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  Opinion   Columnists  20 May 2024  Anita Anand | Why I will vote for diversity: Freedom of faith and ideas vital in democracy

Anita Anand | Why I will vote for diversity: Freedom of faith and ideas vital in democracy

The writer is a development and communications consultant and the author of Kabul Blogs: My Days in the Life of Afghanistan
Published : May 20, 2024, 12:06 am IST
Updated : May 20, 2024, 12:06 am IST

On May 25, voting with hope for an India that values its rich tapestry of languages, religions, and cultures against rising homogeneity

A woman shows her inked finger after casting her vote at a polling booth during the fourth phase of General Elections-2024 in Pulwama, J & K, Monday, May 13, 2024. (PTI Photo)
 A woman shows her inked finger after casting her vote at a polling booth during the fourth phase of General Elections-2024 in Pulwama, J & K, Monday, May 13, 2024. (PTI Photo)

On May 25, I will be voting in the second-last phase of India’s ongoing general election. It is with some trepidation, as it was in the last election. Voting in a democracy is a sign of faith and hope. And democracy means diversity.

A diverse nation recognises and values the differences of race, religion, colour, gender, national origin, disability, sexual orientation, age, size, education, geographic origin, and skill characteristics, among others. It refers to a composition of a group of people from many demographic backgrounds, identities, and the collective strength of their experiences, beliefs, values, skills, and perspectives.

I grew up in a diverse India. My father, at the age of 16, moved from Punjab to Bihar to study coal mining and then worked with a British-owned company. My mother joined him after they were married. My mother’s side of the family were Arya Samaji, a breakaway sect from mainstream Hinduism. We did “havan” at home, sitting around a vessel of fire, with my mother reading out mantras which we repeated after her. I went to the chapel at school, learned and sang hymns. When my otherwise liberal grandfather would tell my father that my sisters and I would become Christians, my father would smile and say, there are worse things they could become. Indeed.

My school and college was run by the Sisters of Loreto, Catholic nuns from Ireland. There was morning assembly, hymn singing, and when the Catholic girls went to chapel, we non-Christians (Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Jains) had Moral Science. We learned about right and wrong.

After graduation I went to work at a rural development project in Madhya Pradesh called Friends Rural Centre. Before I got there, I thought it was just a friendly place, hence the name. At the centre, I learned it was established as “an ideal site for witness to spiritual truth in education, health and agriculture”, by an American Quaker in 1875 and the followers called each other “friends”. At “prayer” meetings they sat in circles and mostly in silence. It was a revelation and a good learning for me.

During my graduate work at a university in the United States, I was attracted to and involved with the United Campus Ministry, a space for people of diverse faith backgrounds. The staff offered spiritual guidance, support, community and a safe space to students and staff to explore their beliefs, deepen their faith, and form lasting relationships with like-minded individuals. My affiliation with them brought me in touch with racism, sexism, feminism and same-gender attraction, all with the goal of creating inclusive societies. I found kindred spirits here and was given an opportunity to offer workshops on hunger and poverty and with the support of the university, to design and offer a course on world hunger.

My first real job was in Washington DC, with an arm of the Unted Methodist Church called the Board of Church and Society. In a fine building sharing a boundary with the legendary Supreme Court and facing Capitol Hill, my colleagues and I followed, analysed and interpreted US policy for the 11 million Methodists in the US, so they could advocate for humane policies with Senators and members of Congress. I worked with people from several denominations and was stimulated by the diversity of people and ideas I encountered.

The Arya Samaj’s rejection of Hinduism’s caste system, gods, goddesses, and superstitions kept me away from the narrow confines of the religion. Our worship and lives at home were in sync with the values of the Catholic education: to be good, do good and give to society.

This was further deepened with my experiences with the Quakers, the Campus Ministry and the Methodists. I chose to work with people and social change, to have meaning in my life and be a productive member of society.

I returned to India in the early 1990s, just as the country liberalised its policies to deal with an economic crisis resulting from a balance of payments deficit, due to excess reliance on imports and other external factors. Soon there was satellite channels and the Internet and then the social media. A new India opened to the world was emerging.

However, over the past decade, unspeakable things began to happen. Religious and other minorities were persecuted and marginalised in the name of religion. The predominant Hindu party took seriously to Hindutva, a political ideology embracing the cultural reasoning of Hindu nationalism and a belief in establishing Hindu hegemony within India.

Inspired by European fascism, Hindutva believes in a standardised majority and cultural supremacy and the belief that India is defined by a common language, a common faith, and a common ethnic ancestry. Those of other ethnicities could be second-class citizens.

But India has long been a land of multiple languages, religions, cuisines and customs. The unity in diversity enshrined in the Constitution affirms this. In defining the population of India as only Hindu and the only language as Hindi ignores the fact that India’s richness lies in its diversity and not homogeneity. The last two decades have shut down discussion, debate and freedom of ideas, faith and worship that are essential for a democracy.

I like to think of myself as a person of hope and faith. My exposure to various religious, people, ideas and preferences have enriched my life, not taken away from it. It’s this what India really needs now. That is why I will vote for diversity on May 25.

Tags: 2024 lok sabha elections, indian constitution, diversity