It began innocuously with a short commercial advertisement film by Tanishq, the jewelry brand of the Tatas. While launching their product line ekatvam (oneness), the short film showed a Muslim mother-in-law celebrating the godh-bharai (baby shower) of her Hindu daughter-in-law in celebration of the “daughter’s happiness." The film would warm hearts and maybe moisten many eyes too. But we live in an age of truthiness; no sooner than it was released than vicious trolls began on the social media spewing anger and poison against Tanishq for glorifying “love jihad” whereby Muslim men supposedly trap innocent Hindu girls in marriage to convert them to Islam. The trolls became so abusive that eventually Tanishq was forced to pull back the film.
On love jihad, a 2017 Supreme Court Judgment in KS Puttaswamy vs Union of India, had ruled that the “Right to choose a partner irrespective of caste, creed or religion, is inhered under the right to life and personal liberty, an integral part of the Fundamental Right under Article 21 of the Constitution of India.” The Judgment further said, “To disregard the choice of a person who is of the age of majority would not only be antithetic to the freedom of choice of a grown-up individual but would also be a threat to the concept of unity in diversity.” The love between interfaith couples is a cause for celebration, particularly in a society struggling with deep distrust and cleavages between different communities.
Love unites and is the only antidote against hatred. But it is this love that is increasingly being targeted by the fundamentalist vigilante groups that operate outside the law with impunity. Like in the Tanishq case, Netflix also had to face its wrath for showing a Hindu woman and a Muslim man share a kiss in the web-series A Suitable Boy”
It is not only the Hindu fundamentalists that are engaged in disturbing social harmony in the country by asserting religious identities, as we saw in the hijab row that erupted suddenly out of nowhere on issues that are trivial and irrelevant. It made us ponder on the question that while each of us carries not one but several identities, is it the religious identity that supersedes all other identities and ultimately defines an individual? And if we allow the religious identity to prevail over all other identities in the name of freedom of religion guaranteed in Article 21 of the constitution, what remains of the idea of India as a secular state? It was amazing that a simple piece of cloth could have such astounding power to bring the entire higher education in a state to a complete standstill, with colleges and universities remaining closed for days. The Muslim fundamentalists got a golden opportunity to inflame passions and to poison the minds of gullible girls to demand making the hijab a part of the uniform.
As the images of girls wearing hijabs and marching with placards showing “I love Hijab”. “Hijab is our right, Hijab is our pride” and “Hijab, My Right, My Choice, My Life” started intruding into our mindscape, fanning the flames of religious passion and polarisation further, education which is the major purpose of attending a college was relegated into a minor issue. Public educational institutions are not religious seminaries. It may be mentioned that the idea behind a uniform is again to assign an identity to a student for greater cohesion, belongingness, and pride, above their many individual identities, bestowed by social status, religion, caste, creed, etc. No freedom is also absolute and every freedom including the freedom of religion is subject to reasonable restrictions. No one considered whether it would be served by allowing the symbol of any religion within the precincts of an educational campus. Even now we get reports of students boycotting classes and examinations for not being allowed to wear a hijab as the Karnataka High Court has mandated.
Societies are defined by their complex histories. In a multi-religious, multi-cultural society like India which has always been a great melting pot of civilizations, religions, and races throughout history, managing harmony between communities is never easy. Religious tolerance that is inherent in our culture has been a blessing, which is now being seriously undermined by the struggle for political power. Political parties have learned that the “divide and rule” policy practiced by the British remains equally effective even now and can be exploited to stoke hatred, inflame passions and create divisions and polarisations in society from which they can derive the maximum electoral advantages, and to let this fire be extinguished will rob them of their power over vote banks who then would start judging them by their performance. And so after Ayodhya, it has to be Gyanvapi today and tomorrow it would be Mathura or something else. The point is, that these were historical atrocities perpetrated by bigots and perverted rulers, but why should these create a conflict between communities living today? Since Gyanvapi will certainly not be the last such issue, we need to design a protocol to handle similar issues harmoniously. Can we design a protocol to let both Hindus and Muslims pray and worship at the same Mosque/ temple side by side while maintaining harmony and bhaichara? That is how the new India should live and pray.
There is a yet better way though, that is to altogether discard religion which has been the greatest divider of humanity throughout history. In the 21st century world, religion has no place to enter and guide our lives. Spirituality is an individual’s own private choice, but religions pollute the public domain and create conflicts. Its functional aspects are today far overwhelmed by its dysfunctional aspects and it is increasingly, and irrevocably, poisoning our body politic. If a poison enters our body, shouldn’t we eject it out, once and for all? The separation of the church and the state served the western societies well, but today we are witnessing that even this peaceful coexistence is increasingly becoming fragile because there are inherent contradictions between religion and democracy. Democracy is based on freedom of speech; inherent in this freedom is the right to criticize and offend anyone including religious personalities. The outrages caused by the Danish cartoons, M F Husain's paintings of Hindu deities, or the recent TV comments by the now-suspended spokesperson of the ruling party have all demonstrated that the right to offend is not yet an accepted norm in a society where religion is concerned and that a mere comment made in bad taste and possibly without thought can engender riots and loss of human lives. If human life becomes hostage to scriptures, then what is to be protected- life or religion?
I dream of a day when all our places of worship would be converted into schools, dispensaries, museums, playgrounds, and public places of which there is such a huge scarcity - where children and adults from all communities will play and learn together and feel happy, while the guardians of religions would equip themselves with other skills and seek other vocations and when people will practice their faith within the privacy of their homes. This dream is unlikely to be realized, at least in my lifetime.
Like many other dreams of our constitution makers, philosophers, thinkers, and dreamers, this dream is fast evaporating from our collective consciousness. The sweet sounds of monsoon rains, nostalgic smell of the petrichor, whispering of the western winds, and the blue-green waters of the surrounding seas will undividedly embrace all the people in this hauntingly beautiful land of ours in which we shall continue to live our divided existence as Hindus, Muslims, and Christians, etc., but not as Indians, not as humans. Because some fear when we love each other. Because they exercise their powers only as long as we remain divided and disunited.
(The author, a former civil servant, is an academic, author, and columnist)