Monday, October 24, 2016

For dignity in life and death - JAWED NAQVI

Liberal ideologues were bound hand and foot as the states pursued their faith-based route to social control.

A NEWS story from Sweden has rekindled what was a mere fading hope for fair play. This may interest atheists in the subcontinent as elsewhere. According to the story highlighted in leading British newspapers, a graveyard free of any religious symbols has been opened in Sweden to cater to the country’s growing number of atheists. In a world brought to its knees by its religious preferences it is a bold step. For the reviled tribe of cynics, it should be a welcome departure from the daily setbacks.

Earlier, I wrote about a rare TV channel that opened in the United States. Atheists run it and propagate their creed. Among other issues they discuss the possibility without ramming it down anyone’s throat that we may have evolved from apes. However, both sides eventually benefit from debating faith and doubt. The fact is that modern atheists have evolved from major or minor religions although Hinduism claims the oldest tradition as questioners. In India, charavakas questioned the Vedic order thousands of years ago. This would not be very different today, but state-backed religious revivalism in India and Pakistan browbeats discussion into forced submission.

In the United States where McCarthyism hunted communists, they didn’t spare atheists either though not all of them are Marxists. The wheel has turned full circle, or thereabout. ‘In God we trust’ still continues to be the legend on the dollar bill as advocated by the founding fathers but the constitution resolutely protects everyone’s right to free speech and belief. It offers equal protection to America’s atheists, be they Jews or Gentiles in origin, and that’s laudable.

By contrast, similar clusters in India and Pakistan live in a state of mortal threat. A group of atheists from different corners of India planned a conclave in Mathura the other day. Hindutva groups loyal to the right-wing government together with members of the Muslim clergy opposed the meeting. This the two often do to jointly throttle debate.

India’s constitution, drafted by an entrenched critic of organised religion, however, gives MPs the choice to take their oath of office in the name of God or to ‘solemnly pledge’ allegiance to their new office. I am not exactly familiar with the larger provisions for atheists in India but my surmise is that they have equal rights with those with beliefs. Things are changing, however.

On what grounds was the Mathura conclave subverted? Apparently the police threw up their hands citing threats from the muscular religious opponents. But isn’t this how the various Senas and Lashkars are shored up on both sides of the border, in a not-so-secret pact with the state? The police told the Mathura organisers to hold their meeting but not come for help if they were attacked

Consider the flip side. In India, the army protects an annual Hindu pilgrimage in Kashmir. Anyone who opposes the Amarnath pilgrimage — even though the annual melee of devotees takes a toll on the fragile Himalayan ecology — must confront the best-trained coercive arm of the Indian state.

To keep a balance of social control, the Indian state runs the only system in the world that subsidises Muslim citizens who go to Haj. Also the foreign ministry fetches Chinese visas for the pilgrimage to Lord Shiva in Tibet. And when the fruits of religious fervour turn toxic, as they did in Punjab, the state strains the limits of its secular army to destroy religious aberrations it foisted for political gain. 

A million dubious apologies follow but there’s no such luck for the sceptics. From the little that I know there does not appear to be a Haj subsidy in Pakistan. The official airline arranges to fly out pilgrims for a fee and brings them back.

Lofty liberal promises the two countries made to their people on independence were bartered away to religious groups, sooner in Pakistan and slowly but steadily in India. Liberal ideologues were bound hand and foot as the states pursued their faith-based route to social control.

The state of play overrides the fact that undivided India inherited a tradition of atheism, older than most other civilisations. The charavakas or nastiks, as Brahmins called them with derision thousands of years ago, confronted a stubborn clergy with logic and reason. (They would convince Prime Minister Modi that ancient India did not discover plastic surgery.)

Three shining stars of this Indian tradition of questioning and debate were murdered in a deliberately violent campaign in recent years by Hindutva partisans. Many others have been silenced or marginalised by the state and its religiously inspired mobs. Atheists in Pakistan — they exist and I have met a few — lead an equally precarious life. The clergy keeps them in a state of fear not without help from dubious leaders who started out as liberals.

The late Jaun Eliya, in the tradition of fine Urdu poets, including those fighting pitched battles in Pakistan, poured acid on the state of affairs. Hum wo hain jo khuda ko bhool gae/Tu meri jaan kis gumaan mein hai? (True, we are those that forgot God/So what is the illusion that you applaud?)

We do not know if Jaun Eliya was an atheist or a polemicist. For his verses, according to the orthodoxy, he should burn in hell. Let’s assume he was prepared for that. Can we let him be? Safdar Hashmi and Zohra Sehgal among others asked to be cremated, not buried. It helped them dodge religious ritual in death as they had done in life.

Sweden’s idea of a cemetery, bereft of religious or nationalist symbols, thus extends the choice for everyone to go with the dignity with which they had lived. Whatever happens in the hereafter, if anything should happen, should be no one else’s business.


see also
Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able, and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?