India must uphold its historic track record as a multi-religious and plural society, says the distinguished journalist and author Mark Tully, who has lived here for nearly 50 years.
Former South Asia bureau chief of the BBC — he resigned in July 1994 — Sir Mark Tully has been feted both in his adopted country India and his native United Kingdom: Officer of the Order of the British Empire, 1985; India’s Padma Shree, 1992; knighted in the 2002 and made KBE — Honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE); and the Padma Bhushan, 2005. Last year, he received the RedInk Award for Lifetime Achievement in Journalism for 2018, instituted by the Mumbai Press Club.
Tully spoke to law student and peace activist Prannv Dhawan in New Delhi, Oct. 23, 2019, about India, Pakistan, Kashmir, and South Asia. He holds that India must find ways to resolve the dispute for its own national interest. Excerpts:
Dhawan: You were the BBC’s South Asia correspondent for three decades, including as bureau chief for 20 years. What is your view of the region’s stability, especially in the context of India-Pakistan tensions?
Tully: First of all, I think it’s tragic that the SAARC – the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation — is actually still not functional. And when several years ago, I wrote an article about regional cooperation, I realised that regional economic cooperation here was the lowest in the world.
Let me just take one example, Bangladesh and the Northeast of India. We should attempt to integrate the Northeast by connecting it to the mainland of India through Bangladesh so as to ensure that people have easy access to communication and electricity facilities.
One reason of course, why things have failed is because of the Indo-Pak dispute. I just think India should do everything it can, as it did under Manmohan Singh and under Vajpayee to try and resolve issues with Pakistan. And in doing so, India should remember that, in a way, the burden of generosity lies on its shoulders because after 70 years, Pakistan has lost three wars, has far less population and has not been as economically successful.
And only by some element of generosity, India has to try and find ways to resolve the dispute. What has happened in Kashmir and the present atmosphere with Pakistan is a step backwards. And it cannot be entirely blamed on Pakistan.
I would go so far as to say that it demeans India to go on blaming everything on Pakistan and treating Pakistan as a hostile element. I know there’s a problem of terrorism in Kashmir. We all accept that. But I still believe if approached in a generous and proper manner and with willingness, in some way, to give on Kashmir, there can be peace. I’m not saying give away Kashmir — but go some way towards what Manmohan Singh and Vajpayee had proposed. Ultimately, it is in India’s national interest to resolve this dispute.
Dhawan: How do you think the India-Pakistan dispute plays into the inter community relationship between Hindus and Muslims in India?
Tully: Well, of course the Indo-Pak rivalry feeds into the distrust between communities in India because it is all about the Muslim part of the country (undivided India). It has at least two impacts.
One, Kashmiri demands for Azadi (freedom) and acts like stone-throwing do contribute to Hindu nationalism with its bias against Muslims. This plays into the anti-Muslim agenda because the government can say look at these Muslims, look what they’re doing, they can’t be loyal Indians. But the reverse way it could play is if there is a peaceful settlement, it could be an example of Indian pluralism.
What was happening in Kashmir is being used by the government as an electoral issue. And in doing that, a Muslim element enters into what they’re saying.
Dhawan: As someone who was born in India and has been a proponent of India’s pluralistic ethos, how do you think we can reclaim the Gandhian idea of inter-community peace and brotherhood?
Tully: I think that if there was an opposition party which strongly stood by pluralism, the situation would be better. I think getting back to the Gandhian model of pluralistic, accommodative Hinduism is the way ahead. The need is for the culturally rooted liberal belief to keep the house open to the winds blowing from all parts of the world, but not wanting to be blown off one’s feet.
The opposition party must say that ‘We stand for the religious pluralistic Hinduism and for its great spiritual traditions. I see that a lot of people will be very attracted to that. I personally believe that is a fundamental element of Indian culture.
I believe secularism has been distorted by politicians. You see, India is a highly religious country where people take their religious identity very seriously. If India wants to call itself a Hindu country, it should be allowed, because majority of people are Hindus. The question then is what do you mean by ‘Hindu’? It is about re-interpreting Hinduism in an inclusive sense. In Britain, you know, we call ourselves a Christian country, but we’re not a Roman Catholic or an extreme Protestant country. In the same way you can call yourself a Hindu country.
However, you do have a large minority population in this country, and you have people of all other faiths. As a Christian, I’m taught to believe that St. Thomas came to India just after the death of Jesus. Islamic traders brought Islam to India in the medieval period. About the existing divisive atmosphere in the country, I think some political changes are required. Media only channels the existing political hostilities.
I believe that the Congress Party has taken this message on board. And I believe that during the last election, Rahul Gandhi acted on it. In fact, he said to me, he believes there were two types of Hinduism, one is Mahatma Gandhi’s and other the RSS’s, and he believes in Gandhi’s Hinduism.
It’s a hugely difficult yet crucial task. And it’s really for the politicians to take this on board because for a diverse country, to have one divisive ideology dumped on it unquestioningly, is dangerous.
Prannv Dhawan is a student of law at the National Law School of India University, Bengaluru where he leads the Law and Society Committee. He is passionate about constitutional law, social policy, electoral politics, and peace in South Asia. He adapted this interview for Aman Ki Asha from his original piece published in Frontline, The Hindu, Nov. 22, 2019.