France has always stood for secular values. “La Laïcité”, as the French say, means literally ‘what is not religious’. One should understand that until the French Revolution in the 18th century, the Catholic Church not only owed huge properties in France (half of the country, it is sometimes said ), but also constantly interfered in matters of State. In fact, Richelieu, one of France’s most powerful ministers of the 17th century, was a cardinal (catholic archbishop) and the Popes had sometimes their own armies and were highly (and sometimes deviously) politicised. It thus became necessary at some point to separate the Church from the State and this is what the French Revolution achieved, with sometimes ruthless efficiency. Since then, this demarcation has been fiercely defended by successive French Governments although, one can say that France is still very much a catholic society, with a protestant minority and France even has a minister who is additionally in charge of hunting down sects (often Hindus ! It is also rue that Paris does not have a single Hindu temple, for want of permission to build one from the French Government).
France area’s of colonialism was Africa, particularly North Africa, where the French conquered Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. When in the sixties, France, having recovered her prosperity, after the traumas of the Second World War, looked for cheap labour for doing the menial work which the French were not any more ready to perform – road laying, collecting trash etc – it imported cheap labour from these three colonies . Most of these people stayed behind and their children, two generations later, have acquired French nationality and are brought up in French schools, as French nationals. It has brought and sometimes invigorating breath of fresh air. Indeed, some of France’ top writers, comedians, comics or footballers are of North African origin. Unfortunately, the poorer sections never really integrated in French society and since the nineties there has been a return of some of their youth to a harder more militant aspect of Islam. France was even the target of many Islamic terrorist attacks in the nineties (hence it should have a little more sympathy for India’s problems in Kashmir than the attitude it has displayed in the last few years, specially given the fact that France is also facing a separatist problem in Corsica, an island off the coast of France, which has Italian antecedents).
Thus the French President Jacques Chirac, realizing in the last few years that things have got worse: repeated attack on synagogues by French Muslim youths, riots in suburbs of Paris peopled often in majority by French Muslims, and given the fact that 70% of the inmates in French prisons are of Arab origin – has decided to strike. He should have the support of the entire French intelligentsia . But he does not, as most of French intelligentsia is left-leaning, meaning that it has generally more sympathy for the plight of Muslims in Chechnya, Palestine or Kashmir than for instance, the tragedy of the Kashmiri Pandits. He should have support from the whole of Europe, which is facing the same problems, from its Muslims minorities, particularly in England where the Coranic schools are a breeding ground for terrorism and subversions. But he does not. It is a pity, because banning the scarf is a good decision and it is bound to force those in France who want to be Muslims first and French second, to come out openly, thus allowing the French to see really close the problem it has on his hands.
This blurring of the religious and the spiritual has never happened in India. The much maligned Brahmins never owed huge properties like the Church in France actually it is the Church in India which owed he primest property: see Bangalore cty fr instance) and never interfered in political life, apart from the rishis, who were spiritual counsellors to the kings and emperors of India, a practice which should be today rekindled by the modern leaders of India, as spirituality is India’s legacy to the world. Yet imagine what would happen if tomorrow the Indian Government wanted to introduce a legislation to ban the Muslim scarf for girls in school ? On Friday night, all over India, mullahs would exhort their faithful to get down into the streets and the whole of India would erupt in bloody riots. Not only Hindus never interfered in State matters, but they also granted religious freedom to all religious minorities who were persecuted in their own countries, be them the Jews, the Armenians, the Christian Syrians, the Parsis, the pre-Muslim invasions Arab traders, or today the Tibetans. These people were allowed to practice their religion freely, but also to keep and bring in schools, public buildings or government offices ,the religious symbols their faith, fez, topis, caps, scarves, turbans and what not.
It is thus sad to hear today both in India and international forums abroad, that the Christians and the Muslims are persecuted in India by Hindu ‘fundamentalists’. Whatever happened in Gujarat, Indian Muslims should not forget that they posses in India a freedom of expression that they would not get in most Muslim countries including in Pakistan. It is also an irony that they ruled India with a bloody and iron hand for ten centuries and that they have forgotten that. The scarf debate is not thus relatable to India, but it is very much so for France.