The rise of orthodox and dogmatic vigilantes around us coincides with an increasingly estranging demand to categorise fetes and festivities, boxing them up neatly into religious quarters
The rise of orthodox and dogmatic vigilantes around us coincides with an increasingly estranging demand to categorise fetes and festivities, boxing them up neatly into religious quarters

In 1998, Anjan Dutt made a much-glossed over Bollywood film titled 'Bada Din,' starring Marc Robinson, Shabana Azmi, and Tara Deshpande in key roles. As blasé as it later turned out to be in the public imagination, the film's content was simple but, in many ways, paramount for its times.

A Christian (Robinson), in a rocky relationship with a Hindu girl (Deshpande), grows through impeccable exploits, that involves a dodgy murder in the locality, and eventually finds love in sharing the mundane pangs of existence and loneliness at the doorstep of another equally-aggrieved soul, his landlady (Azmi). Their newfound relationship takes several Platonic turns, till they're truly united in all their intimacy and sorrow on the occasion of Christmas, the titular "Bada Din".

In addition to a fascinating soundtrack composed by Jatin-Lalit, the other obvious "big takeaways" of the film, ostensibly conceived by Dutt, were humble lessons in humility and virtue.

Christmas, so prevalent in the film's backdrop, never does exert its purportedly "religious" overtones. Instead, a sensitive perspective empathises with the shared suffering of the human condition and, in its own reading of tolerance and forgiveness, proliferates the strongest of bonds, which is ultimately what Christmas is all about.

At the cost of sounding rather repetitive amid a din of varying liberal dissent, it is perhaps worth noting, at some point, that all of these inclusive values are at stake in 21st-century India, as the country steers headway into increasingly divisive times.

Stripped of their sensitivities, humane events are now tagged and categorised neatly into religious calendars, and any celebration of the same, which doesn't fit into the predefined category, attracts strict censure from self-styled gatekeepers of said religions.

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Yuletide's blessings this year were stopped short, in a sea of public grace. Ex-IPS officer M Nageswara Rao took to rebuking every Hindu accomplice of his who wished him 'Merry Christmas' on the occasion and shared the screenshots of the same on Twitter, in apparent attempt to justify his self-appointed mission to ensure "Equal Rights for Hindus".

Instead of providing any explanation as to why celebrating Christmas as a Hindu lacerates one's religious position, the former I/C Director of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) instead went on to proudly display his panache for hitting back at earnest greetings with a dogmatic flair.

In a series of tweets titled "My Christmas conversation", followed by an appropriate number, Rao, an esteemed public servant of his time, unleashed his inner Grinch with a chagrin directed at whoever wished him on Christmas.

"I am not a Christian, and I presume neither are you. Then why this?" was his standard response to his well-wishers, followed by a respective addendum depending on who wished him.

In one of the cases, he even appeared to quiz the sender on when "Bhagwad Geeta Jayanti" is, as if in rebuttal to the Christmas wishes he received.

A "Hindu journalist of a reputed TV channel" who harmlessly wished Rao a Merry Christmas was met with a sombre soliloquy-styled discourse, where he went on a long rant to elaborate on the "deracination of one's own religion" which purportedly occurs "when one internalises an alien religious mores [sic.] by greeting amongst themselves for alien festivals".

"This is the deadly disease that has infected Hindus because of anti-Hindu Abrahamic Education system," said the self-styled champion of Hindu rights.

To his credit, however, Rao appeared to reciprocate in good faith the wishes the Christmas greetings of a "Christian friend of more than 20 years".

Expectedly, in his mind, it's only natural to requite the greetings if the other person is a Christian. In every other case, though, Rao seems to believe that sending so much as a "Merry Christmas", on part of a non-Christian, is somehow the dreaded "deracination" of Hinduism.

Regardless of Christanity's pagan roots, if a former IPS officer, one of the highest posts in the country's public administration, raising concerns about the defilement of race and religion rings a few alarm bells, do consider that this is just a symptom of a single sectarian sepsis.

After all, is it not true that the rise of orthodox and dogmatic vigilantes around us coincides with an increasingly estranging demand to categorise fetes and festivities, boxing them up neatly into religious quarters?

Earlier this month, a prominent member of the Bajrang Dal threatened to beat up Hindus in Assam if they were to visit a church on Christmas. This, he said, was in retaliation to a Christian group "locking temples in Shillong".

"Eid only for Muslims", "Durga Puja only for Hindus", and the latest addition to that jamboree -- "Christmas only for Christians" -- all of them, to an increasing extent, are fanatic attempts to rewrite the widely inclusive and secular history of India, where revered Sufi saints like Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia and Ameer Khusro, in their chaste Persian and Hindvi poetry, once adored the traditionally 'Hindu' festival of Holi. Or when Rabindranath Tagore, in 1905, deftly unified the Hindu and Muslim communities on 'Raksha Bandhan' with a strong sense of brotherhood that soared higher than sectarian belongings, and persistently shattered the British idea of Bengal partition that year.

Christmas has a name for all the different languages spoken in India, portraying how communities across the country have incorporated a festival which had markedly different roots, into their lives and assigned personal meanings to it.

In Hindi Happy/Merry Christmas is 'Śubh krisamas' (शुभ क्रिसमस); Urdu it's 'krismas mubarak' (کرسمس); in Sanskrit, it's 'Krismasasya shubhkaamnaa'; in Gujarati it's 'Anandi Natal' or 'Khushi Natal' (આનંદી નાતાલ); in Bengali 'shubho bôṛodin' (শুভ বড়দিন); in Tamil, it's 'kiṟistumas vāḻttukkaḷ' (கிறிஸ்துமஸ் வாழ்த்துக்கள்); in Konkani, it's 'Khushal Borit Natala'; in Kannada it's 'kris mas habbada shubhaashayagalu' (ಕ್ರಿಸ್ ಮಸ್ ಹಬ್ಬದ ಶುಭಾಷಯಗಳು); in Mizo it's 'Krismas Chibai'; in Marathi it's 'Śubh Nātāḷ' (शुभ नाताळ); in Punjabi it's 'karisama te nawāṃ sāla khušayāṃwālā hewe' (ਕਰਿਸਮ ਤੇ ਨਵਾੰ ਸਾਲ ਖੁਸ਼ਿਯਾੰਵਾਲਾ ਹੋਵੇ); in Malayalam it's 'Christmas inte mangalaashamsakal'; in Telugu it's 'Christmas Subhakankshalu' and in Shindi it's 'Christmas jun wadhayun'.

Tagore's idea of religion was based on the divinisation of man and the humanisation of God. To someone like Tagore, religion was always a uniting force, and not the other way around, and the true realisation of faith resided in the realisation of one's own nature, regardless of whether the practices ceremoniously belonged to Hinduism, Islam, or Christianity.

More than a century later, the country stands at crossroads marked by heated debates over secularism and religious tolerance. In the end, it is only natural to hope that all secular quarters will unite to oppose the attempt to rewrite and redefine that glorious and inclusive bit of the country's history.

(The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Free Press Journal)

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