No one has embodied Hinduism or the Hindu way of life better than Mahatma Gandhi.
It was Gandhi who made Hinduism world famous as a religion of tolerance. He said non-violence was the ideal way of Indian life and that true Hinduism called for the unconditional acceptance of one another other. He envisioned a democracy where every Indian had the freedom of belief and expression.
“If we want to cultivate a true spirit of democracy, we cannot afford to be intolerant,” said Gandhi.
Gandhi was assassinated by Nathuram Godse, a radical who wanted to derail Gandhi’s vision for India. Today, nearly 70 years after Gandhi’s death, it appears that Godse’s ideological children of violence still walk among us, more dangerous than ever before.
Early this month, Gauri Lankesh, a prominent journalist, was murdered as she arrived at her home late one evening. Ms. Lankesh was an anti-establishment figure with a reputation for her fearless criticism of the undemocratic elements within the parties in power, whether Congress or the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). She supported the cause of the Dalits, championed the disenfranchised and pulled no punches when it came to holding public officials accountable.
To this day, Ms. Lankesh’s killers have not been apprehended, and the BJP has condemned the violence and made it clear that it had nothing to do with the murder.
Still, Ms. Lankesh’s murder — strikingly similar and possibly linked to the murders of activists Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and M.M. Kalburgi — has sparked protests and national outrage.
India is experiencing a growing climate of violent intolerance. The public lynching and killings of Dalits and Muslims should have served as a dire warning for India’s intelligentsia. In Ms. Lankesh’s home state of Karnataka, 18 writers, playwrights and activists have been put under police protection following the journalist’s assassination.
Just this week, the political theorist Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd received a death fatwa from a member of India’s parliament for including a chapter in one of his books on the exploitation of the business caste in India. The book, “Post-Hindu India,” was published in 2009, without much controversy. Eight years later, a local translation has become a flaring point.
“Can a Parliament member who issued a Fatwa against a citizen continue in the Parliament as a member?” asked Ilaiah.
Ideological attacks have also been launched against artists, the film industry and university campuses for hosting events with “controversial speakers.” In a country with such a long history of artistic freedom — in the home of the ancient Khajuraho Temple of Love — these attacks represent a direct affront to the Indian spirit of free expression.
In a microcosmic way, Gauri Lankesh’s murder is a flashback to Gandhi’s murder in 1948. Gandhi was unifying India, building a pluralistic society on Hinduism’s teachings of peace and tolerance. Ms. Lankesh, though an atheist from the Lingayat people, was also a community organizer, uniting unlikely groups across castes and religions to oppose intolerance and empower each other.
After Ms. Lankesh’s murder we are forced to ask ourselves the same question we asked ourselves the day Godse killed Gandhi: was India meant to be a one religion state?
Nathuram Godse killed Gandhi because he thought him to be too accepting of Muslims, not committed to the cause of a total united Hindu nation. Yet he, and some in the modern Hindutva movement, ignored that nothing is more deadly to a religion than mixing it with the state. If India acquiesces to the pressure of those who demand a monolithic way of thinking, dressing and even eating, it will destroy the credibility of the diverse Hindu religion.
Christianity is a prime example of the dangers of mixing religion and the state. Christianity’s history with political power caused long-term damage to its credibility in Europe and across the world. It wasn’t until the separation of the state and religion that its credibility was restored, and Christianity was able to answer postmodern critics.
I believed Prime Minister Modi when he promised to make India a place of “equal footing” and “equal opportunities” for everyone. I believed him when he said, “For my government, the Constitution is its real holy book.”
He is smart enough to know that the future of India and the credibility and the global image of Hinduism are under great threat by the unrestrained actions of those who want to pull his government into religious extremism.
Unless Prime Minister Modi and the party leaders put an end to these dangerous violent extremists, they will prove to be their undoing in the long run. The current violence is now against dissenting Hindus, not Muslims or Christians, and the ultimate victim of extremism will be the religion itself. There’s already a rising tide of Hindu thinkers and next generation Hindu youth who are protesting against the curbing of free speech imposed by their own religious brothers.
The RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat recently said, “Hinduism is about accepting others as they are,” but action at the local level is still missing. Were it not for the Supreme Court, which has ordered zonal officers to be put in every district to control cow vigilantes, Hindu extremists might carry their acts of hate with virtual impunity.
Gauri Lankesh’s murder is a clarion call for India, and her murder must not be politicized. If our leaders do not respond, it could mean the hour of reckoning for Hinduism.
• Joseph D’Souza is the moderating bishop of the Good Shepherd Church and Associated Ministries of India. He is president of the All India Christian Council and is the founder and international president of the Dalit Freedom Network.