April 11, 2016, India
I’m an apolitical creature by choice as it allows me to view Indian political events without any personal bias coming into play. But lately, I have noticed a trend where criminal acts with immense symbolic significance are greeted by silence from the powers that be. This implies they condone such actions.
Let me be clear. India’s Prime Minister Modi has the time to tweet congratulations to an Indian cricketer for doing well in a game. But he’s disturbingly silent on events of immense symbolic significance. Like when a Hindu author and professor is gunned down for speaking out against religious rituals. Or a Muslim man is lynched for supposedly eating beef. Or Christian churches are burned down for being allegedly involved in converting Hindus. Well, the least I can do is break my own silence.
A background on Indian politics
The Muslim factor India is country where the majority are Hindus. However India is also home to the world’s second largest population of Muslims (Indonesia is the most populous Muslim nation). India’s Muslim population is increasing as large families are their norm. Besides, there is a lot of illegal migration of Muslims across the border from Bangladesh, one the world’s poorest countries.
The current ruling party of India is led by the BJP, a Hindu party. The Muslims however constitute a huge vote block that can’t be ignored. In fact, the many Indian governments over the last 50 years have all been guilty of giving in to numerous demands from Muslim leaders in return for votes.
As a result, the Hindu majority is feeling threatened by the increasing influence of Muslims, and the use of their political clout to get unfair advantages across all walks of life. So these restive Hindus are now making moves to reinforce the status of India as a predominantly Hindu nation.
The Pakistan angle India’s Muslim neighbour, Pakistan, has been trying to fish in these troubled waters. A stable India is a threat to them, so they are out to sow division between India’s Muslims and Hindus. The 26/11 attack by ten Pakistani terrorists who came by sea to attack Mumbai, and killed over 160 people is a prime example. Pakistan claimed these were Indian Muslims even though the one terrorist who survived was proven to be a Pakistani. The Indian Government also revealed chilling evidence of a handler in Pakistan controlling the operation in real time. That individual is free to this day, and still spouting his poison on public platforms.
When corruption became king After India attained independence in 1947, the Congress party was headed by Nehru (his great-grandson, Rahul is the party’s heir apparent today). Nehru was singlehandedly responsible for derailing India’s progress for over half a century. He made a monumentally foolish decision to ‘protect’ India’s industries by isolating it from international competition. Even worse, he gave the state monopoly over key industries. This resulted in a slow, ponderous bureaucracy that stifled industry growth through corruption, delays and mountains of paperwork. For instance, getting a land phone connection from the state run monopoly BSNL would take years. The absence of competition and a monopolistic market also made Indian industry infamous for its incredibly shoddy products. Nehru’s legacy of corruption is ingrained into the Indian psyche. Undoing it is a huge task that may take generations. But it’s only when that happens, that the country will be truly on the path to progress.
Justice in slow motion To make it big in Indian politics, you have to spend a lot of money. Naturally, the main goal of becoming a politician became making money. And it applied to all political parties. Financial scams and scandals are exposed at regular intervals. The accused take refuge in the slow judicial system knowing that they are more likely to die of old age than go jail. With convictions for corruption being rare, there is little motivation for a politician to be honest.
Living by the sword With such a political system, it’s not surprising that violence lurks barely below the surface. A surprising number of Indian politicians are convicted murderers, rapists, and the like. Back in college, I shared a room with a student communist party member. He was a soft spoken, decent young chap from a poor background, but a strong believer in the communist dogma. He informed me that revolution was the only way to spread wealth across all levels of society. All those who stood in the path of revolution would be forcibly put down. A couple of weeks later, another student who was less than 5" tall was beaten up for opposing the Communists. The retaliation was swift and merciless, with the budding communists being severely thrashed and chased out of the college campus. My roommate ended up in hospital, and later dropped out of college.
The new dawn that wasn’t
The arrival of Modi government with a huge majority was like a breath of fresh air. There was an expectation that things would finally start happening in India. As Gujarat Chief Minister, he had transformed the state into one of India’s most progressive state with the latest infrastructure. There was a controversy about his Hindu-based party being involved in a communal riots against Muslims in Gujarat, but the voters seemed to have disregarded it.
Good Start Modi started off with several good initiatives to get the economy moving like approving major infrastructure projects, linking up with the world’s political and technology leaders, pushing for a speedy e-government, taking a firm stance with Pakistan on the defence side, and even getting down to the basics like cleanliness and public toilets for all.
Confrontational politics The first signs of trouble became visible when the Hindu front decided to assert their strength as India’s majority religion by imposing Hindu ideology on the rest of the population.
Letting the genie out of the bottle The problem with using religion as a weapon, is you can’t control how and where it will be used. The events of the last few years have severely tested the strength of the secular fabric of the nation, and only time will tell if there’s been any lasting damage.
Burning in the name of religion It started with the goons in the party flexing their religious muscle, emboldened by the party’s success at the polls. They went on a spree of burning Christian churches, accusing them of converting Hindus to Christianity. This was surprising considering India’s Christians are a peaceful community, and the conversion claim wasn’t backed by evidence.
What was disturbing was the reaction of the government? Utter silence. A simple strong statement by the government condemning the burnings would have restored confidence in them as it would have clarified that the government didn’t condone such actions. The silence had a reverse effect.
In that one stroke of silence, the Hindu Front alienated the India’s influential Christian community who are unlikely to ever support them in the future. Even US President Barack Obama felt obliged to comment that Mahatma Gandhi would have been shocked at the acts of intolerance in a country famed for its diversity.
The price for dissent is death Worse, the silence encouraged the more murderous fringe elements. There followed a spate of murderous attacks on writers and authors who had offended the Hindu fanatics. Like MM Kalburgi, a 77 year old author and professor, known for his strong stand against superstitious practices and right-wing groups. He was shot dead at point blank range at his front door.
Again, there was a silence, and more murders of outspoken writers followed. At which, India’s enraged writers and artists protest this new ‘intolerance’ by returning awards given by the government. This protest which was called ‘Award Wapsi’ (Return the Awards) once again put the international spotlight on India’s flirtation with violence, after which the murders abated.
Human lives matter less than cows’ lives The religious zealots were just getting into their stride. A ban on eating beef was announced in some states of India. Soon the news headlines were screaming about the lynching of a Muslim villager who was accused of eating beef. One would assume the job of the police is to track down the criminals by looking for forensic evidence like their fingerprints or hair. But the police literally lost the plot, and we were treated to a spectacle of their checking the victim’s fridge to see if he had beef – he didn’t. The point is it’s completely irrelevant, and it’s insane to even think about justifying killing a man for eating beef.
Attacking the freedom to speak An assault on freedom of speech followed. A famous Bollywood actor who happened to be Muslim, mentioned he was ‘alarmed’ by the number of intolerant incidents, and his Hindu wife was worried for the safety of their kids in the changing India. There was an immediate uproar, his patriotism was questioned, and there were calls for him to migrate to Pakistan.
This was followed by the a university student being arrested for sedition as he had dared question the government. Students will be students and they will question things, and possibly be a bit unrestrained in their language. That does not make them guilty of sedition!
The Opposition parties including the Congress saw an opportunity, and tried to appropriate the call against intolerance. This has politicised the issue to a certain extent but it’s too fundamental an issue to ignore.
My way or the highway Lately, the ruling party spokesmen have been insisting all Indians should be happy to say, ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ (Victory to Mother India). Anyone who doesn’t is labelled as unpatriotic.
The hard core Muslim groups objected to this. Probably because their religion doesn’t allow deification of anything, even their country, and ‘Mother India’ is a borderline case of the same. At this point, we can expect fanatics on both sides to stiffen their backs and refuse to back down. They want a confrontation to establish who the boss is, even though the loser will be marginalised and no longer work for the common good.
Pride and Disaster The recent Puttingal temple disaster is a harbinger of things to come. The temple’s fireworks show in a residential area was objected to by an old Hindu lady whose house was being damaged by the fire crackers. Besides the noise made living in the house impossible. Following her complaint, the authorities banned the fireworks show.
The Hindu groups were immediately up in arms. They accused the judge and the collector who were Muslims of being communal, and the old lady was threatened. The ban was ignored, and the temple went ahead with the the fireworks. The police didn’t stop it as they were afraid of provoking a riot. The result was a massive tragedy with over 100 people killed, and 350 and more injured. As for the old lady, her house was damaged badly but she survived as she was too scared to stay at her home that night.
What’s going on? The government in its desire to tackle the growing influence of the Muslim community, has tried to establish India as a Hindu nation. In the process, it seems to have become so paranoid that it won’t allow people the freedom to question things or openly state their fears.
If another Indian eats beef, it’s none of my concern so long as he does not steal my cow. That’s how it’s been all these years. Besides, the many Christians in my state have made ‘Chilly Beef Fry’ one of the signature dishes of Kerala cuisine and a favourite with Malayalis all over the world, regardless of their religion. How on earth can a vegetarian Gujarati Prime Minister based in Delhi decide to ban it? And worse, how can he stay silent when people are murdered for allegedly eating beef?
Holy cow used to be a joke about India, and showed a face of India as being pious yet friendly. How did we get here? When did we start taking ourselves so seriously that we have to kill other Indians for eating beef?
Live and let live
The thing I have always loved best about India is its attitude of ‘live and let live.’ We have the freedom to say and do whatever we want, as long as this freedom doesn’t restrict the basic freedom of others.
Let me illustrate how this works in India. My family home is located right beside a small temple. My parents moved there because most Hindu women in India love living near temples. They believe that when people pray, it creates an aura of good vibrations, and this goodness radiates onto the nearby homes. However I had a huge issue with this.
There was an aura alright and it was usually activated at 5am in the morning in the form of a loud sound waves from a very large speaker. This unexpected and startling noise at dawn would invariably cause me leap out of bed wondering if the sky had fallen on my head. Basically it was Hindu devotional songs like “Maruthamalai Mamaniye Murugaiyya…” played at full volume. In short, the Hindu equivalent of the Muslim call to prayer, except that it would go on for hours.
No one dared object to the racket because of the fear of upsetting religious sentiments. But the temple goers’ freedom to practise religion was taking away my freedom to sleep or study or whatever.
That’s when Indian democracy got to work in the form of a court ruling banning the use of loudspeakers in religious places. It took time for the temples to tone down their act. But these days if the temple gets carried away, I just give them a call and mention my kid can’t study as the temple music is too loud, and they will turn it down.
‘Live and let live’ has been a way of life in India for centuries. St Thomas, the disciple of Jesus, is believed to have migrated to my Kerala, my home state, and been welcomed with open arms. The state has lots of centuries old, quaint churches, and Christians are a prosperous and active community.
Likewise, Arab traders arrived by boat to trade centuries ago, and they too were welcomed. The Muslim community is now very much a part of the state. The Hindus themselves are divided into many castes who do not intermarry. Then there are communists who don’t believe in God but still managed to win the state elections and rule the state many times.
The wonder is all these disparate groups live together in communal harmony. Sure, there have been many communal clashes in India, but the basic attitude of ‘live and let live’ has never been questioned.
But all that has changed in the last year or so, and it has me worried. Contrast the Puttingal temple disaster with my experience, just to see how far things have deteriorated.
If your practice of any freedom (including religion) infringes on my right to another freedom, then you are in reality dictating what I do. When this happens, we are no longer a free society but a dictatorship.
The history of free India has shown that dictators don’t survive for long. The Indian government would be wise to heed this, and take corrective action. I think their desire to tackle the perceived threat of Muslims is causing them to see only the trees and miss the forest. They were elected with a huge majority on a platform of progressive change but seem to be wasting this opportunity to change India for the better.
What our leaders need to remember is that ‘live and let live’ brings people together and leads to progress, while ‘live and let die’ makes people go their separate ways, and leads to regress.
But India is like no other country. Countless armies have invaded India over the centuries. But India has survived by simply welcoming the newcomer, accepting their differences, and integrating them into the nation.
As the old saying goes, ‘this too shall pass.’