Posted on 1-January-2012
Come December every year, many people across the world get caught in a, mostly media induced, spell of retrospection about the events during the year about to come to an end. Newspapers, television channels and radio stations talk about and discuss, even to the point of tedium, the good, the bad and the indifferent that happened in the preceding eleven or twelve months to politicians, film actors, models, sportsmen or to nations and often in the descriptions of diverse narrators, the word "historical" gets thrown around liberally. Yet others work themselves up, as December progresses, towards maudlin or nostalgic, self-pityingly sad or dreamily happy recollections, in solitude or in groups, of what was and what could have been. And then there are those for whom the month of December means above all excited anticipation of midnight revelries of 31st of December. Then comes the new year of the Christian era--I belong to a minority that insists on calling it that in spite of the fact that in the opening year of that era Jesus of Nazareth could only have been an unknown child of between four and six years of age, the Magi notwithstanding,--and by the end of the first week of the year the fever subsides and life resumes its normal rhythm. All the retrospection of December turns out in the end to have been no more than a harmless bout of silliness and fun, an opportunity also for sellers of merchandise, purveyors of delicatessen, restaurateurs and a host of other traders to make some extra money.
There is a different kind of looking back, encouraged not around the beginning of a new year, but on other occasions and anniversaries, which is not so harmless. Just before Christmas last year, a bill was passed in the French National Assembly making it illegal in France to deny the Armenian genocide in Turkey starting in April 1915. Turkey made its anger clear by withdrawing its Ambassador from Paris. I first witnessed how every year the modern Republic of Armenia reminds itself of the genocide, when my wife and I were on a visit to Yerevan in April 1996. On Remembrance Day on 24th April we were driven up a hill to the genocide memorial in a procession led by the President of the Republic. It was a solemn ceremony marked by wreath laying and a brief speech. Around that time Armenia was involved in delicate, difficult and indirect negotiations with Turkey over the normalisation of their relations. Turkey had imposed an economic blockade on Armenia over its annexation of Nagorno-Karabakh which had been part of the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan. By the late 1990's it had become clear to everyone concerned that the Armenians were not going to leave Nagorno-Karabakh and none of the Great Powers was willing to force them to do it. The problem was to make Azerbaijan accept this reality and for Turkey which had imposed the economic blockade more in solidarity with a fellow Turkic people than out of any other consideration, also to accept that Armenia was not leaving Nagorno-Karabakh. Perhaps the Turks were prepared to quietly accept this ground reality. But another issue, a reference to the genocide in the Armenian Constitution and Turkish sensitivities about the description of the sufferings of the Armenians in the last days of Ottoman Turkey on the watch of Enver Pasha and his colleagues as genocide became a major hurdle on the way of reconciliation between Turkey and modern Armenia. In the mean time ordinary Armenians paid for the Turkish economic blockade by tears and sweat.
Jews go to great lengths to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive not only through a Holocaust memorial and a Holocaust museum in the state of Israel, but also through constant watchfulness to make sure that no one raises any doubts about the Israeli version of the atrocities against Jews committed by Nazis and their friends all across Europe during the late 1930's and the first half of the decade of the 1940's. Holocaust denial is a grave crime in most of Europe. As a people Jews have faced more persecution than probably any other at the hands of, starting from Tiglath-Pilesar III and Nebuchadnezzar to Isabella and Fernando of Spain, to different Holy Roman Emperors, to many Russian Tsars and Adolf Hitler. Muslims and Arabs have been only minor participants in their persecution. Yet, it is a painful irony that a state established as a homeland for Jews should be so oblivious of the tragedy it has brought upon so many Palestinian Arabs and continues to do so, while since World War II it has made all efforts to bury suspicion, anger and hostility against the Spanish, the French, the Germans, the Austrians, the Russians and diverse other east Europeans who have been the principal persecutors of Jews for the last two thousand years or even more if we count the anti-Jewish pogroms in the first and second centuries before Christ in the Hellenistic cities of west Asia. Deprivation of the land, home and livelihood of so many Palestinians since the beginning of Jewish migration into Palestine after World War I under the aegis of Western Powers is without much doubt the most important source of Arab anger against the West--an anger that gets transformed into Muslim anger. Israel's strongest defence against criticism of its policies towards Palestinian Arabs lies in its stated need for security, a need which the Western Powers readily recognise, no matter how exaggerated the Israeli expressions of insecurity. Keeping alive the memory of the Holocaust helps.
Some people in India, especially since Independence in 1947, have made it their business to keep alive memories or their versions of memories of Muslim aggression against Hinduism. In this, stories about real or imagined destructions of pre-existing temples at sites where mosques have been built and were standing till recently or are still standing have played an important role. In 1024, Mahmood, the ruler of Ghazna in Afghanistan raided the Hindu temple of Somnath in Gujarat, destroyed it and took away its wealth as booty. In later years a mosque was built at the site. Over the years thanks largely to Mahmood's henchmen and sundry Muslim chroniclers, Mahmood, probably driven by search for wealth rather than any zeal for spreading Islam, became mythified as a flag bearer for Islam in a land of unbelievers and idol worshippers and the one raid became a total of eighteen. In 1527, in the reign of Babar, the founder of the Moghul dynasty which ruled most of India effectively till the first quarter of the eighteenth century, a mosque was built in the town of Ayodhya, where according to the Ramayana story, the kingdom of Ramachandra, the protagonist of the Ramayana, and of his ancestors was based. Over the years the narrative changed either to say that the mosque had been built at the site of the palace where Ramachandra was born or that the mosque had been built on top of a pre-existing Hindu temple which had been destroyed--there is no archaeological or documentary evidence to establish the truth of any of these two claims. In the seventeenth century, on the watch of Aurangzeb, the sixth Moghul ruler of India, himself a pious and puritanical Sunni Muslim, two important Indian temples, at Varanasi and Mathura were destroyed and mosques built on those sites. A privately funded project was launched soon after Independence, under the aegis of Vallabhbhai Patel, India's home minister and K.M.Munshi, at one stage India's food and agriculture minister, for the reconstruction of the temple of Somnath. Soon the site was cleared of the ruins of the old temple and a mosque at the site was relocated. Speaking at the inauguration of the reconstruction in 1951, Rajendra Prasad, the President of India said: "It is my view that the reconstruction of the Somnath temple will be complete on that day when not only a magnificent edifice will arise on this foundation, but the mansion of India's prosperity will be really that prosperity of which the ancient temple of Somnath was a symbol....The Somnath temple signifies that the work of reconstruction is always greater than the power of destruction". Rajendra Prasad's speech set the tone for other such projects. In the decade of the 1980's at first the Indian National Congress and later, more energetically, the self-described defenders of Hindu glory, the Bharatiya Janata Party proposed building a Hindu temple at the site of the 1527 mosque in Ayodhya as a measure of correcting an act of injustice against Hindus under a Muslim ruler. The BJP promised to correct similar injustices at Varanasi and Mathura. The mosque in Ayodhya was pulled down by Hindu mobs in December 1992. The mosques at Varanasi and Mathura continue to stand and nothing happened to them when the Bharatiya Janata Party ran Government of India. But talk about removing Muslim injustice and restoring ancient Hindu never stopped. For people talking this language, it does not matter that the Muslim injustices they talk of happened hundreds of years ago, nor does it matter for them that their talk makes India's present day Muslims, themselves in no way responsible for any of these old acts of destruction, feel very insecure. Yet these grievances are nurtured and encouraged, though no attempt has been made yet to mark anniversaries of any of these past acts of destruction.
In the USA, observing the anniversary of the destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre at New York on 11th September 2001 is becoming an established national ritual. What is worrisome about this new ritual is the clear possibility that this anniversary may imply in the minds of many, an anti-Muslim sentiment, not only because all those who flew those aircraft into the twin towers and the Pentagon were Muslims, but also because they brought about the destruction on that September day in the name of Islam. There was for example an outpouring of anti-Islamic feeling when some people, Muslim citizens of the USA, proposed establishing an Islamic Cultural Centre, with the avowed objective of promoting amity between between Muslims and the rest of the community, not far from the place where the World Trade Centre towers had stood. A rise in Islamophobia in the USA since September 2001 has been remarked upon by many observers. Anniversaries of the 9/11 destruction in the USA are bound to keep alive in some groups in the USA a residual anti-Islamic feeling, even hostility towards Muslims.
It is individuals who feel the emotions of pain, anger, love, fear, resentment, hatred, disgust and so on in any real sense. When strongly felt they are remembered for a long time. For most people the sharpness of the feeling is lost over time and many learn even to forget past harm done to them by others and get on with their lives. Some who insist on keeping alive their grudges against others as often end up harming themselves as harming those against whom they bear grudges, a little like Edmund the Bastard in Shakespeare's King Lear. Groups also feel resentments and anger against injustices against them. Like individuals they also forget them in time, and left to themselves they would forget them sooner than individuals for in any group there will always be individuals who would see advantages in cooperation with other groups, even supposedly enemy groups. Resentments and angers of racial, religious or national groups are kept alive over years, decades and centuries almost always as an artifice by wielders of political power and other manipulators working in tandem and rarely, if ever, for a beneficial and altruistic purpose. In an increasingly interconnected and interdependent world, conscious of all humanity being one family, advantage for all lies in promoting and helping cooperative, mutually beneficial relations among all human groups. Constantly looking back and keeping alive ancient animosities and grudges serves the opposite end. Harping upon what another group did to someone's own group years and decades ago serves that opposite end. This kind of looking back is harmful and is best not encouraged.