Historically, and I am talking about many hundred years ago or so, the Indian record of racial and communal indiscrimination had been better than the world’s average. At one time in our history, we didn’t require the kind of advice that the US President Barack Obama gave to Indians through his talk to the Delhi students recently when he visited us as the Chief Guest for the Republic Day Parade. Obama reminded predominantly Hindu India about the rights of minorities and the challenges the developing nation faced about religious pluralism.
“No society is immune from the darkest impulses of men,” said Obama. “India will succeed so long as it is not splintered along the lines of religious faith.”
For many painful years the Europeans and Americans suffered the adverse and in case of Europe horrible effects of racial discrimination. The German concept of Master Race (die Hessenrasse) was adopted as a Nazi ideology. The German ubermensch (overman or superman) was a concept in the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzche and finally adopted by Adolf Hitler as one of the significant thoughts behind his desire to purge the world of other than pure white Nordic race. The end result was the Holocaust in which approximately six million Jews were exterminated by the Nazis. The “Final Solution” was a Nazi term used to refer to their plan to abrogate the Jewish race during World War II. The race extermination of the Jews was the summit of the Nazis anti-Semitic hatred. The massacre of the Jews was invoked in stages. Here is one of the many horrible pictures of the pogroms carried out by the Nazis:
Barack Obama’s own country, the USA, had the concept of Master Race in the context of Master – Slave relations and even provided a pseudo-scientific justification for slavery based on superior race’s relations with an inferior race. During the colonising period, anti-Catholicism was at its peak. In 1915 the Ku Klux Klan re-emerged on a national level, preaching anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism; it amassed more than 4 million members. In American history, it was as late as in October 1964 that Martin Luther King received the Nobel Peace Prize for fighting the racial inequality prevalent in the American society. Nevertheless, the immediate after-effect of 9/11 was that anyone of Asian origin and supporting a beard was targeted simply because the 9th September 2001 attacks in New York and Washington DC that killed nearly 3000 people were coordinated by an organisation called Al-Qaeda that had roots in Afghanistan and whose leader Osama bin Laden and many others in the organisation supported free-flowing beards. It is only later that it occurred to America not to alienate an entire community in reprisal for attacks by a handful.
The European record of Wars based on religion is quite pathetic and indeed violent. From the 7th to 8th centuries of Muslim Conquests to Christian Crusades and finally Wars of Religion of 16th to 17th centuries killed millions of people. The Christians even fought a Hundred Years War between themselves, euphemistically called Wars of Reformation.
India, on the other hand, had a great tradition of religious and racial tolerance. For the first time in our history, we were exposed to large scale religious intolerance by the Muslim kings that ruled over us. It started sometime in the 11th century. These rulers, unlike others from Central Asia retained their religious identity and created legal and administrative systems that superseded the systems in India based on religious and racial tolerance. They, for the first time in the history of India, also indulged in the hated and much bandied about word: Conversions; that is, forcing, inducing, facilitating and motivating people of indigenous religions to convert to Islam. The cruel and violent exploits of the Afghan warlord Mahmud of Ghazni (early 11th century), Muhammad Ghori (from Ghor in Afghanistan), Mamluk, Khalji, Tughlaq, Timur, Babur, Aurangzeb and Nadir Shah are only too well known for their cruelty and atrocities. Even at that, some of the rulers such as Akbar the Great (11 Feb 1556 to 27 Oct 1605) found a way of merging their religion with the religion in India. He was as orthodox a Muslim as any of his predecessors. However, so impressed was he with the Sufi practice in India and the good in various religions that he integrated them all into a common belief called Din-e-Ilahi.
Therefore, if we really trace the seeds of modern-day religious Intolerance in India, these were laid during the century and a half leading to India’s independence on 15th August 1947. As is easy to visualise these were politically exploited for vested interests. The British openly propagated a policy of Divide and Rule, which served their political and military aims quite well. We were puppets in their hands. However, just as we learnt the system of dowry from the Europeans and then left them far behind in its practice; similarly, as soon as the politicians of the sub-continent realised the political advantages to be gained from dividing people along religious lines, they left their original exponents the British far behind. Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founding father of Pakistan excelled in it before independence and the Indian politicians learned to stay in power through this after independence.
For several decades after independence the only ruling party in the country, the Congress, learnt to exploit the minorities and dubbed this appeasement of minorities as Secularism. It was so successful in this game of exploiting minorities that any voice even remotely critical of this pseudo-secular approach was promptly dubbed as anti-secular. It very often rallied all so-called ‘secular’ parties behind its plank in order to keep at bay any opposition to its rule.
Lets, for example, take the infamous Shah Bano Case of April 1985 in the regime of Rajiv Gandhi. Shah Bano Begum, mother of five children and an old woman (62 years old) was divorced by her husband in 1978 as per the Islamic practice prevalent in the country. She filed and won a criminal case in the Supreme Court of India. The court ruled that she was entitled to alimony from her husband as per the law of the land. However, since Muslims were an assured vote-bank for the Congress, the Indian Parliament reversed the judgment of its highest court buckling under pressure from Muslim orthodoxy. Since the Congress enjoyed absolute majority in the parliament, it caused to pass the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986 and diluted the intent of the Supreme Court in yet another act of appeasement of minority, in this case Muslims.
The main opposition to Congress came from a splinter party formed in 1951 by Shyama Prasad Mookerjee and called Jana Sangh that was in response to Congress’s pseudo-secularism. The leaders of the party in succession after the death of SP Mookerjee were Deen Dayal Sharma, Atal Behari Vajpayee and then LK Advani. The party was widely regarded as the political arm of Hindu nationalist organisation called the RSS or the Rashtriya Swaymsevak Sangh. After Indira Gandhi imposed Emergency in the country in June 1975 when her election was set aside by Allahabad High Court on the ground of misuse of official machinery in her election campaign, in 1977, Jayaprakash Narayan led a successful campaign and a collision of parties under the banner of Janata Party came to power in 1977. This experiment didn’t last long and the Janata government collapsed in 1979. Bharatiya Janata Party emerged in 1980 from the break-up of Janata Party.
The formation of BJP was followed by a longish period of communal violence and it was widely perceived by the party under LK Advani that its Hindu revanchist strategy directly led to its forming the government at centre under Atal Behari Vajpayee. LK Advani, of course, was the mastermind of Ram Janambhoomi movement that eventually led to the Babri Masjid demolition in Ayodhaya on 6th Dec 1992. Waves of violence emerged in the country following this and over 2000 people were killed, at least half of them in Bombay riots of early 1993 that became, amongst others, the subject of Mani Ratnam’s famous 1995 movie Bombay starring Arvind Swamy and Moinisha Koirala.
Before that, the so called secular party Congress masterminded anti-Sikh riots in the capital New Delhi itself for four days after the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in her residence at the hands of her own Sikh bodyguards Beant Singh and Satwant Singh. By an independent estimate approximately 10000 Sikhs including women and children were mercilessly massacred by frenzied mobs incited by Congress leaders. The worst was that her son Rajiv Gandhi was anointed as the Prime Minister and he tried to justify the massacre by his now infamous utterance, “When a big tree falls, the earth shakes”. Thirty years later the victims of this pogrom are still to find justice.
And then, of course, the Feb 2002 Godhara Riots took place. The initial cause was reported to be the burning of a train on 27 Feb 2002 in Godhara, Gujarat that caused the death of 58 pilgrims returning from Ayodhaya. The resultant riots in reprisal resulted in the massacre of approximately 1000 people, mostly Muslims. The case has been widely used as the cause of Muslim terrorism both indigenous and from across the border. In a game of pot calling the kettle black, the Congress took the government of the then Chief Minister Narendra Modi (now Prime Minister) to task for allowing the rioters free hand over the next 72 hours or so to settle scores.
The fact of the matter is that political parties of all hues and leanings have found it expedient to play the communal card or the so called secular card in direct or indirect attempts to garner assured votes. Therefore, after coming to power, even though the Prime Minister Narendra Modi has assiduously steered clear from the manifestation of religious ideology of his party BJP or its ideological parent organisation RSS, the Hindu revanchists have started the process of Ghar Wapasi (Reverse Conversions of those Hindus who had earlier converted to Islam or Christianity) and many other controversial movements that have actually called to question our secular leanings. Recently, Prakash Javedkar, a BJP MP from Rajya Sabha and BJP official spokesman mooted the idea of dropping the two words ‘Secular’ and ‘Socialist’ from the Preamble to the Indian Constitution. These words were incorporated in the Preamble in the year 1976.
It is in this background that Barack Obama said: “The peace we seek in the world begins in human hearts; it finds its glorious expression when we look beyond any differences in religion or tribe and rejoice in the beauty of every soul,” said the president, who namechecked prominent Indian Muslims, Sikhs and sportswomen. “It’s when all Indians, whatever your faith, go to the movies and applaud actors like Shah Rukh Khan. When you celebrate athletes like Milkha Singh, or Mary Kom,” he said.
The present Prime Minister Narender Modi came to power as the 15th PM of the country in May 2014 with BJP winning 282 of National democratic Alliance (NDA)’s 336 seats of the Lok Sabha’s 543 seats. This means that not just the NDA, but even the BJP has absolute majority (272 seats required) in the Lok Sabha. During Obama’s recent visit, the media (both India and American) went ballistic about the growing personal relationship between the two leaders. However, Modi is the same leader who was previously denied a US visa following accusations that he tacitly facilitated the Godhara anti-Muslim riots in his state Gujarat in 2002 wherein he was the Chief Minister.
A series of attempts by rightwing Hindu groups to hold mass conversion ceremonies and somewhat mysterious fires at churches have sparked controversy in recent months. Last week the hardline Vishnu Hindu Parishad group claimed to have “re-converted” more than 20 Christians in the southern state of Kerala. The organisations come from the same broad political family as Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.
In this background, lets ask the question again: Is there real danger of the latent communal disharmony blowing over into large scale unrests and violence that would undermine India taking its rightful place as an emerging economic and political power? The answer to this is sadly in the affirmative due to several counts.
The first is the tacit policy being adopted by Pakistan’s terrorist organisations supported both covertly and overtly by those in power to bleed India by a thousand cuts either by themselves or in collusion with home-grown terrorists and supporters to their cause. It is in their interest to cause as many communal unrests as possible and weaken India. Just like the 2002 Godhara Riots, every communal violence in India helps their cause.
The second is the success rate of using the religion and caste cards by political parties. They have tasted the blood of vote bank politics by exploiting the communal passions and are unlikely to see reason in a hurry.
The third is the revanchist attitudes by communities to undo the historic wrongs done to them. In this we would do well to keep in mind what Obama said: “No society is immune from the darkest impulses of men”. It won’t do any good to revert to a selected point in history when the others were on the wrong foot. Take the track record of both the major parties. The Congress, for example, has been calling BJP communal on the basis of such acts as Babri Masjid demolition and Godhara Riots. The BJP has been equally strident in pointing out the track record of communal riots in Congress ruled states including the national shame of Sikh Riots in the capital of India post the assassination of Smt. Indira Gandhi. Similarly, any attempts to alienate the Muslim community on the basis of historic wrongs done by Muslim rulers of erstwhile India are intrinsically wrong. Just as USA quickly realised post 9/11 that alienating and isolating indigenous Muslim community was not in the interest of America; similarly, sane thoughts should prevail in India.
The fourth is the emotional nature of religion as is practised in India. Every religion believes in one God but it has to be their God only and no other God. Surprisingly, even though our religion is decided for us by our parents at an age when we don’t even understand what religion is, when we grow up we are prepared to (somewhat blindly) give up our lives for it. A quote from my Facebook page ‘Make Your Own Quotes’ brings this out succinctly:
The fifth is the current situation. From all accounts, after nine months of being in government, Narendra Modi and to some extent his party have earned people’s appreciation for doing everything within their means to restore governance and India’s image abroad. In this scenario, Congress, that had been so far in India’s independent history triumphantly proclaiming that there is no alternative (TINA) to Congress, seems to be realising that it is headed for oblivion. There is only one hope and that is if BJP falls prey to communal machinations, riots and violence. This actually increases the probability of such engineered communal disharmony.
In the light of this, rather than brushing aside what Obama said, we should take it rather seriously and see to it that nothing comes in the way of India’s march towards progress. Neither political parties, nor ideological and militant organisations, nor even forces from across the border can do much harm without the help of people at large. If we as people resist being manipulated, we can yet make India into a great country, as visualised by Nobel Laureate Rabindra Nath Tagore as early as in the year 1910:
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
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