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September 28, 2007

Ganeshotsav and Indian Muslims

By Irfan Engineer

Popular perception of Muslims in India, and perhaps internationally also, is that Muslims are very religious and conservative. Media and Muslim Ulema, both should be credited for such a perception about Muslims. Recently, Bollywood actor Salman Khan hosted Lord Ganesha in his house for a day during this festive season and the fatwa issued by ulemas suggesting Salman Khan will have to reconvert to Islam by reciting his kalma before he can offer his namaz again or enter Mosque. Nobody has asked for opinion of Ulema. Salman Khan or any of his family members didn't for any Ulema's opinion and didn't want to be guided by them in their faith. Nor I believe, they will heed the fatwa. Muslim Ulema have given suo moto fatwas on many issues. Sania Mirza and Shabana Azmi were other Muslim public figures who subject of Ulema's unsolicited fatwas. When South African President - Nelson Mandela had pecked Shabana Azmi's cheeks, and Sania Mirza on her attire while playing her game, were ordered by the fatwa to cease or repent on their action. Like Salman Khan, neither Shabana Azmi nor Sania Mirza cared for the fatwas. Media was too eager to cover such fatwas as they manage to get better TRPs and print media sells more copies. Though give impression that there is unanimity in Muslims about the fatwas issued by ulema. Nobody else seemed to care about these fatwas, except some conservative section within the community who see it as an opportunity to come on TV debates with their beards and skull caps. However, I will not be surprised if the viewers and the readers carry home the view that Muslims are very inflexible and uncompromising in religious matters.

Salman Khan was not the only Khan who has participated in Ganeshotsav or other Hindu festivals. My own investigations and filed surveys show that a number of Muslims participate in Ganeshotsav Mandals and in festivities and celebrations of all religions. In the year 1997, there were communal riots in Pen Taluka in Alibaug District, about 150 K.Ms. from Mumbai. Shiv Sena BJP coalition was in power. Muslims of Pen alleged that some of those in Ganesh Visarjan procession of a particular mandal refused to budge from the spot where mosque was located for over 45 minutes and were playing loud music deliberately to provoke. Some threw vermillion on the mosque and evidence of that was visible during our investigation at the height of about 20 feet above on the mosque and in the water with which Namazis perform their ablutions. Some Muslim youth got provoked despite the advice of elders to the contrary and threw stones on the procession leading to mayhem. There was lathi charge and the processionists   had no option but to leave Lord Ganesha there and to run for their lives. Several people were injured in the lathi charge. Later, a Muslim youth felt disturbed seeing idol of Lord Ganesha lying in open. He mobilized his friends - both Hindus and Muslims and together they completed the visarjan of Lord Ganesha with all the rituals. We confirmed this from many Hindus, and even the local RSS pracharak. We also found many Muslims in Pen taluka who were office bearers in various Ganeshotsav Mandals.

In the same year there were riots in Junnar Taluka near Pune. I and Secretary of Bahujan Mahasangh Shantaram Pandhere proceeded to Junnar to do fact finding of the riots, again over visarjan of Lord Ganesha. On the way Pandhere asked me, why don't Muslims welcome the visarjan procession while they are passing through the mosque as that would root out any potential mischief by any communal element. I thought yes the solution was not so difficult and Muslims could be persuaded to do so. When we reached Junnar and talked to the Muslims and Hindus from various parties, we found the Muslim response to the procession was that on one hand they had covered the mosque with tadpatri cloth so that while visarjan processions are passing, vermilion wouldn't land on Mosques. In the Konkan belt, Ganeshotsav is as enthusiastically celebrated by the Muslims as by Hindus, if not with more enthusiasm. Even in Mumbai, several Muslim Mumbaikars participate in celebrations of Ganeshotsav and other Non-Muslim Festivals like Holi and Diwali. Likewise, Tazias as worshipped by Hindu women in most of rural areas. Why then the Ulemas chose to single out and react to only Salman Khan? Was it because he is a Bollywood actor and issuing fatwa against him ensures a good media controversy and therefore publicity? Is that the reason why unsolicited fatwas were issued against Shabana Azmi and Sania Mirza? If the answer to these questions is yes, and I don't see any other reason for issuing suo moto and unsolicited fatwas, the less said about personal ambitions of such religious leaders, the better. Nizamuddin Awliya, while walking on the banks of river Yamuna in the wee hours of morning, once told his disciple Khusro pointing to a Hindu women performing surya namaskar: O Khusro! Don't look at her with indifferent eye, she is also worshipping Allah. For there are as many ways of worshipping ( ibadat) Allah as the sand particles on the bank of river Yamuna! Sufi saints never gave importance any particular way of ibadat. What was important was to raise oneself to be spiritual and have love of Allah in his/her heart. Love of Allah means to love and serve all his creation, including all human beings irrespective of their religion and ways of worship, animals, plants and nature.

Thanks to our lazy habits, our knowledge, outside our daily chores, profession and carrier is almost entirely dependant on media. Rarely do we feel motivated to re-examine what popular media doles out to its viewers and readers and look at fact beyond. We want knowledge, but only what is served to us easily. We become uncritical and passive consumer of news. We let media shape our perceptions and attitudes, particularly about minorities, and too willingly agree that Muslims are inflexible in exercise of their religion. The segregated and ghettoized lives that we live, facilitates these perceptions. When the media covers the threats of Hindu moral police objecting to Richard Gere kissing Shilpa Shetty, we do not conclude that entire Hindu society is conservative, for we know from our experience that it is not so. We are naturally more knowledgeable about our own situation. Why do we, then, so naively conclude that an isolated threat issued by conservative section of Muslim community represents the views of entire community and there is no diversity of opinion within the community?