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Published in the 1-15 May 2005 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Europe is Christian only by its past

By Rizvi Syed Haider Abbas

The Milli Gazette Online

Lucknow: It was the first quarter of the day, not even forenoon exactly when the phone rang. The voice was sharp and decipherable too. The caller was Prof. Violette Graff and a meeting was fixed. She was on a flying-visit to Lucknow and her two-day schedule in Lucknow was packed with meetings with as many as over two dozen guests besides sight seeing along the silver horizon of the river Gomti. On reaching hotel Clarks Avadh Lucknow I found Rashid — the famous protagonist of VS Naipaul; of the chapter ‘End of the Line’ in his book India: A Million Mutinies Now was leaving and an editor of South Asia Analyst was due to arrive.

Prof. Graff did not finish until she expressed hope that the responsible citizens would soon come forward to douse the latest discontent in Lucknow and put an end to it for always and forever. Before she wound up she wanted to gift the fresh titles of her books to find that yours truly had already a copy of her memoirs.

Prof. Graff is a senior research fellow at Maison Des Sciences De L’homme, Paris and despite her 80-years is politically active and agile — notwithstanding the dependence on spectacles due to her failing eye-sight. She has edited a book Lucknow: Memories of a city, published by Oxford University Press, 1997.

She was in Lucknow after a morning flight from Delhi on Feb. 21 and only-a-day before there was a Shiite-Sunnite skirmish in the city which resulted in the death of three. The newspapers in Lucknow also have a policy of not going into print on a holiday, hence, on the day after Ashura (10th of Moharram) there was none. Prof. Graff, nevertheless, was firmly in the saddle and knew the tally of the dead and injured too. Thus proving beyond doubt her penchant for handling any event pertaining to Lucknow

She was sad and equally concerned about the latest flaggeration, the first of such propensity, in about 30 years and expressed her opinion that the disturbance was a fallout of the establishment of All India Shia Personal Law Board (AISPLB) last month. The last sectarian riot in Lucknow broke out in 1977, and thereafter, processions of both sects were banned. The processions, however, could take place again in 1998 after three Shiite boys committed self-immolation. The agreement signaling the start of the processions was signed on April 27, 1998.

Lucknow, in the last couple of months has seen a lot of intra-community developments. Firstly, the Barelvi sect under Tauqir Raza Khan, grandson of the founder of Barelvi sect Ahmad Raza Khan of Bareli announced the establishment of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (Jadeed) on Dec. 10, 2004 and made it clear that Shiite and Deobandis were not welcome to be its’ member. This triggered Shiites to form their own board on Jan 23, 2005. Another angle was added when Shaista Amber, a member of Nationalist Communist Party formed All India Muslim Women Personal Law Board, only to allow another board by the name of All India Shia Women Personal Law Board to be added to it. Now, even Muslim eunuchs are heard to be trying to form their own board too.

Tauqir Raza Khan cited Barelvis to be under-represented in AIMPLB- the apex Muslim body in the nation and functioning since 1972. His claim is hollow as Barelvis are well represented but his shutting the doors to Shiites led them to form their own board under Mirza Mohammad Athar. It may be interesting to note that Tauqir Raza Khan had been a BJP nominee for membership in Sunni Central Waqf Board and MM Athar’s son is an active member of the BJP.

Disturbances, conflagration and communal flare-ups are what according to her have become an international nightmare. There have been attacks on synagogues in France, Jewish graveyards are being-burnt, Jewish graves desecrated and on the walls of Jewish graveyards there is often overnight appearance of the Swastika. France, unlike now, was the mother of human rights, diversity and egalitarianism preaching liberty, equality and fraternity, but, is today the hot bed of simmering communalism, a chasm between Christian Right and the Jews has appeared. Ironically, this year France will commemorate the victory of the separation of Church and the State (1905).

Who all are responsible for this strife in France? The reasons may be numerous: unemployment, drug abuse, alcohol, ghettos and the antagonism to finding so many communities in France. Muslims make up around 10 per cent of the population and around five hundred thousands are Jews which is the highest figure in any part of Europe. Plus, Muslims too have their highest presence in France.

"Throughout the world there is churning. United Kingdom has become used to multicultural societies, various clothes and different-religions but for France it was a new experience as France had never ever been a multicultural and multilingual society, of course, the only difference was in the dialect," she said. It was perhaps for the same reason the French parliament had passed the bill banning the use of religious symbols until college level in government funded institutions last year. There have also been some reports of scuffle between Muslim boys wearing kippa (Jewish skullcap) after the second intifada in Palestine. This also made a case for ending use of any ostentatious religious symbol by students in government run-schools.

Who are all those desecrating Jewish graveyards? " Some hotheads, unemployed and drunken youths who feel that they are doing a very brave job. But, the anti-Jewish and anti-Semite feeling is surely gaining ground in extreme rightist parties in Germany and Austria and elsewhere in Europe against the Jews who settled 1000 years back. France has also just observed the anniversary of the Auschwitz holocaust and feels the guilt for the crime of killing all those millions of helpless Jews."

Is this new anti-Jewish feeling because of the age-old Christian prejudices? "No, Europe is Christian only by its past but the 2000 years of tradition of anti-Judaism still somehow persists." What do you find to be the main reason for this upheaval? "Well, globalisation, perhaps, is the biggest reason as globalisation is making people search for their roots. In the melting pot we are finding ourselves lost. My grandchildren see a German, as if, there has never been a war between Germany and France. People’s memories are getting faded and that is what is making people revert to hunt for their origins." 

France, therefore, is today getting torn into sticking to what it achieved in 1905, and quite understandably, it’s centenary celebrations have been received very well by non-Roman Catholic churches. France also has a tiny minority of five per cent of Protestants to which Prof. Graff belongs. 

The last question was as to how she places Lucknow on the global map, despite Lucknow, bringing her anguish on this visit. She stopped for a while to elaborate that she still relishes the city’s culture which is more compelling than its beautiful appearance, and thus, giving a special meaning to the adjective ‘Lucknawi’. How do you take this term? "Well, this term when used pejoratively suggests foppishness, fastidiousness mannerist behavior, reflected in over elaborated etiquette – the idle preoccupations of a powerless aristocracy with surfeit of enforced leisure. In today’s busy urban landscape, there is something soothing and agreeable about this lifestyle, even if we can enjoy it only vicariously, by reading about it," came the answer. 

Prof. Graff did not finish until she expressed hope that the responsible citizens would soon come forward to douse the latest discontent in Lucknow and put an end to it for always and forever. Before she wound up she wanted to gift the fresh titles of her books to find that yours truly had already a copy of her memoirs.

The phone rang and she answered tasleemaat arz hain-Nice to hear it from Lucknow’s representative in France.

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