The interface of religion and politics has a long history in India. The issue today has grown in importance with political parties trying to draw in religious leaders to serve their own sectarian interests. The social and religious tensions and bitternesses this has resulted in have had devastating consequences on development in the country. Bodies like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh have consciously ignored a long tradition of cultural and religious coexistence in their attempts to saffronize the country.
Traditionally, festivals and religious ceremonies, in which both Hindus and Muslims participate, have been the means of furthering cultural assimilation and secular thought. To cite a few examples, Muslim peasants in pre-independence Bengal would participate as eagerly in the Durga Puja as their Hindu neighbour. Similarly, in Bangladesh, Hindus celebrated Id with equal zeal. Even now, certain pirs attract followers from both faiths.
There is no danger of India becoming a Hindu theocratic state as long as secular, peace-loving Hindus outnumber the small minority of bigoted fundamentalists. The Muslim leadership too needs to re-interpret its sacred texts to define the role of a Muslim as a citizen of a nation-state. The distinction between mosque and state, between religion and politics, needs to be clarified.
The inaction of the Muslim leadership during the Babri Masjid imbroglio had led to a certain degree of disillusionment among Muslims in India. In this, Muslims share with their fellow Hindu citizens a feeling of disgruntlement with politicians who encourage communal discord rather than reconciliation. These leaders only talk of religion, they never dwell on the real issues affecting the poor among their congregation. All they care about are issues that suit their vote calculations.
It is these self-serving politicians who go about spreading canards about followers of other religions. For example, Hindus fundamentalist leaders have spread the myth that the “fast-breeding” Muslims will one day outnumber Hindus and that the popularity of ghazals, quawallis and the poetry of Mir, Zauq, Iqbal and Faiz are dangerous signs of the coming social and political domination of Muslims.
Muslims are told, on the other hand, that rituals like applying tilak, using coconuts and diyas during state ceremonies go against their religion.
What everyone forgets is that ghazals and Ghalib are not always Islamic while tika and diya are not necessarily Hindu. All these symbols are part of a composite Indian ethos that is a result of centuries of mingling of various faiths and cultures.
The responsibility to stop these religious fundamentalists, present in equal numbers in both communities, lies with all of us. Muslims should replace the rabble-rousing leaders with pragmatic and sincere leaders who are willing to solve the real problems of the community without mobilizing them on emotional and religious issues. In the same way, Hindus too must not give any more rope to rabid organizations like the VHP and RSS which have no right to speak on behalf of the entire Hindu community.
Secular Hindus should realize that given their overwhelming numbers, their electoral power and their culture will never be threatened by anyone. They should realize that leaders who tell them otherwise actually want to take them backwards by aggravating ethnic, clan, caste and regional rivalries. One needs to realize that the centuries-old tolerant ethos is the greatest legacy Indians have and nothing should or can disrupt it.
Rabindranath Tagore once wrote that true unity is when natural differences find a harmony. Pluralism thus presupposes some degree of tolerance and sharing. This is the prized legacy of all Indians.