India and Pakistan are close geographically and share many customs. Their people speak the same language and yet they do not understand each other. In both the countries the perception persists that we are each other's enemies. For a long time there has been no interaction between the two peoples, which has led to feelings of mutual suspicion and mistrust. The Agra summit provided an opportunity for many journalists from Pakistan to visit India and interact with their counterparts and political leaders. Here is an attempt at understanding our big neighbour.
India is predominantly Hindu. Hinduism is the oldest practicing religion of the world. Over one billion people almost entirely concentrated in India follow it. It is complex as well as simple at the same time. It is extremely heterogeneous and unlike most religions it has multiple sacred books. It subscribes to many beliefs concerning the nature of god. It embraces polytheism (many gods), monotheism (one God), and monism (one Supreme Being).
Hinduism subscribes to the idea of liberation of the soul from the perpetual cycle of death and rebirth. The state of the soul is established by karma. The Karma is the fundamental principle on which the Hindu society has been structured. It is the sum of a person's actions in previous states of existence that controls his or her fate in future existences (reincarnation). The ultimate reality is transmigration (soul passing to a different body after death) as Brahman, the name given to the highest caste. The caste system is thus the pillar of Hindu society, which is explained by the concept of dharma, a term that denotes the social or caste rules.
The caste system has established socially stratified societies in India. The system is based on four classes, which are traditionally determined by hereditary and defined by occupation. These four classes are Brahman (priests), Kshatriya (warriors), Vaisia (merchants and farmers), and Sudra (labourers). The lowliest of the low bhangis (cleaners of human waste/sweepers) are outside the caste system and are thus branded as 'outcasts' or 'untouchables'.
The bhangi profession is exclusive to India and Pakistan. Nowhere else in the world humans take up this dirtiest and the most degrading of jobs - handling and disposing the excrement of other humans.
The Muslims of the subcontinent have also adopted this particular aspect of the caste system. In Pakistan bhangis are treated the same as in India. Although most of them have converted to Christianity or Islam, they remain 'untouchables'. Like India they live in ghettos. The caste system is so deeply ingrained in the Indian psyche that despite government's efforts the society, especially the rural India, refuses to recognise the concept that every man is born equal. However, the vote is accomplishing it. The Dalits, the new name adopted by the low caste Hindus, have discovered the power of the vote. Undoubtedly, democracy is a great equaliser and the Dalits know that their vote has the power to free them from the evils of the repressive caste system. Nevertheless, it would be an uphill task because the textbooks still teach that the caste system.
A visitor to India is taken aback by the sight of cows walking unattended or lounging in the busy streets. The traffic skirts round them taking extreme care not to disturb their walk or nap. Cows of all ages roam wherever they like. Some cows are so old that they can hardly stand. But nobody would dare to push them or use a stick to move them from the busiest of intersection. The cow in Hindu tradition is a revered animal. It is the mother who provides milk. To kill it for beef is a great sin and a punishable offence. The slaughter of cow is completely prohibited.
The reverence of cow is a matter of faith and in the matters of faith the arguments are rendered impotent. For instance, it can be argued that buffalo also gives milk then why this animal is not revered. Or why should not an unproductive cow be disposed off? The Hindus are very sensitive about the cow slaughter and many a times it has resulted in Hindu-Muslim riots. Some Muslim rulers of India, especially the Mughals, had respected the Hindu faith by prohibiting cow slaughter.
Meats other than cows' are not prohibited by Hindu religion. However, due to cow reverence the Hindus have developed abhorrence for other meats too. They now fall into various categories of vegetarianism. The pure vegetarian would eat no meet, whether red or white. The semi-vegetarian would eat fish, poultry and even mutton. Hindus have become vegetarians by the dictates of religion while the western world is 'going veggi' for reasons of health.
The mutton and chicken dishes are available but only at restaurants run by Muslims or at high-class hotels. There are no roadside chicken-tikka shops and hardly any barbecue parties. Very few Hindu households cook meat. If a Hindu wants to eat meat, he would have to go to his club or a high-class hotel - an expensive proposition - or to a Muslim restaurant or better still get invited to a Muslim house.
India has gathered some indirect benefits by becoming vegetarian. It is the largest producer of milk in the world, 78.1 metric ton. It possesses 56 percent of the buffaloes in the world, 8.42 million. It has the largest cattle (buffaloes and cows) population, although a large number of it must be unproductive and a burden on the cattle food. It is the second largest producer of vegetables, 67.28 mt. It is the largest producer of fruits, 41.5 mt; it is 2nd in goats, 3rd in sheep, 6th in fish production and 7th in poultry production.
India has become very conscience of environmental problems. I recall Delhi of a few years ago when its air was so much polluted that it was painful to eyes and breathing. Now it has hardly any atmospheric pollution. The public transport is required by law to operate on CNG. I did not encounter a single smoke-emitting vehicle during my 7-day stay. The environment inspectors can stop a vehicle to check its exhaust for pollution emission. The auto rickshaws are in abundance, which are convenient, cheap and run on meter. They are noiseless too because the penalty for removing the silencer is very high and strictly enforced.
This article was published in Jung, Pakistan. The writer is a freelance columnist.