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The staged reading of author Shashi Tharoor's latest novel, 'Riot', was followed by a question and answer session, punctuated throughout with frequent bursts of applause.
Was the creation of Pakistan a mistake? Should the two nations be merged together once more?
Shabhana Azmi: Pakistan is a country, separate from India with its own identity. The two countries were separated on the basis of religion, but still have many commonalities. Bangladesh is proof that dividing a country on the basis of religion is a mistake. The goal for the future should be to attempt to heal on the basis of our commonalities, rather than to divide on the basis of religion.
What should be built at Ayodhya?
Shabhana Azmi: It is extremely important that both parties be made to sit together to resolve the dispute, it is vital that some solution is found through dialogue. For this to happen, we first have to create an atmosphere conducive to such dialogue. The solution, whatever it may be, should involve all of India, because all of us have a stake in this. And if for some reason this is not possible, then the decision of the Supreme Court should be final.
While there has been much debate about the communal violence in Gujarat, no notice is being taken of communal violence perpetrated in Bangladesh against the Hindus. Is that not equally condemnable?
Shabhana Azmi: You are right in saying that injustice, irrespective of who perpetrates it, should be condemned. And in this instance, it has been condemned -- including in Parliament.
In the performance just now, there have been moments of atrocities against minorities, narrated in vibrant, gripping fashion -- but there were no such narration of atrocities against Hindus?
Shashi Tharoor: I am in the happy position of an author who can say to his audience, 'Read my book!' But jokes aside, I must point out that in truncating a novel into a one-hour dramatisation, only parts of it could be used. And in any case, I do not think you should attempt to weigh atrocities by religion -- I feel anger and outrage, irrespective of who the victims are and what their religion is. I do not think the religion of a victim is relevant.
In writing this book, what were your expectations from your readers?
Shashi Tharoor: I do not write with expectations. Even here I had no expectation except to get the reader to think, to re-evaluate his assumptions. I have always tried to provoke thought. In using multiple voices in my book -- including that of Ram Charan Gupta to voice the Hindutva argument -- I attempt to put all points of view across. I have used 12 voices in the book, played them off against each other -- and this style, this attempt, is I think reflective of the many opinions that exist in our society, of the pluralism of India.
Mr Varadarajan, in your columns you have come across as anti-Musharraf...
Tunku Varadarajan: I am anti-Musharraf, and so I believe are the majority of the people of Pakistan. I am certainly not anti-Muslim, but I am anti-Pakistan, in a constructive way.
Mr Tharoor, a short while ago, there were some demonstrators outside on the street. I asked them, 'You claim to be championing the cause of Hindu women who have suffered atrocities, but where are your women?' I am in the unfortunate position of asking you the same question -- where, in this performance, are your women?
Shashi Tharoor: I stand suitably chastised. There are women in my book. However, when adapting it for the purpose of this presentation, these were the four characters chosen. Lakshman has a love affair and I was playing it straight. The hard-drinking, foul-mouthed Sikh cop had necessarily to be a male. The Muslim professor could have been a woman I suppose, but it made more sense to play it as a male. And Ram Charan Gupta necessarily had to be male. But yes, women are a vital 50 per cent of our country and in this audience, I notice they number probably 60 per cent, it is we men who are in the minority. Having said all that, I accept the rebuke.
While riots proliferate, where are the bureaucrats, the politicians? Why have they stood by and done nothing?
Shabhana Azmi: India's proudest principle is her commitment to secularism, and the only way this country will continue to exist is to allow it to remain pluralistic. For this, politicians have to make a commitment to secularism -- and for this to happen, the public has to see that they do not vote in the name of religion, that non-secular parties of whatever kind are not voted in.
Ms Azmi, in the debate between Hindus and Muslims, where do you stand?
Shabhana Azmi: The debate is not Hindu versus Muslim, but rather it is moderate versus fundamentalist, secular versus fascist. If we identify the debate on these lines, then the question is, when Muslim fundamentalism can be condemned, is in fact being universally condemned, how then can Hindu fundamentalism be justified by the garb of nationalism?
I am from Bangladesh. In India you are in educated (class), in Bangladesh we are educated and some of us have done our best to stop the violence here. Possibly, even in Pakistan they (fundamentalists) are educated. So why do such things continue to happen?
Shabhana Azmi: Often, education merely reinforces the communal divide. We build prejudices from our homes, our peer groups, our schools and colleges. And under the BJP rule, our textbooks have been increasingly communalised.
I think it is wrong to say that there textbooks are being communalised...
Shabhana Azmi: I respect your opinion, sir, and I respect my opinion as well.
What can South Asians in America do to fight Hindu fundamentalism?
Tunku Varadarajan: I can make one practical, workable suggestion -- be very, very careful about where you send your money, and to whom you send your money.
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