Sectarian Violence in India: The Story of the One Riot

November 28, 2001

Riot: A Love Story by Shashi Tharoor


JOANNE MYERS:It is a great pleasure for me to welcome one of my favorite people, Shashi Tharoor. For me, the challenge this afternoon is not to provide an introduction for Shashi's discussion, but to find the words that will convey to you why I think Shashi is so special.

Even though Barbara Crossette once said it best when she said that "Shashi could read the Yellow Pages and we would all listen," I know he would like to have a proper introduction. And, although many of you know Shashi and are familiar with many of his attributes, a little background information is always useful.

To begin with, he is an unusually skilled diplomat, as evidenced by the eleven years he spent with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which included three and a half years in charge of the office in Singapore during the Boat People crisis. He was the transferred to the peacekeeping staff at UN Headquarters, where, until late 1996, he was responsible for peacekeeping operations in the former Yugoslavia.

But it was in January 1997, with his appointment as Executive Assistant to Secretary-General Kofi Annan that Shashi's role at the UN began to grow. Subsequently, he was appointed Director of Communications and Special Projects in the Office of the Secretary-General. Currently he is Interim Head of the Department of Public Information, heading a 735-member staff spread over sixty-five countries.

However, since this afternoon's program is to highlight his recently published book Riot, a story which is based on Hindu-Muslim tensions in India, I would like to direct your attention to Shashi's remarkable talents as a writer, for it is not just his knowledge of history and his staggering font of endlessly fascinating information and insight, but the energy, wit, and luminously eloquent prose that informs whatever he does.

His books include Reasons of State, a scholarly study of Indian foreign policy; The Great Indian Novel, a political satire; The Five-Dollar Smile and Other Stories; and a second novel, Show Business, which has been made into a motion picture titled Bollywood. His previous book, India: From Midnight to the Millennium, was published on the fiftieth anniversary of India's independence and was discussed here at the Carnegie Council at that time.

Shashi was awarded the Excelsior Award for Excellence in Literature by the Association of Indians in America and the Network of Indian Professionals. He is also the winner of the Federation of Indian Publishers' Best Book Award and the Commonwealth Writers Prize.

There is no question that, whether speaking or writing his numerous articles, op-ed pieces, or reviews, Shashi has been known to hold audiences spellbound. Any attempt on my part to embellish his record further is really quite redundant. As you can see, his very presence projects his personality.

Therefore, the only thing left to say is welcome to the Carnegie Council.


SHASHI THAROOR:Thank you so much, Joanne, for that extraordinarily generous introduction. As LBJ used to say, "It's the kind of introduction that my father would have enjoyed and my mother would have believed."

I welcome this opportunity to meet people who come to the Carnegie Council because they enjoy thinking about issues, grappling with things that matter, and very rarely come here to listen to authors of fiction. So perhaps I ought to explain myself right off the bat.

This is a novel about a riot, a real riot, which I'll tell you about in a minute. But in the U.S. it carries the unfortunate subtitle "A Love Story," because, as a novel, one element is indeed a love story, and that's what the marketing gurus of my American publisher chose to highlight.

In the U.S. edition, you see a beautifully designed cover, colorful Rajistani fretwork and gold on black and the Lejiak photograph, the sun setting over Mughal Monument, and that subtitle. While in the Indian edition you've got a photograph of an actual riot from the news pages of Life in India, an overturned cart, someone or something smoldering on the ground, ashes and smoke rising, people standing about in attitudes of stupefaction. And, of course, that subtitle is missing.

It is both a love story and a hate story, and the publishers in India put the book out not just as a novel, but also as a novel about issues that matter in India. It has been gratifying that the adjective that at least three or four reviewers have used about the book in India is not one normally associated with fiction reviews, and that is the adjective "necessary." A number of reviewers, including one who didn't particularly like the book, thought it was necessaryin the public discourse in India at this time.

I was happy to accept Joanne's invitation to speak to you about the broader issues that lie behind the novel through the story of the riot. The book was worth writing because of the phenomenon of "communal tension," as we call it in India. "Communal" is a word that is largely bereft of pejorative meaning in this country, but in India "communal" really refers to sectarian. A communalist is a bigot, those who identify themselves as groups in contention with other groups, and hence the term "communalism."

Communal tension in India has been a phenomenon of our contemporary history for some time. After the great tragic bloodletting of the Partition of 1947 when Pakistan was created as a homeland for India's Muslims, communal tension subsided only to return in the last fifteen years in a way that has caused Indians to pause and reflect about the nature of our society and where the country is heading.

I use the word "riot" for the title because it's stark, it's one word, it's clear and simple. The riots, tragically, have been a phenomenon of our independent history for some time, and communal riots " that is, riots between two religiously defined communities " have been a particular political problem in contemporary India.

There are other kinds of riots as well, I'm sorry to say. When tempers fly in hot climates, people tend to let go of themselves. There were, for example, Shia/Sunni riots at the time of the Muharram procession. But the Hindu/Muslim riot is the archetypal riot which has bedeviled politically India's recent experience for quite some time.

In writing this novel I actually benefited from the first-person account of a real riot that occurred in 1989 in the town of Khargor in Madhya Pradesh, in central India, where the District Magistrate, whose job it was to administer the district, and therefore handle the riot, happened to be a college classmate of mine, who sent me a first-person account of his experience. It was so evocative that I recommended strongly that he publish it, which he has done this year as it happens, by coincidence, with my Indian publishers, Penguin-India in a collection called Unheard Voices, where he talks about some of his experiences as an administrator in India through the 1980s and early-1990s.

The novel opens with a press clipping which says: "American Slain in India," a news agency dispatch telling you that a twenty-four-year-old Manhattan girl who was volunteering in a population clinic while doing her doctoral dissertation on women's issues in India was killed in a Hindu/Muslim riot. The agency quotes the Embassy spokesman as saying, "Well, she must have been in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Then you turn the pages to find other press clippings. Her father had worked for Coca-Cola in India at the time and her parents were going back to see where she lived and died. The article is an account of people talking about her and her life and her parents' desire to go back to India.

Next you get a cable from the foreign editor of The New York Journal, asking his correspondent in Delhi to follow the parents around and file 1,200 words a week. And then, you get excerpts from the journalist's diary, fragments of conversation, interview transcripts, letters, correspondents of various sorts, even poems exchanged by a couple of principal characters, and, through a dozen different voices, American as well as Indian, you discover the events that led up to the riot in the novel as well as to the killing of the American girl.

You also encounter the themes that concern me in this novel: love and of hate; cultural collision, in particular, in this case the Hindu/Muslim collision, the American/Indian collision, and within India the collision between the English-educated elites of India and people in the rural heartland; and as well, issues of the unknowability of history, the way in which identities are constructed through an imagining of history; and finally, perhaps, the unknowability of the truth.

The novel is set is 1989, a year largely forgotten in Indian history, which I felt the need to revive in this novel.

It was a period which has been dwarfed in later public consciousness by the destruction, in December 1992, of a disused sixteenth century mosque in India, the Babri Masjid, and the horrendous riots and killing that followed. The mosque was destroyed by a howling, chanting mob of Hindu fanatics egged on by political movements of a Hindu chauvinist preservation.

This resulted in a backlash from the Muslim community, riots across northern India, followed by riots in Bombay against the Muslim community, then bomb blasts in Bombay that destroyed a number of major buildings, killed many people, knocked out the Stock Exchange. India reeled under the impact of all these events from January 1992 to January 1993. But 1989 was the key year when the agitation that was to culminate in the destruction of the mosque really began to gather steam in India.

Just to give you a brief background about that, the Babri Masjid sits in a town called Ayodhya. The great Hindu epic "The Ramayan," which was written between 400 and 200 BC, is the story of the god king Rama, who was born and ruled in the kingdom called Ayodhya, and then was banished because of the machinations of an evil stepmother with his wife Sita. Sita was then kidnapped by the demon king Ravana, who lived in Lanka. Rama, with the aid of the monkey warrior Hanuman and his brigade, defeats Ravana in battle, destroys Lanka, brings Sita back, and eventually is restored to his rightful place on the throne and rules as a wise and beloved king for many years.

This legend, which I have stripped to its very essentials, is more than just a legend or a myth. It is not quite The Iliad or The Odyssey. It is a legend infused with religious meaning to most Hindus who see Rama as an incarnation of the Lord Vishnu, one of the three gods in the Hindu trinity. The word "gods" is used loosely, because Hindu philosophy argues that divinity is unknowable by human consciousness, that human beings cannot attain the divine, but have to find other ways of reaching out to the godhead. Therefore, you worship manifestations of gods. In that, we have a trinity, Rama, Shiva, and Vishnu--the creator, the destroyer, the preserver--and incarnations of these gods, as well as their wives and consorts. There are 333,000 forms of manifestations of god, including different physical forms and names, which the average Hindu can choose from, like a palette of colors in a painter's box, and choose to worship, through the imperfect limitations of the human consciousness, as a means of reaching the godhead.

I digress just to explain that Rama, therefore, is seen as one of these figures, an incarnation of Vishnu, and therefore is worshipped by many. Historians do not agree as to whether there ever was a figure like Rama, or if he did exist, when he lived. There is no consensus that the Ayodhya of the epic is the Ayodhya in present-day India in the eastern part of the state of Uttar Pradesh, nor that Lanka is the Sri Lanka of today.

And so Ayodhya is a town overflowing with temples, but on its most prominent hill, in a position dominating all the other buildings and temples, sat since 1526 the Babri Masjid mosque, built by the Mughal conqueror Zakir-ud-din Muhammad Babar. Many Hindus believed that the temple was installed by destroying an earlier temple on that site which commemorated the birth of Lord Ram.

There is no historical authenticity involved, but a great deal of emotion and passion, and many people therefore began saying that since a Muslim conqueror had put a mosque on the most sacred site in Hinduism, it should be replaced by a temple.

In 1947, with Partition, a significant percentage of the Muslims of Ayodhya migrated to Pakistan, and the mosque was hardly being used, at which point suddenly a group of Hindus claimed that an idol of Ram had spontaneously emerged in the temple, which of course was not very easy for rationalists to believe. But the case went to court, and the District Magistrate, rather than ruling on the merits of this case, simply put a padlock on the temple and said that neither side can worship there. That went on from 1948 all the way up to this period.

But then began the rise of what has been called Hindu fundamentalism. I find that a very odd phrase, because "Hindu fundamentalism" is a contradiction in terms. Hinduism is uniquely a religion without fundamentals. We have no single sacred book, no Hindu Pope, no Hindu Sunday, no uniform set of beliefs that we all have to subscribe to. Nonetheless, the so-called Hindu fundamentalists or "Hindu chauvinists" or "the extremists" began to agitate for the padlock to be removed and the mosque to be replaced by a temple.

When the government stalled and said the matter has to be settled before the courts--which means in decades and not in years--the agitation took on a more dangerous color.

In 1989, the Ram Shila pujar was announced, a call to villages all over India to bake and consecrate bricks to the Lord Ram and bring them to a central point in each town, march to the district headquarters of each district, and then collect all the bricks eventually in Ayodhya to build a temple there. During this time a number of villages, particularly in northern and central India, were seized with this madness, bricks were baked, and the processions to collect these bricks became inevitably a focus of communal tension. Somewhere between a dozen and twenty riots broke out in 1989, in each of which a handful of people were killed, but cumulatively it was quite calamitous.

In the riot in my novel, the trouble starts when this agitation is beginning. The story of the riot itself is told through three voices: the Hindu chauvinist leader of the town, who speaks with passion about his convictions about the wrong that he is trying to right; the district administrator of the town, who talks about trying to control what happened; and the superintendent of police, who had the responsibility for managing the breakdown in law and order.

There was no foreigner killed in the riot, and the American girl is entirely fictional as are all the relationships and characters in my novel. But the bare bones of the riot are based on real fact.

People started collecting bricks, a huge procession was planned on a Friday, the Muslim holy day. There had already been a lot of provocation in the Muslim areas of the town and tensions are at a fever pitch. While Hindu youths are putting up banners on the eve of the march, a couple of Muslims emerge from the darkness on motorcycles, with their lights switched off, and stab whomever they can hit within reach, and then ride off. There is no doubt, from the point of view of the Hindus, that this has been an attack by Muslims. Tempers are completely inflamed. No one is killed, but a few are seriously injured. One of them is disfigured and put in the hospital.

Immediately, the district administrator and the superintendent of police wake up. They summon the Hindu leaders and say, "Look the situation is getting out of control. Stop the procession." The Hindu leaders refuse. The town itself is overrun by about 30,000 people collected from all over the district to march. Can the administrators actually prevent the march from taking place physically" Do they have the resources to do it"

So seeing the mood, the administrator and the policeman say, "All right, you can go ahead and march, but no chanting of inflammatory slogans, no brandishing of anything that looks like an offensive weapon, otherwise we'll remove your police permits to march." And these Hindu extremist leaders agree.

The next day the march starts, and of course they ignore the prohibitions. They are brandishing sword-like weapons, the trident that is associated with the god Shiva. They are also chanting deeply offensive slogans. And then, they try to take the procession towards the Muslim areas, where the principal mosque of the town is.

And a couple of people come running and say, "A bomb has been thrown in the procession. Somebody has been killed." The police rush to the spot where a crude, homemade bomb has been thrown. Somebody is lying bleeding to death.

What do they do" A group of Muslims, goaded and maddened with rage by all that is happening, have decided to make a few homemade bombs to throw down from the balcony in order to attack the procession. To head off worse, the police open fire on the house to prevent the mob from exacting its revenge. One of the bomb-throwers is arrested and the details of the plot unfold.

But in the meantime, while attention is diverted by this episode, the Hindu mob decides to move towards the Muslim Muhalla, and they start hitting Muslim shops and homes, and violence ensues, in which seven or eight people are killed.

Why do these things happen" Firstly, it has to do with a sense of identity. It's odd, as I said earlier, that Hindus acquire a fundamentalist trapping to their identity because Hinduism is a religion which for over 3,000 years has practiced tolerance in a way that every single faith known to humanity, with the possible exception of Shintoism, have found homes in India. We have the oldest Jewish and Christian communities in the world outside Palestine. One of the Apostles, St. Thomas, Doubting Thomas, came and converted high-born Hindus, died in India and was buried there in 52 AD. We've had the Parsees, who came from Persia, fleeing their Muslim persecution in the seventh century. We've had Islam, which in the north of India did come by the sword, but in the south came peacefully by traders and missionaries.

For this culture that has traditionally been extremely open to suddenly be taken over by those who developed a notion of identity is a deeply worrying development.

But the "who we are" phenomenon is always defined in relation to "who we are not." Therefore, you formulate a Hindu identity in opposition to non-Hindu identities. And similarly, other communities are also guilty. There is no question that the way in which some Muslim preachers in India have formulated their view of Islamic identity in this context, in a society in which Muslims are as a minority particularly vulnerable, is also nothing short of irresponsible.

So you've got the issues of identity and history. One of the characters in my novel, who is a Muslim historian at Delhi University, asks: "Is there such a thing as my history and your history and your history about my history"" And it becomes a key issue because what we're facing in the world today, is very often a consciousness, real or imagined, of wrongs done in the past that need to be redressed in the present.

An interesting scholarly study was done by a former Harvard professor, Mishugun Golash das Varshni , who studied riots in a number of towns in India and then looked at towns of similar demographics where riots had not occurred. He concluded that riots don't occur when there is enough interaction between the communities in daily life. That is, if Hindus and Muslims are playing chess or trading or acting in plays or in trade unions together all the time, they would be less prone to attack each other.

I want to end my brief outline of this experience of sectarian violence with a story from the book, which goes to part of the heart of the problem that leads to riots and violence. Ultimately violence occurs between communities each of which believes itself to be in possession of "the truth," however the truth may be defined.

One of the characters tells a 2,000-year-old Indian tale from Apuranas about truth. There was an ancient warrior who sought the hand of a beautiful princess. The princess's father thought the warrior was a bit too callow and cocksure, so he said, "You can only marry my daughter, the princess, when you have gone out and found truth."

So the warrior sets out on a quest for truth. He goes to mountaintops where sages meditate, to forests where ascetics scourge themselves, to temples and to monasteries, but nowhere can he find truth. He traveled throughout the kingdom, and in despair one day, and seeking refuge from a thunderstorm, he finds shelter in a musty cave. There he finds an old woman, an old hag, sort of loose skin hanging off her bones, with warts on her face, her hair all matted and dirty, her teeth broken and yellow and rotting, her breath malodorous. But as he talks to her, he discovers with every question she answers that she is truth.

So, after talking all night, when the rain ends in the morning, he says, "I've come to the end of my quest. I've found truth. What shall I tell them at the palace about you"" The wizened old crone smiles and says, "Tell them that I'm young and beautiful."

Thank you very much.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION:India has the largest Muslim sub-population outside of Indonesia. Had the British grip been so oppressive that then 1947 released all of the emotions"

SHASHI THAROOR:Actually, the British did the opposite. What happened was that initially, between roughly 1757, the victory of the Battle of Plassey, and 1857, the British decided that the safest way to rule was to leave well enough alone; if they have child marriage, if they burn their widows, if they kill each other in rituals, leave them in peace. That was the ruling philosophy.

There were a few exceptions, such as the abolition of thuggee. Today the English word is "thugs" " people who garroted travelers for their money, in the name of the goddess Kali. So it was not an interference with a religious practice, but largely because the British wanted the roads to be safe.

But in 1857 occurred what the British called the "Indian Mutiny" " which many of us prefer to refer to as the "Indian Revolt" " when Hindus and Muslims made common cause against the British. Hindus and Muslims serving in the British Indian Army both rose in revolt after being issued new cartridges which were greased with " in typical British tactlessness, I might add " pork and beef fat, so that they managed to get both communities offended in one go, with the result that the Army mutinied.

But also, a number of principalities that owed nominal allegiance to the British also rose up, Hindu and Muslim alike, and fought side-by-side. And, for a couple of years, they threatened the continuation of British rule in India to the extent that it looked briefly as though the British would in fact be expelled, but in the end the mutiny or the revolt was effectively suppressed.

At that point, there was a famous memorandum, written by a British civil servant in 1860, which said, "We must learn from the ancient Roman maxim "divide et empera," divide and rule. And so, it became a cardinal tenet of British policy to divide community from community in order precisely to facilitate rule, to enhance a greater consciousness of communal divisions. >p> What is interesting is that through more than a couple of centuries of Muslim rule that preceded the British, even though there had been intolerant Muslim rulers who destroyed temples or levied attacks on non-believers, there had always been Hindus fighting in the Mughal armies, Hindu courtiers, Hindu ministers.

It was when the British adopted this policy that a conscious effort was made to separate the two communities, right down to the twentieth century when the British finally, after much Indian agitation, granted a limited franchise for elections to non-self-governing councils. They did so on the basis of communal lists--that is, Muslims voting for Muslim representatives, Hindus voting for Hindu representatives--deliberately to prevent mass mobilization that transcended religious grounds.

So certainly, the communal divide in imperial India can be traced very much to conscious British policy. What the Brits were good at was suppressing acts of violence.

And I don't want to pretend there were no communal riots. The most famous riot, the Moplah Rebellion in southwestern India in the 1920s, is described by most historians today as a peasant uprising, rather than a communal riot, because it so happened that the Muslim peasants were rising up against the Hindu landlords. But it was given a communal complexion during British rule as a way of showing that "once you see these Muslims and Hindus killing each other, we're not that at least."

What happened with Partition was that, to some degree, initially this was dampened down, because a country was created; and for awhile if a Muslim agitated, he was simply told, "If you don't like it here, go to Pakistan; they created it for you."

That again changed after 1971, with the creation of Bangladesh, when what was East Pakistan, in effect, demonstrated that religion alone cannot hold a country together. In their case, it became an issue of ethnicity and language that led to the separation of Bangladesh from what was then called West Pakistan.

At that point, as you said correctly, the Indian Muslims became the largest single Muslim population in any country after Indonesia. There is some dispute as to whether that figure is still accurate today, because most of these calculations are based on censuses in the early-1990s, and the rate of population growth in Pakistan has been so much ahead of that in India, that there are probably more Pakistani Muslims than Indian Muslims.

Today Indian Muslims have every right to assert their claims to a place in the Indian sun. They are in a democracy. They have political and religious, and their own personal law in India, where they do not have to subscribe to the common civil code. On issues of marriage, inheritance, and divorce, for example, they practice their own legal system, which is acknowledged under the Indian Constitution. So there is a Muslim political identity within India, but it is not monolithic. There are Muslims in every major political party, in every kind of office, Muslim generals in the army, two Muslim presidents of India, Muslim governors, ambassadors, chief ministers.

QUESTION:How much of the current friction between India and Pakistan is based on religious differences" And secondly, within India itself, how threatened does the government feel by the rise of militant Islam within the nation"

SHASHI THAROOR:As a UN official, I can't comment too much on the politics of the India-Pakistan situation, except to say that obviously religion lay at the root of the Partition, and to that degree it's an obvious issue.

But the Indian governments have successively always insisted that they spoke for a country for everyone. At no stage did the Indian national ethos buy into the argument that once a state had been created for Muslims, what remained was a state for Hindus. It became an article of faith in India that it was a country for everybody.

That is one of the sub-themes of this book, that an Indian Muslim is as much an Indian as an Indian Hindu. There are Indian Christians who were Christian long before Europeans discovered Christianity. Every faith has as much a place in the Indian mosaic as the majority faith, which is Hinduism.

No Indian government, for example, has ever fallen into the trap of arguing that there is a religious cause. Their position vis-à-vis Pakistan or any other country is based on other issues " whether political, strategic, territorial, or policy " but never religion.

As to your second question, the rise of militant Islam has become an issue of late. Many in India would argue that it was indeed to some degree the rise of this kind of identity politics, driven by Hindu chauvinist parties, that has provoked its mirror image amongst the Muslims.

Others argue the opposite. It is sometimes said that for a long time in every community in India you had Christians saying they're proud to be Christian, Muslims saying they're proud to be Muslim, Sikhs saying they're proud to be Sikh, and Hindus saying they're proud to be secular. At some point, Hindus are bound to rise up and say, "Hey, we want to proud to be Hindu too." That, indeed, became one of the first slogans of the Hindu resurgence in the eighties, was "gal sai kaho kayam hindu," "say with pride that we are Hindu." This became challenging the secular elite in India to acknowledge the Hinduness of the majority.

But there has been a rise of a certain amount of Islamic fundamentalism within the domestic context in India, religious schools being founded, where education is largely confined to religious instruction, where people tend to see their identity solely in religious terms. There has been the common phenomenon, as in every Muslim society, that what the preacher preaches goes beyond religion to the articulation of grievances that, in turn, serve in political terms.

It was very interesting the other day at the Council on Foreign Relations to hear the Jordanian government representative talking about how in Jordan every mullah that is certified by the government has to go through a process of instruction before he is allowed to preach.

In India, there is no such policy, so indeed anyone who has the religious qualification as he or his community sees it to preach can do so. The government recently banned a couple of Islamic fundamentalist groups, including the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), which was a very hot-headed bunch of young students or recent students, particularly in the context that they wanted to march off to Afghanistan and fight the Americans.

QUESTION:The war in Afghanistan obviously has put a spotlight on both India and Pakistan, but it has probably exacerbated the situation. Do you see any hopeful signs in the relationship between the two countries"

SHASHI THAROOR:Again, that's a tough one for me to answer as a UN official. I'm here with two hats at once, and I can never quite forget that I have the non-writerly hat on as well.

To the extent that I can talk about these things publicly, I would like to be optimistic. I would like to feel that the way in which the countries of the region have come of a mind, or a common view about what has happened on September 11th and its aftermath, the way in which they have all assisted the U.S.-led coalition, the way in which they have come to a consensus about what the situation is and what it should be, including in Afghanistan the broad-based government suggests that there is a common ground emerging on which a platform of greater friendship can be built.

There is always the alternative fear, however, that once this particular problem is settled, the countries might be freer to focus on the differences that existed before September 11th, and that things might actually get worse without the global coalition to keep the peace.

QUESTION:I'd be interested in your reactions to reviews, both the predictable and unpredictable responses to this book.

SHASHI THAROOR:It has come out so far in America and India. There are other editions down the pike.

The Indian edition has had extraordinary reviews, which I'm very pleased by, with one or two dissenters about my politics. There are a couple of reviewers who feel I have been unduly harsh on the Hindu chauvinist elements. One of the criticisms that has explicitly been made is that the principal Muslim character in the book is a liberal historian, whereas the principal advocate of the Hindu chauvinist point of view is, as they see it, a caricatured, right-wing zealot.

To which my answer as a writer is that I wasn't trying to put up stereotypes and they weren't meant to be seen as juxtapositions of each other. The Muslim character happens to have an interior life, with his own sense, and he's a historian, and passionate about his reading of history and the project that he's there to research when the riot occurs. He is not just meant to be a representative Muslim figure, and indeed there are many things about him that are not representative of much of Muslim opinion.

There is more than one Hindu character. The district administrator is a Hindu, and he's a Hindu of a certain bent, which is quite different from the extremist who's portrayed there. So I argue that it would be wrong to simply juxtapose one on the other. It's unfair to the Hindus and to the Muslims.

I also argue that as far as this extremist is concerned, that the words I put in his mouth are actually not bad at all from their point of view. I think I express their point of view better than they can do themselves of late, because, like most zealots, they tend to be intemperate in their language. I have actually structured their case fairly well for them.

The book is number three on the best-seller list in India and the best-selling Indian novel, because the two ahead are John Grisham and Bridget Jones' Diary, or something. In the U.S., the reviews are almost unanimously wonderful. I say "almost" because we had a rather nasty one on Sunday in The New York Times. But I had extraordinary reviews in The Washington Post a few weeks before that, in The Seattle Times which was almost embarrassingly generous, in The Los Angeles Times, in the Hartford Courant.

I'm gratified by the way the Americans have read the book--not so much for its discourse on the politics of communal issues, but as a story that tried in an experimental narrative form to underline and illuminate certain truths about this side of the human condition.

QUESTION:Perhaps I missed this, but I was going to ask you what the relationship is in India between church and state as such? Secondly, the question of identity developing; was that related to the creation of a nation state? And thirdly, the question of the Muslim minority; to what degree would it be regarded as a fifth column by the Hindus, as being associated with the Muslims surrounded by and surrounding India, and with what justification?

SHASHI THAROOR:That's three and a half questions right there.

First, on church and state: there is no state religion. The Constitution prescribes complete freedom of religion and belief and worship, and there is a total separation of church and state.

Second, I love to say jokingly that talking about Indian nationalism reminds me of the two political scientists arguing about a problem, where one political scientist says, "You know how we can solve this problem" We can do this and this and this and we can solve it.? The other political scientist says, "Yes, that will work in practice, but will it work in theory?"

It's exactly the same thing with Indian nationalism. If you look at the classic theories of what creates a nation state--geography, language, religion, et cetera--none of those things apply. But it works in practice.

Geography doesn't apply because the natural geography of the subcontinent, framed by the mountains and the sea, was hacked by the Partition of 1947.

Language doesn't work because we have thirty-five languages spoken by more than a million people, eighteen of which are recognized in the Constitution, and if you pull out an Indian rupee note, you will get the denomination in eighteen languages.

Religion? No, for the reason that I explained earlier, that we have every religion known to man in India, all free to practice, many there for a couple of thousand years.

Ethnicity? No, because we are an amalgam of ethnic types, of colors of skin, of facial features, of all the classic elements that go into ethnography. And what is worse, some Indians ethnically have more in common with people who are "foreigners" than they do with other Indians. An Indian Punjabi or an Indian Bengali is ethnically more kin to a Pakistani or a Bangladeshi, respectively, than to a Punawli or Bangaloran.

None of these classic elements of nationality go into the Indian identity. So what makes India? What makes it an identity? It is, if I can quote from Peter Pan, "because it's an Ever-Ever Land." It is a land that has emerged from an ancient civilization, that is framed by a common historical experience, on a common geographical space, and there is, above all, the identity of an idea that this is a land for everyone who has ever belonged to it and who chooses to belong to it, irrespective of their language, their religion, the color of their skin, the food they eat.

Let me see if I can try to recapture my alliteration. I said the whole argument is that in India you can survive differences of caste, color, creed, culture, conviction, costume, and custom, and still rally around a consensus, and that consensus is on the basic principle that in a country like India you don't need to agree all the time, so long as you agree on the ground rules of how you will disagree.

So the identity that emerges is an identity of multiple identities, where every Indian can simultaneously believe that he has a religious identity; a state identity, which often is co-terminus with his ethnic identity; a linguistic identity, which sometimes matches his ethnic or state identity; and finally, a national identity. So you can be a good Muslim, a good Keralaite, and a good Indian all at once.

That sense of multiplicity of identities is one of the things I greatly cherish about India, because I feel passionate about Indian pluralism. That pluralism is ultimately what is going to save the world as a whole as well. Every one of us in this room is simultaneously many things. India has managed to construct a political system that enshrines that as a virtue rather than as a fault.

Your third question about the so-called fifth column, that is an allegation made by some of the Hindu extremists. This is a charge levied against Muslims, and many of my Muslim friends resent having to prove themselves over again. Whereas it is assumed axiomatically that if you are a Hindu, you must be a patriot, that a Muslim zamarhas to wear his patriotism on his sleeve. And why should they? There are Muslims who have died in wars with Pakistan, who have served the country in all sorts of extraordinary ways. The father of the Indian nuclear bomb and the missile program is a Muslim. Presidents of India have been Muslims.

So Muslims say, quite rightly, "Why should we have to prove? This is our land. This is where our ancestors are buried. This is where we belong." And, of course, my Muslim character in this book articulates this point of view very strongly.

QUESTION:Religion is not related to nationalism or the state?

SHASHI THAROOR:Yes, you can be anything and be an Indian. And indeed, that is so central in my view to the Indian ethos that if that ever changes, a lot of people like me would have to be out there on the streets protesting, because that is the entire nature of India, is as a land in which there is no one way of doing anything. If America is E. Pluribus Unum, India is E. Pluribus Pluribum. I once said to an American audience that if America is a melting pot, then India is a tali. Have many of you been to an Indian restaurant? A tali is a steel plate on which you get a number of different dishes in different bowls, which don't necessarily mix with each other, but they combine together on that taliplate to give you a satisfying repast. That is the Indian multiplicity of identities.

QUESTION:Your presentation told us a lot about you and your country. This situation described in your book reminds me very much of what happens in other parts of the world. Is there any lesson for the future in the book?

SHASHI THAROOR:I must say, that you have asked me an awkward question, because I've always tried to resist--in all the six years that I handled the former Yugoslavia, I used to insist on resisting comparisons with India. In fact, Ernst here used to be an Ambassador from Yugoslavia to India, so I'm sure he will share with me the feeling that these comparisons can be rather facile.

When you look back on some of the elements that ethnic conflict produces, we are looking at situations in which human beings are revealing their fundamental insecurities, which are true perhaps irrespective of the geography they find themselves in. What is it that people want ultimately? Everyone wants to be safe, to have a roof over their heads, to bring up their children in a peaceful world, to have food, clothing, shelter, some prospect of advancement and pleasure, and life.

It is only when you convince yourself, not only that you don't have that, but that you don't have it because somebody else has it, and he has it because he's not like you, and therefore have a justification for hitting him or killing him, or at least displacing him, that these ethnic conflicts arise.

Looking back at what has happened in so many of the conflicts that have ravaged the world today, you see a failure of state structures and of the international system to give people the sense that there are ways in which they can have these basic things for themselves and their families; but that also it is not that they do not have it because others have it. That we have failed to inculcate.

You see that certainly in much of the sense of grievance that animates many parts of the world today against the United States or against normalization, or in issues of communal tension or religious violence. And you saw it, to some degree at least, in what ripped apart the former Yugoslavia.

Identity is certainly a hallmark of the phenomena that afflict the world today--the search for identity, the clashes between identities. It's ironic that we're living in a world in which the forces of globalization are sweeping identities aside, in creating this one integrated market for consumerist capitalism, and at the same time, societies and countries are being driven apart by this desperate search for identity, in opposition not just to globalization but to national structures.

So to that degree, yes, as a UN official, I see these elements in common. I see the dangers of the kinds of phenomena that I've written about as a novelist on the global stage.

Are there any lessons for the future? I'm going to come up with a paradoxical one. I do believe that we in the international community have a great responsibility to continue to affirm our common humanity and responsibility for the humanity of others, including their ability to live decent lives, and that includes the great objectives of the Millennium Declaration, which cannot just afford to be a declaration of heads of state on paper, but something that really changes the prospects of human beings.

But at the same time--and I'm not saying this merely because the UN, for which I work, is an organization of nation states, of member states--paradoxically, the strengthening of the national structures is also a useful phenomenon. And I'm not saying this at the expense of the very important global interconnections that are taking place, but that the advantage that we have in nation states is that you have platforms within which identities can be constructed and safeguarded, where people within a nation do not feel the bewilderment that they sometimes feel in being overwhelmed or swept aside by global forces. Their identity is made secure under the carapace of the nation state, provided that national identity is one that encourages pluralism, and also tolerates the coexistence of these identities with other identities. If you can do that, then you've got your answer.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Read MoreRead Less