Sometimes when you get up in the morning and reach for the newspaper wondering what the world has in store, you occasionally savour a moment which is more heart-warming than having a cup of coffee. I just read a report about Maryam Asif Siddiqui, a 12-year-old school student in Mumbai, having stood first in the “Gita Champions League” contest, where the participants were tested on their knowledge and understanding of the Bhagavad Gita. It was not the fact that she is a Muslim but her reverence for all religions and the wisdom of religions that warmed one’s heart.
Such news is a perfect counter to the vitriol of Giriraj Singh, a Union Minister, who was in the limelight recently for his controversial and racist remarks on Congress president Sonia Gandhi. The contrast between Singh and Siddiqui is deep. One celebrates difference while the other seeks to subjugate it. One throbs with intelligence while the other breathes mediocrity.
Today, Christians are being targeted but if anyone is stereotyping Hinduism, it is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Their Hindutva is a sign of envy, of a mediocrity that wants to imitate the West.
A sense of siege People like Mr. Singh create and leave behind a trail of anxiety where the minorities feel pressure on themselves to realise their identity. This became especially poignant in two instances; the first, in an essay/article by former police officer and diplomat Julio Ribeiro, and the second, in an interview of Indian political psychologist, social theorist, and critic Ashis Nandy. Both are Christians but what is interesting is that both are true Indians, not in a nationalist sense, but as a part of the culture. Ribeiro is proud of being a Christian and Indian and his career as an officer. It is his Christianity that has made him a part of India and made him aware that Christianity in India is older than it is in the West. But now he claims, “communities were being targeted, a sense of siege affects a peaceful people”.
Both Ribeiro and Nandy express the confidence of a community which does not see itself as a minority. It feels it is a part of India’s pluralistic culture, where identities are many, and affiliations open-ended. Ribeiro wonders what his Indianness means when his Christianity is being threatened. Earlier, being Christian and Indian was never contradictory to each other.
Challenge to democracy While the BJP may have shattered Ribeiro’s confidence, it still has not dented Ashis Nandy’s. He sees it as representing the lowest common denominator of democracy. Nandy is proud of Kolkata and he knows that his city will never harass Christians. He sees it in the logic of its culture and his pride is not so much in his ‘Christian Identity’ but in his syncretic Calcuttan past which celebrates the multiverse called the city.
“ Being all and yet being one is what makes me Indian. No Bajrang Dal or VHP can deprive me of this confidence. ”
Nandy has an additional advantage. While Ribeiro sees society within the categories of law and order, Nandy’s sensibilities tell him that most Indians believe in a panoply of disorderly things. Hindus attend church services, Muslims are custodians of temples and our culture oozes with this syncretism. From Saadat Hasan Manto’s Bombay Talkies to the Bollywood of the 21st century, a church was part of the everydayness of an Indian.
Watching Ribeiro, Nandy and Maryam, one realises that majoritarianism is a challenge to democracy. The codes of the two systems are different. In one, citizenship is legal, culture is syncretic and politics democratic.
For example, as a person, one celebrated the greatness of one’s neighbourhood of identities. As a Hindu, I loved Christian festivals and enjoyed Sikh langars . My pluralism made me more Hindu. Yet, by contrast, the BJP’s Hindutva now makes our culture uniform, politics, majoritarian and citizenship, a matter of loyalties. Citizenship in Hindutva’s vision is reduced to a conditional status. The former celebrates the politics of difference, the other can think only in impoverished absolutes.
Listening to these debates, I realise that the BJP government suffers from a failure of imagination at several levels. First it speaks like corporate companies. It speaks a language where one hears more about the Adanis and the Ambanis and little about rural issues .
Second, it shows a preference for the Indian abroad than the resident Indian because the latter is capable of reworking identities while the diaspora has limited choices. Third, in the inclusive vision, culture is all about the availability of alternatives, while for Hindutva , it is about a space that needs to be policed. Deep down, the BJP has only one monolithic and monotheistic god, the nation state .
The glue that binds us Ribeiro makes this point subtly; that Hinduism is a belief, while Hindutva is an ideology. Belief, especially religious beliefs, are protean, while ideology is procrustean (enforcing uniformity). Religion can be syncretic while ideology is restrictive. This difference, he realises, is vital as ordinary Hindus celebrate his presence. They see him as a first-rate officer and honour him.
For Nandy, Hinduism is manifold, while the RSS preaches about one nation, one state, one culture, one religion. It is a formula for encouraging mediocrity. Nandy is equally clear that Christianity does not need conversion.
This logic becomes clearer in a story recounted by writer and intellectual U.R. Ananthamurthy, another icon who Mr. Giriraj Singh hated. UR recounts the story of an Arab intellectual being perplexed by noting that his community has one language, one religion but 22 states, while India has dozens of languages, myriad religions but is still united as a single nation. It is our similarities, and not our differences, that have glued us together.
There is a difference in what I call the politics of anxiety and identity. Ribeiro and Nandy are confident of their selves. Giriraj Singh on the other hand uses identity to complain about history. Mr Singh, in trying to explain his comment on the Congress president, reveals that he has no self-confidence. Nandy and Ribeiro are happy to be in India while Singh is unhappy with ‘his India’. Even his majoritarian confidence is in fact a colonial one which does not know how to deal with someone who is of foreign origin.
In fact, what is ironic is the critique of Ribeiro’s fears by Jagdish Bhagwati, Professor at Columbia University in an article recently. Bhagwati begins with a list of the people who are close to Christianity in his family. Yet, when faced with majoritarian violence and policing, there is little to choose between Bhagwati and the illiberal Mr. Singh. Both seem to wish away the violence of the time by creating apologies for the government. In fact, the question one must ask is what is it that Prime Minister Narendra Modi adds to Indians abroad that a large part of the diaspora treats him as the equivalent of a cultural testosterone shot? It is as if the nationalist bluster of Mr. Modi compensates for their sense of inferiority and their embarrassment about India’s deficiencies.
Self-confident cultures Despite their reading of the situation, Nandy and Ribeiro make a fascinating pair. What they find intriguing is the fact that the majority behaves like a minority even now. In fact, one must comment on Union Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari’s interesting response when he said he felt “very sad” after reading Ribeiro’s article about his growing insecurity as a Christian in India. Gadkari assures Ribeiro that he is an icon and a role model for the country. He is also virtually telling Ribeiro that he has passed the loyalty test, adding that it is the Opposition that is creating such misperceptions.
India’s minorities, especially Sikh, Christian and Parsi, have been self-confident cultures. As Ribeiro remarks, many of them have punched far above their numerical weight, in achievements versus their population. One does not have to create a who’s who of those from these cultures to create testimonials for them.
Our religious communities need no certificates. Many of them have a confidence that many in the majority lack. Nandy goes on to claim that there is a Hindu within him but which does not make him less Christian. In fact, his statement reminds me of the Dalai Lama’s wisdom.
Listening to U.S. President George Bush once, the Dalai Lama commented: “He brings out the Muslim in me.” Beyond empathy for Islam, what the Dalai Lama was claiming was that President Bush’s behaviour, his treatment of Islam and the Muslim was unfair, untrue and almost barbaric. Similarly, listening to Mr. Singh brings out the Christian, the Muslim and the Buddhist in me, without making me less Hindu. That to me is the beauty of India that no Hindutva envy can destroy. Being all and yet being one is what makes me Indian. No Bajrang Dal or Vishwa Hindu Parishad can deprive me of this confidence. I do not need their Aadhar cards of identity to testify to my Indianness, and that is enough for me.
(Shiv Visvanathan is a professor at Jindal School of Government and Public Policy.)