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Mainstream, VOL LV No 6 New Delhi January 28, 2017

Freedom of Conscience

Tuesday 31 January 2017


by O.P. Jaiswal

The Preamble to the Constitution of India declares it as a secular democratic republic for the people of this country.

Article 1 of the Constitution says that India, that is, Bharat, is a Union of States.

Article 25 says that all citizens are entitled to freedom of religion and have the right to profess, practise and propagate any religion of their choice.

It is well known that our country did not choose a state religion for itself. A secular state is the order of the day in the modern world. Very few countries have opted for a theocratic state with a particular religion for itself (which includes ‘Sri Lanka’ and ‘Pakistan’). That our country is a Union of States means that it is a political union and signifies that it is a secular state, not an ecclesiastical assembly or Saadhu Samaj or Jamiatul-ulema.

It may be clarified that our country chose to be secular in order to remain neutral or a-religious in administrative matters; but the people have the full right to observe any religion of their choice.

The very first Article of the Islamic faith (Pehla Kalema) is: “La ilaha illallah”, that is, there is none to be prayed except God or “Allah”; in other words, there are no gods but God. And it was further clarified that Allah is “wahdahu la shareek”, that is, Allah is one and only one and without any partner.

It is interesting to note here that when Prophet Muhammed was preaching his religion in idolatrous Arabia, the typical Arab reaction was: “Mohammed says: there is only one God and that too invisible.” (vide the Libyan film The Message),

It was very difficult for the then Arabs to understand the concept of a bodiless Allah. The same has been very aptly said by Dr Iqbal in Urdu poetry:

“Khoogare paikare mehsoos thi inshan ki nazar Manta phir andekhe khuda ko kyonkar.”

(“Human eyes were used to feel the observed images only; How could they accept an invisible God then.”)

It is true that, in a figurative sense, one’s country is like a mother (because one is born and brought up there). “Breathes there a man with soul so dead, who never to himself had said, This is my own my native land,” the Scottish poet sang. We love our country and sacrifice our life in defence of her honour; but a Muslim cannot regard her as a God or Goddess. When Dr Iqbal says, “khake watan ka mujhko har zarra devta hai”, it is just a poetic hyperbole and cannot be taken literally. To regard one’s country as a god or goddess and pray before him or her is to deify a material object and pray before him or her. Bharat mata ki jai is a sort of prayer before Bharat shaped as Mother and presented as a deity. For a Muslim to chant before an image or idol is the most flagrant violation of the most fundamental belief of his faith.

Let there be no mistake—Bharat mata ki jai, Durga mata ki jai, Saraswati mata ki jai or Vande Matram etc. are religious chants.

It is well known that during the ancient or Vedic or classical periods, goddesses were not seen in India. They appeared during the shakti period, that is, after the 7th century AD.

It was Bankim Chandra Chatterjee who, towards the end of 19th century AD, took to literature as well as social, cultural, religious and national activities. It was Chatterjee who started the Bharat Mata movement. The first image of Bharat Mata was printed in 1905 by the renowned artist, Abanindra-nath Tagore (nephew of the great Rabindranath Tagore). This image of Bharat Mata was like Durga Mata with four hands. The image of Bharat Mata is still evolving but may be finalised soon.

The Muslims of India gladly and proudly chant slogans like Jai Hind, Jai Bharat, Hindustan Zindabaad. These chants are more than sufficient to express their deep love for the country (without disturbing their religious creed). The Muslims of India have no difficulty if followers of other religions chant their religious songs. (The Quran says: “Your religion is your religion, my religion is my religion.”)

It may be mentioned here that certain elements at present are now planning an alternative route to promote the case of “honour to nationalism” and to clamp the charge of sedition against those who do not chant Vande Mataram etc. It may be mentioned here that in 1943, the West Virginia School, USA, directed all school children to salute the school flag/national flag with divine honour, failing which the defaulters would be expelled from the school. The Jehovah Witnesses children refused to salute the flag on the ground of freedom of conscience. After a long and tortuous battle in the court, the children won the case.

There is no doubt that quite a large number of Indian extremists are trying to behave like German Nazis against the Jews after 1933. The extremists have adopted a number of Nazi slogans and adapted them to the Indian situation.

We feel that the Apex Court may take appro-priate steps to curb the growing religious intole-rance in the country. But it is never too late, When Jawaharlal Nehru was criticised in the West for the deficiencies of the non-aligned policy, he boldly asserted: “Where freedom is menaced or justice threatened, or where aggression takes place, India will not and shall riot remain neutral.” We expect a similar gesture from the highest judiciary of the country in words and deed. The sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of some Indians must be removed with a firm hand.

The author, now retired, was a Professor of History, Patna University. He is an ex-member, ICHR, New Delhi.

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