Irena Akbar, a former journalist and currently a Lucknow-based entrepreneur has written an article in Indian Express on secularism saying in the title that it (secularism) “is no spectacle”. Citing the example of Nusrat Jehan, the young MP from West Bengal, Akbar says that one does not have to wear sindoor (the vermilion powder that Hindu married women sport on their forehead and along the parting of hair) and haul the Jagannath Rath (the Holy Jagannath carriage) during its “yatra”. In other words, according to her, one need not wear secularism on one’s sleeves. These are only totems and traditions that are reflective of the Hindu culture.
What was most interesting for me was what she wrote at the end of her piece and that was a suggestion that for upholding the secular inclusive values it would do well if one went to the basics: “you follow your faith and I mine. Let each be.” This set bells clanging and something came to me from the distant past. This is precisely what the culture was like when I was growing up almost 80 years ago in the small city of Gwalior, the capital of the eponymously named princely state. The state had come out of regency lasting about 19 years when, in 1936, the young 19 years old Jiwajirao Scindia ascended the throne.
He inherited everything that was present in Gwalior – its culture, its Secularism, its administrative smartness, everything was in place since before his birth. And he seems to have readily accepted to go along with the established traditions that were being adhered to. The state revelled in secularism. The young Maharaja would take part in the Dussehra festival just as he would be a part of a Muharram procession astride a black and white horse. His ministers would do the same and thousands would throng the streets to get a glimpse of him whether during Dussehra or Muharram. I remember my father would hand hold we kids to an acquaintance’s place to watch the procession from a broad 1st floor balcony giving us a ring-side view of the Tazias, including the massive one of the Maharaja and, of course, the Maharaja himself on his distinctively bred horse.
Life revolved round the Maharaja and it was he who set the pattern. His ways would effortlessly get transferred to the society in general. I, therefore, do not recall any communal conflict till immediately before or after the partition. It was so peaceful. And it was so because of the adherence to the basic principle “you follow your faith, I mine”.
Our favourite tonga-walla was a Muslim named Abdullah of whom I have very fond memories. My father used to be professor in the only degree college the state had and that was in Gwalior. Its faculty contained erudite men from all over India, from the South as well as from the North and the East – Bihar and Bengal. It even had a student of Harold Laski who got a doctorate from the London School of Economics. There was a Maulana who used to teach Persian and there was Jan Nisar Akhtar, a very well acknowledged and very well thought of Urdu poet and father of currently popular TV personality Javed Akhtar. Jan Nisar Akhtar later moved to Bhopal where Javed was born. The faculty, thus had a sprinkling of all communities, all lived and worked in harmony.
The professor of Geography was MA Qureishy who was the closest friend of my father. He also taught my eldest brother and later my sister in the post graduate classes that came up much later, after independence. Both and numerous others, including myself, who had had the occasion to hear his lectures could not but hold him in highest of esteem.
Likewise, we have fond memories of our Muslim friends. They were just friends for us and we never thought of what their faith was – which sub-consciously we thought was their business. They would come home and my parents would be hospitable with them. My father’s students too would come home to get some problems solved and were welcomed like numerous others. The unadulterated love and affection received by them sentimentally attached them to all of us. I remember Naeem Ahmed, a student of my father, came to see him one last time before he left for Pakistan with his family. Again, another Muslim student, a son of a nawab of a nearby principality, was afraid to stay on in the hostel during the post-partition disturbances. He was given the offer to move into our house.
In those days men and women were men women who were generally not identified by their faith. They were fellow human beings. The distrust that we come across in the society today was largely absent. Yes, there was no democracy to split the populace in myriad splinters – each at the throat of the other in dog-eat-dog fights. Raucous people’s rule was absent as the feudal was the benign lord and the master besides being the sole arbiter. The absence of democracy meant non-existence of politics and politicking to divide the people for seeking votes on communal basis. Above all, there was absence of politicians who generally are the instruments of dissensions and discords, indulging in acrimonious debates. Life was simple, unhurried and peaceful where humans were not complicated, devious and mean.
Looking back from this distance of time one would tend to regard those days as idyllic – devoid of conflicts, insidious scheming and communal skirmishes. Since the present-day schism is basically between Hindus and Muslims one finds so much to commend Akbar’s basic value that, in all likelihood, will restore the long lost peace and tranquility enabling all communities to live in harmony again.