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August 31, 2006

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Ganesh festival and Indian Muslims - By Pratap Thorat

India's western state of Maharashtra, parts of its neighbouring states like Gujarat, Goa, Karnataka and many other parts of the rest of India are presently in the grip of frenzied public celebrations of a 10-day-long festival of Ganesh, the Hindu elephant God of intellect and endowment. They say enthusiasm is such a powerful asset that it beats money, power and influence. But on witnessing the current passionate celebration one irresistibly feels that it has come to beat one more thing - the looming threat of the so called Islamist terrorism. Just before a fortnight, many of these areas where the festivity is at a high pitch, particularly those in Gujarat and Marathwada, were submerged under flood waters for weeks. But even that failed to dampen the spirits.

The inadequacies of the material world have consistently been the part of these people's life. Is it the firm faith or an inveterate defiance that keeps drawing the millions of people out to the carnival? If faith it is, is it the faith in the Lord Almighty, or the faith in the all-inclusive, egalitarian, consociational and robustly democratic society that makes India a unique country in the world? goodness of the fellow Indian Muslims that makes them fearless and even careless? A close view reveals that the role of their faith in not just the principle but the centuries' old practice of a peaceful co-existence is large enough not be undermined. The intelligence apparatus alone knows the enormous growth in the size of the Islamist terrorists' threat that grew after the 7/11 Mumbai bomb blasts. The overburdened and apprehensive police tried to contain the volume of the celebrations. The police said on Wednesday that the arrested Lashkar-e-Tayiba leader Faizal Sheikh revealed that 50-odd Pakistan-trained youths were still active in and around Mumbai, were ready to strike and were waiting for orders from across the border and that the Lashkar's effort to motivate the local Muslim youth was desperate. There is no reason to dismiss the police warnings as hollow, yet the people's writ prevails and the police are left with the task of other precautionary and preventive works. But the Indian police too come from this very trusting and less panicky people. That is why their response to terrorism is relatively soft so as not to disturb the psyche of the innocent sections of the local Muslims. In comparison, the security checking is a major source of discomfort to the brown-skin south Asians, in the US and the UK and this bothering crosses many limits, when such measures come in the wake of new terrorist threats. True, Indian Muslims have always lived under the shadow of partition. But it is also true that this mistrust has readily melted away at the level of average citizen. Both history and geography of India have made Indian Muslim far different than those from the rest of the world. Cultural invasions and the resultant multi-culturalism are nothing new to India. Indians, therefore, are less panicky to such things than the people from the West. In the thinking sections of the Hindus here there is an awareness of the contradiction that a scholarly and otherwise secular Mohammed Ali Jinnah, who had no inhibitions in enjoying pork and alcoholic drinks that Islam banned, ultimately created an Islamic Pakistan; but an illiterate or semi-literate average Muslim, who was deeply devoted to Islam, also had an unshaken faith in Gandhi and Nehru's India's secular ideals and had refused to cross over to Pakistan at the time of partition, braving all the suspicion and mistrust. The less-thinking sections of the Hindus believe in what they see. They see a large number of Muslim volunteers engaged in the Ganesh festival activities from collecting funds, decorating pendals to organising processions, with an equal zeal of a devoted

Hindu. They also see some Muslim families even worshipping Ganesh idols in their homes, though as aberrations. An average Hindu by now may not remember that it was Ustad Bismillah Khan's melodious Shehnai recital that played the prelude to the famous speech of Jawaharlal Nehru - Tryst with Destiny, when the dawn of freedom heralded 59 years back. But he knows very well that the holiness of no Hindu temple, ceremony or festival is full without the melody of the Shehnai of the maestro, who died recently on August 21. He is gratefully aware that it was this devoted Shia Muslim maestro's Shehnai that had been opening the doors of the Kashi-Vishwanath temple at Banares in the early mornings for years. So much intricate is the intertwining of the cultural thread that ''the fear of small numbers'' (a recent book by New York-based Professor John Dewy) is less in India and more in the West.