OF ALL THE overseas trips I have made in recent years, a short visit to Jerusalem last year was perhaps the most memorable. ‘Official’ engagements made it difficult to spend more than a day in the old city. But even that was enough to soak in the atmosphere of a place that, more than being a city, actually epitomises a sacred idea. To believing Jews and Christians, Jerusalem approximates the importance we Hindus attach to the river Ganga.
As a city, Indians are likely to see parallels with the old quarters around the Kashi Vishwanath temple in Varanasi. The cobbled lanes winding their way past sacred shrines and denominational outposts, the small shops with sharp salesmen selling souvenirs and reproduction of relics and the quaint ethnic quarters, all serve to remind the visitor that this place is steeped in antiquity. And what is most striking is that the old town is so breathtakingly clean.
I did not have the time to visit the archaeological park and see the findings of the meticulous excavations of the different layers of a city whose history can be traced back to Solomon’s construction of the first temple somewhere around 970 BCE. There is hardly anything much of that temple or even the second temple built by Herod and destroyed by the Roman Emperor Titus around 70 CE now in evidence. There is, of course, the Wall of the destroyed temple where Jews offer prayers to the sacred Mount on which the Al Aqsa mosque is located—and where Jews are forbidden from offering prayers. What has complicated matters is that the Al Aqsa mosque is also exceptionally sacred to Islam and linked to the life of the Prophet.
Jerusalem is the point of convergence of all three Abrahamic religions. Christians flock to the Holy Church of the Sepulchre where Jesus shed his blood from the crucifix, Muslims link the sacredness of the Al Aqsa mosque with their loss of control over Jerusalem since 1967, and Jews see the city as the epicentre of the state of Israel.
It is a seemingly intractable issue that requires sensitive appreciation and understanding. That is why it makes absolutely no sense for UNESCO to pass a resolution that describes the holy site as ‘Al Aqsa Mosque/ Al-Haram Al-Sharif’, without any reference to its Jewish lineage. The implication is that only Muslims have a claim on the sacred mount.
This is a dangerous trend. When international bodies start wading into sensitive areas in a brazenly partisan manner, it leads to all sorts of complications. The history of UNESCO has always been troubled and this is the latest chapter in its politicisation. The whole thing is very disagreeable.
For a change, India conducted itself honourably in UNESCO. At the Committee stage, our representative abstained.
IT IS HEARTENING when a Briton of Indian origin is appointed to the House of Lords. Last month, courtesy the Labour Party leader, Shami Chakrabarti, a civil liberties activist, was made a Baroness—a grand title that looks very impressive on a visiting card.
Unfortunately, her appointment was marred by two controversies. First, there were questions over whether or not she was rewarded for glossing over Labour’s anti-Semitism in a report. Secondly, the Bong Baroness was mercilessly taunted when it emerged that she had her son admitted to the fee-paying Dulwich College—a delightful South London public school whose alumni included PG Wodehouse and my dear friend Tunku Varadarajan.
I have little sympathy for the politics of Baroness Chakrabarti. She belongs to that tendency in British political life that the satirical magazine Private Eye used to call ‘Sparts’ in the 1980s—after a dreadfully boring leftist sect, the Sparticists. Yet, I am glad she drew a line between her political correctness and the future of her son. She was doing what most immigrants to Britain try to do—ensure that their children are exposed to the very best that their host country has to offer. Immigrants have a dread of failure.
Of course, this conflicts with her association with the dreadful Spart, Jeremy Corbyn. But, as they used to say about vocational education in India: “It’s good for the neighbour’s child.”
HAVING BEEN EXPOSED to builders over the past two months, I have wondered whether there is some truth in what Lockwood Kipling, the father of Rudyard and Principal of the Art College in Bombay, wrote in 1866: ‘A Hindoo makes a shot at the right thing and he hits or miss by chances so that no one thing is quite right. No masonry is square, no railings are straight, no roads are level… and curious imperfection and falling short attends everything. So that one lives as in a dream where things are just coming about but never quite happen.’