Sunday, February 15, 2015

AAP staged PM must heed a Mughal prince

On the fateful day that the Aam Aadmi Party won a stunning victory in Delhi’s state election, I was captivated by the tragedy of ‘Dara’, a superb play by Pakistani writer Shaheed Nadeem, which opened recently at the National Theatre in London. Schoolchildren across India know all about the murderous rivalry between Aurangzeb and Dara Shikoh for the Mughal throne but this play is not only about a war of succession; it is about what India was, what it became, and what it might have been. It speaks to us today and offers some sobering advice both to unhappy Pakistan and to Prime Minister Modi, including how to avoid shocking reverses such as the one delivered by Delhi’s voters this week.

There are turning points in human history. One of the most poignant in India’s history was the beheading of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s eldest son and heir-apparent, Dara Shikoh. Ever since then Indians have been haunted by the tantalizing question: what would have been the course of our history had Dara become emperor instead of his orthodox and intolerant younger brother, Aurangzeb? The seeds of the violent partition of India in 1947 — carried out with disgraceful lack of responsibility by the last viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten — were planted by events in Dara’s life, which led to the greatest mass migration in human history.

‘Dara’ is not only about the past. Like all great historical plays, it is about our present. While Londoners were drawing parallels with Islamic extremism of the IS in Syria, I was thinking about Mohan Bhagwat and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s project to convert India into a ‘Hindu rashtra’. Whereas Modi, like Dara, wants to rule India for all Indians, Bhagwat wants to change India into ill-fated Pakistan. All of the RSS, indeed the entire Sangh Parivar, should see this play.

No one quite understands the tsunami unleashed in Delhi by AAP, least of all Arvind Kejriwal. It is certainly a victory for India’s fickle democracy. But the nub is how will politicians interpret it. Prime Minister Modi should not learn the wrong lessons. It is not a negative verdict on his development and reform agenda — he should resist the temptation to turn populist. Instead, it is a rejection of the Sangh Parivar’s divisive politics. The magnitude of AAP’s victory suggests that many Delhi voters (especially the minorities), who had voted for Modi in May, deserted the BJP now. Hence, Modi needs to heed Dara.

Dara Shikoh (1615-1659) was a gentle Sufi intellectual, who believed that the search for God is the same for everyone and devoted his life to synthesizing Vedantic and Islamic spirituality. Thinking that the ‘hidden book’ in the Quran, ‘Kitab al-Maknun’, is in fact the Upanishads, he learned Sanskrit and translated the Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, and Yoga Vasishtha into Persian with the help of the pundits of Banaras. Following in Akbar’s footsteps, he cultivated the Sikh guru, Har Rai, and was invited to lay the foundation stone of the Golden Temple in Amritsar. All this did not go well with the orthodox bigot Aurangzeb, who declared Dara a threat to public peace and a traitor to Islam. And so, Dara was put to death and Aurangzeb succeeded to the throne to establish a harsh Sharia rule over an overwhelmingly non-Muslim India. Ironically, today it is Aurangzeb — the killer of his brothers, nephews, and his own children — who is a Muslim hero in Pakistani history while Dara has been reduced to a footnote. Fortunately, liberal writers both in Pakistan and India keep his wonderful legacy alive by coming up with a new play or a book on his life every few years.

In a couple of weeks the government will announce its budget and we shall find out the sort of lessons that Modi has drawn from AAP’s victory. It would be a shame if he saw it as a victory for giveaways and handouts, and backs off from the difficult path of reforms and infrastructure building — the only sure way to create jobs and secure India’s economic future. If he does not want another repeat of what happened in Delhi, he must muzzle the Hindu right, teaching it not to emulate the intolerant, fanatical Aurangzeb but to be inspired by Dara’s idea of India.

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