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Pans & Tilts
Shambled Secularism
By Gautaman Bhaskaran
South Asia Correspondent
Jama Masjid is the largest mosque in India Delhi.

India's secularism has gone up in smoke along with the festival of Diwali. Weeks preceding this joyous event – which nowadays has more noise and smoke brought about by unrelenting burst of crackers rather than light and luminosity – the rape and murder of Christianity in parts of the country seriously undermined the country's much-touted concept of secularism.

The long inter-religious animosity between the majority Hindu's and the minority Muslims, often provoked, encouraged and kept alive by political radicals, has a new dimension now. A deep rift between Christians and Hindus has been created by hawkish political outfits that directly or indirectly owe allegiance to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). An organization that openly supports the Hindu cause citing centuries-old Islamic invasions of the nation and the destruction and death that followed as reasons for hitting back today, the BJP was responsible for the demolition of the historic Babri Mosque in 1992 and the Godhra (in the Western State of Gujarat) genocide in 2002 in which hundreds of Muslims were killed.

Recently, the Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, which are seen as close affiliates of the BJP, have been carrying out a campaign of terror and torture against Christian communities in the eastern State of Orissa and the Western States of Karnataka and Kerala.

The case of a 28-year-old Christian nun, Sister Meena Lalita Barwa, who was stripped and paraded through an Orissa village and raped by a fanatical Hindu mob in full view of policemen on August 25 amply illustrates a secularism all shambled. An ideology that works around the fundamental principles of equality and justice, secularism today is exploited by those in power to meet their own requirements. For weeks before and after this gruesome incident when mobs destroyed churches, torched Christian homes and threatened the followers of this faith to convert to Hinduism, the Orissa State Government run with the support of the BJP stood around doing nothing.

Ultimately, an alert media got wind of what was happening in Orissa's back and beyond areas and splashed the story. And all this while, Sister Barwa was in hospital traumatised physically and mentally by Hindu terror. Finally the other day, she appeared at a Press conference in New Delhi and pleaded with the authorities that her case be probed by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and not the Orissa Police. She said that she had no faith in the State Police that refused to help her when she and another Christian missionary were beaten, dragged around and humiliated.

The Parishad claims that Christian missionaries have been "forcibly" converting a large number of Hindus to their faith. Admittedly conversions do take place especially in the country's tribal belts where some of the poorest Indians live. These men and women have found institutional Christianity with its free schools and health care attractive. They have also found casteless Christianity a wonderful relief from the caste-driven Hinduism where those at the bottom of the ladder still face terrible social ostracism from those above. But such conversions do not take place under coercion, and an individual usually changes religion on his or her own free will. Yes, possibly lured by a better life. To call this as "force" is extremely farfetched, and there have been no mass conversions that extremist Hindu groups have been alleging.

To prove this, church leaders say that the percentage of total Christians in India is just a tad higher than the last census figure of 2.3. Where then are the large-scale conversions that the Parishad is talking about, they quip.

Besides, the Constitution is very clear that every citizen must be allowed to practice his religion and convert to another if he or she desires. As Seema Mustafa writes in her newspaper column: "India is a pluralistic State. It is any number of States and any number of peoples all rolled together under one nation, one flag and one Constitution. Its oxygen is freedom based on justice and equality. It will disintegrate and die if it is deprived of any of these, and is compelled to adopt a monolithic mantle that is totally unnatural to its existence…If India is to survive and flourish as a healthy, breathing vibrant democracy , secularism has to be protected and nurtured."

Finally, it would do well for New Delhi to realize that the Christian issue is altogether different from the Muslim question. Brutality against Christians attracts speedier world attention and condemnation. French President Sarkozy's couched warning to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is one example, and while he goes around the world earning accolades for the nuclear deal, serious issues are devastating the nation's social structure and fabric. India could have lived without the nuclear pact and can do so without the moon mission. But it will wither away if it allows secularism to be butchered.



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Gautaman Bhaskaran is a veteran film critic and writer who has covered Cannes and other major international festivals, like Venice, Berlin, Montreal, Melbourne, and Fukuoka over the past two decades. He has been to Cannes alone for 15 years. He has worked in two of India’s leading English newspapers, The Hindu and The Statesman, and is now completing an authorized biography of India’s auteur-director, Adoor Gopalakrishnan. Penguin International will publish the book, whose research was funded by Ford Foundation.

 

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