16 April 2024 03:30 PM



Salman Khurshid and Shashi Tharoor: Suave, and So Regressive

Tharoor on Sabarimala echoes Khurshid on Jamia

NEW DELHI: It is strange how two of the most urbane politicians of the Congress party can side with the most fundamentalist, regressive positions without blinking an eye. Decades ago it was Salman Khurshid, posturing on the side of the fanatics threatening the life of Professor Mushirul Hasan; and today it is Shashi Tharoor supporting the fanatics trying to prevent the entry of women into the Sabarimala temple.

Both prototypes really. Public schools, foreign education, smart, seemingly intelligent - everything about their personas seems to suggest progressive thought and action. And perhaps it is so, except when it comes to religion and the constitutency.

Salman Khurshid - St Stephens, Oxford, a lawyer who also had a stint teaching at Trinity College, from an elite Muslim family whose father Khurshed Alam Khan was a senior minister in Congress governments and grandfather Zakir Hussain the third Presdent of India - was the first to disappoint. Clearly believing his constituency in Delhi includes the Jamia Millia Islamia, Khurshid was behind a war waged against Professor Hasan, who died recently, by students and goons who controlled the university in the 1980s.

The mobs attacked Professor Hasan, baying for his blood after an interview he gave to Khurshid’s wife Louise Fernandes, where he had merely said, in response to a specific question on Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, that he was against a ban on books.

“The banning of the book,” Hasan had said, “or any book for that matter, rarely helps. On the contrary, it lends the book greater notoriety.”

Almost immediately the interview created a storm. Certain students and goons took over the campus and prevented Professor Hasan from returning. When he did so after a hiatus, he was attacked and beaten.

It was seen as a Congress effort to ‘capture’ the Jamia campus from the Left, and Salman Khurshid, then a junior minister in the government, was named by several leaders and faculty members as the instigator of the effort. Khurshid himself maintained during the period that Hasan should be prepared to pay the price of being a liberal, as if that were a dirty word. And took a position that could only be described as highly regressive and fundamentalist. The Left parties accused him of supporting and instigating minority fundamentalists.

And now, almost 30 years later, it is the turn of Shashi Tharoor - equally sophisticated, well read, a man of literature - to stir the Sabarimala temple waters, with views as regressive as his colleague’s.

“Sabarimala advocates will tell you that any woman who believes in the legend of Lord Ayyappa in Sabarimala would not wish to worship there until she had turned 50, because to worship there before 50... if she is of reproductive age would violate the very principles of the deity she was worshipping,” Tharoor said.

For him the entry into the temple by the two women, a celebratory and liberating effort, amounts only to “needlessly provocative actions at a time when the pilgrimage season was going on peacefully.”

This at a time when five million women - clearly eclipsing the managed, male dominated mobs on the streets - formed a wall across Kerala to demand their right to enter the Sabarimala temple. At a time when two women of menstruating age entered the precincts, and a third now from Sri Lanka has followed.

The Kerala wall of women was a peaceful and dignifed response to the mayhem created by BJP goons, with the Congress forming the rear end of the protests in the state. The Kerala wall of women is one of the most assertive and affirmative actions this writer has witnessed in the women’s movement for years now. Floodlights in what was becoming a tunnel of gender darkness.

Normally both Khurshid and Tharoor speak for gender justice, or at least claim to. For instance Tharoor has introduced a bill in Parliament to make marital rape a crime. But when it comes to gender rights in religion both gentlemen, despite the benefit of their education, and their placement in the country’s social-political structure, have fallen to low ends indeed.

The first, by many accounts instigated attacks on a learned historian and professor of international repute. The other tries to whittle the significance of the women’s action at Sabarimala, actually criticising those women’s herculean effort to break barriers and enter the temple as “provocative”...