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Stop the Politics of Division

The important debate is not about conversions, but between the unifiers and the dividers -- between those who think all Indians are "us," and those who think that Indians can be divided into "us" and "them."
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Last week, in responding to some of the hundreds of reactions I received to my September 28 column on the anti-Christian violence in Orissa and Karnataka, I tackled the vexed question of conversions to Christianity, which many readers argued constituted a provocation for the violence. But the conversion issue is not purely a religious one: behind it lies a profoundly political question, one which goes to the heart of the nature of the Indian state, and indeed to the very idea of India itself.

In my original piece I argued that violence is part of a contemptible political project whose closest equivalent can in fact be found in the 'Indian Mujahideen' bomb blasts. Both actions are anti-national; both aim to divide the country by polarising people along their religious identities; and both hope to profit politically from such polarisation. In this context, the issue of conversion becomes a diversion. Because to say that conversions are somehow inherently wrong would accord legitimacy to the rhetoric of the Bajrang Dal and its cohorts -- who declare openly that conversions from Hinduism to any other faith are anti-national. Implicit is the idea that to be Hindu is somehow more natural, more authentically Indian, than to be anything else, and that to lapse from Hinduism is to dilute one's identification with the motherland.

As a Hindu, I reject that notion utterly. I reject the presumption that the purveyors of hatred speak for all or even most Hindus. Hinduism, we are repeatedly told, is a tolerant faith. The central tenet of tolerance is that the tolerant society accepts that which it does not understand and even that which it does not like, so long as it is not sought to be imposed upon the unwilling. One cannot simultaneously extol the tolerance of Hinduism and attack Christian homes and places of worship.

And as an Indian, I would argue that the whole point about India is the rejection of the idea that religion should be a determinant of nationhood. Our nationalist leaders never fell into the insidious trap of agreeing that, since Partition had established a state for Muslims, what remained was a state for Hindus. To accept the idea of India you have to spurn the logic that divided the country in 1947. Your Indianness has nothing to do with which God you choose to worship, or not.

To suggest that an Indian Hindu becoming Christian is an anti-national act not only insults the millions of patriotic Indians who trace their Christianity to more distant forebears, including the Kerala Christians whose families converted to the faith of Saint Thomas centuries before the ancestors of many of today's Hindu chauvinists even learned to think of themselves as Hindu. It is an insult, too, to the national leaders, freedom fighters, educationists, scientists, military men, journalists and sportsmen of the Christian faith who have brought so much glory to the country through their actions and sacrifices. It is, indeed, an insult to the very idea of India. Nothing could be more anti-national than that.

One reader, Raju Rajagopal, writing "as a fellow Hindu", expressed himself trenchantly in describing 'terrorism' and 'communal riots' as "two sides of the same coin, which systematically feed on each other." The only difference, he added, is "that the first kind of terrorism is being unleashed by a fanatical few who swear no allegiance to the idea of India, whereas the second kind of terror is being unleashed by those who claim to love India more dearly than you and I, who are part of the electoral politics of India, and who know the exact consequences of their actions: creating deep fissures between communities, whose horrific consequences the world has witnessed once too often in recent decades."

That is the real problem here. Nehru had warned that the communalism of the majority was especially dangerous because it could present itself as nationalist. Yet, Hindu nationalism is not Indian nationalism. And it has nothing to do with genuine Hinduism either. A reader bearing a Christian name wrote to tell me that when his brother was getting married to a Hindu girl, the Hindu priest made a point of saying to him before the ceremony words to the effect of: "When I say God, I don't mean a particular God." As this reader commented: "It's at moments like that that I can't help but feel proud to be Indian and to be moved by its religiosity -- even though I'm an atheist."

As a Hindu, I relish pointing out that i belong to the only major religion in the world that does not claim to be the only true religion. Hinduism asserts that all ways of belief are equally valid, and Hindus readily venerate the saints, and the sacred objects, of other faiths. Hinduism is a civilisation, not a dogma. There is no such thing as a Hindu heresy. If a Hindu decides he wishes to be a Christian, how does it matter that he has found a different way of stretching his hands out towards God? Truth is one, Vivekananda reminded all Hindus, but there are many ways of attaining it.

So, the rejection of other forms of worship, other ways of seeking the Truth, is profoundly un-Hindu, as well as being un-Indian. The really important debate is not about conversions, but between the unifiers and the dividers -- between those who think all Indians are "us", whichever God they choose to worship, and those who think that Indians can be divided into "us" and "them". The reduction of non-Hindus to second-class status in their own homeland is unthinkable. It would be a second Partition: this time a partition not just in the Indian soil, but in the Indian soul.

It is time for all of us to say: stop the politics of division. We are all Indians.

Published originally in the Times of India, October 12, 2008