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February 8, 2001
Why is being a good Hindu politically incorrect in secular India?
Last week I wrote about the inaugural address by the new American President George W Bush and how he referred in it, again and again, to God, the Bible and Christian values.
He sounded almost like a scripture teacher in one of our convent schools. The American media noticed it, even commented upon it. But no one ever suggested that he sounded like a fundamentalist. A good Christian, perhaps. But a fundamentalist, heavens no!
Now imagine if someone like Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee were to talk so much about Ram or Hindutva in his inaugural address, or flaunt his Hindu education and background the way Bush flaunted his Christian upbringing, can you think of the outrage it would have provoked?
Everyone, including our media, would have flayed him for stoking the fires of Hindu fundamentalism. As it is, the world press keeps referring to the BJP-led NDA as spearheading Hindu fundamentalism.
In other words, being a good Christian is politically correct in free America but being a good Hindu is politically incorrect in secular India. Why? Why is the American President not slandered as a bigot when he speaks about God, the Bible and Christian values while the Indian prime minister is called a Hindu zealot when he refers to Ram or Hindutva?
After all, what are we looking for in our leaders? Denial of religion? Atheism? Is atheism synonymous with secularism? Or is secularism the ability to pursue your own faith with conviction and respect the right of others to do the same?
We are back to semantics here and this is the real difference between secularism as propagated by Mahatma Gandhi and secularism as it has been practised by his political heirs led by Jawaharlal Nehru.
Gandhi saw it as the co-existence of all religions and urged everyone to follow his own faith with even greater conviction while Nehru, a self-professed agnostic, saw it as the gradual erosion of the role of religion in a modern society.
So, while Gandhi pleaded for more faith, better understanding and a bigger role for religion in creating a truly secular state, Nehru idolised the blossoming of the scientific temper, which he believed would eventually diminish if not entirely wipe out the role of religion in our political culture. It achieved precisely the opposite.
But, before that, let me return for a moment to President Bush. On Thursday, I sat with heads of state and leaders from different parts of the world, as well as many of America's most influential senators and Congressmen, listening to the new President explain his vision for a new America at the 49th National Prayer Breakfast in Washington DC. It was an amazing experience, made doubly impressive by his touching faith in the power of religion to resolve social and political conflict.
Bush was not in the least embarrassed by his faith. In fact, he saw it as his strength. He saw it as the strength of his nation. So he dropped all pretences, all hypocrisy and spoke out openly for what he thought was the solution to most of America's problems, as well as the world's. Faith. Religious faith. In his case, Christianity. But, for others, whatever their faith is.
His argument was exactly what I wrote: It is not religion that exacerbates conflict; it is the absence of religion. When we stop being good Hindus or good Muslims or good Christians, that is when we pick up weapons against each other to fight wars in the name of religion.
All conflict is actually secular. People may raise the banner of faith but they are actually covering up the real reasons for the conflict which are sometimes political and, more often, plain criminal.
The conference was a unique experience and what impressed me most was political America's fierce commitment to its faith. Of course Christianity was there, centrestage. But it was there as a symbol of America's faith in all religions and their right to coexist.
There was Benazir Bhutto arguing for her right to dissent. There was Roshanara Ershad, young son in tow, demanding that her imprisoned husband be given a free and fair trial. There were many heads of state. The president of Congo sitting right next to the president of Rwanda. The president of Macedonia next to me.
On the other side were the prime ministers of the Slovak Republic, Albania and Greenland. On the next table, the presidents of Croatia and Serbia and the governor of the Cayman Islands. My friend, the home minister of the Tibetan government in exile, and his wife, the Dalai Lama's sister were on the adjoining table. It was a sangam of all faiths. Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Buddhists. They were all there, praying for a better, stronger, more compassionate world.
As Benazir pointed out, there are nations in South Asia where politicians are either in power or in prison. As Roshanara Ershad lamented, it is a short distance from being a president's wife to being a luckless refugee. Luckily we, in India, have a strong judiciary that refuses to yield ground to over-ambitious political leaders. We have a democracy that is stubborn, brave, uncompromising.
Maybe it is time to reject cant and hypocrisy, shed this sham of political correctness. Let us, as a nation, admit to ourselves that there is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of when we speak of our religion, our faith.
A good Hindu is no less than a good Christian or a good Muslim and it is time we acknowledged this simple, inescapable fact in a nation that has been the crucible of faith for centuries.
In this acknowledgement lies our future. As Hindus, as Indians. As a nation on the move.
There is, there can be nothing endearing about faithlessness.
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