DNA India – When religion rules social life

Individuals can practise religions but societies must practise tolerance and coexistence

Sarfaraz Hamid

Sunday, 12 February 2017. The expressions of communal harmony such as Muslims distributing water and eatables to Hindus during the Ramanavami procession to the kawariyas in Sawan, or Hindus giving sweets to Muslims during Eid Milad-un-Nabi and Muharram juloos, or Sikhs organising langars (free food distribution) for the poor are, today, rare occurrences in our communally-charged society.

We cherish such instances of communal harmony, but the truth is that the secular fabric of our country is in grave danger. We must not forget to realise how the politics of religion has transformed after Indian independence. The idea of ‘coexistence’ has to be looked at historically, with respect to pre-colonial and colonial India.

Mughal Emperor Akbar ruled on the basis of Sufi doctrines of Mohabbat-i Kul (Love for God) and Sulh-i Kul (Tolerance for All). These gave Akbar an ideological basis to rule, where there was room for debate on religious matters based on reason, scepticism, and questioning: abolition of Sharia, prohibition of cow slaughter, checks on sati are just some instances.

These doctrines provided a non-discriminatory and non-sectarian foundation to the Mughal ‘state’ during the late sixteenth century. Today, however, the very notion of ‘religious tolerance’ and ‘coexistence’ has eroded.

In India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, rationalists, who criticise or ridicule religious leaders in an attempt to advocate rationalism and scientific temper, are facing persecution and are even murdered.

Govind Pansare and M M Kalburgi, who propagated rational ideas, were killed by Hindu fanatics, Avijit Roy in Bangladesh was killed by Islamic fundamentalists because he did not conform to their religious teachings and doctrines.

In contrast, during Akbar’s regime, when a Brahmin in Mathura was executed for his ‘blasphemous’ crime of allegedly insulting a prophet, Akbar was appalled and immediately intervened to abolish Sharia.

It is also interesting to analyse the thoughts of Abul Fazl on prophets, which were radical as well as ‘blasphemous’ in nature. He says, “Prophets have pretended that they can be rulers of the world by virtue of their religious character.

They are tricksters.” Abul Fazl also says, “What kind of society are we living in where anger is quick to break out over supremacy of one religion over another, and there are clashes among people.”

In colonial India, the British resorted to ‘divide and rule’ to further their imperial agenda. During the British period, communal clashes were widespread. Can the killings of millions during the Partition be attributed to the British policies towards religious communities? Probably.

On the other hand, there were several cross-cultural traditions which planted roots in Indian society. Phoolwalon ki sair was one such tradition started in 1811 by Mumtaz Mahal, wife of Akbar II, for the safe return of her son, Mirza Jahangir, who was exiled by the British.

She commissioned the flower sellers of the city and organised a procession from the dargah of Sufi saint Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki to the temple of goddess Jog Maya. This practice is continued even today with great pomp. The festival of Basant Panchami too continues to be celebrated in Nizamuddin Dargah.

We live in a society which showcases not merely diversity in culture, traditions, and rituals, but most importantly, differences in ideologies, opinions, and thought. Paradoxically, while we are progressing towards an era of bullet trains and 5G spectrum, we have stagnated ourselves with our rites and rituals, which are devoid of scientific validation and rational thinking.

Recently, a Jain girl died after fasting for 40 days, as part of a religious practice. ‘Triple talaq’ is still prevalent in the Muslim community; women are falsely accused of witchcraft and even burnt to death. Today, it is very easy to identify Muslim and Hindu localities with flags on their rooftops.

We must rethink secularism. If we really want a peaceful, harmonious, and secular society, the State must do away with religion in the public space. The society should be built on an intellectual basis, for justice and welfare, peace and harmony, and promotion of knowledge and rationalism. Religion is a matter of personal faith and therefore belongs in the private sphere.

Religions should be practised on a daily basis, living the teachings of compassion and respect that can be found in all traditions. Secularism the French way, as the author seems to propagate in the last paragraph, is not neutral, it is just another form of fundamentalism.
Man in Blue

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