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Faith and us

The increasing attacks on Christians in Karnataka, Orissa, Kerala and elsewhere are a moral scandal in more ways than...

The increasing attacks on Christians in Karnataka, Orissa, Kerala and elsewhere are a moral scandal in more ways than one can list. The main focus of criticism so far has been rightly on the utter abdication by the state governments of their basic duty to protect the lives and property of citizens. But we have to recognise that these sins of omission by the state are sustained by a much larger, mendacious and dangerous ideological formation. The premises of this ideological formation are more widely shared across sections of Indian society. And it is these premises that create needless confusions, hesitations and justify state inaction.

What are these premises? The first is simply that the language of revenge has become politically acceptable; there is not even the slightest moral embarrassment in using any pretext to justify violence. In the case of Orissa, the brutal and reprehensible murder of Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati was used as just a pretext. In Karnataka, the pretext is inflammatory pamphlets allegedly being circulated by some groups. The murder of Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati was a grave matter. But think of how much more effective a BJP/Bajrang Dal response would have been if, instead of condoning violence against innocents, it had found a more dignified way to protest the murder. Arguably even their own political cause would have been better served. Instead they dissipated a serious moral issue in an orgy of violence, revealing the fact that, like so many fundamental groups, for them causes are mere pretexts: these are machineries of violence looking for an excuse.

The second issue is our response to so-called inflammatory pamphlets. Leave aside the fact of who may or may not have circulated them, the blunt truth is this. It is right to wish that the protocols of religious exchange be governed by norms of civility, and that great care ought to be taken to prevent needlessly offending any groups. But it is fatuous to think that the public sphere can be expunged of all representations of religion that its adherents might find offensive. In fact, the demand that it should be obligatory that religion be respected is odd. It has set up a politics of competitive offence mongering; every group is clamouring to show their might by identifying things they find offensive, whether Danish cartoons, or Hussain paintings, or novels or pamphlets. There is a right to a dignified response to what one finds offensive. But in our society offensiveness has also become a pretext, as if pamphlets that one finds offensive can justify violence and mayhem in revenge. And the more we succumb to the idea that it is fine to take offence, the more we incite people to give offence.

A faith that is so fragile that it gets deeply morally confused at the slightest provocation is dangerous indeed. We have to be absolutely clear: the fact that some people may have circulated pamphlets we do not like should not lead good thinking Hindus to be in the slightest bit ambivalent about organisations like the Bajrang Dal. But somehow we get confused.

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The third issue is our bad faith on conversion. I myself find the idea of conversion theologically odd from the standpoint of my beliefs. There is also a good deal of evidence about the changing nature of some Christian groups operating in India; crude evangelism is a reality. We may also be uncomfortable at the fact that people seem to convert for all kinds of inducements. But as a mature society we have to recognise this fact. The state cannot be in the business of saving anyone’s soul. Why people convert is a matter entirely for them to decide. There is a dangerous paternalism if we give the state the right to decide when someone’s conversion is genuine and when it is not. For that matter why not also inquire into the fact whether staying in any faith is often due to inducement, coercion and false representations as well.

Our anti-conversion laws, subscribed to by both the Congress and the BJP, and upheld by one of the Supreme Court’s most confused decisions in the Stanislaus case, are a travesty. They are unimplementable. These laws require the state to go into motives for propagating a religion or conversion; and ascertaining motives in this instance is a dubious enterprise indeed. Or if widely implemented, they will constitute grave infringement of liberties. No wonder these laws are passed and not implemented, producing the worst of both worlds. On the one hand these laws confuse us about what a free society cannot prohibit; on the other they engender resentment because some groups feel they are not implemented out of some concern for minorityism.

Globalisation will enhance religious competition in many ways. But this competition cannot justify infringing individual liberties. As a Hindu I also find it deeply offensive that groups like the Bajrang Dal and their numerous covert sympathisers think that the only way to protect Hinduism from this competition is to use the coercive power of the state. While the Congress laid the intellectual foundations of our confused discourse over conversion, BJP-led governments have taken this discourse to a new thuggishness. There is a bizarre insecurity on display in the paranoia that a few FCRA funds will somehow be able to match and overrun the enormous wealth Hindu organisations now have. The question is not what a motley crew of evangelists is up to. The question is: What is Hindu society up to such that it has lost confidence in itself?

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The political context in which these moral confusions gain widespread political potency does need to be attended to. As was the case in Orissa, the fact that the state uses religious identity as an axis to determine the distribution of goods such as eligibility for reservations, or the kind of institutions one is allowed to run, is a source of deep tension. The basic aspiration, that the language of rights and citizenship has to be detached from one’s religious identities, remains now only a distant dream. The fact that parties like the BJP think that there are also political gains in greater polarisation is as much a reflection on us, as it is on the party. After all, accusing a party of engaging in bad politics because of “vote banks” is an indictment of the voters as much as it is of the party. But these political issues do not exonerate us of our wider ideological culpability. In this case we cannot even ask the Lord to forgive us, for we know perfectly well, what kind of communal poison we wish to unleash.

The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi express@expressindia.com

First published on: 23-09-2008 at 11:21:38 pm
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