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DARKNESS VISIBLE
- The majority must exemplify rationality and pragmatic action

Reports of Anil Ambani dashing to Tirupati while his mother rushed to her guru in Gujarat and of the new Union labour minister's inaugural puja are a reminder that only a dwindling minority is concerned about the 'scientific temper' that inspired the republic's founding fathers. The triumph of India's far from secular 'collective subconscious' (as K.M. Munshi called it) means the creeping advance of religion on all facets of life. Spokesmen of Hindu organizations retort that other communities are even more active. Perhaps. But Hinduism matters more because it alone can blur the distinction between Peeri and Meeri, religion and state. Some hold that the separation should be wiped out because the outlook and practices of the state should reflect the culture of 80 per cent of the population. Their case that no nation can hope to fulfil its destiny if it does not exalt its core identity is strengthened by the always present security threat from Islamic Pakistan next door and the global menace of Muslim fundamentalism, highlighted by the barbaric depredations of terrorist organizations.

According to this view, the minorities ' Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and others, no more than temporarily lapsed Hindus anyway ' would have to adjust as best they can to a Hindu rashtra. They accuse the Westernized heirs of British rule of conspiring to deny India its rightful identity. Perhaps again. Secularism was foisted on India in the sense that the civil service, law courts, railways and a standing army were also foisted on it. Just as these are the physical accoutrements of modern statehood, so is emancipation from dogma and superstition essential if the individual mind is to keep pace with sophisticated developments in information technology. That realization inspired some of Kemal Ataturk's most daring reforms, including the ban on the fez which he saw as the symbol of a retrograde hierarchy.

However, in spite of jibes against 'secularists' and 'minorityism', few propagandists actually come out into the open and define their ideal state, whose ideology and ceremonial will be in strict accordance with their understanding of the shastras. They regale us instead with all manner of sophistry to claim that Hindutva does not mean an exclusively Hindu rajya because Hinduism is all-inclusive. That is like Pakistan's Ayub Khan arguing that parliamentary institutions could be dispensed with because Islam was inherently democratic. Hindutva proponents prevaricate only because they are uncertain about the politics of India's collective subconscious, especially after the last Lok Sabha election suggested that however strong the appeal, religion does not take precedence over tangible demands.

Moreover, the Hindu card is not any one party's prerogative. The Congress has played it repeatedly, most notoriously in first allowing idols to be installed in the Babri masjid and then turning a blind eye to its destruction. The labour minister, K. Chandrasekhar Rao, leads the Telengana Rashtra Samiti. Even communist leaders are known to nurse puja rooms for private worship.

As for priests, whether the Shahi Imam of the Jumma Masjid or the imprisoned Swami Jayendra Saraswati, sankaracharya of Kancheepuram, they are steeped in politics, often playing all sides of every fence. Like his mentor, the 68th sankaracharya, Jayendra Saraswati has also always sailed close to the political wind, at one time provoking his colleague, the sankaracharya of Puri, to denounce him as 'anti-Hindu'. The Puri sankaracharya, whose political leanings were said to be behind Indira Gandhi being refused admission to the Jagannath temple, threatened a march on parliament and a countrywide agitation to protest against the government's 'callous' attitude to Hindus. Lump these operators with Dhirendra Brahmachari, Chandraswami or the half-naked Deorala Baba (to whom Balram Jakhar, Buta Singh and other luminaries flocked to be publicly kicked) and any sane Indian might echo a variant of the cri de coeur of Becket's Henry II, 'Who will rid me of this turbulent priest'

Of course, what consenting adults do in private is nobody else's business, provided it hurts nobody else. But that stand on rights and privacy must be abridged when the consenting adults are public figures. Society's leaders, whether rich industrialists or a Union labour minister, set an example when they broadcast their beliefs and bring their personal faith into their working zone. If Laloo Prasad Yadav can do puja in his office, why, Hyderabad's man in the street who has no office might ask, can't he set up his altar against the pillars of the Char Minar' The shrines that are popping up on our pavements in such dense profusion and the relatively new profession of the itinerant and presumably freelance priest, who goes round city shops morning and evening scattering benediction and collecting coins, are part of the trend. It is so strong that when a British-based multinational bank moved house the other day, it was to the tinkle of bells and brahminical chants, with images of Lakshmi and Ganesha discreetly installed in the smart new premises. The primitive hordes must have been exultant when Naresh Chaturvedi, a Congress general secretary, declared during the abomination of a chunri festival, 'If the Rajasthani people did not support sati, why would lakhs of people gather'

Impeccably up-to-date in their own private life, many Bharatiya Janata Party adherents will encourage such distortions and fish for votes in murky waters. They can do so because instead of cleansing society, the accepted concept of secularism stands for the co-existence of every conceivable kind of bigotry. Far from being someone who places his faith in science, today's secular Indian is someone who tolerates the piercing notes of azaan or the boisterousness of a langar while drowning everyone else's cacophony in his own incantations. The fiercely competitive religiosity that results from this live-and-let-live policy is dragging India into the dark ages.

That recalls the time (which I have recounted before) when Nirad Chaudhuri took me out to the balcony of his Old Delhi flat to point out a cluster of huts across the road. He asked me what I saw and pranced in triumphant jubilation at my innocent explanation that it was a temporary camp for labourers. Wrong, he shrieked. It was the return of Hindu India. The analogy he drew was of a heavy piston that the British had pulled out and held with brute force. Lacking the muscle, with nothing to grip, we were letting the shaft slip in bit by bit. One day our hold would fail altogether and the piston ram resoundingly home to engulf all in universal darkness. That was nearly 40 years before he developed the apocalyptic theme in Thy Hand, Great Anarch.

The heirs to the Vedanta, spearhead of the movement for national enlightenment, are not expected to lead the regression to the medievalism that Cassandras like Winston Churchill predicted was independent India's fate. But they will do just that if Hindutva apologists cling to the cheap and shortsighted argument that Hindus must match the militancy of minority faiths. That would only dissipate and destroy the privilege of numbers.

Jawaharlal Nehru's biographer tells us that like Sartre, to whom the Jewish question was a gentile one, to Nehru the Muslim question was a Hindu one. 'The fate of India is largely tied up with the Hindu outlook,' Nehru wrote. 'If the present Hindu outlook does not change radically, I am quite sure that India is doomed.'

But no future is beyond redemption. The majority must lead. It should be the exemplar of rational thought and pragmatic action. Warts and all, Manmohan Singh's Congress is not Naresh Chaturvedi's. As the party of the majority as well as the party of independence, it has a special role in this context. Instead of pandering to the collective subconscious, which means society's lowest, least informed and worst educated common denominator, it is expected to rise above the folk passions that spark off mass hysteria. If the Congress will not save India from obscurantism, no one else can.

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