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India is as much a victim of communalism as of secularism

India is as much a victim of communalism as of secularism

Author: Tavleen Singh
Publication: India Today
Date: July 3, 2000

At a time when Christian churches and priests are victims of attacks that appear to be the work of Hindutva's self-appointed guardians it may be the wrong moment to say anything that might sound like a defence of Hindutva. However, since there is almost never a good moment to defend an idea that even most Hindus are suspicious of, I am going to go ahead. If Hindutva has a dark, repulsive side so does our version of secularism and unless we recognise this, real communal harmony in India will be impossible.

First, let me say that the attacks on Christians, their churches, priests and properties are abominable. Equally abominable is the fact that despite the extent of the violence (36 incidents in six months, according to India Today) and despite a distinct pattern across the country, the Government has been unable to stop it. It was to get the Government view that I went to see HRD Minister Murli Manohar Joshi, widely perceived to be a Hindutva hardliner.

Joshi condemned the violence but said that the reports were exaggerated. He pointed out that in his own constituency, Allahabad, there was a report by a foreign news agency that a Christian doctor's clinic had been burned. Investigations found that the clinic and the doctor were safe. When I reminded him that in many cases the violence was real Joshi admitted he was not sure who was responsible for the attacks but suspected the ubiquitous Pakistani hand. This is not a good enough excuse. If the ISI is indeed behind the attacks then it is time that the Government provided us with proof.

There is no doubt that the Sangh Parivar's more rabid constituents, like the VHP and the Bajrang Dal, have led a hate campaign against Christianity, creating an atmosphere of paranoia against conversion. It is a silly campaign because every Indian has the right to convert to whichever religion he finds attractive. If Hinduism made itself more attractive to the castes that have been denied the right to even worship in its temples, few people would convert.

Was it not true, I asked Joshi, that government textbooks were being altered to make Christians and Muslims seem like foreigners? He denied the charge and said that no government school textbook denigrated either community in any way. These charges were based on textbooks used by certain private schools run by organisations like Vidya Bharati over which he had no control. "Just as I cannot prevent madarsas (Islamic schools) from teaching what they want I cannot prevent other private schools either."

He conceded that he had ordered a review of government textbooks so that they have a more Indian context. Indian astronomy, mathematics, systems of medicine, Sanskrit literature are all areas in which schoolchildren are taught nothing. So, though we have a satellite named after Aryabhatta few Indian schoolchildren know much about him.

The minister is right to suggest these changes but the move has been seen by many as an insidious attempt to advance the cause of Hindutva. The truth is that in addition to these changes we should also ensure that Indian children are able to read modern Indian literature in various regional languages and that they are also taught about contemporary Indian art, music, cinema, dance and theatre.

It is normal for children in other countries to be taught about their own culture and civilisation and if it has not happened here already it is entirely due to a distorted interpretation of secularism. Ancient Indian civilisation and anything to do with it have almost been taboo subjects in Indian schools. It is absurd that the Ramayana should be part of the culture of Muslim Indonesia but considered anti-secular in India.

The attacks on Christians are a symptom of a deeper malaise that can only be dealt with if leaders of all faiths come together to discuss what is causing these divisions. If this happens we are likely to find that part of the hostility against Christianity and Islam is because students in Muslim and Christian schools are taught to view Hinduism with contempt, as a heathen religion. An example of how this is done comes from my own brief experience in a Christian college where a Canadian nun caused a minor riot when she suggested to a class of mainly Hindu students that the only true faith was Christianity. The others, she said, were lesser religions. If the curricula of Muslim schools were examined we would find similar examples of intolerance.

Ever since Atal Bihari Vajpayee became prime minister, Christians and Muslims have liked to think of themselves as victims of a new fanaticism. The truth is we are all victims of both Hindutva and deformed secularism. When we admit this we can think in terms of a new beginning, perhaps even an Indian renaissance.

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