It can take courage to sit on the fence
As a journalist, I have tried to avoid taking sides. I know there are occasions when something is so dreadful that one has to fight, but I think those occasions are much rarer than most journalists think.
Last week, there was a clash of book launches in Delhi, which I feared would disappoint many like me. At 6pm, on the first floor of the India International Centre, there was the launch of A New History of India. It is written by two historians, Rudrangshu Mukherjee and Shobita Punja. Mukherjee is renowned as a scholar of modern India, and Punja is a scholar of Indian art and culture.
In this book, the authors demonstrate how historians can borrow from those who have specialised in other aspects to provide “a wholly new [in the Indian context] way of absorbing history.” The text is further enlivened by photographs from the collection of the third author, photographer Toby Sinclair.
In A New History of India, individuals and movements critical of orthodox religions yet profoundly religious or perhaps spiritual arise at different times. For instance, in the chapter on the Delhi Sultanates, Sufi, Sikh and Bhakti all appear. Significantly, they are all developments from orthodox religions. They encourage discussion of religion, not rejection.
I was not disappointed in the book, which I am sure will enrich the way I read Indian history. I was disappointed because, on the floor below this event, there was another book launch I was equally anxious to attend. It was a history book too, but different to A New History of India. It is the biography of a man whose history should be much better known in these times than it is, the Muslim Congress freedom fighter and independent India’s first education minister, Maulana Azad. The book is written by historian S Irfan Habib.
Azad has been described as the father of Indian pluralism. A devout Muslim for all his life, except for a brief period in his youth, Azad nevertheless believed that the faithful in all religions should learn to live with each other in love. In Tarjuman-ul-Quran (translation of the Quran), Azad wrote: “The philosophical understanding of the nature of ultimate reality, and the practice of love, regardless of the distinction of creed, community, and nationality, these are the basic teachings of the Quran.”
I half resolved my dilemma by attending the first half of the A New History of India launch and the second half of Habib’s book on Azad. Both halls were full. Both reminded me of a 20th century British Christian I admired deeply. He was Robert Runcie, who was my tutor at Cambridge University and eventually became the Archbishop of Canterbury. Runcie was head of the Church of England in stormy times when it was on the verge of splitting on the issue of women’s ordination.
The press was having a field day accusing Runcie of cowardice for his reluctance to take sides. When I asked him about this, Runcie replied with words I will never forget: “I became archbishop to heal the Church, not to break it. I just wish the press would realise it can take courage to sit on the fence.”
Sitting on the fence is what many will feel I have done by not supporting BBC in the dispute with the Government of India over the two documentaries about the Gujarat riots. I think I followed Runcie’s advice and sat on the fence.
As a journalist, I have tried to avoid taking sides. I know there are occasions when something is so dreadful that one has to fight, but I think those occasions are much rarer than most journalists think. I think it is right to question one’s religion, but I don’t agree with those many people who say I am spiritual but not religious.
The views expressed are personal