An Indian talking from a global platform may be a routine occurrence today, but it wasn’t on Sept 11, 1893, when Swami Vivekananda spoke at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago, which was convened in a hall in that city’s Art Institute. The space where the Swami spoke has been carefully preserved by this famous institute, where priceless exhibits daily draw large flocks of viewers.
Indians among the visitors to the exhibits are thrilled when they learn that only a few steps away lies the space where the celebrated address was given 130 years ago. Here is what Vivekananda, just 30 at the time, said there on a date in 1893, which in 2001 would become unforgettable for another reason:
“I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true. I am proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the earth.”
Indians reading these words today cannot feel entirely comfortable. Our present government has declared more than once that there is at least one religion whose persecuted adherents in lands adjacent to India cannot qualify for Indian citizenship. However, the point I wish to make here is a different one, and it is this. While many today may mentally “accept” (as Vivekananda put it) that “all religions are true,” some seem unwilling to accept Indians adhering to Islam or Christianity as neighbours or fellow citizens possessing rights equal to the rights we enjoy.
Accepting other “religions”? Yes, they are likely to say. Accepting Muslims and Christians? Sorry, no, would for some be the true answer.
After a face-to-face survey of 29,999 Indian adults of all faiths conducted between late 2019 and early 2020 – before the COVID-19 pandemic – the reputed Pew Research Center found 84% saying that to be “truly Indian”, it was very important to respect all religions. 80% were of the view that respecting other religions was a very important part of what it means to be a member of their own religious community. These large majorities were found among Indians of all faiths.
Pew did not, it seems, ask the 29,999 Indians if they felt that fellow citizens of different religions should have full democratic rights. Nor can we be certain that all respondents would provide truthful answers to such a question. Still, we may safely assume that a majority of Indians want all their compatriots to enjoy full and equal rights.
We hear the oft-fiery voices of those who demand the abridgement of minority rights. At times, one might imagine that the poisonous winds that blew on our subcontinent in 1947 have returned after 75 years. Yet that is hardly the whole truth.
Years ago, in 2005, when my wife Usha and I interviewed people with memories of the 1947 violence in both halves of what until that year was a single, undivided Punjab, the phrase zahreeli hawaa was used in Lahore by Chaudhry Muhammad Hayat, a retired squadron leader of Pakistan’s air force, to describe what had hit both halves of Punjab, destroying Hindu, Muslim and Sikh lives.
With warmth and emotion, Hayat recalled “Bhagat Saab”, as he called him, an old Sikh teacher who apparently “knew all the principals and headmasters of Gujrat tehsil (north of Lahore, south of Rawalpindi) and used to get tuition fees excused for poor Muslim boys, especially poor Jat boys”. Thanks to Bhagat Saab’s goading and monetary help, Hayat went to school, matriculated in the first division, and began a successful career. “Had it not been for Bhagat Saab,” said Hayat, “I would still be cutting grass in my village.” Bhagat Saab’s relatives were killed in that 1947 summer, and after spending many weeks on Hayat’s small farm, the old teacher simply disappeared. Hayat cried when he related his benefactor’s end.
What India is experiencing today (along with many other lands) is not so much a zahreeli hawaa that produced 1947’s senseless killings, as a relentless drive to subjugate and humiliate minorities and establish majoritarian supremacy. Accompanied by the arrogance of power and wealth, and aided by strong propaganda engines, this drive is justified as history’s process of correcting its wrongs.
In India the line being pushed is this: “After Mughal rule and white rule, and then rule by the Muslim-appeasing, West-worshipping Congress, Hindu rule has at last arrived. Avenged!” Yet only a minority of India’s Hindus will likely buy such a characterization. Just as in 1947 the antar-atma, the zameer, spoke, and conscience-driven Indians (Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs) quietly, ingeniously, and bravely protected the “others”, so also today a great many Indians are aware of what their consciences are saying. Profoundly troubled, they express their anxieties in different ways, including by joining the Bharat Jodo Yatra.
There’s a difference between the zahreeli hawa of 1947 and today’s heady mix of contempt and arrogance – of nafrat and ghamand. Hurts caused by real injuries may heal with time, or they may be set aside by wisdom, or by the warnings of our conscience. On the other hand, the enjoyment of power over those we are exhorted to see as the descendants of centuries-ago conquerors may be harder to expel.
Since those willing to swallow the line don’t meet or converse with these “descendants of conquerors” – these Baburki aulad as the phrase of detestation goes – these “others” are not seen as humans with the same enjoyments, hopes, and anxieties that “we” possess. And when this detestation is joined to a love of coercion and violence, people may be ready to back even extreme proposals, such as the call from very high quarters to pulp the core of our precious constitution.
Prime Minister Modi’s slogan as he takes over the G20 presidency is “One Earth, One Family, One Future.” As they hear or read these stirring words, the people of the world, as also the people of India, will demand to know whether the Indian family is to be broken up, with some members pushed to a dark basement or a roofless outhouse. In many Indian minds, if not always on their lips, the refrain is likely to be, “We Indians accept one another.”
(Rajmohan Gandhi’s latest book is “India After 1947: Reflections and Recollections”)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.
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