THE usually unflappable Javed Akhtar was in an angry froth last week. He shouted ‘Bharat mata ki jai’ not once but three times in a row. It was his farewell speech in the Rajya Sabha but the patriotic zeal looked unfamiliar. I checked up the web for more into this unusual bout of narrow appeal from an agreeable man, aware that fascism needs and woos liberals like him. In fact, fascism remains incomplete if the liberals don’t cave in before its surging appeal.
What I found on the web stumped me. There was a report about the Asia Cup when 67 Kashmiri students were rusticated from their university for apparently cheering for Pakistan’s cricket team against India. The university later took them back. Javed Akhtar, according to the reports, described the students as traitors and demanded that the 67 be packed off to Srinagar, not allowed back.
This is a syndrome identified with any India-Pakistan cricket fixture these days, but to associate it with a usually agreeable person was a surprise. I wish the poet-lyricist had spent some time in the company of Safdar Bhai, heart-throb of Lucknow mehfils and it would have helped him use humour, not rancour, to react.
There’s this instructive incident from Safdar’s kitty. In the 1960 Kanpur Test, Pakistan’s Fazal Mehmood bowled a sharp leg-cutter to India’s Polly Umrigar who had scored a century. The umpire negatived a caught-behind appeal by keeper Imtiaz Ahmed. An elderly Indian fan of the Pakistan team, not unlike the 67 Kashmiri students the other day, was glued to his binoculars. There was a ‘click’, he said. Safdar, the Lucknow wit, guffawed loudly enough for everyone to hear: “Oh you could hear the snick on your binoculars maulana? For that alone Umrigar should walk.” The pavilion burst into a mirthful roar. The maulana too joined the laughter as the game continued to ensnare everyone in its endless thrills.
For better or worse, much like the khaki shorts, the slogan ‘Bharat mata ki jai’ has come to be identified with Hindutva. The Congress slyly supports it for fear of losing the nationalist space. For Indians, according to Hindutva, it is no longer enough to say ‘Jai Hind’ as Nehru or other successive prime ministers would exhort schoolchildren to shout after their annual Independence Day address. Subhash Chandra Bose had coined the slogan as ‘Joy Hind’, making it more musical with his Bengali accent.
Today, if an Indian refuses to say ‘Bharat mata ki jai’, which translates as long live India, and which is not essentially different in meaning from the traditional ‘Jai Hind’, they would be regarded as anti-national. The objective is akin to the Arabised ‘Allah Hafiz’ replacing the Persian ‘Khuda Hafiz’ under Ziaul Haq. These days ‘Allah Hafiz’ reverberates across the Muslim zones of South Asia. Many liberal Muslims who disliked Zia and his Islamic prescriptions have accepted ‘Allah Hafiz’ as a farewell greeting. Some even believe ‘Khuda Hafiz’ is heretic. They should travel to southern India where orthodox Muslim men offer prayers in their lungis and greet each other in Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu and Kannada.
Hindutva is hoping to spread a similar state-induced, thought-changing vocabulary among India’s liberal classes. Javed Akhtar, a self-declared atheist and secular activist, has thus in a way endorsed the ‘Bharat mata ki jai’ slogan, saying it was his right. I’m not sure the left, which cradled his formative days, will back that view.
Will the trend catch on though? A vocal activist who spoke up against Narendra Modi as chief minister in Gujarat had become an advocate of accommodation with his government. There were reasonable people among the ruling fold he informed the house as Finance Minister Arun Jaitley looked on approvingly. To be fair to Mr Akhtar, he did also say he was opposed to people who shouted “Musalmaan ke dosthaan, qabristaan, ya Pakistan.” (Muslims should go to the graveyard or to Pakistan.)
Javed Akhtar’s wayward speech was clearly an ill-conceived response to a rival Muslim MP who had only recently sworn to never say ‘Bharat mata ki jai’ as ‘Jai Hind’ was enough for him.
There’s not much to respect in the politics of Asaduddin Owaisi, Mr Akhtar’s orthodox Muslim rival. Mr Owaisi has used his Muslim identity to win a parliamentary seat routinely from a Muslim corner of Hyderabad in southern India. Imagine the plight of India’s pluralism if the majority Hindu community starts using their religious identity to win elections, a frightful prospect underscored with the ascendance of Narendra Modi. Between Hindutva and people like Mr Owaisi there is a race on to turn India into a parochial ghetto. But Javed Akhtar is not the antidote.
Whether Mr Owaisi shouts ‘Bharat mata ki jai’ or not should be immaterial in a confident Nehruvian nation that Javed Akhtar hopefully wants India to be. How could someone of his political lineage be seen with those his forebears fought?
Not too long ago, a poster showing Amitabh Bachchan against a backdrop of the Pakistani flag was banned in Karachi. The poster announced a telephone quiz contest based on Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Mr Bachchan had hosted the programme in India. The contest was to start on Pakistan’s Independence Day. Was the Pakistani response to Mr Bachchan’s poster an act of legitimate patriotism? Perhaps Javed Akhtar knows the answer.
Published in Dawn, March 22nd, 2016