Mainstream, VOL LIII No 50 New Delhi December 5, 2015
How Not To Counter Communalism
Sunday 6 December 2015
The following is a revised version of an article published in opendemocracy.net/ and the revision has been carried out by the author himself for its publication in Mainstream; we are, however, using it here with due acknowledgement. —Editor
by L.K. Sharma
Combating communalism is a creative enterprise. A few well-crafted statements or protest meetings would not be adequate to immunise a vast population against the communal poison. The civil rights activists who demonstrated in London before and during the Indian Prime Minister’s visit will have to continue their struggle in imaginative ways so that their movement has an impact in India.
They urged the Cameron Government to disinvite the Indian Prime Minister. Perhaps they were taken in by the official claim of having an ethical foreign policy. Even during the Labour governments when this term was used more often such protests had no effect. The official red carpet was rolled out for several foreign leaders with more questionable human rights records.
The way these activists tried to convey their message left much to be desired. They lit up the Palace of Westminster by flashing their slogan “Modi Not Welcome”. The screen showed Modi with a sword followed by an image of Hitler who kept turning into Modi. The religious symbol of ‘Om’ kept turning into the Swastika. It was inappropriate and offensive. If the activists wanted to promote religious tolerance, the cause dear to the domestic critics of Modi, their message was not just in bad taste but also counter-productive.
In India, where Modi has just been rebuffed by the voters of Bihar, the message was seen as silly. To associate ‘Om” either with Modi or with the Swastika makes no sense to the Hindus fighting bigotry. It only provokes the extremists who prefer violence and disorder to argument-ation.
One has to go back to the Vedic literature to understand the significance of this sacred syllable in the “meditative practice of Yoga”. And apart from Hinduism, three other Indian religions—Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism also use this sacred symbol or its variants.
In the words of a Western scholar, ‘Om’ symbolises “three worlds in the Soul; the three times—past, present and future eternity, the three divine powers—creation, preservation and transformation in one Being, and three essences in one Spirit—immortality, omniscience and joy. It is a symbol for the perfected Spiritual Man.” India is in a temper and images such as ‘Om’ merging into the Swastika are counter-productive.
An outbreak of religiosity is sparked by political campaigns before any election. Religion is used as a polarising force and Hinduism is presented in a distorted form. It does not have a central authority or a single sacred text. It is all embracing and gives freedom for theological dissent. When some of the present BJP leaders led the campaign for the demolition of a mosque and the establishment of a temple of Lord Ram, Prof Richard Gombrich, said that the BJP cannot be described as a Hindu fundamentalist party since it does subscribe to the fundamentals of Hinduism!
Those Modi-followers who are fired by religious zeal propagate a very different idea of Hinduism than that envisioned by the sages of the Vedic age. Over the centuries Hinduism embraced diversity to the extent that it is described not as a religion but a way of life.
Some charismatic Hindu religious preachers and mythological TV serials have unwittingly helped in the mobilisation of the Hindu votes and raising the level of religious intolerance. At times, the BJP was helped by the Congress governments when they compromised on the principle of secularism enshrined in the Constitution—again for political gains.
The rise of Hindu communalism in India has been ascribed to the neglect of classical learning over the decades. Those seek to fight bigotry in India suffer from the handicap because they too do not understand Hinduism. One can hardly expect the UK-based Awaaz Network to show great understanding of either India or Hinduism. For their protest, the activists just borrowed the template used by the religious fundamentalists.
They perhaps also wanted to enact a symbolic show to counter the light-and-sound spectacle organised in the Wembley Stadium by the Modi-supporters to present a Prime Minister as a rock star with global appeal. The kind of message projected by Awaaz Network cannot counter sectarianism. It can fuel religious intolerance. In the UK, divisions in the South Asian communities can hardly cause concern to the establishment. In an earlier era, the South Asian immigrants used to be united which was not such a good thing for the establishment. The TV channels like to show an appropriately attired Hindu and Muslim hardliners confronting each other!
Over the years, the Hindu Diaspora has sought and secured a distinct identity. It has won battles for the protection of Hindu Gods and Goddesses. Of course, it had to remain silent when a massive massacre was conducted because of the mad-cow disease. Britain has a large Hindu community that believes that Modi will transform the country of their birth. There are many who are committed to the ideology of the Sangh Parivar and would love to see a muscular theological autocracy in India. Since they live in the safety of Britain, a confrontation here or there in India is not a matter of great concern.
Hindus and Muslims living in Britain fall back on their faiths to lessen their sense of insecurity in a foreign land. They have largely remained uninfluenced by those natives who ridicule their God. A Hindu living away from India is a bigger Hindu and a Muslim living away from India is a bigger Muslim. This is the general behaviour pattern of the Diaspora. The Non Resident Indians played no small part in supporting Modi in the national elections 18 months ago.
In the wake of the demolition of the Babri mosque in India, many British Hindus supported the move to build the Ram temple on the site of the mosque. Symbolic bricks were sent from the UK. One heard anti-minorities comments from some Hindus. This writer had to tell them that they would not like such comments made against them by the White goons.
The term “Love Jihad” was first heard in the UK in the London School of Economics in the nineties as some Hindu young men complained that the Sikh and Hindu girls were being targeted in the British universities.
Since Awaaz Network hopes to fight sectaria-nism in South Asia, it would do well to understand how to participate in this creative struggle. Their opponents are quite effective even without being in power but currently the secularists face a double whammy.
In the fight against communalism, the Hindus invoking the true spirit of their faith will be more effective than the Leftists. In the wake of the demolition of the Babri mosque, philosopher Ramchandra Gandhi protested against those who ‘hijacked his religion’. He spoke as a Hindu who knew more about Hinduism than all the mosque-breakers put together.
The secular forces must understand how communalism should not be fought. They must shun excessive exuberance and not show any anger. A commentator had noted that just when the BJP was leading an agitation to build a Ram temple, some secularists started pointing out the flaws in Ram’s character. Such tactics only weaken the struggle against religious intolerance.
It has been India’s strength not to think in black-and-white terms. “If you are not with us, you are against us” is not what is normally heard in India even though the TV discussions during the recent election campaign showed otherwise. But during a political season, aberrations take place. If Awaaz Network understands this, it will be more effective in countering communalism in India.
The author is a senior journalist and writer who worked in India and abroad (notably Britain) in several major newspapers. Now retired, he is a free- lancer.