Defending Secularism

This week’s tehelka magazine carries an essay I wrote about Chinatown buses that burst into flames and Pakistan’s notorious ruler Zia-ul-Haq, among other things. This is a story that took a lot off me, mentally and emotionally. A prelude to this actually appeared on my blog, in October 2010 I wrote a writeup called “Of Chinese buses and tough questions” – it can be read here. The story can be read at tehelka’s website here. Though the headline there might suggest a serious religious angle to it, you will see that I ended up defending secularism. And it has absolutely nothing to do with patriotism as well.

Anyway, below is the unabridged version of the story. Again, I am thankful to Tehelka for publishing me another time (I wrote this for them last January). I am grateful to those who have wished me (and been critical), in person, on email, facebook and everywhere else.

Yours thoughts here and elsewhere, welcome.


The four hour bus journey from NYC to Baltimore hadn’t really lived up to the expectations. Maybe it was the bus, one of those that run from the Chinatown district of the city, that had put me off. Or maybe it was the blandness of the route. Being used to the twists and turns (literally) of a bus journey on Indian highways, I found the Interstate-95 a dull ride. But then, on a 6 month trip to America (which also happened to be the first), you look forward to interstate travel.

Months later, when I found out that the Chinatown buses have a reputation of bursting into flames while in transit, the thought of the bus-ride not living upto expectations occurred again. Only that, this time, I was glad it hadn’t.

So, while coming back from Baltimore to NYC, in the same bus that night with expectations hit rock bottom, I found myself with a middle-aged, South-Asian gentleman sitting on my left. Almost 50, neatly trimmed beard, metal rimmed glasses, fair complexion and grey hair. When he answered a phone call, I was almost certain that he was from Pakistan.

We got talking, as travel-culture in the sub-Continent warrants. My co-passenger, let me call him Bashir, had now stayed in America for more than two decades, owned a 7-Eleven convenience store somewhere in NYC. My recent purchase, Peter Hessler’s acclaimed book, “Oracle Bones”, an account of his experiences as a journalist in mainland China, was our icebreaker. Bashir’s old-fashioned rimmed glasses and a neatly trimmed beard gave him almost a scholarly-like look and so it was no surprise when he started talking, almost authoritatively, about Mao Zedong’s policies and Deng Xiaoping’s vision of China.

Having researched on the subject lately for something I wrote, it came to my mind, to ask Bashir his honest opinion of Zia-ul-haq’s Islamization of Pakistan – a defining moment in the history of our neighbour. The extent of it’s effect is probably better understood keeping in view the religious radicalism brewing in Pakistan today. Among other things, Zia-ul-Haq had gone about formulating an education policy around Islam, nurturing hatred for India and glorification of war. Bashir was quick to be dismissive about it. Instead, he chose to attack Bhutto, who in 1972, had started a drive to nationalize the major industries in Pakistan, resulting in a massive reduction of employment opportunities. Come to think of it, it was the same time Bashir had left Pakistan for America. He later continued to dwell upon how much his country had lost to it’s last tryst with Military rule, this time his object of ire being Pervez Musharraf.

We later spoke of our two nations, the trouble brewing in our own backyards. We spoke of earthquakes and tsunamis, examples of mishandlings by our governments. For someone visiting his country once in two years, Bashir was well aware of things happening in the sub-continent. We could talk on forever: about our countries, our culture, our hatred for politicians and our passion for cricket. A few times, he even advised me on life – his wisdom seamlessly flowing through his aging, bespectacled eyes.

We had little moments of silence but words now, though after much thought, were flowing fluently. This time, Bashir asked me my religion. I gave it my best shot not to appear taken aback and told him that I was a Hindu. I think we both knew we were treading a thin line – words now had to be carefully chosen. After a mini-lecture that endorsed Islam and lasted a little more than ten minutes, Bashir, in his heavily Punjabi accented Urdu, asked me to consider embracing his religion. To be honest, this was not a first. I had just had a mostly insightful conversation with this gentleman – for the little while that I had not, I have long learnt to politely nod my head on talks that revolve around religion. I added two words to the nod: I’ll consider.

A few moments of silence went by, this time a longer gap than usual, until Bashir spoke again. He was of the opinion that people of different religions (mazhab) can’t stay together. He said that secularism was a failed concept – a pretension of the larger world we live in. Not only was I disappointed, I was left appalled – that one statement was contradictory of everything I had known of him in the last few hours – his wisdom, his experience and his intellect. And Bashir was not a 20 something from Pakistan, fresh out of the radical and fearful times that the country is living in; Bashir had to be 50 something, who was born a Pakistani citizen and had come to America a young man, sometime in the late 70s. He had aspired to be successful in a foreign land and he had succeeded. He was a muslim who had been given citizenship by America and whatever his religion, America gave him rights that protected him.

Bashir was a direct beneficiary of the secular values that America believed in.

So, I paused. I thought a while. And then I said, attempting my best in clear, concise English:

“Bashir saheb, on the way to office everyday, I come across a street in my colony. It has a temple. A hindu one, with a big statue of our God Hanuman. On the same street, there is a masjid. There is nothing strange about this arrangement but you may be shocked to know that the masjid and the mandir, they share the same wall. I want to tell you that this is how secularism works in India. I am sure this is how secularism works in America. And I am sure this is how it should work anywhere else”.

It was dark outside, but I could see in the faint light, for a second, his mouth open. Bashir stared at me, stunned. I, for once in my bus journey, looked out of the window, on to the otherwise boring I-95.


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