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  India   All India  14 Aug 2017  Are secularism and tolerance intrinsic to India’s culture?

Are secularism and tolerance intrinsic to India’s culture?

Published : Aug 14, 2017, 2:00 am IST
Updated : Aug 14, 2017, 2:01 am IST

Gautam Buddha enunciated the gospel of non-violence more than 2,500 years before the UN was founded.

Policemen guard as All India Students Association and Jawaharlal Nehru University students hold a protest demanding the arrest of Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) members at the police headquarters in New Delhi. (Photo: PTI)
 Policemen guard as All India Students Association and Jawaharlal Nehru University students hold a protest demanding the arrest of Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) members at the police headquarters in New Delhi. (Photo: PTI)

More than 1,000 years before the birth of Jesus Christ, in Yajur Veda, Indian sages invoked peace on earth, peace in skies, peace on the water and peace in the forest. In fact, peace in the whole world in Shanti Mantras! How many cultures can boast of such a universal concept of peace?

Gautam Buddha enunciated the gospel of non-violence more than 2,500 years before the UN was founded. The concept of Shyadvad/anekantavad in Jainism offers a practical recipe for reconciliation and harmony when it propounds: I am right, may be, you are also right!

In the 3rd century BC, Samrat Ashok who embraced Budhism, sent his son and daughter to several countries to spread the message of nonviolence and peace. Though both he and King Harshvardhan followed Buddhism, the followers of other religions were not discriminated in their empires. 

We gave the world the ideals of Sarva Dharma Sambhav and Vasudhiava Kutumbkam! Secularism and tolerance are enshrined in these concepts. Though the word secularism didn’t find a mention in the Constitution when we adopted it in 1950, the spirit of secularism has prevailed in India for centuries. 

We offered shelter and support to the Jews, the Christians, the Parsees and the Bahais who arrived here over the years persecuted in their home lands. The Jews, less than 130 in number, don’t face existential threat in India of 1.3 billion people. Less than one million in number, the Parsees contribute roughly to 19 per cent of India’s GDP! Mother Theresa, an Albanian Nun was honoured with India’s highest Civilian honour: Bharat Ratna and when she passed away, her body was carried on the same gun carriage that had carried the body of Mahatma Gandhi!

We have worshipped Mother Goddess from the time of Indus Valley Civilisation. In the Hindu pantheon female goddesses: Sarswati, Lakshmi and Shakti represent powerful forces of human life. Since the time of Rig Veda, discussion, debate, arguments and questioning various concepts and theories has been an integral part of India’s social life. Kabir, Meera,  Chaitanya, Ravidas, Narsi Mehta and other saints of the Bhakti movement were messengers of peace and harmony and love. Akbar, Dara Shikoh, Bahadur Shah Zafar, Nawabs of Awadh and Qutb Shahi dynasty, irrespective of their ancestry, tried to build bridges with their subjects by participating in their cultural festivities like Holi, Diwali and Basant Panchami. Akbar and Dara even got Ramayana, Mahabharat and Upnishads translated from Sanskrit. Several historical monuments show a synthesis of Indian, Arabic and Persian architecture. Abdul Rahim Khan-e-Khana wrote poetry about Radha and Krishna and Ghalib paid tribute to Varanasi and Ganga. The Nawabs of Lucknow used to send offerings to Vishwanath temple in Kashi on Shiva Ratri. 

Ustad Alauddin Khan, guru of Pandit Ravi Shankar never began his riyaz in the evening in his school in Maihar unless he had climbed 80 steps to the temple of Kali and sought blessings of the goddess. Bollywood is an example of India’s diversity where producers, directors, actors, musicians and technicians from different parts of India following different religion, speaking different languages work together to create films which entertain millions. In 1970s, in Diwana, Raj Kapoor sang: Tumhari bhi Jai Jai, Hamari bhi Jai Jai, na hum hare, na tum hare! What a noble idea to make peace!

Thus, not withstanding period of clashes and communal disharmony (riots in Delhi, Gujarat, Bombay, Muzaffarnagar and elsewhere) compared to the bloody conflicts between the Sunnis and the Shias and the Catholics and the Protestants, religious environment in India has witnessed relatively long spells of peaceful coexistence and harmony occasionally disturbed by communal tensions.

So, is India an ideal tolerant country? Not really. Can a society which created and perpetuated the pernicious caste system which deprived millions of Indians of their most basic human rights and treated them like virtual slaves be called a tolerant society? Though untouchability and child labour have been abolished legally, they are still alive under the nose of the authorities. The home minister presents in Parliament an annual report on the attacks and atrocities against SC/ST, the number has seldom gone down below 13,000. As only one out of four attacks is registered in rural India, the number of actual attacks against the low castes may be as high as 50,000 per year; a real shame in the 21st century. Reports of bonded labour, female foeticide, honour killing, dowry death, diktas of Khap panchayat, killings by vigilantes present India as a society a large sections of which  is still clinging on to the mindset of medieval ages. Nothing short of a massive social movement will rid us off these despicable evils.

While we have made long strides since 1947 in economic, social, educational, scientific and technological and health sectors, we still have a long way to go. Millions have been lifted out of poverty and millions are being brought into the main stream of developmental process by various schemes of the current governement “Sabka Saath, Sabka vikas, chalein saath saath” offers a laudable goal. This idea can transform India if it is translated into reality on the ground. India can be great only if every Indian feels safe irrespective of his/her region, religion, caste and language. And Indian democracy has no other option but to be inclusive. 

Addressing the nation from the Rashtrapati Bhavan on July 25, the outgoing President Pranab Mukherjee said: “India is not just a geographical entity. It carries a history of ideas, philosophy, intellect, industrial genius, craft, innovation and experiences... We may argue, we may agree or we may not agree. But we cannot deny the essential prevalence of multiplicity of opinion. Otherwise, a fundamental character of our thought process will wither away.” He stressed: “Everyday, we see increased violence around us. At the heart of this violence is darkness, fear and mistrust. We must free our public discourse from all forms of violence, physical as well as verbal.” India as a society should take note of this sage advice. After getting sworn-in, President Ram Nath Kovind said: “The key to India’s success is its diversity. Our diversity is the core that makes us unique.”

He also underlined, “We need to build an India that is an economic leader as well as well as a moral example. For us the two touchstones can never be separated. They are and must for ever be linked.”

Can we be a moral example if we don’t hold on to the ideals of secularism and tolerance?

The writer is a former ambassador

Tags: secularism, tolerance, gautam buddha, culture