Ashis Nandy, political psychologist and social theorist:
What we need in our complicated world as we deal with violence, riots and terror is not the tolerance enshrined in the modern idea of secularism. (People forget that secularism was not always part of the Indian Constitution. Indira Gandhi introduced the terms secular and socialist in 1976.) What we need is the tolerance that is part of our faith, which our civilisation has shown for centuries. People are always talking of Ashoka and Akbar being secular — they had never heard of secularism! Ashoka was a Buddhist and he thought that was good enough for his tolerance. Akbar was a Muslim and he thought Islam was good enough for teaching tolerance.
Democracy not only means the right to vote, it also means right of people to exercise their choice in categories they find meaningful in life. You cannot banish them by government fiat, saying you must keep religion and politics separate. Gandhi had the perfect comeback for that — those who say you must not mix religion or politics understand neither religion nor politics. (In our anglicised, mechanically translated world we use the word ‘religion’ in place of the word Gandhi used — dharma. Dharma does not mean religion though, it means a code of conduct. No Indian language has an equivalent word for religion. The cascading incomprehension caused by mechanical translation is a conversation for another day. I use the word ‘faith’ because it more closely approximates what we experience. )
What we call religious violence is secular violence — it is the violence of people who have lost their faith. If you look at the data about communal violence in India in the past 50 years, you will find that of those killed by communal violence, only 3.5 percent were people in the villages. 96.4 percent killed were from the cities. Now, ask yourself which population is more immersed in tradition? It is obvious you have nothing to teach the rural population; they have something to teach you. We need courage to admit the need for faith. It is the anonymity and the loss of your culture that leads to disaffection.
All our faiths in India — Hinduism, Christianity and Islam — are local. It is a faith based on personal gods, ishta devatas, family gods, village goddesses. There has always been a tradition of being friendly with gods. You can bicker with a god. You can abuse him or her. You can make fun of her. Nobody is offended. Now everyone is offended by everything.
Who has read Vyasa’s Mahabharata or Valmiki’s Ramayana? Everyone has read their own local epics. Bengal alone has about half a dozen Ramayanas and they differ in crucial details. Today if you try to build a temple in a city for Duryodhan, people will try to break it, organise a demonstration and call it an insult to Hinduism. But there is a Duryodhan temple in Himachal Pradesh, Ravan worshippers in north Bengal, a Vibhishana temple in Sri Lanka. How did Vishnu — in his Tirupati incarnation, one of the most venerated shrines — get a Muslim son-in-law?
When you move away from home and your local gods, nothing is familiar anymore. That’s when you fall back on what I call the laptop version of Hinduism. Then you talk of Vedas and Upanishads as the approved texts of Hinduism. You begin to talk of Sanskrit as the mother of all Indian languages, as the language of gods. Never mind that all the Dravidian languages are older. So when AK Ramanujan’s essay on 300 Ramayans gets banned as it just did in Delhi University, we should know that this is an anti-Hindu act and it can happen only in cities.
Hindutva itself is a secular idea, as will become amply clear when you read what Veer Savarkar wrote. Savarkar was secular and so is his legacy. His vision of Hinduism was one of nationhood, not faith. Here is a man who accused Gandhi of not knowing political theory, who refused to give his wife a Hindu funeral despite a dharna by the women of the Hindu Mahasabha in front of his house. He wrote in his will that he did not want a religious funeral or his body to be carried on the shoulders of mourners. He willed he be taken by motorised vehicle instead. Unfortunately most people don’t have access to these stories. It is the same way Jinnah’s love for ham sandwiches and whiskey has been erased in Pakistan.
Instead of some idea of secularism, which is more about silence and sanitisation, what we need is the courage to talk of faith. We should recognise the fear Hindus have in a ‘secular’ country that only the BJP is their friend or Muslims have that only Jamaat-e-Islami is pro-Muslim. India’s capacity for diversity is best described in a phrase from Mexico’s Zapatista movement — hosting the otherness of others. I don’t tolerate you just according to my standards. I don’t tolerate you only according to the standards of modernity. I will love Muslims only if they are modern, I will love this person only if they have a drink with me — not that kind of thinking. Rather than celebrating your sameness, I accept your ‘otherness’.
We now tend to undervalue compassion and reverence for all forms of life, particularly when that compassion and reverence is backed by non-rational considerations such as religious beliefs, primordial social ties and the ethical commitments based on cultural traditions. So much of Indian traditions have been pushed outside our consciousness. We have to take on the usurpers who have acquired the right to dictate our lives because we don’t want to talk about it. The challenge of a global consciousness is in creating an intellectual climate where we can examine our lives without wearing blinkers. Let us begin by rejecting the old lexicon of poison.