Writers and artists are walking on eggshells after the Supreme Court declined to grant interim protection from arrest to the makers of the Amazon web series ‘Tandav’, who are facing charges of hurting religious sentiments.
Here was a test case of freedom of speech in these trying times but the judges tossed it aside, saying that the right to freedom of speech is not absolute. One right that seems to be absolute though is the right to be offended over religion.
In most such cases, merit does not matter and neither do facts. One just has to raise a social media storm, amplify it using a pliant media, file FIRs across the country, perform a ‘tandav’ outside cinema halls, shops, offices, homes and you have a winner. Your lynch mob is legitimised and those who accuse you of abusing the criminal justice system can be booked under sedition.
The ‘religious sentiments’ ruse is part of the divisive politics being practised in our country. The majority community is being constantly fed the lie that their beliefs are being mocked in the name of secularism, that anyone can take liberties with their religion, that Hinduism is in danger.
Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, whom the BJP is trying to appropriate, was a devout Hindu but he was vehemently opposed to the divisive politics of the Hindu Mahasabha. Had he been around today, he would have certainly asked, “What about my religious sentiments?”
It is time to ask how someone sold the majority community the idea that a religion that has withstood the onslaught of Buddhism, Islam and Christianity, is in danger of losing its identity. Hinduism is not in danger but the economy is, our democracy is, our jobs are. In fact, the Tirupati temple sacked many of its employees during the lockdown.
The way religion has been weaponised to suit political ends is insulting for anyone who calls himself a Hindu in the soul-searching tradition of the great rishis. Yet, how many Shankaracharyas do you see taking offence at it and castigating politicians for appropriating their religion.
How was this concept about the unfinished agenda of Partition replanted in our minds after 70 years of co-existence, after fighting four wars shoulder-to-shoulder, after our great victories over hunger, disease and illiteracy?
Every sixth Indian is a Muslim; this country has more Muslims than Pakistan has. Forget the unjustness of it, can we imagine the consequences of this divisive line of thought when the temporary migration of a few million workers from cities to villages crippled the country.
Are we blind to the havoc civil strife and religious fundamentalism have created in our neighborhood? Look at Pakistan’s GDP which is a fraction of India’s, look at the way it is in the grip of China, look at the lack of religious freedom there, look at the status of its women... Why then are we hell-bent on becoming a mirror image of that failed state? Will slogans such as Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan take us anywhere but to ‘kabristan’.
How did the world’s largest democracy, which prides itself in its ancient civilisation, its robust institutions and its technological prowess come to such a pass? Instead of worshipping at the temples of modern India, we have reverted to stone structures, the very same shrines which came a cropper in Covid. Yet, people are being told to contribute, not for the fight against Covid but for the construction of the Ram temple at Ayodhya.
On the one hand, India uses atomic fission to generate energy and is a proud member of the elite nuclear club, and on the other, a political party in the land of Buddha and Gandhi uses negative energy from societal fission to propel itself to power.
Are lynch mobs our answer to the alleged appeasement of Muslims by the Congress? Does storming college campuses with iron rods fit into the tradition of debate started by Adi Shankara and carried forward by the likes of Vivekananda and Gandhi? Is the creation of a Hindu Taliban the only way of asserting our religious identity?
Time to introspect
It is time we examined our deep-rooted biases and the shallow, ritualistic manner in which we practise our religion.
If it were not for our bias, no amount of hate factories would have sold us such blatant lies that we have internalised and that have ultimately led us into believing that the BJP is the saviour of the Hindus.
For us, the Mughals are Islamic invaders, when the fact is that they settled down here and enriched the country with their architecture, music and cuisine, not to talk of a stable revenue and political system.
We vilify them for destroying temples and for forcible conversion when most of the misconception originates from distortion by colonial historians to present the British as a distinct, and more civilised rulers than the Mughals. After all, divide-and-rule was their legacy, not that of the Mughals, whose interests lay in a syncretic society.
As for the way we practise our religion, we have lost its essence, which is compassion. We pour milk over the idols but ignore the malnourished child outside, we offer gold to the deity for wishes fulfilled but have nothing to offer to charity, we even bribe our way to a ‘darshan’.
Perhaps this is what Tagore meant when he said, ‘Let my country awake’ into that heaven of freedom … ‘where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit’.
As for the Vedas, the repository of ancient wisdom and metaphysics holds several universal truths and sage advice but they were largely applicable to that day and age. To quote them out of context and claim that ancient India had airplanes to cosmetic surgery to nuclear physics is a mockery of the great texts.
Challenging the status quo
But the worst aspect of ‘sanatan dharma’ or the eternal order that is Hinduism is the way its pontiffs accept the inequities of society, instead of challenging the status quo. God may not be with the mighty but godmen certainly are.
When the vast majority of Hindus is not vocal about the bad practices that have crept into the religion, imagine how difficult it must be for rationalist Muslims to challenge the mullahs who filled the vacuum left by the migration of a significant part of their middle class to Pakistan.
A house is built painstakingly, brick-by-brick but those who go around demolishing structures and institutions in the name of nation-building don’t realise the harm they are doing.
Ours is still a fragile society and it doesn’t take only religion for two groups to get at each other’s throats; it could be over the sharing of river water between two states, over parochial issues or even a pandemic like Covid.
We have to end this bigotry and hatred because if we don’t learn to live together we will certainly die together.
The writer is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.