HONOURED GUEST- The gem that India will not call by its name
We do not realize how lucky we are, how profoundly lucky, to have in our midst the rather incredible human being called the Dalai Lama. Two Indians — both naturalized Indians — have won the Nobel Prize for Peace: Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama. India lost no time in decorating the Saint of Kalighat with the Bharat Ratna, but only after she had got the Nobel. But the Dalai Lama, who won the Nobel in 1989, has not yet become a Bharat Ratna nor is likely ever to become one.
The reason is a five letter word, China. There is no other. That fear of displeasing another nation should stand in the way of India officially honouring a person the world honours is a matter of shame.
Our official policy has been unambiguous, since the time Jawaharlal Nehru was prime minister. It has four parts to it, each simpler than the other: 1. The Dalai Lama is India’s honoured guest . 2. He is so, as a spiritual figure, not as a political exile. 3. Tibet is a part of China. 4. The Dalai Lama will not carry out any political activities from Indian soil.
He has been our guest now for over half a century. He has not once flouted the civil understanding that he should not say or do anything from Indian soil which could be seen as interfering in China’s internal affairs. He has not once embarrassed us. He has done more: he has said repeatedly that he does not want an independent Tibet, that he only wants its cultural and religious uniqueness to be safeguarded. And yet, we are afraid: what will China say?
What can China say? Both India and the Dalai Lama have made it clear that they accept Tibet as a part of China. So what stops us from giving ourselves the satisfaction of honouring the Dalai Lama, as we have done Mother Teresa?
There the National Democratic Alliance and the United Progressive Alliance governments have been on the same page. And Prime Minister Narendra Modi is not likely to be any different. But the Dalai Lama getting or not getting the Bharat Ratna is not so important as our knowing the great asset we have amidst us in terms of sheer spiritual intelligence. And that is no ordinary asset.
Over two days last month the Dalai Lama convened a meeting of the kind I have never seen before. It was a meeting of religious, theological and philosophical leaders to discuss the subject of inter-community harmony. To call it a Parliament of Religions would be exactly right. And it was pervaded by the spirit of the monk of Belur and the words he spoke in Chicago in 1893.
Those who are so assiduously co-opting his name and charisma today should ponder the words of Vivekananda at the World Parliament of Religions. “I am proud to belong to a religion,” he said, “which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance...” Then, going on to say something we should repeat to ourselves a hundred times in India today, he said, “Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilization, and sent whole nations to despair...”
The New Delhi hall had persons in every religious garb and style — saffron, blue, black and white turbans, skull caps, tufted heads, scarved heads, beards trimmed and untrimmed, graying, hennaed and black, foreheads with tilaks on them and with the mark of the namaz on them. There was, of course, the gleaming Parsi hat, contrasting with the soft sufi head-cloth. And there was one venerable religious leader who wore nothing at all.
A good number of them spoke on the subject with a kind of mutuality that was unbelievable. The Dalai Lama sat in the ‘audience’, listening attentively to each speaker, nodding from time to time. He was visibly moved when a Hindu dharmaguru from Varanasi got up even as the head of Ajmer Sharif was speaking, went up to the stage and, as a token of endorsement, presented him a rose. A few people with no marked religious affiliation like me were lucky enough also to be invited. If this is how our religious leaders feel, it seemed to me, why should we worry for our plural future?
One example of direct intervention by a dharmaguru, I said with some temerity, will do what a thousand speeches will not. How many dharmagurus have died while trying to quell a riot? How many ulema? And just to drive home the point, I invoked five examples.
The first was from the third week of March, 1931. A savage sort of communal violence had engulfed Kanpur’s mixed mohallas. Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi — teacher, journalist, founder of The Pratap and president of the Uttar Pradesh Congress Committee in 1929 — did not phone the police. He did not go to newspaper offices to fulminate against communalism. He did not lapse into prayer, wailing or rhetoric. He did just what Gandhi wanted satyagrahis to do in communally-charged situations. Over four days, Vidyarthi saved the lives of several — hundreds — of Hindus and Muslims from the blind fury of the murderous hordes. On March 25, his biographer, Anandi Prasad Mathur, tells us that a man running for his life asked Vidyarthi to save some people who were hiding nearby. Not for the first time that day, Vidyarthi was in the direct line of death — blow upon blow raining on him, sharp instruments pierced his thin frame. Gandhi wrote in Young India: “The death of Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi is one to be envied by us all…Let this noble example stimulate us all to similar effort should occasion arise again.”
Occasion arose in 1946 — in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. It was July 1, the day of Asad Sud, when images of deities are taken out in a rath yatra. The city broke into the most ghastly communal riots. Thirty-year-old Vasantrao Hegiste and 17-year-old Rajab Ali were colleagues in the Congress. When news came from the suburb of Jamalpur that frenzied mobs were on the rampage there, Vasant and Rajab ran to the spot. They were threatened, but they defied the armed bullies and lay down on the rioters’ path to protect their victims. They died crushed by several murderous feet.
In August and September of 1947, when Gandhi was in Calcutta, the communal frenzy reached new heights. Gandhi moved to one of the city’s most turbulent quarters, Beliaghata. Hydari Manzil, where he stayed, was attacked on the night of August 31, 1947, by bloodlust-crazed youths. They took an associate of Gandhi, Bishen, to be a Muslim and were about to kill him when Gandhi confronted them: “Kill me, kill me I say, why don’t you kill me?” The mob melted away. Two brave youths, in their thirties, volunteers of the Gandhi school, Smritish Banerjea and Sachin Mitra, went into the riot- affected areas the next day. Sachin was stabbed while trying to still mob fury on Calcutta’s Zachariah Street, while Smritish became a martyr while watching over a peace march.
I was prepared for the religious heads present to be upset when they heard me say that it is men like these, not religious leaders, who have stemmed communal frenzy in India. But they did not react as I thought they would. They were in the Dalai Lama’s presence.
What has been happening in parts of Uttar Pradesh in the last few weeks could be ‘episodic’, could be part of a pattern that is revealing only its tuft. Political leaders fomenting action and reaction go into hiding the moment the ‘thing’ starts. Religious leaders fall sagely silent. But, should occasion arise, if even one of them says, “They will have to kill me first,” he would save innocent lives. The Dalai Lama would. But then he is under the “honoured guest” protocol.
We have to be among the most paradoxical nations. The president of China is personally shown round Gandhi’s ashram at Sabarmati by our prime minister. But the Mahatma’s most cognate spiritual heir in India today, the Dalai Lama , half a century and more after having become one of us, must remain the gem we will not call by its name.
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