If you ask most Indians in what kind of society they want to live, they’ll tell you they want to live in a free and tolerant India.
Indians want to live in harmony as Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and as members of any religion of their choosing. They don’t want to be accused of being anti-nationalist because of their diverse identities and beliefs, or of participating in fraudulent conversions when they practice and share their faith as enjoined in the constitution.
Christians want to celebrate Easter and Christmas in peace, in the same way Muslims want to celebrate Ramadan and Eid and Hindus their holy days.
When young Indians fall in love with someone from a different caste or religion, they want their families and communities to be accepting and welcoming. When Muslims and Hindus from lower castes sit down for a meal, they want to do so without fear of retaliation because their diet offends someone else.
Above all, Indians want an India where every citizen has dignity and enjoys the constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of thought, speech and religion. If there’s one thing Indians certainly don’t want it is one culture or faith imposed on the entire population.
But that hasn’t been the case as of late.
On Dec. 6, India watched in horror a grisly video that showed a resident of Rajasthan hacking to death a Bengali Muslim migrant worker and then setting his body on fire. The killer turns to the camera, held by a 14-year-old boy, and says this would be the fate of all “love jihadists,” a disparaging term used by far-right Hindu extremists who accuse Muslim men of romancing Hindu girls to convert them to Islam.
In a nation of 1.3 billion people, a crime of this nature should be extremely rare, but this is not an isolated event. In the past couple of years, India has descended into a state of violence and intolerance largely abetted by a minority of religious extremists. These extremists emerged in force after the BJP came to power in 2014, and they’ve targeted anyone who doesn’t subscribe to their narrow view of what it means to be Indian. They’ve exploited cultural identities, pitting Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Indians from different castes and social groups against each other. This is “cultural terrorism,” because it weaponizes cultural differences to incite violence.
This cultural terrorism has resulted in violence against Dalits — previously known as untouchables — Muslims, Hindu intellectuals and in some places against Christians. Who can forget the public flogging of four Dalits in Una, which triggered the greatest Dalit movement in recent history? Or the murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh, which has silenced many intellectuals who dared to speak truth to public leaders?
Fatwas have been pronounced on scholars like Kancha Ilaiah, who criticized the hoarding of wealth within caste groups. Christians have been arrested, beaten and accused of engaging in fraudulent conversion activities — simply for singing Christmas carols or taking Christian kids to Bible camp.
Even Bollywood hasn’t escaped unscathed.
“In Rajasthan,” a film based on a 14th-century legend drew the ire of a local group who said the movie disrespected the community. The group threatened the director and the leading actress, who had to get special police protection. With the help of local legislators, they pushed the Central Board of Film Certification to appoint a panel of historians to watch the movie and judge its historicity.
More than suppressing the freedoms of expression and faith, the cultural clashes have hindered India’s economic growth. Last year’s ban on cattle slaughter upended the livelihood of millions of Dalits, Muslims and lower castes, and encouraged vigilante groups to attack innocent farmers, traders and workers. The ban was an attempt to impose the culture that venerates the cow on those who don’t subscribe to this worldview.
I don’t believe these incidents represent Hinduism, for true Hinduism promotes peace and coexistence, yet it’s undeniable the majority of perpetrators of this cultural terrorism are Hindu extremist groups who feel they can commit crimes with impunity. Their violence is triggering more violence. This past July a group of radical Muslims murdered an RSS worker in retaliation for the murder of a Muslim activist.
I doubt Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi intended this for India, especially since he campaigned on an India for all platform. Yet the lack of action from some in his government when citizens are physically abused, killed and hated is making matters worse.
For too long some politicians have exploited cultures and religions to polarize the Indian people in order to win elections. Their constant appeasement of both minority and majority populations only aggravates tensions between people groups.
The true strength of a majoritarian government in a democracy is how it deals with those who are not part of the majority. This is the test for leaders today, putting national unity ahead of political gain.
India sits at the threshold of its greatest days ever, but we will never achieve our full potential if we do not learn to respect the dignity and freedom of every citizen and live in peace with each other.
• Joseph D’Souza is the moderating bishop of the Good Shepherd Church and Associated Ministries of India.