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India: Faith No Bar - The Telegraph, India

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  • Zafar Khan
    FAITH NO BAR - India was not made in heaven, but in the hell of Partition MUKUL KESAVAN mukulkesavan@hotmail.com
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 5, 2005
      - India was not made in heaven, but in the hell of


      What do Sania Mirza and Irfan Khan Pathan have in
      common? They’re both good-looking, for one. And tall.
      Sania must be five-foot-seven and Pathan hovers around
      the six foot mark: that’s tall for Indians. They’re
      both gifted athletes and more importantly, their
      styles are forthrightly based on power, not the guile
      and delicacy for which so many of their predecessors,
      the great Indian losers of the past, were famous.
      Sania Mirza hits her groundstrokes harder than the
      Williams sisters while Pathan’s a swing bowler and an
      aggressive batsman. Also, young as they are, they’re
      already media properties: both players do charming
      television commercials for souped-up motor fuels which
      air on prime-time. And they’re Muslim.

      For some that last observation is irrelevant,
      gratuitous, even oppressive. Ever since Pathan and
      Mirza vaulted out of obscurity, journalists have made
      a meal of their Muslim-ness. If you haven’t been
      living in a cave for the last two years you probably
      know that Pathan’s father is the Imam of a mosque in
      Baroda. Sania has been held up as a mould-breaking
      Muslim girl in the Western press for the skin her
      skirts show and the things her shirts say. Sometimes
      she gets fed up of the attention and asks to be left
      alone, to be given the room to be just another
      eighteen-year-old. We’ve been told more than once that
      Irfan Pathan and Sania Mirza are ‘practising’ Muslims
      who pray five times a day. (There’s a decent joke
      about that odd locution in an English novel I read
      recently. It goes like this: ‘“Practising Muslims?” he
      said. “Keep it up then. Maybe ye’ll get it right one

      Sympathetic critics have asked journalists to stop
      playing-up their religious identity. One wrote that
      Pathan should be spared the burden of representing
      India’s Muslims because it is his excellence as a
      cricketer that has brought him to our notice, not his
      devotion to his faith. It’s the argument from
      fairness: we don’t ask Sehwag if he’s a bell-ringing,
      prasad-eating, havan-doing Hindu, so why are we so
      curious about the nature and extent of Pathan’s piety?
      Besides, a secular world view entails separating
      religious identity from public life and cricket’s very
      nearly the only worthwhile part of Indian public life,
      so shouldn’t we leave their faith out it?

      No, we shouldn’t. As far as the argument from
      secularism goes, it mistakes a received understanding
      of Western secularism with the Indian take on it.
      Thanks to our colonial past and the colonial state’s
      willingness to play Indian communities off against
      each other, Indian nationalism was strenuously
      pluralist simply to prove that it represented every
      human species in India: Hindu, Christian, Sikh, Muslim
      etc. So it isn’t surprising, unnatural or bad that the
      great Indian public recognizes the symbolic importance
      of species representation in every sort of Indian
      grouping, whether it be a cabinet or a classroom or a
      cricket team.

      We can see this alertness (and anxiety) about
      representation in the debates about caste-based
      reservation, about the absence of women in India’s
      legislatures and, not least, in the interest in Pathan
      and Mirza as Muslims. Whether we agree with a policy
      of affirmative action and reservations or not, we can
      agree that the purpose behind reservations is to make
      room for groups of people who, because of social
      prejudice or indifference or lack of opportunity, have
      gone unrepresented in education and government. Behind
      the talk of reserving a third of all seats in
      parliament for women is the recognition that there’s
      something not quite right about a political system
      where less than ten per cent of all members of
      parliament are women. This is not to argue that only
      women can be represented by women or only Dalits by
      Dalits: it is simply an intuition that such
      lopsidedness, such absences indicate institutional
      obstacles to participation, the absence of a level
      playing field. There are those who reasonably argue
      that affirmative action doesn’t, cannot, fix this
      problem, that it is a pernicious tokenism, but very
      few would disagree that the near-absence of whole
      categories of people from public institutions is a
      reason for concern.

      When I went looking for a school for my son a decade
      ago, I used to stroll up to notice-boards outside
      classrooms and school offices, hoping to find class
      lists. If I found them I’d browse through the names
      looking for clues. If there were no Muslim names (and
      there were schools where there weren’t any) my
      enthusiasm for the school would wane. Was this an
      excess of political correctness? No, not at all. If a
      good school in Delhi could get by without Muslim
      students despite the city’s substantial Muslim
      population, it either meant that Muslims didn’t apply
      to it or the school didn’t care enough to do what NGOs
      like to call ‘outreach’ and both implications, as far
      as I was concerned, were bad signs.

      When my son found a place in a school where Muslim
      students were a normal part of its enrolment, I felt
      grateful and reassured that he would grow up in a
      school that reflected in an approximate way, the world
      in which it functioned.

      This is why we shouldn’t feel self-conscious about
      celebrating the Muslimness of Sania Mirza and Irfan
      Pathan because their success tells us that in one
      sphere of public life, competitive sport, religious
      identity is no obstacle to success. There are no
      minority quotas in Indian sport. This is not to argue
      that quotas in particular and positive discrimination
      in general are always bad things. In South Africa,
      setting racial targets for the national team might
      have been a crude but necessary way of hustling a
      white cricketing establishment rooted in apartheid
      into integrating the top level of South African
      cricket. But it is precisely because there are no
      Muslim quotas in sport that the success of Sania Mirza
      and Irfan Pathan is particularly gratifying. If Indian
      cricket was a matrimonial ad, it would read ‘Faith No
      Bar’. (The same can’t be said for caste and cricket
      but that’s another story.)

      So the next time Sania Mirza wins a tournament or
      Irfan Pathan takes four wickets in an ODI, don’t let
      secular scruple prevent you from ticking off the fact
      that they’re Muslim. Nor should you feel guilty about
      being more interested in Kaif than Yuvraj Singh for
      reasons other than cricket. Take a minute, relax and
      let yourself live in (and think out of) your own
      history. It would be perfect, of course, if religious
      identity didn’t matter in India and we went about our
      lives in a state of secular absent-mindedness. The
      problem is, India wasn’t made in Heaven; it was made
      in the violent hell of Partition. Miraculously we
      still grew into a secular, pluralist republic, but we
      don’t take the miracle for granted. In our anxious,
      superstitious way, we keep taking our temperature,
      touching wood, looking for auspicious signs. For us,
      Sania Mirza and Irfan Pathan are more than good
      players, they are good omens.

      More about Islam and Muslims in India at:
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