Is Overt Display Of Religion Tearing The Fabric Of Indian Society?


“This is Gandhi’s land!” people often tell me. Where multicultural acceptance is a part of every Indian’s day to day life. This is the land which has a tradition of accepting into its fold all divergent views including religions. They tell me that Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, even Zoroastrianism have flourished for millennia under the benevolence of the majority religion. And then they also tell me that the radicalization of the Hindus is in response to the intolerance of the Semitic religions. That the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS in particular and also a range of fringe elements are a necessary force to bolster Hinduism from “attacks”.

But when I look back at the 60+ years of Indian independence, I see a very strange pattern emerging from India’s inclusive secularism.Nehru and others might have felt India needed its own brand of secularism in inclusive secularism, but where has it got us?

This Indian idea of secularism is strangely skewed towards the majority religion in all spheres of life. It’s widely accepted that offices, schools, work places have to be bedecked in pomp during festivals like Diwali. Ayudh Pujas are done at all government institutions, even in police stations. It is ok for warships or submarines to have coconuts broken before their launch. The institution which is the beacon of our technological prowess- the Indian Space Research Organization conducts Pujas before any mission launch. Politicians make bee lines for religious institutions, in this case across all religions, and seek endorsements prior to elections.

This level of involvement and state patronage are sorry to say, from at least a rationalist’s point of view, highly disturbing. It is almost as if Savarkar’s  vision and RSS’ mission of grounding India in Hindutva has been pushed and promoted by every political leader, single state institution and private sector enterprise from the word go. It is also significant to note that the threat perception from such overt display of religion arises from the fact that Hinduism has in many ways been institutionalized and standardized in a more radical form in the past century. The earlier form of the religion which was rooted in taboo like caste, child marriage, caste etc was replaced with not the free thinking, accommodating religion (considering the leeway and diversity in belief systems) reflected in the vedas and puraranas but into a rigid, narrow religion mirroring the Semitic religions. This tendency to regress can also be seen in other eastern religions like Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka or Myanmar.

These days people are complaining about the rise and rise of intolerance in our country and I have this to tell them- it’s not just the fringe right which has promoted this state of intolerance. There is every reason to hold you, as common citizens, guilty of the crime of peddling soft hindutva by accepting and adhering to these antiquated and antediluvian (“aha, a biblical reference” would say a right winger J) notions of secularism, separation of state and religion and of mixing the temporal with the spiritual.

And people, mainly folks with a liberal bent of mind, I often talk to about this agree with me on what is happening and that this has to change. Their solution- lets become even more inclusive and celebrate all religions equally.

I pity individuals who feel this could even be a partial solution to what ails this nation.

Let me point out the examples of “liberal” states like Kerala and in the North East. Kerala has a history of this so called inclusiveness- a state where all 3 major religions- Islam, Hinduism and Christianity are on a more even footing and where you have ministers refusing to light lamps at functions because it is not in consonance with their religious beliefs. And where Christmas and Id are as big for the state and the institutions and the general populace like Onam and Vishu. “Exactly what we should be aiming for! My point stands vindicated” is what the folks seeking greater inclusiveness immediately respond with.

But then I ask them to explain the facts that the highest number of RSS shakhasare in Kerala and how the Muslims and Christians still vote en masse for parties that seemingly represent their “interests”

But I think it’s important for me to not get carried away by my own beliefs and seek enforcement but leave it open for you all to decide on this.

Will greater inclusiveness as suggested by some really bridge the divide and give a sense of security to the people who are at the receiving end of the Hindutva baton? Or would a move to remove all religious symbolism from public spaces be the best bet?

Debatable yes, and also a very superficial and insignificant point not addressing the root issues is what some have been telling me. But I think we should all ponder on the need to address this aspect earlier rather than later since the very fabric of our society is being torn apart at this point.

Siddharth Sreenivas is an environmental activist, from Kerala, but based currently in South Africa, working mainly on issues of agriculture

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