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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 15 New Delhi April 2, 2016

Is Hindu Society Changing?

Monday 4 April 2016, by Kuldip Nayar

Something extraordinary and adorable happened to the Hindus, who number 80 per cent in India. Breaking the 400-year-old tradition, widows at Vrindavan, about 110 kilometres from Delhi, celebrated the festival of Holi and danced while throwing colours at one another. Surprisingly, the national media has not considered it newsworthy.

Widows have no status in the Hindu religion. The society looks down upon them if they wear coloured clothes and sport bindis. Although the Rig Veda, older than the Bible, laid down that widows should lead their lives ordinarily, the Brahmins, the priest class, have driven them to a life worse than death.

The liberal Indian Constitution has been of little help against the prejudice and practice going back to hundreds of years. Widows at Vrindavan have dared the Brahmins, who have sheepishly accepted what happened there. And this has come as a shot in the arm for the widows.

They will vigorously fight for equality as they are doing in the case of seeking entry into several temples or at least proximity to the sanctum sanctorum. This development fits into the secular ethos of the country which is increasingly under pressure.

India has come to accept secularism of sorts. It is not ideal. Yet, it does give space to the minorities. Lately, this space is sought to be restricted when the slogan of Bharat Mata ki Jai was raised.

Two happenings which have come to light in the last few days are disconcerting. One, the Legislature in Maharashtra, a fairly progressive State, has suspended an Assembly member for not chanting Bharat Mata ki Jai. The Legislature has not explained why it is necessary to raise the slogan. This is neither a national anthem, Jana Gana Mana..., nor is it a national song like Sare Jahan se achcha Hindustan hamara.

Even if one were to violate the procedure of standing up at the time of rendering of the national anthem, it is at best an expression of irreverence and distasteful. But how does it invite imprisonment or fine? The Indian Constitution is a liberal document and guarantees freedom of speech and expression.

One may not like the Constitution’s violation. But there is no law to penalise people in a democratic society. Their opinion is the best custodian, not any penal action. The very spirit of democracy would be lost if people are told what not to say. True, it is their inherent right to support or oppose a proposition. But it cannot be thrust on them. They are their own masters.

Against this background, it is strange that the martyrdom day of Bhagat Singh, hanged by the British, has gone practically unnoticed. It is probably because he was an atheist who finds little favour with those who want people to wear the badge of religion on their sleeve. They are trying to suppress even the free thinking of people.

These so-called custodians of religion have never considered how to erase the curse of untouchability which is a part and parcel of Hinduism. Even in the 21st century the people, particularly women, practise untouchability. Even though it is banned by the law, the tradition has not diminished, especially in rural India.

The Hindu society should introspect why it is insensitive towards the lower castes. They are treated worse than the cows, which are revered. The Hindus express more sorrow on the killing of a cow than that of a Dalit. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which considers India a Hindu state, should be paying attention to the eradication of discrimination which has dogged the Hindu community for centuries. In contrast, Islam knows no high or low when it comes to eating. They sit together at the same daster khan.

Yet, discrimination is creeping into Islam. The Sayyids consider themselves like the Brahmins at the top of the ladder. This is only an exception, not the rule. The Muslims complain that Hinduism has influenced Islam as practised in India where it has acquired many traits which have cast a shadow on Islam.

In reality, Muslims in most countries consider those in India inferior because of their “contamination” by Hinduism. Emperor Akbar from the Mughal dynasty, which ruled for more than a hundred years, floated a new religion, Din-i-Lahi, which sought to reflect the best of both in Islam and Hinduism. The venture failed to take roots since both communities were too immersed in their centuries-old practices.

Even though Hinduism is essentially a way of living and thinking, it has become a prisoner to dogmas which do not fit into the freedom they are supposed to have. The RSS has been trying its best to make Hinduism rigid, but even after several decades the organisation has failed in its efforts. No doubt, tolerance has lessened the rigidity than what it was before.

Taslima Nasreen, a Bangladeshi writer who has taken refuge in India after the bigoted ousted her from her country, says relentlessly that if Indians had not been tolerant, there would have been riots between Hindus and Muslims all the time. There is something to ponder about in what she says.

However, she ignores the fact that both Hindus and Muslims live like two nations. There is very little social contact between the two. I recall that we, the Hindus and Muslims, lived together in Sialkot city, my home town, and never felt that we were two different people. We visited each other’s house and ate together and celebrated Eid, Diwali and Holi.

This atmosphere changed after the demand for Pakistan came to be raised. And today when a line has been drawn on the basis of religion, the distance between the two has increased. Was partition the best solution? This question was posed to Qaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah when he founded Pakistan. He said he did not know. Only posterity would judge. But one cannot run away from the fact that partition has not brought Hindus and Muslims nearer to one another. Was there another way to bridge the gulf between two communities?

The author is a veteran journalist renowned not only in this country but also in our neighbouring states of Pakistan and Bangladesh where his columns are widely read. His website is www.kuldipnayar.com