Over a century has passed since September 11, 1893. Yet, the words of the great saint, Swami Vivekananda (Narendra Nath Datta), at the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago, still ring true and remain relevant. He fervently hoped that “the bell that tolled… in honour of this convention may be the death knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal”.
He went on to propound a powerful idea of tolerance in a democracy: “But if anyone here hopes that this unity will come by the triumph of any one of the religions and the destruction of the others, to him I say, ‘Brother, yours is an impossible hope.’ Do I wish that the Christian would become Hindu? God forbid. Do I wish that the Hindu or Buddhist would become Christian? God forbid… The Christian is not to become a Hindu or a Buddhist, nor a Hindu or a Buddhist to become a Christian. But each must assimilate the spirit of the others and yet preserve his individuality and grow according to his own law of growth.”
This “spirit of the other” is severely tested today. It is as if the Modi government has turned its eyes away or believes that a state of constant strife, a perpetual whipping up of hate by the self-styled dharma rakshaks and sundry men dressed in saffron robes — to call them sadhus or sants would be doing a grave disservice to the sant tradition — can go on even as the development project, “sabka vikas”, marches on. It is mistaken.
Bulldozer Babas, Mamas and Chachas are rolling on in various BJP-ruled states, the ostensible reason is the process of law but we know that couched in the corporations’ encroachment orders is a message to a community. Appeasement of none and justice for all is the cardinal principle of good governance; dharma teaches us to “speak the truth”. But truth has become the first casualty in this attack. In April 2022 itself, within a span of three weeks, nine states witnessed communal violence and tension. Had the apex court not stepped in after the communal violence and bulldozers in Jahangirpuri in Delhi, many more families would have been destroyed. It was a BJP leader’s appeal for the bulldozers that set the wheels moving in the municipal corporation. This isn’t what our democracy is about. This is taking the law of the land in your own hands.
It is a matter of extreme concern that religious and festival processions, which were connected to peace, harmony, and celebration in society, are now being used to set off violence. WhatsApp forwards of aggressive marches add fuel to the fire. The religious neutrality of the government in several states is eroding. Protests at Banaras Hindu University over iftar and the violence among students on the JNU campus over the serving of non-vegetarian food in the canteen during Navratri — two of our best universities — show how far we have let the poison spread.
Then there’s the cow vigilantism by the self-proclaimed “gau rakshaks” and the self-proclaimed “samaj rakshaks”. “Love-jihad” laws have been passed wherein inter-faith couples need official permission and sanction for their love. The gruesome killing of a man in Hyderabad, by the family of his wife, demolishes our image as a modern democracy. New words are coined to stigmatise certain communities. We all know how science was flagrantly violated to coin “corona jihad”, rationality is given the go-by to come up with “job jihad”, “food jihad”, “dress jihad” and so on. A so-called Dharam Sansad held at Haridwar became the chosen platform to deliver hate speeches against Muslims, and violence against the community was openly professed.
Whether it is the issue of hijab, halal, loudspeakers in mosques, or the controversy over namaz in Gurgaon, they all surfaced sequentially and the pattern of their timing isn’t mere coincidence. These are manifestations of a larger design, to stoke the feelings of tension and distrust, to make the majority feel that showing the minority their place is the way to feel important, proud and strong. Today, the citizens of the country are recognised as Indian and “Muslim” Indian. I hear it in my constituency when I listen to men, women and even children. Is this what Maa Bharti would want for her children?
One common explanation is that the BJP lets all this happen because it rallies its base. But no one in the BJP will admit that; they all say they win votes because of good governance. I must remind my colleagues in the BJP that they need to call their own bluff. The social cost and the corrosive impact that communal tension has on the social fabric is well-known. There are several studies that have found that “lower levels of religious hostilities” are behind high ranks in primary education and health, technical training, technological readiness, innovations and the institutional environment. Religious freedom and harmony contribute to peace and stability and even help lower corruption.
No country has become an economic powerhouse with its society divided, with a section of its population made to feel small. India did not come into existence as Hindu Rashtra, unlike the Islamic Republic of Pakistan or the Jewish state of Israel. We are emerging out of the Covid shadow and need to focus on creating jobs, upgrading health infrastructure and ensuring that our schools work and our children emerge stronger and better. The battle against hate isn’t just political. From the policeman on patrol to the teacher in her class, the parent at home to the friend in the park, the IAS officer in her office to the political worker on the field, the message has to be: Respect everyone, if you allow yourself to be used to spread hate, you hurt yourself, your family and your nation. This isn’t new, this was the message in Chicago from a man called Narendra in 1893.
This column first appeared in the print edition on May 13, 2022 under the title ‘Message from another Narendra’. The writer is leader of the Congress in Lok Sabha