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Full circle

April 19, 2004

Are you an Indian foremost, or a member of your religious community first? This is an impossible question. It is a grotesquely unfair question, and its intent has always been plain -- to cast some Indians as unpatriotic and conniving against the country's interest. It is also a question that none could possibly answer except with remonstration and anger. After all, the choice between faith and nationalism seems just another in an arsenal of predictable political weapons. Some parties attack the rich as greedy, and reap the votes of the poor. Some attack the working poor as idle and lazy, and curry the votes of the comfortable classes. Religious nationalism seems only a little different -- pillory the faith of one group of citizens, and find votes among the others.
Will you sing the Vande Mataram? To imagine that patriotism resides in a song seems perplexing in a nation of such diversity. The great majority of Indians probably do not know the words to the song, and many of those who can recite it still cannot understand all of it entirely. In any event, it is beyond comprehension that anyone should care to knowing if another possesses the ability or willingness to sing a song. Will it bring back the dead of our wars? Will it erase the continuing legacies of our many social and economic ills? What may seem a glorious composition to some -- one that evokes great emotion -- is sometimes a mere collection of unfamiliar words to  many others. Can we not leave it at that?
Will you give up eating the meat of animals that are holy to some? Will you celebrate only the victories of Indian teams on sports fields, and never laud the achievements of others? Will you remember and honour the faith of your forefathers? Will you cherish and protect the hills, valleys and plains of the great motherland? Will you teach your children the traditions of Bharat?
For the longest time, it has seemed that these questions, and others of their ilk, are not important. Millions of Indians have remained firm in the conviction that the only purpose of these questions is to drive wedges between the nation's people, and from that to find political gains for a few. But during a dozen years of increasing religious nationalism and polarization, millions of other Indians have had the opportunity and the time to think about these same questions, and many have found them important. Indeed, by now it is plain that although at first they seemed relevant only to the advocates of religious nationalism, in time the questions have become important to each of us.
So, ask yourself this.
Are you an Indian first or a member of your religious community? If your religion accords some members a higher status than others, if its practices permit some Indians to claim title over the lands, livelihoods, and even the bodies of others, if the religion denigrates the very existence of millions of our people in the name of tradition, will you find virtue in it still? Or would you rather set aside the religious texts and find character instead in the Constitution and the laws of the land? Will you support the upliftment of downtrodden castes, equal legal protections for women, and many other lofty goals that have been impeded in the name of faith, or would you rather believe in the grand destinies that prophets of various hues promise?
  • Will you sing the Vande Mataram? Or will you decide that the ability of our people to read and write -- and thereafter to cherish the music to which patriotic songs are set -- matters more than the mere words that they may utter?
  • Will you worry less that our children may be learning troubling versions of history, and fret more that they may not be learning at all?
  • Will you worry less that people may be eating the wrong meat and worry more that they may not be eating at all?
  • Will it matter more to you that our stocks of food and currency appear to mount without end, even as our people themselves starve in ever-growing numbers?
  • Will you learn enough of the world that you may appreciate the nuances of sport, erudition, and every other human enterprise, and learn to see in each achievement the progress of man, even if Indians themselves are bested in the process? Will you honour the traditions of our forest-dwelling communities, and their rights to land and livelihood in ways that may seem best to them? Do you love this land enough to protect it from mercury poisoning and falling water tables?
  • Will you teach your children the traditions of sensible stewardship of the future, and concern for the present?
These are questions of nationalism too, although we do not often think of them this way. In recent years, we have witnessed the surge of a nationalism cast in religious overtones only, while other professions of love for India have receded. As a result, it was easy to imagine that nationalist rhetoric threatened only the minority that didn't appear to belong by the definitions imposed on it. But the questions that once seemed posed to only a few are now before us all.
The older democracies have been through this struggle, nearly always to the detriment of religion. Across the Western world, notwithstanding intermittent surges of religion in politics, it is now firmly understood that faith is a private matter that should remain outside the public arena. It has long been said that Indian religion, being non-Semitic and less doctrinaire than some others, isn't subject to this litmus test. But the nationalism of the last decade has changed that. The ruling alliance seeks an even greater majority than it now holds, but prefers to leave unsaid whether with such a heightened mandate it would continue to govern as it has thus far, or champion ideological goals that have been shelved by its coalition. The possibility of that change has brought what was so far a minority question before a much larger swathe of the nation now.
Are you for the gods, or are you for the motherland? It is still exceedingly unfair that anyone should be asked to make this choice, just as it was when the majority of us did not see ourselves as the targets of such questioning. But that has always been the trouble with asking repeatedly if one would rather be an Indian or a Muslim. Eventually, we realise, it also means, 'would you rather be Indian or Hindu?'

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Ashwin Mahesh

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