Community Discord and Fundamentalism – A Reality Check (Part 1)

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The beheading of a schoolteacher in France and the events that followed have once again brought to light the communal discord and fundamentalism that prevail in the world today. In India, these two topics have featured prominently in public discourse over the past five years. Some may deny it, but the world has many ostriches as well as those who behave like ostriches. Opposition politicians, pseudo-secularists and those who believe in appeasing minorities at the expense of the majority thrive on stoking community discord as part of their calling. There are some who cannot look beyond their own prevailing religion. They invariably place their religion above the nation.

Then there are those who just don’t care about these issues (and unfortunately there are many in our country). Therefore, they do not dwell on the subject. For them, the nation is just a parking lot where they live, work and go about their business without any commitment to the parking lot (read nation). The last category is that of those who love their nation and always think about it well. They are very worried about how communal tensions are gaining ground in certain segments of Indian society, which does not bode well for the country in the long run. Indian democracy gives space to all these variations in society and therefore the nation has to live with them.

Certain special interests often tell us that India is a land of “Atithi Bhava” which welcomes everyone. We remember our ancient traditions which teach us to live amicably with everyone, regardless of their religion, beliefs and faith. This is indeed very true. However, the problem begins when this discourse stops with Hindus without any mention of similar obligations for others. Atithi Bhava cannot be one way traffic for all time as that will mean being naïve besides being taken for granted.

A quick glance at Indian history through the ages teaches us that we have welcomed Zoroastrians, Jews, Tibetan Buddhists among many who have made India their home. It is important to understand that all of these people came from foreign countries where they were oppressed and persecuted. Their ethnicity was not Indian. To their credit, they have done well with their adopted land. We cannot remember a single religious or communal riot between them and the Hindus because there was none. While the credit is due to these religious societies, it is equally important to understand that Hindus never trespassed on their religion, beliefs or way of life despite the overwhelming superiority of numbers.

The story of Hindu migrants in Southeast Asia, Indonesia and other parts of the world is no different either. Their religion remained reserved for them alone. There has been no effort to convert the inhabitants of these lands to Hinduism or the Hindu way of life. This has allowed Hindu migrants to live in peace for centuries with the indigenous population without harming the local culture or religion. These examples prove Hinduism’s willingness to accept and live amicably with other religions and denominations while following ‘Atithi Bhava’ in letter and spirit.

Neither Christianity nor Islam, the other two great religions of the world, can compare to Hinduism in this regard given their history of violence and forced conversions across the world. Hinduism’s ability to be secular is unmatched and proven beyond doubt. One of the major characteristics, and undoubtedly its strength, is that Hinduism has continuously evolved over time and has not imposed any rigid boundaries or rigorous constraints on those who follow it unlike Christianity and the ‘Islam. Perhaps this is the reason why Hinduism is advocated more as a constantly evolving way of life than a religion with fixed principles and rules that must be followed. The very concept of evolution is synonymous with adjustment and finding ways to live with the changing environment around us.

During Mughal and British rule, Hinduism and in turn Hindus were never allowed to flourish. When India became independent in 1947, things were expected to change. Sadly, some of our main political and intellectual leaders who love the British way of life thought otherwise. Indian history has been twisted to project the Mughals and the British as saviors who made India proud. Selfish politicians wooed minorities for the policy of voting banks. Appeasement of minorities at the expense of the majority has become a national policy. This in turn gave birth to a distorted form of secularism where it became fashionable to impose restrictions on Hinduism while allowing minority religions to flourish unhindered.

In independent India, Islam and Christianity were allowed to teach their religion and convert people. Their institutions are not subject to any government control or taxes. In fact, they even benefit from government grants in various forms. On the other hand, Hindu places of worship are accountable to the government, taxed and Hinduism cannot be taught in schools. So, in reality, India has never been truly secular. Over the years, secularism has become an effective tool for politicians, minority leaders and some liberals to promote their selfish interests. Minorities also use it to play the victimization card. The net result was that those in power made the words Hindu and Hinduism taboo. The establishment quickly branded anyone who fought for Hindus or Hinduism as anti-secular – a term that over the years has come to mean anti-Muslims and intolerance.

The truth is that minorities are allowed to practice their religion as they see fit, not because India is secular. This is because of the fundamental rights conferred on all citizens under Articles 25 to 28 of the Constitution and the fact that the words religion, faith and belief were included in the original preamble. In short, religious freedom and tolerance have been part of the basic structure of our constitution since its inception. Both Mr. Nehru and Dr. Ambedkar were opposed to the inclusion of the word “secular” as they felt that it would not be valid in the Indian context. This would prohibit the state from making any kind of religious intervention in areas such as the reservation system, the protection of Muslim personal rights or the protection of cows. Further, Dr Ambedkar believed that society itself should be empowered to decide what kind of policy the state should follow or how its society should be organized socially and economically depending on the circumstances that prevail from time to time. He felt that if this were written into the constitution itself, it would be against the very concept of democracy.

It is well known that the word “secular” was not inserted into the preamble of the constitution until 1976, albeit for dubious reasons. By this time, the word secular had not only become fashionable, but also a powerful tool in the hands of politicians and pseudo-liberals who wanted to exploit it further by giving it constitutional holiness. These Western-educated, left-leaning liberals have always placed Western thought above all Indian thought. It is therefore not surprising that this word is found in the preamble of the constitution through the 42sd amendment.

Frankly, all secularism invokes in a democratic government is that its governance should not have any religious bias or favor citizens of a particular religion. But by no means does being secular mean that the nation’s main way of life should be abandoned simply because it is tied to the majority religion. In India, our basic way of life and Hinduism cannot be separated since this connection dates back over six thousand years. If the ancestors of some of us opted for another faith a few centuries ago, is it doubtful that a large part of our way of life still remains common?



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Disclaimer

The opinions expressed above are those of the author.



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