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How Did Premchand See in a Gathering of Muslims Only an Unending Thread of Brotherhood?

I am unable to say Eid mubarak the way he could, from his heart in ‘Eidgah’. The child in his classic story, Hamid, can be killed today by his own village folks as he goes to pray – all because of the cap he wears.

Jama Masjid. Credit: PTI

Normally, on Eid, people come together in warmth and prayer. Conviviality is what the festival is about. No more. Not since the image of little Hamid from Premchand’s classic ‘Eidgah’ was replaced with the horrific picture of young Junaid of Ballabhgarh, Haryana, beaten to death by a mob as he was returning from Eid shopping. His cap identified him as a Muslim. On the occasion of Eid yesterday, Muslims in villages across many parts of north India came together in grief and fear, not celebration.

The writer whose mind is imprinted with Premchand’s extraordinary descriptions of the universe shaped around Eid wonders whether the festival will ever be the same again. 

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Remember Premchand?

“Eid is here after an entire month of fasting during Ramazan. What a wondrous dawn it is – the trees are a rare shade of green; the fields are alive with a rare excitement; and the sky is streaked with a rare reddish glow. Look at today’s sun, luminous and benign, as if giving Eid greetings to the whole world.

“The village is humming with activity; people are readying themselves to go to the Eidgah. Someone sees a button missing on his kurta and runs to the neighbour for needle and thread; another, finding his shoes unbearably stiff, goes bounding to the teli’s house for some oil to soften the leather with. There’s a rush to feed the bullocks. It will be afternoon by the time they return from the Eidgah. A distance of about 9 km to cover by foot and so many people to meet and greet there – it will be impossible to return before afternoon. ”

During Eid, I recall the writer’s classic short story Eidgah. I have not come across a better description of the cheer – elation would be more accurate – that Eid brings with it. Premchand, who in his own words is a kayastha bacha, finds even nature transformed on the occasion. It is doubtful if anyone can rival his description of the Eid prayer.

“Suddenly, the Eidgah came in sight. The thick shade of a tamarind tree above, below a jajam spread out on a pucca floor. Row after row of rozadars stretching far beyond, where there is no jajam even. New arrivals come and take their place at the back; there is no room in front. No one bothers about wealth or position here. Everyone is equal in the eyes of Islam. The villagers too duly performed wazu and stood in a row at the back. How beautifully it is managed and organised. Thousands of heads bow together and then rise to their feet together; again they bow together and rise to their feet together, like thousands of electric bulbs lighting up together and then dimming together. This action is repeated several times. What an exceptional sight it presents with its collective actions and unending expanse – filling the heart with reverence, pride and inner joy. As if one single thread of brotherhood connects all those souls, creating an unbroken chain.”

This time, I remembered the luminosity of Premchand’s description with a bitter-sweet feeling which had more to do with my current context. I can’t get one question out of my mind – why is it that the sight of thousands of Muslims does not alarm Premchand? How does he manage to see in a gathering of the community an unending thread of brotherhood?

I can no longer hold my head up in Premchand’s presence. The way he could say Eid mubarak from his heart, I am unable to. And that is because the child Hamid, with whom Premchand’s mature heart races as one, can be killed today by his own village folks as he makes his way to the Eidgah – all because of the skull cap he wears.

Why, the Eidgah itself, which captivated Premchand so, can be razed to the ground by some of his Hindu compatriots.

That is why saying Eid mubarak on a late June morning in 2017 seemed like a false consolation, a false assurance – it was like fooling oneself. In reality, Eid did not bring glad tidings with it this time.

Junaid who had gone Eid shopping was on his way home when he was killed because he was identified as a Muslim. His brothers could have been killed too. Bearing the mark of knife wounds, they survived somehow. Killers, in spite of the full force of their cruelty, often finds themselves defeated by life’s doggedness.

The wounds inflicted on the hearts of Junaid’s brothers go much deeper than the physical stabs they suffered. These were hurts caused by the jabs of crowing laughter and incitement on the part of train passengers, which lent force to every thrust of the knife. The overwhelming silence of the spectators exacerbated the hurt. How do we describe this behaviour on the part of the passengers? They were insensitive, yes; indifferent, yes. Above all they became partners in a crime.

In the last three years, scores of Muslims in different parts of India have been lynched, killed and humiliated. But these acts, in no way, signify their defeat. On the contrary, these acts have exposed the hollowness of the claim made in the name of Hindus till now, that the country is secular only because Hindus happen to be in a majority.

Till now it was claimed that because of the Hindu’s innate liberalism, people from other communities could maintain their distinct identities and practise their ways of worship without making any compromises, without having to change themselves according to the majority’s perceptions.

There was a grain of truth in that claim. Because of that, we were able to hold our heads high. But then something started to change.

Recent events may seem to provide conclusive proof of the hollowness of this claim, but it was proven much earlier in Gujarat that we have been labouring under a gross misapprehension. We have been deluding ourselves.

It has been borne out time and again that politicians pump up Hindus for the purpose of mobilisation, so as to feel they command overwhelming influence as a majority. Members of the Christian and Muslim community who have been victims of this so-called Hindu resentment have been being killed or uprooted. Even the Sikhs, who are looked upon as defenders of the Hindu faith, have had to face the virulence of Hindu resentment at least on one occasion.

It is important to point out that not all Hindus are involved in these attacks. Not only does a section of the community distance itself from such acts; it makes its abhorrence evident. But things have come to such a pass that this section now finds itself helpless and outnumbered even in family discussions. It has receded into silence.

And that is why Muslims no longer have the assurance that was once provided by a liberal Hindu mindset.

Armed with the teachings of Savarkar and Golwalkar in place of Premchand, many Hindus are now making it clear that the Muslims of this country can survive only at their mercy – by adhering to their conditions.

To disregard this reality is to invite a re-run of the incident that took place in Atali (Haryana) near Ballabgarh, three years ago. Despite a court order in their favour, Muslims could not construct a mosque on their own land. When they attempted to do so, their neighbourhood was burned down.

The same story was repeated recently right at the Delhi border, in one of the localities of Sonia Vihar where a mere 25 Muslim families live in the midst of a Hindu population. During the month of Ramzan, some Hindus destroyed a makeshift mosque erected by Muslims.

There was no stopping the Hindu residents of the area. What is more distressing is the fact that other villages nearby felt no sense of remorse whatsoever.

Have mosques become a thorn in the flesh of Hindus now? Are they seeing in the muezzin’s call to prayer a conspiracy to destroy their sleep? Have they stopped reading Premchand altogether?

In such a situation, it would be too much to hope that people might remember what the nightingale of India, Sarojini Naidu, wrote in 1917:

It was the first religion that preached and practiced democracy; for in the mosque, when the azan is sounded and the worshippers are gathered together, the democracy of Islam is embodied five times a day when the peasant and the king kneel side by side and proclaim, “God alone is great.” I have been struck over again by the indivisible unity of Islam that makes a man instinctively a brother. When you meet an Egyptian, an Algerian, an Indian and a Turk in London, what matters that Egypt was the Motherland of one and India the Motherland of another ?

Why doesn’t Sarojini Naidu exhort the Muslim to swear undying loyalty to the soil of his country, in place of lauding the spirit of oneness beyond national boundaries?

What did Premchand and Sarojini Naidu have, that we are bereft of?

I wonder if the Muslims managed to momentarily quell the anxiety in their hearts while offering Eid prayer this time so that they could seek forgiveness for the narrow-mindedness taking root in a section of Hindus – a section which has surrendered to the devil and become incapable of love.

This article was originally published in The Wire Hindi and has been translated by Chitra Padmanabhan

  • Anjan Basu

    Beautifully written! We are grateful to Mr Apoorvanand and The Wire for helping widen our intellectual and moral horizons continuously in these very troubled, and troubling, times. Sad that Golwalkar, and not the great Premchand, has been embraced by the Hindutva brigades as their moral compass.