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What happened to unity in diversity?

Religious icons on wall in India

Images painted on a wall represent three of India's major faiths. Girish Gopi under a Creative Commons Licence

I’ve never felt discriminated against because of being a Christian in India. All of us minorities feel Indian. In a simple, uncomplicated way. But we have a different identity, too: as Parsis, Jews, Goans, Keralites, Punjabis, Bengalis, Manipuris, Catholics or Muslims.

Every Indian state is like a country on its own, with a distinct cuisine, language and culture. A Bengali Brahmin will eat fish, chicken and mutton, much to the horror and disbelief, not to mention disgust, of an orthodox, or even quite ordinary, vegetarian-by-definition, South Indian Brahmin. We prided ourselves on unity in diversity. It was a lesson we read quite early on in our school text books.

So an anti-Christian comment left on one of my recent blog posts left me dismayed – but not surprised.

I found this sentiment echoed by my daughter. She recalled a similar comment made during a discussion at school in 1999, following the death of Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two young sons, who were burnt alive in Odisha. ‘It’s the sort of inane remark someone might make unthinkingly at 16, without malice, but it jolted me,’ she recalled. ‘A silly chap, a friend, actually, said dismissively: “Maybe the solution is to put all Muslims on a train to Pakistan and send all Christians to Jerusalem or Rome, or wherever”. There was a horrified, embarrassed silence as my friends squirmed. And suddenly he looked across at me and he froze in embarrassment, too,’ she told me. ‘He was my friend and he was just being silly. But it was the first time I felt “different” or that my being born a Christian could be a problem for someone.’ Until then, she confessed, ‘I was hardly aware of being different. We grew up in a community where our closest playmates were Hindus. They were my extended family, and they still are.’

The communalizing of India has been a slow and deliberate process, starting from the early 1990s, with the rath yatra (chariot journey) of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) politician Lal Krishna Advani, who exhorted hate and demanded an end to secular India.

I am categorically against conversion. I abhor the fact that fundamentalist Christian groups feel the need to proselytize. But I would defend their right to do so in the same way that I would defend the white-skinned, blue-eyed American Hare Krishna acolytes who have stopped me, a brown-skinned Indian, in Manhattan, to ‘convert’ me to ‘their’ faith! I was amused by it.

I respect other people’s religions and see value in the philosophy of Buddhism and Hinduism. Yet I am lumped with fundamentalists by ignorant folk like ‘Gary’, the person who commented on my blog.

It surprises me hugely that Indians living in the US or Britain should support fundamentalist groups who want to pack Muslims off to Pakistan and Christians to Rome or Jerusalem! Non-resident Indians would be the first to demand their ‘rights’ in the countries they have adopted. Do they then want to support a party or group which seeks to dismantle secular India?

I am surprised that these questions are not being asked by journalists in Britain or the US, where Indians support Narendra Modi and the BJP. If discrimination happens in Britain or the US, there are shouts of ‘racism’. Yet the events in Gujarat in 2002, when 2,000 Muslims were butchered and thousands raped, are treated as a mere aberration. The corporate and IT folk want ‘progress’ and ‘economic welfare’ at any cost. Killing fields can be glossed over. Consciences salved at the high altar of profit. But if India breaks down under communal instability, the economy will collapse. History has shown this, but we seem determined never to learn. I fear for my country.

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