In Death, at the Least, We Are One. But Not in Vadodara

BJP leaders' objections to a Muslim volunteer at a crematorium raises an interesting and devastating question.

The head of the Bharatiya Janata Party in Vadodara, Gujarat, Vijay Shah, and some other leaders of the party are reported to have objected to the presence of a Muslim person who was helping in the cremation rites of a party member.

According to report, the Muslim man in question has been a contractor for the supply of wood and cow dung cakes for Hindu funerals.

The day in question was a Friday, and he was wearing a skull cap.

Vadodara BJP chief Vijay Shah. Photo: Official website.

Shah is reported to have said that it was wrong for a Muslim to be inside the crematorium since he knew nothing about Hindu rituals.

The mayor of Vadodara and some other BJP people differed with the view of the party president; they did not think it apposite for such a view to be taken during pandemic times.

Apparently, Muslims have helped in some one thousand cremations at the site during COVID-19 mortalities.

The reported episode raises an interesting question. 

At the time of the Pandit exodus from the Kashmir Valley in 1990, some few families chose to stay back and never leave the Valley.

Depleted in numbers and wherewithal, the last rites of those among them who died in subsequent years have regularly been organised by Muslim Kashmiris.

These Pandit families have often expressed their deep emotion of oneness with the Muslims and their gratitude for being so cared for, most of all in such times of calamitous helplessness.

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The president of the BJP in Vadodara may be asked this simple question: has it been right and proper of Kashmiri Pandits to accept with warmth the unfailing assistance rendered to them by Muslim Kashmiris in seeing that their dead receive dignified cremation?

Vadodara mayor Keyur Rokadia. Photo: Twitter/@keyurrokadia

And, conversely, those Pandits who, following the exodus, set much store by the Sangh (although greatly and vocally disillusioned since) may be asked the same question: should Muslims, be it in Vadodara or Kashmir, be asked to keep their distance from Hindu cremations?

And may Hindus and Muslims generally be encouraged to think about which aspect of religions – Hindu, Muslim, or other – ought to be embraced by common people in their daily lives – the doctrinal and ritualistic, or the non-discriminatory humanist?

The Sangh often makes the argument that the term “secular” was not incorporated by the founders in the body of the constitution because it was understood that Hinduism, being catholic and broadminded, would automatically ensure communal pluralism. Thus, incorporating that word would tantamount to casting aspersion on the catholic sweep and tolerance of the majority faith.

Clearly, the party leader in Vadodara seems not to agree, whereas Muslims both there and in the Valley do. 

The fact is that the salad-bowl pluralism of India’s unprecedentedly diverse social profile has indeed, to a very considerable extent, been both theoretically and in practice bolstered by the humanism of both faiths – of Bhakti saints, by and large, and Sufi mendicants. Yet, is it not tragic that the politics of the Sangh requires that this humanist confluence be destroyed in favour of a political-ideological Hindutva? 

The mayor of Vadodara is to be complimented for the stand he took in the afore-mentioned episode of the cremation of a party member.

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Remembering 2002, it is to be much hoped that his stand reflects more than a cursory or convenient position. And that the catholicity he expresses in our time of catastrophe as well as the experience of left-over Pandits in Kashmir Valley will carry reconsiderations of a more far-reaching kind in the years to come, proving the truth of the contention that Hinduism ipso facto makes for the humanist secularism of India.

Is it not desirable that our conjoint experience of death at the hands of an invisible and non-discriminatory scourge sent, no doubt, by god teach us now to be homo sapiens before everything else?

The existentially devastating virus then provides opportunity for a new cognition of a common human destiny.

Badri Raina taught at Delhi University.