The Idea of India – By Shabana Azmi

In this political season of slugfest where our netas are outdoing each other in dividing us on the basis of our differences (caste, creed, language, religion) ; it’s good to come across a piece that talks beautifully about the ‘Idea of India’ and how these differences unify us.

I would thank Shabana Ma’am for sharing the script of her speech which she delivered at an event for Rahul Bose’s NGO ‘The Foundation’ on 22nd February 2014. And with due permission, posting it here because it’s a must read! 

Speech – The Foundation’s – The Idea of India 

Good evening ladies and gentlemen.

Rahul Bose’s commitment to the Foundation is that of a missionary. I have watched him from the beginning of this journey and feel privileged that he has included me in ‘this path less traveled by’.

For today’s event I have watched him become a one man army. It has taken him two years to put this together – involving people of such repute as are present this evening. He has been both the Chairman of the Foundation and its Peon. More power to you Rahul and thank you for including me.

I’ve been asked to speak on ‘The Idea of India’. I’d like to begin with a sher of my father-in-law the noted Urdu poet Jan Nisar Akhtar.

 Tu is qadar mujhe apne qareeb lagta hai.

Tujhe alag sey jo sochoon ajeeb lagta hai

India is in the air I breathe. India is in the fragrance of the mogra, India is in the poetry of Kabir, Ghalib and Tagore, in the strains of Pt. Ravi Shankar’s sitar. India is the silence of meditation in the muted serenity of the Himalayas. India is also a cacophony – loud weddings, louder prayers, honking horns and shouting TV anchors.

India is a country that lives in several centuries simultaneously – She lives back to back in the 17th , 18th, 19th , 20th and 21st centuries and her people at any given time and place encapsulate all the contradictions that come from being a multi religious, multi cultural, multi lingual and multi ethnic society. Her rich diversity, her inherent pluralism is both her strength and her weakness. Her diversity makes her unique but it also makes her seemingly impossible to govern.

India exudes beauty: the white symmetry of the Taj Mahal, the vibrancy of Madhubani, the colors of Kutch, the carvings of Konarak. Yet India is a visual sore: garbage mounds, discarded plastic bags and open gutters.

India is an olfactory assault: smoky air, putrid drains, and burning cow dung. Yet India floats the fragrance of agarbatti, the smell of coconut and the seduction of Itr.

India is a story of lost opportunities, unresponsive governance; the abode of illiterate, poor, blind and the sick. But India is dreams and soaring aspirations of the young the energy of entrepreneurs, and feisty spirit of voluntary organizations.

India assaults sensibility with its women abusers walking with impunity amongst the goddess worshippers; with starving children living next to warehouses with rotting food. But India offers hope with Democracy a Constitution and a Justice System.

To me the idea of India is simple. She is a Secular Democratic Republic and her greatest strength is her composite culture – her ganga- jamuni tehzeeb.

I was raised in a commune like flat of the Communist party which was called not surprisingly The Red Flag Hall. Comrades like the great Urdu poet Ali Sardar Jafri, my father Kaifi Azmi and eight other families had just one small 280 sq. ft. room each with a strip of a balcony that was converted into the kitchen. Eight families lived together with just one bathroom and one toilet. My father was a whole timer and would get only 40 rupees to look after my mother, my brother and me. So there was never any money but it didn’t seem to matter at all because the residents of Red Flag Hall were tuned to the sound of a different drummer, they were committed to a larger goal. They were determined to struggle for social justice, gender sensitivity and celebration of India’s composite culture. All festivals were celebrated with much fanfare – Holi, Diwali, Eid, Christmas. As kids we were taken to the Sarvajanik Ganesh Pandals. On 26th January we would be put in a truck and taken to see the lights at Chowpatty – we imbibed India’s pluralism almost by a process of osmosis.

Today however that pluralism seems to be under threat. Communalism is raising its ugly head and permeating into all stratas of society. Religion is being used by Fundamentalists of all hues to divide people for vote bank political mobilization. Mobocracy is threatening the very tenets of Democracy and much more needs to be done to stem the rot. We need to recognize the signs of danger around us. It is said that if you put a frog in a cauldron of boiling water it jumps out and saves itself. But if you put it in tepid water and gradually turn the temperature on the frog doesn’t realize it till it is too late and dies. We are like the frogs who do not realize that the temperature around us is being heated up and very soon it might become too late.

If you ask me who I am I will say I am a woman, an Indian, a daughter, wife, actor, Muslim, Mumbaikar etc… my being Muslim is only one aspect of my identity and yet in India today it seems as though a concerted effort is being made to compress identity only into the narrow confines of the religion one was born into at the cost of all other identities! But this is a construct; it is not the truth of India – India’s greatest identity is her composite culture. If you look at a Kashmiri Hindu and a Kashmiri Muslim they have much more in common with each other because of their cultural identity their Kashmiriyat – than a Kashmiri Muslim and a Muslim from Tamil Nadu inspite of the fact that they share a common religion.

There is much that needs our attention if we want the Idea of India to flourish. As India seeks to become a global power we must also pause to ask which model of development needs to be pursued. Who’s development and at who’s cost is a question that begs to be answered. It cannot be the progress of a few at the cost of many. One of India’s greatest challenges to me is that large infrastructure projects need to be put in place to drive the engine of growth but this will necessarily lead to displacement of large numbers of people. Unless the principle of social justice is applied to resettling the displaced no genuine development will be possible; in fact there will be social unrest and chaos as has been witnessed in Nandigram and other places. The project affected person asks “If I am displaced from the land of my birth for ‘the greater common good’ then surely I have a right to demand that I am the first beneficiary of that project or at least one of the beneficiaries”. Alas! such is not the case as experience shows. We need economic progress without doubt but the benefits also need to reach those sections of India where ‘the sun is not shining’.

The vision of Rahul Bose’s The Foundation is to see a world free of discrimination of all forms. We know that in India all kinds of discrimination exist but what is heartening is that a robust civil society and hundreds of NGOs are putting up stiff resistance to work against discrimination of all kinds particularly discrimination against women. Women are breaking their silence, women are speaking the language of rights. Women are saying don’t call us Goddesses, treat us as equal human beings and the change is perceptible. In Mijwan a tiny village in UP Azamgarh where I work, girls as young as 8 and women as old as 80 are saying girls are equal to boys. Girls are refusing to be pushed into marriage before the age of 18 and are aspiring to work and become self sufficient.

There are also our artists, some of them present here today who are fighting for the right to freedom of expression and through their work have demonstrated that Art knows no boundaries; Art soothes, Art excites, Art provokes. I believe Art has the possibility of creating a climate of sensivity in which it is possible for change to occur.

The major idea of India is inclusion – men and women, poor and rich, old and young, tribal and urban all must become active participants in the polity who strive for Equity, Justice, Agency and Empowerment.

India is not a melting pot in which individual identities are submerged. Instead India is a colourful mosaic in which individual identities are retained whilst contributing to a larger whole. India will always remain more than the sum of its parts.

The long and the short of it is simply this – I am proud to be an Indian.

Thank you.



As residents of the “secular” and democratic country – India, whose constitution “guarantees” everyone the right and freedom to practice their own religion; we all should be proud of the secular fabric that exists in the country. But the recent controversy about Madhya Pradesh government’s decision  to strengthen the existing cow slaughter prohibition Act (Madhya Pradesh Gauvansh Pratishedh Adhiniyam 2004)  made me re-think about the greatness of India when it came to being “secular”.

I searched the internet and read about some of the laws that exist with respect to animal slaughter in the country and was quite baffled to know that the Directive Principle of State Policy in Constitution calls for protection of cow and progeny. Cow holds a “special” status in the country (Ala Brahmins) and slaughter, possession, sale, transport of beef and beef products is prohibited and amounts to “crime” which can even lead a person into the prison (T&C Apply) . But the same generosity is not shown to other animals. May be they are ‘Dalits’ of the animal community. Sounds funny? It isn’t!  In fact it freaks me out that how we want to shove the beliefs and values of a particular community (Hindu) just because it is in the majority. Today, nearly two-third of Indian states have banned cow slaughter.  Main features of legislations enacted by the States/UTs on cow slaughter  How can we curtail the freedom of others at the expense of a particular community?  Cow might be holy to the Hindus but it isn’t for others. What about the Muslims, Christians, Parsis & Sikhs who want to eat beef but can’t eat because it’s not available in their cities. And even if it is available; finding a beef shop is like ‘finding needle in a haystack’. Will Ganga stop washing your sins if people set up a beef shop in Haridwar?  We never bother about the slaughter of pigs and selling of pork which is prohibited in Islam. Why? The answer is simple – because Muslims make only a certain 13.4% of the total population of India. Firstly, state should NOT have any in what people can sell (Exclude drugs, arms, etc) or eat and there should be no second thoughts about it. Secondly, even if it has (which it should NOT), why should it have double standards? Doesn’t it hamper the very idea of secularism?  We are in the 21st century and instead of moving ahead we want to go back into the dark ages. What more could explain Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister’s claims of cow dung being the solution for every god damn problem and Cow being our only savior! As one MP of the party said “Marne se bachna hai to gai ki sharan mein aana hoga (To escape death, leave yourself at the mercy of the cow),” This just makes me sad!!

What makes me even sadder is the hypocritical ‘holier than thou’ attitude of Hindus towards cow. Technically speaking; Hinduism is based on the concept of omnipresence of the Divine, and the presence of a soul in all creatures, including animals. Thus, by that definition, killing ANY animal would be a sin. No?  But still they eat & I think it’s fine!  Who am I to dictate? But I fail to understand my Hindu brothers & sisters who are OKAY with eating all sorts of non vegetarian delicacies ranging from chicken & meat to fishes & prawns but when it comes to cow the ‘Virat Hindu’ in them rises.  Can anyone be more hypocritical than this? I can’t understand the “compassion” that comes out only for cow and not for other living beings. Their compassion, like them, has double standards. If a cow and a dog is slaughtered in front of my eyes, I would feel equally sad for both and no where will be my sadness more for the cow. To me; both are living beings. Also, why & how cow became so “sacred” for Hindus and other animals didn’t remains a mystery to me because there are MANY Hindus who do eat beef. Also, to my knowledge no where any Hindu scripture professes special status to cow. And the same logic applies to Muslims also who are OKAY with eating all other non vegetarian cuisine but have issues when it comes to Pig because it is “unclean”. Give me a break!

In a book published a few years ago on India’s dietary traditions, Prof DN Jha, spoke about historical evidence of beef-eating practices in ancient India. Historian Romila Thapar also said the same “The eating of beef was reserved for specific occasions, such as rituals or when welcoming a guest of high status,” But as expected, she drew flack from the ‘rightists’ of our country and history text books for Class VI authored by her were changed! It’s high time we realize and speak up against the archaic ideas and notions that exist in our country. India faces zillions of problems today – inflation, depreciating value of rupee, terrorism, rising prices, corruption, poverty, unemployment etc. but we are still trapped in this ‘what-to-eat’ and ‘what-not-to-eat’ debate! We surely have lop sided priorities. And as I end this post; I leave you all with a question to ponder upon –  “Do you want to “talibanise” even the food in India?”

P.S. – I don’t advocate ‘vegetarianism’ anywhere. To each his own!

Mumbai Diaries

It was March 1993; The ‘Phalgun’ month. People of India are always upbeat around this time welcoming the arrival of spring season. The chill disappears with warmth tapping at our doors. Beautiful colored flowers and their sweet aroma had filled the air around me. Everything around was vibrant and colourful. Suddenly I saw red all over. I thought it was Holi. But I was wrong. Amidst the cries of people I realised that the red that had painted me was the blood of my people. It was a terror attack. Bonfires were lit that night and many other following nights. Sadly it was not the Holika Dehan !!

It is 2011 and after getting raped brutally & heartlessly by constant terror attacks I am exasperated now. I am tired of watching dead bodies that get laid on my streets every time an explosion occurs. I feel suffocated when I listen to the cries of children & their parents who lose each other every time an attack occurs. A morbid feeling envelopes me when I see old couples trying hard to meet their ends because they lost their son/daughter in one of the many attacks.  I am filled with remorse every Rakshabandhan when I see the empty wrists of brothers who have lost their sisters. I feel helpless when I see people remembering their loved ones every year on their death anniversaries. I feel dejected when I see political parties playing politics over deaths also. I cannot handle the pain of losing my people anymore now.

They say my spirit is unmatched and my people are brave; who fight every time a blast occurs. But they don’t see the grief; the pain in our eyes. I am neither brave nor am I spirited; it’s just that I don’t have an option. My people board a local the very other day of the blast because if they don’t their family will die of hunger anyways. Kids go to schools because they have to learn. I don’t want candle light marches. I don’t want sympathy. I don’t want stupid tokenism. I want JUSTICE. I want SECURITY. I want ACTION. They talk of resilience and encourage us but I am fatigued after coping up always. I feel like a ball who is tired of “bouncing back” to normal. I fear I will burst soon. I fear one day the spirit, the resilience and the courage will vanish off with the black smoke that arises every time a bomb goes down my spine  !!

CASTE CENSUS- Is it worth the hype?

The decennial census of India is the primary source of information about the demographic characteristics of the population of India. The 2011 census will be the largest census in the history of mankind. But of late, the 2011 census is in news for the bad reason and media and socialites have started calling it THE ‘CASTE’ CENSUS and much has been said about the same. Even Amitabh Bachchan has voiced his concern saying that “My caste is Indian” and the urbane class seems to have found a new ‘mantra’ which they keep on chanting now!

The Indian caste system describes the social stratification and social restrictions in the Indian subcontinent, in which social classes are defined by thousands of endogamous hereditary groups, often termed as jātis or castes. Many believe that cast is a part of Hindu society but I would like to correct the misconception here because none of the Hindu scriptures endorse caste-based discrimination!!  But its terrible that now its a part of Hindu Society! And why only Hindu, don’t we have Christian Dalits? Or is the Shia-Sunni system of Muslims any better?

Coming back to the issue of Caste based census.  Many feel that caste based census is not important in today’s time and have been criticising the Govt for the same but have we ever thought who are these ‘many’? These are essentially the people from elite class or from cities I suppose who believe things are hunky and dory always. Because ‘Caste’ today is a concept, which is deeply rooted amongst the Indian Society that even if we pray to God I doubt he/she can help! I absolutely condemn the caste system and I wish my future generations take birth in a caste less society but if I sit back and think pragmatically I realise that it is a dream too difficult to be turned into reality.

 People who are saying that their caste is Indian, I want to ask all of them that how many times have they filled the school forms of their children mentioning the Caste ‘Indian’? In almost all of the Competitive exams in our country there is a column for Caste. Did we protest? NO. If somebody asks a ‘Gupta’ that are you a ‘baniya’? He/She says YES. I don’t think they say “No, I am an INDIAN!!”


Then why we are suddenly going mad over the whole issue. Mr. Bachchan doesn’t know the real ‘picture’ of this country. 63% of India is rural and this means 63% of India’s population believes in Caste and other ideologies. And let me be unbiased and say that even urban India with its fair share of educated class believes in Caste. So it is a waste of time to blabber about Caste Census because I really don’t think we can make a difference by criticising a census which aims at knowing the statistics in our country.

Let us start from our homes, our families! I am a ‘Brahmin’ (Yes I know my caste) and I feel embarrassed while writing it  but we are still not allowed to touch our sweeper because my grandma creates a fuss over it. And though I am trying from the past 15 years but I have failed miserably because she is still the same. And I can bet that there are hundreds of such homes in India where this happens. The urban class still has a ‘separate’ glass for their maids. So as it is said ‘charity begins at home’, please let’s clean the mess in which (if not all) most of us are trapped in! 

Now coming back to the census, the Caste census I believe has its share of pro’s and con’s. I think caste census would surely help in tabulating the exact number of the underprivileged people (hate using the term) and the Government can plan schemes accordingly. But as every coin has another side, I also have concerns regarding the caste census. What if the census says that 60% people are SC/ST? I know it’s a hypothetical thought but still somewhere I feel my concern is valid enough.

As I end this post I would like to make it clear that in no way I endorse the Caste System but I also don’t want to ignore the reality and I want everyone to see the mirror for once. I hope that people understand the problems of Caste System and try to remove the barriers of Caste (which I firmly believe is IMPOSSIBLE now). Also, No more ‘feel good’ statements like ‘My caste is Indian’.