Seeking unlimited happiness - Jawed Naqvi - January 20, 2011

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Jared Lee Loughner killed six Americans and left Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords fighting for her life in Tucson.

His motives are variously given as drug-related lunacy and links with America’s Christian Right, of which Republican politician Sarah Palin is deemed an icon. A copy of Mein Kampf was recovered from his belongings.

Malik Mumtaz Qadri killed Pakistan politician Salman Taseer in a similarly unequal contest between a liberal worldview and zealotry that claims a divine alibi. In India, Swami Asimanand, a self-confessed guru of Hindutva terrorists that wreaked havoc across the country and blamed it on Muslims, is in jail.

Clearly, religious revivalism is a global scourge and there isn’t much on the horizon to lend hope to its quarries. If change is likely it seems it has to come from within the extremist heap. And this is where Asimanand — whose name translates as ‘unlimited happiness’ — could show us a way out. Of the three killers I have cited, he is alone in expressing regret.

And it is not any ordinary regret at the sight of blood one may have spilt. The saffron-clad swami has followed a tradition of many a contrite ancient Indian sage who left crime to become symbols of their enlightened faith. Valmiki was a highway robber before he wrote the Ramayan. His words became Sanskrit’s first shlokas. Angulimaal was a killer before he became a follower of Buddha. However, Asimanand’s reported confessions have enormous political implications for immediate purposes.

In his confession before a magistrate, which makes it admissible evidence, he gave a heart-tugging account of how a Muslim boy who was with him in jail changed his thinking. The boy, Kaleem, had been tortured by police as a suspect in the bombing of a mosque in Hyderabad. When Asimanand heard his story from the boy who would otherwise ply him with tea and refreshments in prison, he was moved to tears.

And he decided to confess to his role in the bombings that were undertaken in revenge against Muslim terrorists that had harmed Hindu temples. Asimanand’s statement has blown the lid off the seamier side of Hindutva, an ideology favoured by many from India’s middle classes as an expression of nationalist fervour. He twisted the knife further by shooting off letters to the presidents of India and Pakistan, advising them on how they could benefit from his decision to own up. The undelivered letter to President Asif Zardari has a telling irony. It reads thus:

“The President, Islamabad, Pakistan, Dec 20, 2010,

“SUB: Request for chance to reform Hafiz Saeed and other terrorists in Pakistan.

“Dear Sir,

“I am Swami Asimananda. I am the one who had organised and motivated persons to blast Samjhauta Express and other places because I was angry about jihadi attacks on Hindu temples.

“After my arrest, when I was in jail, one Muslim boy Kaleem was very kind to me in Hyderabad. After some time, I asked him why he was inside jail, and he told me that he was earlier wrongly arrested and tortured by Hyderabad police in connection with Mecca Masjid bomb blast. This pierced my conscience. It transformed me.

“The man who has every reason to hate me, showed me love. After all, he had been made to suffer for my work. I understood that love between two human beings is more powerful than the hatred between two communities. I decided on prayashchit and told this to the CBI when they took me in their custody. They told me that we cannot do anything about prayashchit, only the court can. So, I told them to take me to the court in that case. After that, I told the judge the truth.

“Before the criminal legal system hangs me, I want an opportunity to transform/reform Hafiz Saeed, Mullah Omar and other jihadi terrorist leaders and jihadi terrorist in Pakistan. Either you can send them to me, or you can ask the Indian government to send me to you.

“Yours truly

“Swami Asimananda, Chanchalaguda Jail, Hyderabad”

Will Asimanand’s confession make a difference to the worldview of the likes of Hafiz Saeed or for that matter Mumtaz Qadri? My instinct is it may not. And yet there is no harm in replicating the Indian example. For starters, put Qadri and people with his tendencies in a prison cell with Christians, Hindus, etc. Let them come face to face with each other. Let Aasia Bibi write a letter to Qadri and append Asimanand’s confessions to it. No harm trying.

Which brings me to the politics of aggressive religious revivalism. In the Indian and Pakistani examples, we find a heavy dose of the state guiding the upsurge. The role of intelligence agencies is all too well known. In the American example author F. William Engdahl has claimed that one of the most significant transformations of American domestic politics came over the decades since the early 1970s, when George H.W. Bush was the head of the CIA.

It spawned a deliberate manipulation of significant segments of the population, most of them undoubtedly sincere, believing people, around the ideology of `born-again` evangelical Christian fundamentalism to create something that became known as the Christian Right.

If religious bigotry has political roots, what are its economic beliefs? Going by the praise that leading Indian tycoons Ratan Tata and Mukesh Ambani lavished on Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi last week, there is an economic basis to bigotry. Modi is widely believed to have been a close associate of Asimanand. Their idea of unlimited happiness may have sprung a yawning gap though.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

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