.

Last week in the Hindustan Times, Maulana Azad’s biographer Syeda Hameed said India had forgotten the youngest Congress president who spoke passionately about the importance of Hindu-Muslim unity over even something as important as swaraj (self-rule). “Delay in the attainment of swaraj will be a loss for India, but if our unity is lost it will be a loss for entire mankind," Azad had said in 1923. Replace swaraj with development or open defecation in 2017 and the idea still holds.

Why just Azad? Schools should emphasize diversity by introducing our children to male and female heroes from all communities. Eid should be explained with the same gusto as Diwali and children should understand that Indian Muslims are not Pakistanis (and that calling someone Pakistani is not a slur—but that’s a column for an integrated India).

The easiest way to turn the spotlight back on the idea of national integration would be through Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Twitter account and via Mann Ki Baat, his monthly address to the nation. Modi could share a picture a day: A man in a skullcap playing cricket with a sadhu, or a burqa-clad woman walking home with her child dressed as Lord Krishna, Hindus celebrating Eid, Muslims celebrating Diwali—everyday India essentially.

On his radio show, Modi has riffed on everything from the importance of Khadi and the necessity of the goods and services tax to the women’s cricket team and why we should buy eco-friendly idols for Ganesh Chaturthi. He has skimmed over ideas of national integration too with statements such as “unity in diversity is India’s speciality" and “sports can be a means for national integration" but he needs a bhaichara (brotherhood) speech that goes viral.

Something that has mass appeal, like the poem actor Jaaved Jaaferi shared in a YouTube video: Nafraton ka asar dekho, janwaron ka batwara ho gaya, gai Hindu ho gayi aur bakra Musalman ho gaya (see the effect of hatred, even the animals got divided. The cow became Hindu, the goat, Muslim). Every famous Indian leader from Vivekananda to Sardar Patel had thoughts on Hindu-Muslim unity and I am eager to hear the Prime Minister’s take.

Another way to promote national integration is to broadcast all the interfaith love we can. Remember that famous case that caused a national sensation in 1995? Narayan Mishra’s son Shekhar fell in love with the burqa-wearing Shaila Bano, daughter of Bashir Ahmed. Both fathers were predictably outraged and threatened to kill or destroy each other. Yet when the village got involved, the Hindu father said: “This is a private matter between the father of the girl and the father of the boy. Why is everyone saying kill/cut? Go away."

When Mishra said to his son, “Who will marry your sister if you do this?" Shekhar replied matter-of-factly, “We will find her a Muslim."

“Marry her when I die," his father said. “I can’t wait till you die," Shekhar replied.

The script of Mani Ratnam’s Bombay may have annoyed many film theorists but it showed a couple fighting for their fundamental right to love across religion. We haven’t seen much of that in the decades after. If only Manmohan Desai were alive. He would know how to remake the idea of national integration as Bollywood blockbuster in New India—and nobody would want to ban his film.

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.

She tweets @priyaramani

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