India has been the cradle of religious pluralism for centuries. We are probably the only country in the world that has been home for people belonging to different religions, castes, creeds, cultures, languages, who have not only assimilated to our ethos but have also successfully managed to coexist peacefully. This is primarily due to the tolerance shown by the Hindus to people professing other faiths.
What has suddenly gone wrong with the secular character of our country? Lately, we are seeing signs of growing religious intolerance by few fringe groups that has often manifested itself in attacks against people who don't subscribe to long held views on religion.
Four recent events can be viewed as a direct assault on the secular character of our country. First, the brutal murder of a well-known intellectual and rationalist Dr. M.M. Kalburgi for questioning the practices of idol worship. Although, some of the comments made by Kalburgi are highly condemnable, as it had outraged the religious sentiments of millions of devout Hindus, but murdering a person for voicing a contrarian view is against the grain of Hindu philosophy. Earlier this year, we saw the brutal murder of Govind Pansare for questioning the demi-God status given to Shivaji in his book "Shivaji Kon Hota"(Who was Shivaji?). Pansare, while paying glowing tributes to the leadership and secular character of Shivaji, made the cardinal mistake of criticizing elevating Shivaji to a demi-God status which angered the Hindu groups in Maharashtra. He felt that there was a need to decouple history from the real image of the Shivaji's persona. In 2013, we saw the murder of Narendra Dabholkar, a rationalist who waged a relentless war against superstition. Dabholkar took on various Godmen for exploiting the gullibility of their followers through miracles. The acclaimed Tamil-language author Perumal Murugan had to quit writing altogether, following protests by Hindu and caste groups, who felt insulted on his comments on the age-old tradition that allowed the wife of a childless couple to have consensual sex with another man.
The second incident relates to the 'ban on the sale of beef' for four days in Maharashtra to coincide with the Jain festival. The Maharashtra government's decision was an encroachment of people's choice of what and when they would like to eat. India's apex court objected to the way the ban was forced down people's throats. In fact, the apex court found that keeping "useless cattle" alive would be a "wasteful drain" on the nation's cattle feed. If slaughtered, they would feed the poor.
The third incident relates to the fatwa issued by Raza Academy, a Mumbai-based outfit, on India's Oscar winning award winner AR Rahman for scoring music for an Iranian film Muhammad: Messenger of God. The film was criticized for being anti-Islam. Surprisingly, the person who issued the fatwa was not qualified to issue the fatwa! There is a likelihood that the Indian Government may ban the film in deference to these fringe religious groups. In his defence, Rahman, in a message posted on Facebook, reacted "My decision to compose the music for this film was made in good faith and with no intention of causing offense." He goes on to say, "What, and if, I had the good fortune of facing Allah and He were to ask me on Judgement Day: I gave you faith, talent, money, fame and health... why did you not do music for my beloved Muhammad film? A film whose intention is to unite humanity, clear misconceptions and spread my message that life is about kindness, about uplifting the poor, and living in the service of humanity and not mercilessly killing innocents in my name." Rahman also added that he felt blessed to live in a country like India, where religious freedom is practiced. "Let us set a precedent in clearing conflict with grace and dignity and not trigger violence in words or actions."
The fourth incident relates to the warning issued by few Hindu nationalist leaders, and political parties in Tamil Nadu, to the well-known Tamil film hero Rajnikanth against accepting the role of Tipu Sultan, as these groups feel that Hindus were persecuted during his rule.
The role of media is also increasingly coming under scrutiny. By giving undue publicity to these fringe groups, we have only managed to embolden these groups, who, otherwise, were ignored by the public at large. Such publicity would only encourage these elements to go after people who have a different take on religion. The Government's inaction has only prompted people to question whether these groups have the blessings of the establishment.
The American President Barrack Obama, on his recent visit to India, commented that the religious intolerance prevailing in the country would have shocked Mahatma Gandhi. His comments were not taken kindly in India. However, instead of overreacting, we need to dispassionately analyze the safety concerns of the minority community. All possible steps should be taken to reign-in elements that are involved in such dastardly attacks, including few ministers in the BJP government who are spewing venom against the minority communities.
The Modi government, which was elected on a development agenda, should take immediate steps to bring the perpetrators of such hate crimes to book. For this, he should issue a stern warning to the various Hindu and Muslim outfits not to be intolerant towards people who don't subscribe to their views.
The critics would say that religious intolerance and racism is not confined to India alone but is a global phenomenon. Countries like the US, UK, Canada are grappling with this problem. We have seen several attacks on Sikhs in US, probably due to mistaken identity. However, one must remember that these countries can't boast of the rich culture, tradition and tolerance towards other faiths, which India had for centuries.
However, as citizens, we have to be faulted for not taking on these fringe groups. Our silence is often perceived as acquiescence to their activities. We also need to judicially exercise our franchise by voting for only those politicians who don't practice or encourage divisive politics. If India wants to preserve its secular fabric, incidents of religious intolerance should be nipped in the bud. It should be remembered that no economic development is possible at the cost of social cohesiveness and religious harmony.