In India today, has the call of ‘freedom’ become a ruse?

Do you think it has become a catchphrase for something else that’s lurking, that is more insidious?

(If so, my call to you is, let us not “stand down.”)

In 1931, in a village not far from the rural, northern Punjab town of Hasanabdal, in Attock district, modern-day Pakistan, an 11-year old girl married. She was not from a wealthy family, and so, her wedding to a 14-year old in a neighboring town was some cause for celebration. She was lucky, the village elders, her family and her friends surmised — because the girl would likely now have a safe and secure future. The elders weren’t wrong. Indeed, my grandmother did. She was a devoted wife and mother until she died of leukemia in 2004.

Hasanabdal, where she grew up, is a revered place, but not for the Muslim creation myth it is now named for — in which a cowherd, Hasan, aids a Sufi saint, named Abdal.

Rather, Hasanabdal is home to Panja Sahib, a Sikh shrine and one of the oldest Sikh religious sites in the world, which dates back to 1578 AD. The shrine marks the place where Guru Nanak, founder of the Sikh faith, stopped a boulder hurled at him, in its tracks, by holding up one of his hands. The handprint is celebrated still and religious Sikh pilgrims the world over come to observe it today. More about Panja Sahib is posted here. Here is a photo of the handprint from the website.

Panja Sahib, as the whole town of Hasanabdal was once called, has always had a near-mystical quality. It is worshipped not just by Sikhs, but also by Hindus, like my grandmother—who only read, spoke and wrote in Gurmukhi, a Sikh and Punjabi local dialect. Her family members, relatives and friends — all of whom who lived in the area and spoke a range of languages, depending largely on how much wealth and education they could access—revered the Guru, nonetheless.

The second story is around the creation of Hasanabdal, the town Panja Sahib is named after today. In it, a Muslim, Sufi saint called Abdal roamed in the area (sometime, date unknown, after the birth of Christ) and, in his search for milk or water asked Hasan, a local cowherd, for a spot of milk from one of his buffaloes. Hasan replied saying his buffaloes were dry. (Both men were in desperate circumstances.) As the story goes, Abdal touched one of Hasan’s buffaloes. Then, Abdal asked Hasan to milk the buffalo. Subsequently, upon Abdal’s suggestion, the buffalo began to grant Abdal the milk he wanted. In return, Abdal asked Hasan how he might help him. So, Hasan said his village was suffering from famine and needed water. Abdal knocked on two hills nearby, and they suddenly broke open. They became the rivers that flow through Hasanabdal today, and Hasan’s village now had enough to drink for generations.

William Finch, a British traveler who came to India between 1608 and 1611, described Hasanabdal as, “A pleasant town with a small river and many fair tanks in which are many fishes with golden rings in their noses …; the water so clear that you may see a penny in the bottom.” Evidently, the beauty of the fresh water springs captivated religious leaders, residents, traders and kings alike when they lived, worked, ruled and traveled through that area.

Why do these narratives matter? What do they teach us? I have never been to Hasanabdal, and so, mostly, I learn about it through what I read. One thing the narratives teach me is how much our public conversations, stories, ideas and imagination shape public morality and consciousness.

That is all I can say, for now. These days, I’m an atheist first, then a Hindu. In good faith, I cannot participate in the sort of Hinduism being practiced in India today. It is not just vile, it is destructive — in other words, it is the sort of ideology that undermines progress, development, community and language of all kinds. India, troubled as it is, has forged ahead rapidly in the past several years—by some measures, at a lightening clip. The country has also made progress in spite of reams of obstacles and other fundamental disadvantages in its path (economic and otherwise). Today, however, all of it stands to be tested. (Quick update? Read here, here, here, here, and here.)

For me, as someone who hails neither from the Muslim or Sikh faiths, or from the British tradition for that matter, I find that our narratives, creation myths, stories and cultural references matter a great deal. They capture the knowledge and wisdom from eras and generations past, and the ideas and organizations we endorse today embody the values and truths that bear out or we realize tomorrow. My question these days for those of Indian origin (but to everyone, really) is: How would you like your culture to be defined? Who would you empower to define it?

I, like many around the world today, descend directly from refugees. All my grandparents were aided by Muslim friends and employers at the time of Partition in India. If you or your family members live in North India today, or in Bengal (or West Bengal as it was known, then), chances are you probably were helped as well. You probably know who you are. You likely join us here today because, like mine, your family relied on the goodness and generosity of Muslim neighbors, strangers and friends. They protected you and your family, took them in, and shielded them from some of the most horrendous violence the world has ever known. So, my call to you, if you’re reading this, is: don’t let the moment pass. Don’t let it go. Do not stand down.

Today, many of us are descendants and survivors of mass violence. Have we learned from it? What about our ancestors, grandparents and their communities and friends? If they were here now, what would they say? Our friends and families survived at a time when many others did not. My family, like many others, lost all the money and property they had. They witnessed friends and relatives perish in front of them. When they came to India, the only thing they brought was themselves.

If you or your family is or was from India, I hope you’ll think about it.