Positive Changes in Our Society

‘Religious Leaders Must Act As Ethical Guides, Not Politicians’

Mufti Danish Ashrafi Qadri from UP explains how a religious moral compass can bring about positive changes in our society and its secular ethos

Since times immemorial the division between the state and religion has been remarkably thin. For, both seek to work towards the welfare and betterment of the masses under its influence.

It is thus incumbent on a religious leader to bring about positive, ethical advancement in humanity at large and the surrounding community in particular. To that effect, I believe that India’s religious leaders and scholars have failed in the cherished goal. Allow me to explain.

Thanks to modern mass communication means, we have so many religious leaders sermonising from real and electronic platforms 24×7. Yet, look at the state of our society. Growing intolerance, rising graph of crimes, particularly against women, domestic violence, falling family values…. Clearly, our mentors, both political and religious, have failed in their duty.

Today, most religious leaders are behaving like politicians and politicians are increasingly acting like religious gurus. Precisely the reason that an inclusive, secular and cohesive atmosphere that we grew up in is getting eroded.

Our religious influencers only preach. I wish if our muftis or gurus tried to be good listeners and heard people’s concerns before offering them unsolicited guidance, matters could have been different. For, religion is meant to adapt itself to the contemporary times.

Mufti Qadri feels religious leaders must also see the context of scriptures and not just the text

Religious leaders need to get out of their ivory towers and interact with people on issues that impact their daily lives. As a State seeks to make its citizens abide by the law to create a safe and orderly environment, religion nurtures the faithful to become sensitive humans to help the vulnerable and the weak.

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But we have reduced religion to Us-Versus-Them symbols. One glaring example of this absurdity is the ongoing hijab controversy. The choice of whether or not to wear a headscarf should lie with an individual. Even religious leaders can only lay down guidelines but cannot push anyone to follow it.

If anyone were to ask for my advice to the young girls caught in the dilemma I would say more importance be given to education. But ideally, young girls shouldn’t have had to choose between education and hijab. Education teaches us to make decisions for ourselves, should a decision be forced on those pursuing education then? If UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath can wear saffron robes to office, why can’t schoolgirls in Karnataka or anywhere else for that matter, wear a hijab?

On one hand I am glad that most religious leaders didn’t talk about the matter because they didn’t want to play into the hands of politicians/media but on the other hand I feel that the youngsters must be feeling lost without any guiding voices. Sometimes I wonder where the prominent feminist voices are, but perhaps they can also see through the political ruse. All in all a very difficult situation to navigate.

All religious leaders, irrespective of their faith, should focus as much on the context as the text. We need to see how much religious books can help us lead better lives rather than take out just one line from the book and twist the narrative. It is time religious leaders stopped pandering to politics. And it would do well for political leaders to understand the religion they follow in an in-depth manner.

As told to Yog Maya Singh

Afghan Sikh

‘We Were Told To Embrace Islam, Even Spat Upon’

Avtar Singh, 32, an Afghan Sikh, narrates his persecution in Afghanistan and why he left Ghazni, where his family lived for five generations. Singh sees the Citizenship Law as a blessing for people like him

My forefathers settled in Afghanistan five generations ago. We lived in Ghazni, about 170 kilometres from Kabul, the Afghan Capital. We owned multiple garment shops and nearly 40 acres of land. Why we had to leave everything behind and took refuge in Delhi is a tragic story, one of religious persecution and plight of minorities in Afghanistan.

Ever since I was born, I remember being discriminated against in Afghanistan. It started with being made fun of for our attires, our pagris. They would call us kafir, be-iman and by other derogatory terms. Every time we went out we would be taunted with: “Aaj pagri me aloo rakha hai ya pyaz?” (What have you hidden in your turban today – potatoes or onions?).They would tell us to get rid of our hair and look like them. We were constantly asked to convert to Islam.

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Things took a more sinister turn with people spitting at us in public for following Sikhism, at times throwing stones at us randomly. I couldn’t send my children out, or my younger brother to school. Afghanistan was the only home we had known and we were heartbroken by the way things were happening. My mother who had seen better times before 1979 (before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan) lamented at what we had come to.

My father, Shaheed Harbans Singh Khalsa, a Member of Parliament in Afghanistan, was killed in an accident in 2003. We later got to know it was all pre-planned. Mysterious papers would be thrown at our house with threats to life and ransom money. Over the years, I paid nearly ₹80-90 lakh to keep my family safe.

After a decade of living in uncertainty, constant suffering and blackmailing, we reached the breaking point and decided to flee to India. We were helped by a few people to buy tickets amounting to ₹90, 000 for seven people for the Kabul-Delhi flight.

Singh now works as a Granthi at a Gurdwara in New Delhi

That was in 2014. I lived a lifetime on that flight. I had only ₹20,000 to start a new life in India and a family of seven to feed. However, we were happy that at least we came out of Afghanistan alive.

We live on meagre resources in India. I work as a Granthi at a Gurdwara in Delhi. My brother who is in his teens also has to work to support the family. I am greatly surprised how well-behaved Indian Muslims are. They always address us as Bhaijaan and Sardar Ji and make us feel welcome in every aspect of life.

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We have to extend our visas every two to three years. I have heard of the new Citizenship Law that would give refugees like us permanent citizenship of India, and we are glad about the same. Even though I understand the sentiments of several people who have been protesting against CAA, I feel they should know why citizenship in India is so important, no less than a blessing for people like us. We can finally call India our home.

After being on the receiving end of persecution, I have become a better person, not bitter and feel no one should be persecuted on the basis of religion. Our Guru Granth Sahib teaches us: Koi Bole Ram Ram, Koi Khudaye, Koi Sewe Gosaiya, Koi Alahe (God is one, people know it by different names).

Hindu Sikh Refugee

‘In The 1990s’ Afghanistan, They Called Us Hindustani Kafir’

Sardar Heera Singh, who fled Kabul in 1993, narrates the pain of a displaced person who has lived in Delhi for 26 years on stay visa. Singh hails the new Citizenship law by Modi government that will give him an identity

We call ourselves ‘Hindu Sikhs’. I was 26 when we fled from Kabul in Afghanistan to save our lives in 1993. India gave us shelter but not citizenship – not till date. It has been almost 26 years that we have been living in India on stay visa which is extended every few years. We are people without a country of our own.

Therefore, we are happy that the Modi government has thought about people like us whose condition till now was like the proverbial ‘dhobi ka kutta’, who belonged neither here nor there. In Afghanistan, we were called Hindu, Kafir, Hindustani, and in India we are called Afghanis, refugees. Finally, with the new citizenship law coming into force, we will have an identity.

I understand that many people are against the implementation of CAA and protesting. But they have not gone through what we have gone through. We were openly disrespected and threatened to change our religion in Afghanistan. Nobody likes to leave their home and hearth and move to an unknown place if they are safe and free where they belong. Those opposing the CAA know not the pain of the displaced. As they say Ja tan laagi, wa tan jane (Only wearer knows where the shoe pinches).

The whole world is going through a refugee crisis today. Muslims are mostly at the receiving end of it. But there are 52 countries that follow Islam and a displaced Muslim may find shelter there. But Hindus and Sikhs have no other place than India to turn to. In India, they can be sure that they won’t be asked to give up their religion.

In our case, seven generations prior to my family had lived in Afghanistan. Yet, when infighting in Kabul began to raise an ugly head, we were identified by our religion. We had always considered Afghanistan our own country, but the circumstances in 1993 forced us to change that opinion.

Those were difficult times. We made perilous journeys on trucks, first from Kabul to Jalalabad, and then to Peshawar, Lahore and finally to Amritsar. I was a rich businessman in Kabul but when we came to India as refugees, I had to start from selling tomatoes to earn a living.

We were around 9,000 people who fled together somehow on a dreadful night. However, through all this we never lost faith in God and it is our faith. With time, the tide has turned and my family now has a shop in Ganesh Nagar in West Delhi. And soon citizenship will be granted to us in India. Now our children can finally have decent jobs and access to many more facilities that we had.

Even before CAA, the BJP government had made our lives easier. Where earlier we had to get our visas renewed every two years, the current government extended the duration to 4-5 years.

As the current general secretary of the Khalsa Diwan Welfare Society (a 100-year old organization that was started in Afghanistan), we make sure that we give back to India as gratitude. We have undertaken the responsibility of education of around 600-700 underprivileged kids.

Many Afghanistan Muslims also have come to India as refugees to save their lives. Lajpat Nagar in Delhi is home to many Afghanistan Muslims and whenever we meet, we talk fondly of the country we left behind. We hope and pray that everyone around the world is safe and there are no refugees anymore.