The question of religion in India

This past week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered possibly his greatest speech since assuming office. Surprisingly, he was not sharing the dais with President Obama or the Wolverine; he was not even speaking to a audience of business tycoons or crazed NRIs. This speech featured at an event to mark the elevation to sainthood of Kuriakose Elias Chavara and Sister Euphrasia of Kerala. In it, the Prime Minister outlined his government's iron-clad commitment to the fundamental right of religious freedom, calling upon diverse inspirations for secularism ranging from the Rig Veda to Swami Vivekananda. As PM Modi's speeches go, this one was pretty mundane - it did not announce any massive projects, breakthrough deals or revolutionary ideas, however in my opinion, this speech marks an important milestone for his government - he has finally broken his silence on the growing winds of religious intolerance that are swirling around India.

Firstly, let's get the elephant in the room out of the way - yes, the carnage of 2002 was an omnipresent cloud during his run for office, with his administration's actions or in-actions continually raising uncomfortable questions. Whatever his ardent supporters may say, that issue continues to prick many people who otherwise, wholeheartedly, support his economic agenda. I fall under this category. Considering this sense of unease, I was hoping that he would address it and reaffirm his commitment to India's religious diversity within days of assuming office; I don't recollect seeing anything to that effect until today. Political scientists might read into the significance of this speech mere days after his party's thumping in the Delhi polls, but then political scientists kill the romance out of most things.

Within the context of a single speech, PM Modi has expertly constructed the canvas of religious tolerance from the Hindu point of view. His frequent and timely references from the Rig Veda, Swami Vivekananda and Gurudev Tagore reveal his insights into the cocoon of religious co-existence that is India's cherished legacy. With a single masterstroke, he has knocked the air off Hindu fundamentalists who are becoming troublingly assertive as well as minority leaders who are trying to whip up communal frenzy. By wholeheartedly supporting the Universal Declaration of Freedom of Religion and Belief adopted at the Hague convention, he lent the issue a sense of contemporary urgency and relevance. The closing remarks on his economic vision for the country, once again, outlined his vision to enlist all Indians in this monumental undertaking.

It is likely that I'm reading too much into this one speech and it's equally likely that his speeches on economic growth and foreign affairs are of greater significance to India's immediate future. As some of my friends ask me, why does religion even matter anymore? I believe it does. Religion matters very much indeed for India. Despite our breakneck advance into modernity, India will always be a land of spiritualism. A land that germinated the idea of Moksha and Nirvana. A land where Demons and Demi-Gods churn the milky ocean with a timeless serpent to retrieve the nectar of eternal life. It is the land of 20-feet Ravans bursting into flame amidst the song and dance of children. A land of Sufi mysticism and Moghlai cuisine. A land where one can emerge from a Fire Temple to catch the next metro, bridging 5000 years in a few steps. It is the land of Monks who refuse to kill a fly. Spiritualism and religion pervades every aspect of our lives. From the ceremonial nod towards a Ganesh Temple on the way to work to the scenes of tears when Ma Durga is bid adieu on Vijayadashami. Religious thought binds us. We may seek different paths, but we recognize each other's journeys. In a world where religion begins by crowding others out, Indians are taught to embrace all religions as equally true. As beautiful as religion can be, it can turn ugly - not overnight, but over many years by the cultivated machinations of evil minds and partisan politics. The scars of the Partition may seem to be fading but it will just takes a flare to re-emerge. This beloved nation of ours was midwifed by an angel of blood and we cannot afford to go through it again.

As with any relationship, our relationship with religious tolerance needs time and energy - redundant affirmations need to be affirmed, symbolic gestures need to be gestured and bear hugs on stages need to be hugged. When the Prime Minister of the world's second most populous country which shines as a bedrock of democracy in a neighborhood of troubled states performs these symbolic gestures, they acquire a deeper significance.

India needs growth. She needs industries and bullet trains, more importantly she needs toilets and benches in her schools. She needs nuclear energy and enriched crops, more importantly she needs modern jets and a healthy sense of humor. All of this will be possible only within an atmosphere of religious freedom where every Indian feels counted. As the Prime Minister said, religious tolerance is not something Indians need to learn, we invented the very game. Now, let's go build some toilets together. 

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