Although it has no “one true” definition, religion is often defined as ‘the belief in, or the worshipping of a supernatural entity, largely given the name of God’. According to estimates, the world has approximately 4200 religions, and of course, countless devotees. India alone is home to at least nine recognised religions, that is, if we consider Hinduism one (the debate of whether Hinduism is a religion or dharma). For the time being, let’s treat it as one.
Since the ancient times, India has been an epicenter of religions – originated within the country or outside. Religions like Hinduisim, Sikhism, Buddhism have their roots here, while others like Christianity, Islam came from outside and settled here. Judaism, for example, was among the first foreign religions in our recorded history. India was also one of the very few countries where the religion did not face any anti-semitism. Currently, the country has the world’s third-largest Muslim population. It wouldn’t be wrong to call India one of the most religiously diverse countries in the world, not to mention, it is the world’s largest democracy. Why then has there been a rise in religious intolerance of our country?
Increasing religious violence
India experiences an alarming number of religious and communal violence every year. In 2017, an analysis of 198 countries by the Pew Research Center ranked India on number 4 for religion-related hostilities. Digging a little deeper, we see that the only three countries ahead of India are – Iraq, Syria, and Nigeria. Where is it that our tolerance is disappearing off to? And, is it right to call ourselves a secular nation when we have people dying and killing each other in the name of religion every day?
According to home ministry data, the year 2017 witnessed 822 incidents of religious violence. The communal violence statistics reported a rise of 28% from 2014 to 2017. In 2010, a court in Kochi found 13 people guilty of chopping off the hand of a Christian professor. The reason? An accusation of insulting the Prophet Mohammed in a question paper. He was charged ‘for causing communal hatred’, and his son was beaten up in police custody when he was in hiding. It was later that the members of Popular Front of India (PFI), an extremist Muslim organisation based in South India, chopped off his right hand.
With the cow vigilance catching heat in the country, there has been a reported increase in violence against the Muslim population. Earlier in 2018, the dead bodies of two Muslim cattle traders were found hanging from a tree in Jharkhand. In Haryana, a woman reported that she and her cousin, 14- year-old, were gang-raped by men on the accusations of eating beef. There is no single religion that has gone untouched from the touch of hostility. The communal riots of Gujarat (1969), anti-Sikh riots (1984), violence against Kashmiri Hindus, Godhra train burning (2002) are just few names from the otherwise long list.
Hypocrisy in our religions
The Hindu religion refers to Saraswati as the Goddess of wisdom and knowledge, a deity accorded great respect. In the 2018 Jat riots, the rioters first removed a statue of Goddess Saraswati to safety, right before they set a school on fire. It is hard to laugh at an irony like that. Going back to the cow vigilance, present day Hindu activists condemn beef eating and cow killing. But if one goes through the ancient Hindu texts, there are countless mentions that say otherwise. According to Brahmanas (c. 900 B.C.), ancient ritual texts, a bull or a cow should be killed and subsequently eaten in the honour of a guest’s arrival. The Holy Quran states that “There shall be no compulsion in religion”, and yet extremists mould the words of the Quran around to serve their own purpose. “Jihad” is an Arabic word that literally means to struggle for a praiseworthy aim, but in the present day, the word has become so terribly misunderstood that it is often taken as violence in the name of Islam.
Throughout the course of our national history, India has taken a great deal of pride for its ‘unity in diversity’. From the Armenian Christians to Jews, the culturally rich nation has been a land of refuge, of tolerance. Why is it that we still count among the most religiously hostile countries in the world, walking shoulder to shoulder with tensed climate countries like Syria? Surely, an introspection is in order.
The biggest problem that we have is perhaps our intolerance and the lack of willingness to listen to criticism. Ancient India had a prevalent culture of debates on religion, recorded in the Upanishads. Women also actively took part in them. Today, however, small criticisms turn into large riots, violence and brutal killings- everyone trying to defend their religion. But at what cost, and till what lengths? Is all hope for a peaceful nation lost?
In 2015, Sikhs and Hindus contributed in the rebuilding of a mosque near Ludhiana district of Punjab. In 2017, the internet went viral with the Mumbai Police sharing pictures of people celebrating Eid and Ganesh Chaturthi together in the same pandal. The country has time and again shown some traces of the unity from our good dreams. And although the negatives cannot and should not be overlooked, we can say some hope prevails. People refer to religion as ‘a way of life’, a peaceful life at that. If the same religions are not turned into ego clouds, the situation might appear less grim. Otherwise, our country that was once “united by its diversity”, will stand divided by it too.