FOCUS: Faith And Freedom In India

A Indian democracy is not only the largest; it is the most important in the world today. Its lasting legacy to the world will, I think, be more important than
26 Feb 2015 09:34
FOCUS: Faith And Freedom In India

A Indian democracy is not only the largest; it is the most important in the world today. Its lasting legacy to the world will, I think, be more important than America’s, the oldest democracy. The depth of India’s past, the darkness and illuminations of some of its practices, are found nowhere in the modern world with ancient roots.

There are, of course, hideous and horrific events that we witness daily on our TV screens, thinking they are happening in strange lands, wild deserts and distant shores. And they have nothing to do with our lives.     But as 9/11 showed that the destructive force is only a plane or a suicide bomber away. Imagine if one of these satanic forces gets hold of a nuclear bomb?

From time immemorial the subcontinent has occasionally provided a light to the world; an alternative vision of human faith and possibilities. The ancient sages, the Buddha, Ashoka, the Sufis, Akbar, Guru Nanak, the Mahatma, C F Andrews, Mother Teresa are all part of the interior landscape of the Indian subcontinent. For us in Fiji C F Andrews has an enduring relevance: he, with Gandhi, abolished the abomination–the indenture system.

Like ancient Europe or the Middle East, the subcontinent is also full of cataclysmic events. The ugliness and beauty of human life is monumentally reflected and documented from the Pyramids and Kutub Minar to London and Eifel Towers.

Modi speech

It was, therefore, refreshing and reassuring to read Prime Minister Mr Narendra Modi’s recent speech on the freedom of faith and religion in India. He was speaking on the occasion of  the celebration for the canonization of two Indian saints. India has been full of sants, mahants, mullahs, imams, babas, maharishis and swamis. But only one mahatma.

Mr Modi’s icon is Swami Vivekananda, after whom in Nadi is named the pioneering College, founded by Swami Rudrananda who came to Fiji in 1939. The College began as the first significant secondary school for the children of laborers, small farmers, shop-keepers. It changed the landscape of education in Fiji. It inspired many imitations but none equaled its educational energy or political significance.

From its inception it was open to the children of all races and religions, cultures and languages. Its patron Saint , Swami Vivekananda, originally named Narendra Dutta, was from Bengal, the first capital of British India and once the most enlightened region for writers, thinkers, artists, reformers and international visionaries. Rabindranath Tagore comes readily to mind.

Vivekananda made his name in Chicago in an address to the Parliament of Religions in the closing years of the 19th century. He died before he reached the age of 40.

He did give the subdued and subjected Indian a sense of self-worth and self-respect and a mindset open to the treasures of the best minds and best thoughts from any source in the world. His influence was quite dramatic and wide-ranging. Both Gandhi and Nehru were impressed by his critical thinking. But he was basically a religious monk of the most enlightened kind.

One great gripe

His one great gripe was that India began destroying her gift of an open and reflexive society to the world when she closed her doors to others. The worst word Indian caste system invented was melicha—the untouchable, the polluted. And that led to the corruption of Mother India’s very soul.

It led to conquests and conversions into other faiths which offered the down trodden and the degraded a way out from the rusty shackles of caste, hierarchy, patriarchy, zamindari, untouchability, illiteracy, and a host of other ills of a decaying  and asphyxiating  civilization. The dispossessed and disenfranchised sought shelter under other roofs.

Like Gandhi, Vivekananda was most critical of his own people and the oppressive social conventions, hallowed by mostly meaningless mantras that the privileged chanted endlessly. This is, of course, true of most reformers and revolutionaries.

So it was good to see Mr Modi, with a dubious record in matters religious, who was elevated to the Prime Minister of India after the May General Elections, speak on the freedom of faith and religion in Indian democracy of which he’s the most potent symbol and protector.

He said unequivocally: My government ‘will ensure that there’s complete freedom of faith and everyone has the undeniable right to retain or adopt the religion of his or her choice without coercion or undue influence’.

Though a bit vague—what does ‘undue influence’ mean, for instance, a cynic may well ask? Is freedom of faith an inalienable right rather than undeniable?

However you interpret and translate it, this is an important statement, given at a Christian celebration, by the prime minister of India.

Remarkable victory

In May last year when the BJP won a remarkable victory in the general elections, there was a genuine apprehension in the minds of many citizens of India that a party founded on the ideology of Hindutva, Hindu hegemony, in a nation like India where many rivers flowed into the sea of Life itself, an intoxicating religious ideology could reduce India to the level of its many neighbors struggling with the demons of religious fanaticism and frenzy.

Religion has been made extremely ugly by its many extremists, world over. It’s a battle that has acquired urgency from our neighboring lands to the most distant deserts where many of our young are dying so that the safety and security of individuals and nations are respected and defended.

It’s been like this for much of human history of our inhumanity. Why else would we be remembering the centenary anniversary of Gallipoli or the 70th anniversary of World War II. Hiroshima and Nagasaki are not far away.

For months Mr Modi was quiet on the religious aspects of his party’s narrow policies and pronouncements. BJP’s frenzied interpretation of Hinduism was inimical to Hinduism’s vast and varied philosophical base–the Speaking Tree’s boughs, leaves, roots and bole. To reduce it to a single, pseudo- religious ideology was to put the ocean into a bucket. To make it like several other comparatively more recent religions.

This was notoriously done by a couple of party spokesman from the South, a most colonized and converted region on the Indian subcontinent.

And we know the consequences of such monolithic, monotheistic ideologies. They may inspire lives but they also expire Life around you.

I sometimes wonder whatever happened to Europe’s past before Christianity swept across it? Or in the Islamic world?  After all, these religions are barely 2000 years old. Our world’s richness, variety, and variousness is far,far older. Its roots and springs are in the rocks, mountains, seas and stars—THAT is the true wonder of the universe.

Indian experience

The Indian experience was different: there’s no prophet, no single text or temple, no one supreme holy place of pilgrimage, no one god or goddess. Life is plural in its singular blessings. In Europe religion was imposed by the state. From the days of Roman Catholicism to the current Queen of England, who is the Defender of the Faith, founded by Henry VIII, that debauched, divorced king.

To make the state secular, wars have been fought, lasing over a hundred years.

When India became independent, soon after the brutal vivisection aided by the imperial powers who are now fighting the forces of Taliban and others. As they say you sow the wind, you reap the whirlwind. It’s all karmic.

It was fortunate that India’s founding Prime Minister was Pandit Nehru, an agnostic and a genuine democrat, a writer, well-travelled and educated human being with a truly scientific temper and modern tone in politics. More than any of his contemporaries, he was aware of the winds of change and the waves of challenges for India and the world.

He’d been witness to the disasters of the world: imperialism, first and second world wars, communism, nazism, fascism, the holocaust, and the partition of India itself. He lived some of those critical years in jail, thanks to the British.

Outside, the world was a lunatic asylum, burning books and people and dropping nuclear bombs. And all in the name of civilization of which religion is one of its potent forces for good and ill.

Modern democracy

The question for a modern democracy is: Should religious freedom have special privileges in an increasingly secular world?

Fiji fortunately is now explicitly a secular state. This is a tremendous step forward for one of the world’s smallest, multicultural democratic state. To think we’ve  special links with the world’s largest secular democracy should be cherished and developed.

In my first piece on Modi, written soon after the general elections, I’d speculated that Delhi will change Modi’s perceptions as an Indian PM.

I remember visiting Delhi at Christmas in 1992, soon after the demolition of Babri masjid on December 6.

In 1997, I wrote a piece published in a book of essays Unfinished Journeys celebrating India’s 50 anniversary of independence.

India Today, the country’s leading journal had editorialized:

There comes a moment in history when a nation’s soul is seared. For India, that moment came on the afternoon of December 6, when Babri Masjid-Ram Janamabhoomi structure, call it what you will, was demolished. It exposed the fragile face of India’s secular democracy. The true character of a person is often unveiled in times of crisis. So it is with countries.This one tragic event has revealed the shocking state of Indian society…a social fabric so tenuous that it soaks itself in blood at the slightest provocation….

Since then a lot of blood has passed down railway bridges from Godhra and Gujarat and beyond in sleepy places of India that become infamous only when the toxic flames of sectarianism are fanned. But not all are perpetrated by religious fanaticism.

I remember that night in December: after a dinner at a writer’s residence in New Delhi, whose father had built the famous Connaught place, now known as Rajiv Chowk, where I was a regular visitor in the 1960s. When we left Mr Patwant’ Singh’s residence, in Amrita Sher-Gill street, it was well past midnight.

It was the stirrings of spring in Delhi. My companion in his new car said to me : Let me give you a tour of New Delhi streets. We drove from street to street, mostly deserted but one could hear the sirens of an occasional police car, or the thuck, thuck of a chowkidar’s lathi.—a vanishing sound in the city’s new cacophony during the day. Street by street our car roamed:    Ashoka,Akbar,TughlakSafdarjung,Aurobindo,Janpath,  Motilal Nehru, Kasturba, Maulana Azad, Tolstoy, Max Muller, Krishna Menon, Africa , Archbishop Makarios,–they were called margs, paths, as if they had grown out of a binding vine that had spread its arteries and veins  in India’s capital—the heart of the nation.

My friend talked of how some Indians, under the pseudo-Hindu banner, were diminishing the image of India in the minds of many in the world.

The then prime minister Mr Narasimha Rao kept his silence as many innocent people lost their lives in the aftermath of that masjid’s demolition, the worst communal riots since partition.

Nine months

Mr Modi has been in Delhi barely nine months. Delhi must have given him a totally different perspective, not only in the overwhelming victory of Aam Admi Party, but more of India’s immense, varied heritage: Bengal and Gujarat are part of it but India like the petals of a multi-foliate rose is more than the sum of its many parts, incredibly beautiful and unbearably brutal, but also within it that indefinable, ineffable fragrance.

In his speech ,Mr Modi quoted a few key phrases from Tagore’s noble poem—Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high…. which we memorized as students at the SVH school in Nadi under tin-sheds in the 1950s. Mr  Modi may find another piece more meaningful to his own position as a Prime Minister: Tagore’s poem Ekla Chalo, Walk Alone:

If they answer not thy call,

Walk Alone.

Open thy mind and speak out alone.

If, when crossing the wilderness, They turn away and desert you

Walk Alone.

If , when the night is troubled With storm,

They do not hold up the light.

With the thunder flame of pain,

Ignite thine own heart,  And let it burn alone.

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