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March 9, 2001
Your Regression, My Honour, We All Fall Down
One hazy evening when I was a skinny schoolboy of 15 in New Delhi, back in the 1970s, I got badly beaten up. Here's how it happened. I was playing cricket with several other equally skinny boys on a large open ground surrounded by two-storey government quarters. An older boy -- an uncouth, overbearing and hefty bully who sometimes played with us -- and his father suddenly leaned over their first floor balcony and shouted this at me: "If you continue playing, we will come down and thrash you."
Now you probably don't believe it, but the threat was really this sudden and inexplicable. I had done nothing to provoke the pair, then or previously. (I had never even met the father). Nor was it clear why they had singled me out from among the lot of us pigeon-chested heroes. Nevertheless, I saw no reason to stop playing. Nor did my mates. So we kept at it.
A few minutes later the father-and-son first floor thugs, ape-like in their hairy muscle-bound menace, appeared among us. They began belabouring me. I flailed my arms around a bit, but quickly realised that that effort was extremely ineffective. Both were far bigger and stronger than I was, besides being twice my number. What's more, they delivered their blows with a precision and weight that spoke of much experience in many previous assaults. So, in some bewilderment and more pain, I had to submit.
I remember that pain well today. But I also remember an incongruous wonder, as the blows rained down, at the courage of these bullies. Here they were, jointly thrashing a puny boy who was half the size of and far younger than either one of them, a boy too weak to retaliate in any meaningful way. What triumph could they possibly feel as they bashed me black and blue?
I was reminded of this episode from my distant youth by an ongoing exercise in Afghanistan. Now at least I could flail my arms around and hope to land some punches. In Afghanistan, the chosen target for assault is far less able to fight back. In fact, I suspect it can't, period. It is a statue, after all. An enormous one, yes, but a statue nevertheless. So if the very idea of assaulting a statue strikes you as ludicrous, what is even more ludicrous is that the assaulters are using rocket launchers and anti-aircraft guns and grenades and tanks to carry out their mission. Maybe even aircraft, who knows.
All these are weapons that are ordinarily used to fight off fierce and equally well-armed enemies. Yet in Bamiyan they are being pressed into service to destroy stone. Carved stone, yes, but stone nevertheless. What tremendous fighting spirit on show, here where tanks are shelling a mute statue!
Such is the perversity supposedly religious faith inspires. For of course the destruction at Bamiyan is happening in the name of religion. The men behind those rockets and grenades claim to be faithful guardians of Islam; they say these Bamiyan statues, being representations of the Buddha, are prohibited by Islam and so must be destroyed; they believe this destruction covers them, and their religion, with glory. But they show the world that not only do they not know a single thing about Islam, they utterly disgrace the religion. By putting their empty-headed barbarity on display, they disgrace humanity itself. Where's the glory in that?
And yet, why should anyone be surprised? For one thing, the Taleban has been foisting more and more barbarity on Afghanistan for many years now: repressing women, letting loose brigades of morality police, killing dissent and dissenters, turning an admittedly always tenuous nation into a basket case. All this done in the name of Islam, too.
For another thing, these are just the sort of things that happen when faith is twisted; and such twisting happens so easily that it has become a feature of every religion in the world. Besides, every time religion is invoked to justify what debauched vandals do, the debauchery also gets wrapped in a cloak of national honour. Because that's a fine way to obscure what is no more than a profound sliming of religion.
This is why it makes no sense to condemn what is happening to the Bamiyan statues in terms of religious teachings. By its very nature, by the way it is used by schemers who recognise its power, by the hatreds it sows towards other faiths -- and despite all the good it also preaches -- religion will inevitably produce such perversion. Every religion in the world.
So if ostensibly devout Christian priests from Spain destroyed civilisations in the Americas in a medieval wave of brutality, ostensibly devout Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka will speak openly about the need to kill that country's Tamils. If the goons of the Taliban find some perverted meaning in turning Buddhist statues to rubble, the goons of Hindutva proclaimed a strange redemption in demolishing a mosque in Ayodhya.
In fact, in India it grates like fingernails on the wall to listen to our various ministers, prime and lesser, foam at the mouth about Bamiyan. PM AB Vajpayee called it a "disquieting development" that "represents a further obscurantist regression"; his Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh told Parliament that "this regression into medieval barbarism is precisely what India, amongst many other countries, has been cautioning the world for so long."
These fine words might even hold some water were it not for the mouths we have to hear them from. Both these men, and their party, actually rode into office in Delhi on the back of their own regression into medieval barbarism: the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. They claimed religious sanction for the deed ("Ram's birthplace is a matter of faith for Hindus") just as firmly, every bit as loudly, as the Taleban is claiming today in Bamiyan ("the statues are idolatrous and against the tenets of Islam").
How is it that Vajpayee's destruction was a rejuvenation of Hinduism, and just coincidentally a fine device to grab for power, but the Taleban's destruction "represents a further obscurantist regression"? What's the difference, really?
And since there is no difference, and given the resume Vajpayee and his friends saddled India with that day in 1992, just who in the world is taking with any seriousness this pompous business of India "cautioning the world"?
Just as the Babri Masjid demolition men shame Hinduism by invoking that ancient religion, the rocket men of Bamiyan shame Islam by claiming its sanction. Yet Bamiyan and Ayodhya are disgraces not so much because they are perversions of religion: such perversion is indeed inevitable, with any religion. No, they are shameful episodes because they embody hatred and inhumanity and cowardice and much more that is vile in us all. That's why they must attract our scorn and disgust.
And that's why they remind me of the two thugs who beat me up all those years ago. Now I doubt that father and son are part of the shooting brigade at Bamiyan, though shooting missiles at things that cannot shoot back is just the kind of thing they would do. But I would not be in the least surprised to find out that they were in Ayodhya that day in 1992, dancing about in the pretence that reducing a mosque to rubble is some divinely commanded triumph.
That too is just the kind of thing they would do.
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