food / travel
October 29, 2018
AGRA — The inner courtyard of Shaukat Ali's house, circled by five other huts, looks like any other village household near Agra. Six brothers sit under a leafy fig tree smoking a hookah. A pleasant breeze wafts the grey smoke away.
Nothing seems out of tune in this bucolic atmosphere until a muezzin's azaan call breaks the afternoon lull.
As though in unison, four of the brothers hurriedly retreat to their homes to lay out their prayer mats. The other two join their families in chanting Vedic mantras in front of a lush holy basil plant growing in the courtyard.
The Alis have cast their religious differences aside and set a precedent for harmonious coexistence. They exemplify a reality in Sadhan village, 31 km south of Agra, where its 20,000-odd residents espouse different faiths without fear of being ostracized. When ghettoisation based on faith is being rampantly imposed across India, Sadhan stands out as an anomaly.
Its residents believe it is possible to be born a Hindu but practice Islam, and it's possible to be Muslim but keep a Hindu name. "This may seem bizarre in a polarized country like India today, but we take pride in our shared brotherhood," says Ali.
In this Hindu-majority village with about 6,000 Muslim residents, the belief in a common ancestry tethers people to a tapestry of faith.
History of the village
Oral tradition has it that a Rajput chieftain — Singh Pal — gained control over the area around 1200 A.D. But during Aurangzeb's rule in the 17th century, large-scale conversion to Islam took place. Then in 1923, a resident from Sadhan named Lakhmi Singh was reconverted to Hinduism, through an elaborate ritualistic ceremony. That sparked a wave of reconversions across the village, which continues even today.
But even though conversions have become a divisive force in Indian communities, Sadhan doesn't see them as an unnatural phenomenon. Hindu residents can turn to Islam, Sikhism or Jainism if they so choose. Osman Khan, a former priest, received support from his brethren for practicing Christianity openly: "This narrative of conversion and reconversion through centuries hasn't taken away our belief that we are part of the same family. If it hasn't destroyed our cohesion over epochs, it won't now," says Jameel Jadon, the village pradhan.
Jadon adds that Jugal Kishore, a Birla scion, gave thrust to the reconversion efforts in the 1920s by setting up a temple in the village. He also made generous donations to Hindu trusts such as the Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
"Look, this is the central nervous system of the village, which was set up by Jugal Kishore," says Jadon, pointing to a dilapidated mustard-colored temple with a green shikhara spire.
An open society
At the temple, devotees gather to offer their prayers during Hindu festivals. Even weddings are solemnized without discrimination based on caste or religion. "Ours is an open society. If my son wants to marry a Hindu girl, there's no problem. There are so many families where inter-religious marriages have taken place without fear of persecution," says Asrar Jadon, a paddy farmer.
Thus, during wedding ceremonies, Sadhan villagers include both Hindu and Islamic rituals on their calendar to ensure no one feels left out. Hindu grooms wear traditional Muslim headdresses, while Muslims host engagement ceremonies reminiscent of Hindu customs.
Jugal Kishore Birla's temple in Sadhan — Photo: Priyadarshini Sen
"It's not only weddings, we also respect each other's food habits and eat from the same plate. There are no rules about what to eat and what to leave out," says Balbir Singh, a tea stall owner. "During Eid, families cook mutton curry in their homes, while sweetmeats are prepared in every rural household during Holi."
Even day-to-day activities allow for communal kinship in a village where most residents depend on farming and construction activities for their livelihood. During local meetings, Muslims — both Sunni and Ahmadiyya — Hindus and Dalits gather at the same table to discuss ways to improve their living conditions.
"It seems unbelievable to others that such a mix of people could come together in a peaceful setting. There hasn't been a single riot or communal uprising in Sadhan despite unrest in surrounding areas," says Jameel Jadon.
Indeed, when communal riots broke out in neighboring Fatehpur Sikri, Agra and Achhnera town in the early 2000s, Sadhan remained an oasis of peace. "Infighting would cause families to split up because of the multiplicity of faiths within each unit. We had to remind everyone that brotherhood trumps caste, identity and religion," recalls Bhagat Singh, a 70-year-old Muslim furniture maker.
While weaving a mesh of ropes around a metal bed frame, Singh remembers how Hindu fundamentalists called for a boycott of Muslims from the village in 1989.
Even the political shifts sweeping Uttar Pradesh over the past decades haven't destroyed the communal harmony that binds Sadhan's residents. Here, candidates from the Bharatiya Janata Party, Congress, Bahujan Samaj Party and Samajwadi Party have tested the waters of local governance only to be met with resistance from the locals.
"The incumbent MP for the Fatehpur Sikri constituency is BJP's Babulal Chaudhary — while I'm a BSP supporter, so there's bound to be ideological differences. But the brotherhood here is an indestructible force. It cannot be elbowed out by external factors," says Jameel Jadon.
Some residents claim local leaders spearhead conversion campaigns promising economic gains. In reality, their intent is to divide the community. "We fell for that," says Meena Jadon, a 45-year-old homemaker who's now an observant Hindu.
Hoping for upward social and economic mobility, Meena's family converted to Hinduism 25 years ago. "It hasn't led to any tangible benefits. Fortunately, our extended family hasn't alienated us, nor has our village," she says.
People can move fluidly between Hinduism and Islam.
Meena recites mantras from the Rig Veda every morning, while her sister's family reads from the Koran. "There's no animosity even if prayer habits are vastly different within a family. Idol worship is not condemned, nor are Islamic rituals," says Shiraz Khan, Meena's nephew, who's a devout Muslim.
In many rural households, Muslims recite the Gayatri Mantra as fluently as Hindus recall verses from the Koran. The desire to preserve Sadhan's secular ethos is prevalent not only among its residents but also among priests and gurus.
Ganesh, a 45-year-old priest has turned his modest ashram into a secular abode — including under its umbrella a Muslim saint's mausoleum and a sacred space for the worship of Hindu goddesses. A sign outside reads: "Religion is no ground for discrimination. Faith unites all."
Inside, devotees are seen genuflecting before the altars until they seek the priest's blessings. "This is a formal representation of what the village stands for. People can move fluidly between Hinduism and Islam just as I do," says Ganesh, now a Hindu sadhu chanting Kali mantras in a pink robe.
Within a few minutes, Ganesh changes his avatar as Muslim devotees line up before the mausoleum. When the faithful leave Ganesh's ashram after praying, they say it's time to get on with their day. "This melding of cultures and religions over generations may seem surprising to others. For us it's inconsequential because we live as one family," says Shaukat Ali nonchalantly.
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Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.
Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra
October 22, 2021
"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.
Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.
But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.
The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."
Criticism of any 'royal project'
The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.
Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.
In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release
Freedom of speech at stake
"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."
The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.
The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.
Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.
Shift to social media
While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.
The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.
Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".
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