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Are we free?

by Editor's Desk
The TrickyScribe

The TrickyScribe: India, the motherland to four religions and enshrined both secularism and free speech in its constitution, is in a furious debate these past few weeks: Has the world’s largest democracy become an intolerant nation?

Ironically, average Indians have been more than tolerant when it comes to enduring a lengthy political, and highly politicized, thrust-and-parry on the topic. Beyond the theatrics, however, the reality is that intolerance is a serious issue with important ramifications, social and economic.

The debate itself has mushroomed out of two distinct, disturbing trends. First one is a spate of murders of Indian writers. Kannada language scholar M M Kalburgi, a well-known critic of idol-worshipping, a practice adopted by most Hindus, was gunned down by a visitor to his residence.

The second trend is that of an increasingly violent reaction to Indians who consume beef. Just a two-hour drive from New Delhi, a Muslim man was lynched by his Hindu neighbors. The reason? There was a rumor of a carcass of a cow was seen nearby.

Post the announcement was made at the local temple, emotions flared, a mob formed, a (Muslim) target was identified, a Kangaroo court was held and a horrific act turned into international news. Shameful for a place that has been boasting its cultural harmony, homogeneity.

India has become a place where more than 50 Hindu pilgrims were charred to death in a premeditated fire inside the Sabarmati Express train near the Godhra railway station in the Indian state of Gujarat. The victims were returning from the city of Ayodhya after a religious ceremony at the disputed Babri Masjid site.

It has become a place where even foreigners are not spared when it comes to religious fanaticism. Australian Christian missionary Graham Staines and his two sons, Philip (aged 10) and Timothy (aged 6), in 1999 were burnt alive while sleeping in their station wagon at Manoharpur village in the Kendujhar district of the Indian state of Odisha, around 400 kilometres from Bhubaneswar, when the mob attacked and set afire the vehicle.

Religious tolerance has been the basic tenet and hallmark of India’s ancient civilization and history. For centuries, people practicing various religious faiths have lived side by side in peace. India’s rich tradition of the religious plurality has been a symbol of social and religious harmony.

That situation, however, has been deteriorating in recent years as religious intolerance has emerged as a dominant factor in conflicts. There has been a surge in religious violence in recent years. The growing environment of religious intolerance and violence has already claimed many lives in India.

Bollywood starlet Deepika Padukone, who won the respect of many after openly speaking out about her battle with depression, in part of Vogue India’s social awareness initiative #VogueEmpower and a powerful short film, My Choice, and gave some strength to the cultural fabric of India. People thought they could make their own choices. Choose their attire. Choose their company. Anything!

Then come the politicos and self-styled activists into play, who start deciding the taste of the “stupid” common man as they’re sick of deciding his fate. What should he eat? Whether he is allowed to booze? Alcohol ban in the state of Bihar and ban on cow-slaughter in Gujarat are examples to show how free the Indians actually are.

In a fairly damning report the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, a government body that monitors international religious freedom recently warned that India was on a negative trajectory in terms of religious freedom. In a quick reaction, the Indian government sharply rebutted the report and said, “we take no cognizance of the report.”

In a spate of small but heart-warming incidents across the country, Muslims and Hindus are coming together to set examples of communal harmony, extending their hands to help their friends, neighbors and even strangers from the other communities.

There certainly is a degree of unity in diversity when it comes to India. At a time when the literary world is abuzz with authors protesting the communal killing in the country by returning their awards and honors, there are people who have taken a more harmonious stand against the same religious intolerance.

Famous playback singer Sonu Nigam’s case being the most recent one. Sonu Nigam raised a storm via Twitter by tweeting about being disturbed early in the morning by the azan from the loudspeaker of a mosque near his house. While there was a renewed debate on the use of loudspeakers in religious places, the timing, and intention of Sonu Nigam’s tweets were also widely questioned and this was met with massive outrage. A Fatwa with a bounty on his curly locks followed. Nigam, with utmost modesty, called a barber and got his hair tonsured himself keeping the sanctity of the Fatwa intact.

Isn’t it shameful to the people who claim the heritage of Ashoka, of Akbar, of St Teresa of Calcutta? Ashoka on one hand not ensured the upkeep of his subjects but also donated caves and funds to preachers/practitioners of all the religions and created the post of Dhammamatyas (ministers for religion), Akbar abolished Tirth Yatra Mehsul (pilgrimage tax) that was imposed by his predecessors on the pilgrimage tours of the non-Muslim subjects of the Mughal Empire. St Teresa, a Nobel Prize awardee, operated 517 missions in over 100 countries. Her ‘Missionaries of Charity’ grew from twelve to thousands, serving the “poorest of the poor” in 450 centers worldwide. Aren’t we wasting the efforts of those who gave us a rich legacy?

If you pollute the brain of the people with religious hatred, it will create communal clashes between the followers of different religions in India and the unity and strength of the country would be spoiled.

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