The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- The rhetoric of extremes destroys the formation of a pluralistic society

The author is former director- general, National Council for Applied Economic Research and chairman, Central Electricity Regulatory Commission [email protected]

I am a Hindu, a Madhva Brahmin, and enjoy the chanting of Vedic hymns. That does not make me a “Hindu fundamentalist”. I visit places of worship, temples, mosques, or cathedrals for their air of tranquillity and peace. The Saladin citadel in Cairo, the Jama Masjid in Delhi, Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, the Brahma temple in Pushkar, the Ranganatha temple in Srirangam, the old Jewish synagogue in Cochin are some of my favourite places. That does not qualify me as a liberal either.

My mother was an orthodox ritualistic Brahmin who was gracious and hospitable to anyone who came to her, though she would not eat their food or drink their water. As a child I remember her hurrying me to see “Our Lady of Fatima” that was visiting Bombay, and to my question why, since it was a Christian statue, her simple answer was that the statue was also a god.

I helped start the People’s Union for Civil Liberties in Tamil Nadu in protest against the Emergency of Indira Gandhi. Against the wishes of my better-known colleagues, I supported the right to fair trial for Naxalites, some of whom were shot in the back “while trying to escape”. I am ashamed of the yet unpunished killings of Sikhs in Delhi as retaliation against the assassination of Indira Gandhi, as I am of the Bombay bomb explosions and subsequent riots.

I do not think that the legacies of problems of the past can be set right by revenge against the populations of today. Blaming the Muslims of today for the atrocities against Hindus in the past by the Muslim rulers then; the holocaust against Jews in Germany in retaliation for their perceived clannishness and command over finances; the eviction of Palestinians by Israel from their homes and lands so that Jews could return to their “homeland” after 2,000 years by evicting the residents; the burning of Hindus in a train in Godhra presumably in revenge against the demolition of the Babri mosque; the demolition of the Babri mosque built on what has been believed for years by millions to have been the birthplace of Rama; the killings in Gujarat that followed Godhra: all these appal me.

In recent years, a new breed of aggressive, arrogant, and opinionated reporters, especially from television, unscrupulous politicians and some leftist intellectuals have combined to portray a remarkably uni-dimensional view of events. Television “reporting”, with its opinionated comments, surely had a part to play in the temporal and geographic extension of the Gujarat riots.

For them: the Bharatiya Janata Party is a “Hindu nationalist party”, “Hindutva is another word for intolerance and not a lifestyle for Hindus,” “‘Cultural nationalism’ is akin to the ‘national socialism’ of Hitler,” the disappearance of a huge Hindu population from Bangladesh must not be mentioned because it is anti-Muslim, the issuance of identity cards to Indian citizens is a violation of rights because it would mean the possibility of identifying illegal migrants who have largely been poor Muslims from Bangladesh, mention of a uniform civil code for all Indians is a violation of Muslim rights, laws to prevent forcible conversion even when upheld by the Supreme Court are anti-minorities.

I detest the intolerance and lack of civility that has been the recent tone of the BJP’s sister organizations. But beginning with Indira Gandhi, every government has bent over backwards to avoid any “interference” with “Muslim rights” even when they contradict the norms and values of our democracy. This may initially have been to safeguard the remittances by Indian workers in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf that bolstered our meagre foreign exchange inflows. But we have appeared to regard Indian Muslims not as mere Indian citizens like all the others but as having an identity beyond India.

Soon it became part of Indira Gandhi’s electoral strategy to capture the Muslim vote with that of the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes for the Congress vote bank. For example, there would be no attempt to send back the millions of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. No Indian government has raised the issues of the dramatic decline in the Hindu population in Bangladesh, nor of the plight of the few remaining Hindu third-class residents of Pakistan, because this was imagined as a possible offence to Muslim voters.

Israeli and Indian troops adopt similar tactics of occupation in Palestine and Jammu and Kashmir but we are unwilling to speak out in support of Israel, for fear of offending Muslim countries and the Muslim voters. The Organization of Islamic States does not accept India though we have the second largest Muslim population in the world.

Media champions, radical communist supporters, goonda politicians of the Gangetic belt, and ragtag Congressmen who in private might disagree with what they publicly support as the party line, define “liberal” opinion. This hypocrisy about what is secular, fundamentalist and liberal has polarized Indian society. The BJP’s sister organizations raise the bogey of “Hinduism under attack” by India’s Muslim population and from the Islamists outside the borders. Their new missionary work in education and health in tribal areas has mobilized and even “re-converted” some back to Hinduism. They would like the minorities, and Muslims in particular, to be subordinate citizens living under Hindu tolerance. Already many Muslims see themselves as second-class Indian citizens. But this should not be so. Hinduism accepts everything and every belief. Its militancy is in argument, not a sword for destruction. Its security is in Being. It diminishes itself by diminishing anyone else.

We are now at a crucial turning point in India. The Nehruvuian and Gandhian goal of an India in which all religions and castes live together in harmony was badly fractured by Indira Gandhi’s electoral arithmetic, the massacre of Sikhs in Delhi, Rajiv Gandhi’s backtracking, V.P. Singh and his caste-based “social revolution”, the rise to power of hungry political operatives like Laloo Prasad Yadav and others with little interest in governance, the role of the subversive left in further destabilizing India, the mobilization of Hindus by the BJP’s sister organizations and the growing influence of NRI money in propagating a rigid Hinduism.

“Hindu nationalism” was a response to the aggressive proselytization of Christianity and to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism transcending national boundaries. Saudi money and Pakistani efforts at destabilizing India provided further cause. Many external triggers and deliberate foreign encouragement stimulated the communal divide. The Akshardham and Jammu temple invasions by Muslim terrorists, the attempt on Parliament and such others were intended to exacerbate the divide. Foreign, not Indian, Muslims, have been at the forefront of these episodes.

Are we on the verge of becoming a “Hindu” state like we have Islamic states in our vicinity in Asia and west Asia' Will we then have docile and compliant 150 million or so Muslim citizens and other minorities submissive to the majority, as are the few remaining Hindus in Pakistan and Bangladesh' India’s strength is its pluralistic democracy. Hinduism has no judgment on any beliefs. Will the loss of pluralism and tolerance fracture our identities' Do we really need Muslims, Christians, and other religions to be subsumed under a Hindu identity'

Good governance could prevent this possible fracturing of our society. Good governance is unlikely in the nature of Indian politics, which is anti-consensus even at the height of war, as we saw in the recent Kargil conflict. Therefore we have to depend on the good sense of the Indian masses, the survival of a tolerant Hinduism despite other such attempts to take it to extremes over the centuries, and equitable economic progress, to pacify our society. We can achieve these goals, but the harsh rhetoric of the extremes will be a major hindrance.

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