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14 Sep, 2008

The challenge of exorcising India’s demons

Originally Published: 14 Sep 2008

For all the advances by India in the fields of Information technology and economic development, it still has a long way to go to rise above its cultural, social and ethnic divisions that are so vehemently fanned and inflamed by its home-grown fundamentalists and politicians.

When India markets itself on the global stage, it touts its long history and heritage, ancient civilisation and vast melting pot of cultures, castes and creeds. It also presents its vast pool of manpower as a source of brainpower and a major driver of economic growth.

But in the last few weeks, India’s fundamentalist Hindu groups have been put on the defensive as the country confronted the reality of its social and communal demons. It was Hindu against Christians in the Orissa state, Hindus against Muslims in Kashmir, and Hindus against Hindus in Maharashtra.

Internet websites and chatrooms came alive with the usual religious-bashing hate mail that brings out the worst in the Indian psyche, proving that in spite of globalisation and economic progress, large swathes of the population remains stuck in a feudal mind-set.

This time, however, it was the Christian groups who decided that enough is enough and that it is time to get the moderate Hindus to confront their own fanatic groups such as the RSS, the Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.

Encouraged by the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s description of the anti-Christian rampage in Orissa as a “national shame”, they minced no words in unleashing a counter-attack, winning support from the millions of the country’s moderate Hindus who see their own fanatics as being no different from the Muslim fanatics more commonly associated with violence and terrorism.

In media interviews and on nationwide talk shows, Christian bishops reminded the people of India that Hindu fanatics were responsible for the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of the Nation, the rampage against the Sikhs following the assassination of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by one of her own Sikh bodyguards and the massacres of Muslims in Gujarat, for which the chief minister himself is suspected of culpability.

For the first time, the bishops used the ‘T’ word, accusing the Hindu fanatics of “spreading terror” and “terrorising the Christians”.

Referring to well-publicised remarks in 2002 by Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat state, in which he had called the anti-Muslim rampage as a “laboratory experiment” that could be expanded nationwide, one of the bishops said, “If Gujarat was the laboratory, then Orissa is the factory.”

Rajiv Bajaj, host of the RKB Show, one of the most popular talk shows on the Indian cable TV channel Sahara Samay Mumbai, noted that Christians have built schools and hospitals throughout India, often in remote parts of India where even the government has no money. Most of India’s educated elites have graduated from Christian-established schools and colleges.

“So what have they done to deserve this”? he asked. “Are we living by mob rule or the rule of law?”

Mr. Bajaj said that the violence was triggered allegedly in response to the killing of a Hindu Swami by a number of people, about four of whom happened to be Christians. Be that as it may, he said, “Why take it out on the entire community rather than allow the rule of law to take its course only against those individuals?”

Representative of Christian groups who appeared on his talk-show noted that the government’s inability or reluctance, or both, to act was part of the problem. One bishop said a group of Christians had told him that the police had just told them to run, which was the only way the police allegedly could help save them.

When the rampage first began, the state’s chief minister came under fire for not allowing human rights and relief workers to go into the area but an Indian politician known to be at the forefront of the Hindu fundamentalist movement was allowed in, the bishop claimed.

Mr. Bajaj also probed the deeper insecurities that prompt these kinds of emotional, irrational reactions. “I am a Hindu myself,” he said. “Hinduism is a strong, ancient, rich tradition. Are we so insecure about our identity and heritage that it should lead to this kind of mindlessness? First, the Sikhs, then the Muslims, now the Christians. Where does it end?”

Seeking to downplay the impact of Christian missionaries targetting vulnerable low-caste groups in India for conversions, one bishop noted that in spite of Christianity’s nationwide presence, the ratio of Christian population has remained fairly steady at about 2.3% to 2.5 % pc of the total population over the years.

Response to the live talk-show was also a mixed bag. Mr. Bajaj said that while many of his viewers were sending in messages of support, he was “ashamed” to be getting a lot of hate mail, too.

At the time of writing, another controversy was raging in Maharashtra where members of India’s most famous acting family, the Bachchans, were being taken to task by the state’s Hindu fundamentalist political party over allegedly “insensitive” references to the use of the state language, Marathi, as against the national language, Hindi.

It was a completely trivial and insignificant issue, but the mobs were at it again, this time threatening to burn down the theatres showing any of the films featuring members of the Bachchan family.

Like in many parts of the world, India falls victim to its tiny but vocal and violent minority of fanatics who have no qualms about disrupting the lives of the majority by claiming the moral high ground.

The central message emerging, however, is for the otherwise silent majority of middle-roaders to take up the cause. The Christians have clearly indicated that they are not going to take it any more. Other minorities also need to rise to the occasion, in India and worldwide.

Globalisation, fanaticism and fundamentalism do not mix, regardless of caste, colour or creed.