[India 2002]

In Feb 2002, we had the terrible riots in Gujarat, after which minorities–Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians–in India felt uneasy. Everywhere you turned, you did not see the abhorance that you would have thought normal.

For those readers who are not familiar with the 2002 riots, the trigger was the burning of a railway coach in a place called Godhra in Gujarat, killing 58 people, mostly Hindu pilgrims. The event triggered what is thought to be state-sponsored rioting in parts of Gujarat resulting in the deaths of about 2000 Muslims and 300 Hindus.

The following is an article I sent seven years ago, almost to the day, in October 2002 to The Hindu, a leading national daily newspaper in India, not long after the Gujarat riots and days before the Tamil Nadu legislative assembly passed the controversial anti-conversion bill. My article obviously did not meet the paper’s standards and was not published. Happily, the draconian law was annulled some years later in Tamil Nadu, although my countrymen in other states (Rajasthan, Arunachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Himachal Pradesh) still live under its shadow.

Although my article was not published, I sent it to a respected friend, whose level-headed and excellent papers were often published in The Hindu.  I am honoured to have received his reponse, which I have pasted below my article.  This friend, Mr. Balakesari, is a retired member (staff) of the Railway Board who also served as Chief Mechanical Engineer with the Southern Railway. Incidentally, he was one of the experts who assisted Justice U.C. Banerjee in probing the burning of the S-6 coach of the Sabarmati Express at Godhra in February, 2002.

[From my covering letter : These are time of roiling when religious discord seems to be spreading at an alarming rate. This spread needs to be checked at the intellectual level first. Most of the articles published in your esteemed daily put forward the popular view, which states that all religions basically teach the same thing. But I feel that there is another legitimate view that is more realistic, which states that religions may be really very different and that despite this, there is no reason why we should not all live together in peace. This view needs to be expressed and understood. I have enclosed my article on this subject for your perusal and publication in the ‘Open Page’ section or any other appropriate section of your esteemed daily. I have referred to Prabha Rani’s (New Delhi) recent letter to the editor and the article Need for Tolerance by Naresh Gupta on Oct 1, 2002.

I do not subscribe to the view that all religions are basically same and yet I strive to be a good citizen of this country. I know of many like me who bleed inwardly at the kind of religious discord we are seeing. I thought I should put pen to paper and express this point of view. My lack of experience in writing on this subject may be evident in the article but I hope you will consider publishing this article because of its relevance to the times.]

Intolerance for people of other religions is a problem that must be tackled at various levels including at the oft-ignored intellectual level. While the broad and accommodative Hindu view has been expressed time and again, people from the minorities are not so forthcoming with their contributions towards this debate and have thereby contributed to the fuzz surrounding the issue.

Naresh Gupta, in his article Need for Tolerance, acknowledges differences among religions, but goes on to say that, ‘…beneath that diversity there is oneness, which is unmistakable and underneath many religions there is also one religion.’ This is Mr Gupta’s view and he is perfectly justified in voicing it. Incidentally, it is the popular broad view and is held by the vast majority of thinking people in this country, which is why it is important that other views go on record too.

It is perceived that anyone who does not subscribe to the popular view is intolerant of other religions. It is the purpose of this article to show that this is not true. On the contrary people who have understood and accepted the fact that religious differences are not merely skin deep are now free to be truly tolerant of all points of view.

Hindu philosophy accommodates everything and everyone. A good part of the credit for India standing up as a shining example of secularism must go to this fact because the majority of our people are Hindus. Many of my Hindu friends participate in the religious festivities of other faiths.

Being so accommodative, it is not unreasonable to imagine that Hindus would like to see their friends from other religions reciprocate this generous acceptance. And I know professing Christians and Muslims who do. Recently we heard of the facilities for pooja being arranged in a train by a Muslim. We have heard about our president’s scholarship of the Hindu scriptures. These are admirable traits and readily understandable not just by people who espouse the broad Hindu view but also by the world at large, which is moving towards a new era of openness. Another case in point is the all-religion prayer meeting held by Dr Kalam and staff members of the Rashtrapathi Bhavan to celebrate Gandhi Jayanthi.

But there are other views too that must be respected. Many Muslims and Christians as well as some Hindu sects, atheists etc., will not subscribe to this broad view on religious matters no more than a doctor of the Allopathic school would accept other methods of treatment. And they should not if they are true to their convictions. Some readers might find this rather startling, which is why I feel that this is an important issue about which many are unaware. The lack of clarity in this area is the reason why intolerant and irritable feelings are creeping even into educated circles. If the intelligentsia is clear about this, it might be able to prevent blood baths of the kind Gujarat witnessed.

Prabha Rani of New Delhi recently wrote a letter to the editor of The Hindu where she said, “It is the insistence on the sameness or the desire for it that leads to fascist and terrorist activities. It is respect for differences and the willingness to protect each other’s right to this difference that leads to harmonious coexistence. In an enlightened society, while every citizen should have the right to believe that her/his religion is the best, she/he should respect the other’s right to believe the same.” I think she just hit the nail on the head. The word ‘insistence’ is crucial. The so-called ‘broad view’ by its very insistence on sameness (and its dogmatic assertion that truth is not the exclusive property of a single scripture) can plant seeds of discord in the minds of people. It is not logical or morally right to compel everyone in this country to believe that all religions teach the truth.

Look at it this way. One night, a helicopter dropped pamphlets all over the city announcing a music show. A person sleeping on the street noticed this. In the morning, there were many theories of how the city came to have so many pamphlets. Some said that street urchins were paid to do this, others said that several auto rickshaws had been hired to do this and so on. Most realized that there were many ways this could have happened and were open to ideas. But it so happened that they were only open to ideas as long as the holder of the idea was the open-minded sort and did not lay claim to it with any degree of certainty. However, that one man who saw the helicopter was not open to ideas because he was convinced about what he saw. Does he have the freedom to be closed in his thinking?

In matters of God, and the meaning of our existence, different religions have taken different positions. Muslims believe that Allah is God and none else. Christians believe that Jesus is the Son of God, that He died for mankind, that He arose from the dead, and that only those who accept His gift of salvation can go to heaven. Logically there is always room for someone to have got it right, as many already claim to have, and if we care enough about these matters, we need to have the freedom to accept it for ourselves if and when we encounter the truth. Let each person take his/her position with freedom. But our freedom ends where the next man’s begins, which someone pointed out is only till the tip of our noses. And far be it that we should be hurtful or, still worse, harm each other because of what we believe.

Many friends have tried to tell me that all religions teach the same thing. This again is wishful thinking and perhaps a part of the Hindu ethos. Expecting all religions to basically teach the same thing will lead to disillusionment and anger when the differences start surfacing. According to tenets of a particular religion, there may be religious functions that allow only its adherents to attend. In another scenario, all may be welcome to a certain celebration and the invitee belonging to another religion may decline to accept the prasadam. My friend, a follower of a well known Sadhguru, tells me that we cannot know God or self through the mind and that realization has to come from an intuitive or mystic experience. Christianity, on the other hand teaches its adherents to cogitate before accepting any thing as the truth.

No, all religions are different. Maybe no religion teaches its followers to hate and kill but rather to live peaceably and there ends the similarity. We need to understand that there are differences. We are a free country and we can be different. We can practice our religions and we can share our knowledge on religious matters with others. If a Christian then wants to become a Hindu or a Hindu a Muslim, so be it. It’s a free country. Now this last statement is my opinion. Lets not kill each other over religion. Religion is a matter of individual choice.

I have never found any one’s religion an obstacle to friendship. I am very serious about my Christian faith and ever ready to share my religious ideas with friends with all the zeal of a salesperson and yet only when my audience is really interested. No thrusting religion (or network marketing or anything else for that matter) down an unwilling person’s throat. I also listen to their views and we have had many a lively discussion. But all this within permissible limits and with respect for the other’s point of view. As I said earlier, the bottom line is that no one’s freedom should be impinged upon. When we find ways to book those who cross the limits, we should be careful not to fetter our own freedom. To do this we need to understand what freedom entails. If this task is approached on the basis of the premise that all religions teach the same underlying truth, we are likely to end up cutting our nose to spite our face.

Perhaps many readers will disagree with me. They may feel that Indians should realize that all religions basically teach the same things, that all people should be satisfied with the faith they were born into, and that there is no need for anyone to ever change their religion. This is a legitimate view and they have a right to feel the way they do. I know people will have other opinions than I have. So be it. And as long as they do not kill me to have it or try to stop me from having my opinion, they are free to think as they do. It’s a free country.

Mr Balakesari’s response

I apologise at the outset for the delay in responding to your piece on the subject of conversions.

Apart from the fact that it required more than casual reading, the past few days had witnessed a veritable flood of articles and letters on the subject in the newspaper (Indian Express). I thought it prudent to respond after the deluge! Coincidentally the TN Assembly has since adopted the controversial Bill on conversions.

Let me begin by saying that I do not consider myself competent to comment on this issue. Apart from the fact that I am, by normal yardstick, a ‘nominal Hindu’, I always believed that religion is an intensely personal thing and have been wary of any external ostentatious display of religiosity. Speaking purely for my own co-religionists, I have found (with a few notable exceptions like my late father and my mother), that the amount of time spent in ritualistic religion is inversely proportional to the person’s righteous conduct in life. Perhaps there are more sins to be atoned for daily!

Your explanation of a true Christian was indeed very revealing. I appreciate your viewpoint that, once a person believes that the Bible is literally the Word of God, there is no alternative but to spread the message amongst the doubters and nonbelievers. You also agree that force or coercion should not be used. I am no scholar of Islam, but in that religion also I believe there is an exhortation to save the non-believers or ‘kafirs’. On the other hand, I am sure nowhere in Koran has it been enjoined that people of other faiths should be forcibly converted. Yet wars have been waged on the basis of religion.

Ironically the happenings within the Hindu society have helped in this. Apart from the fact that Hinduism does not actively exhort conversion (because perhaps it was there already and ‘converting to Hinduism’ never arose and perhaps because it was never a religion in the sense of monotheistic religions like Christianity or Islam but a body of thought, subject to various interpretations), the exclusivity of those practising the ritualistic form of the religion and the various restrictions imposed on people of ‘lower castes’ and discriminations practised on them, had alienated large sections of the Hindu society.

The problem is that while the enlightened and sensitive people accept that force should not be used in religious conversion, there are misguided elements who exploit religious sentiments to do the contrary. And it is so easy to do so in a country with such massive levels of illiteracy and poverty. The political climate in the last few years and competitive vote-bank politics have not helped to improve the situation.

My own view (and you will perhaps not agree) is that religion and how you practise it should be a matter of personal choice. We live in a multiethnic, multiracial society in which in matters of faith, any concept of superiority or inferiority of one religion or the other is bound to create social tensions. Irrespective of what individual religions have preached or taught in the distant past, in  contemporary society, practice of religion should not infringe on the freedom of others to hold contrary views, so long as it does not transgress one’s own rights. This in essence, I believe, is religious tolerance.

Having said this, I also believe that this country, including the TN government, has stupendous problems to tackle such as poverty alleviation, unemployment, illiteracy, drinking water, civic amenities etc., rather than concentrate on legislation on conversions or contentious debates on construction or destruction of places of worship and so on. What a tremendous waste of National effort and will!

Meanwhile, our large, ‘irreligious’ and undemocratic neighbour to the Northeast is moving leaps and bounds towards First World status, to give a better standard of living to all its citizens.