Cardinal Alencherry on Non-Violence vs. Fundamentalism in Contemporary India

Cardinal George Alencherry

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Cardinal Alencherry on Non-Violence vs. Fundamentalism in Contemporary India
Sarajevo, June 26, 2014: The speech made by Sri Vivekananda on Sept.11, 1893 at Chicago at the World Parliament of Religions was memorable because of its inclusiveness and respect for all religions. As a representative of India’s religious and cultural traditions, Vivekananda expressed the hope that all world religions could live in harmony and cooperation as all these religions were different paths to God. His words inaugurated a new era in religious tolerance and harmony.

He spoke to the gathering in the following words: "I am proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the earth." He urged them to start a new chapter in human history based on mutual respect and tolerance: "Sectarianism, bigotry and their horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often with human blood, destroyed civilization and sent whole nations to despair... I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honor of this convention may be the death knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or pen."

The following words from the Bhagavad Gita, one of the sacred books of Hinduism, were the source of his inspiration: "Whatever path men travel Is my path: No matter where they walk It leads to me."

Many centuries later, these spiritual traditions were the bed rock of the philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi when he spearheaded the Independence Movement of India. Mahatma Gandhi by his own personal life style and through his actions and speeches inspired a way of life that was totally free of violence. He mentions the source of his strength in the following words:

"Nonviolence is an active force of the highest order. It is soul force or the power of Godhead within us. Nonviolence is an unchangeable creed. It has to be pursued in face of violence raging around you." He adds further that a living faith in nonviolence "is impossible without a living faith in God. A nonviolent man does nothing save by the power and grace of God."

The Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, "Ecclesia in Asia" points out the richness of the religious traditions of Asia. It identifies some of the values that are specifically Asian. They are of course, Indian, too. " The people of Asia take pride in their religious and cultural values, such as love of silence and contemplation, simplicity, harmony, detachment, non-violence, the spirit of hard work, discipline, frugal living, the thirst for learning and philosophical enquiry. They hold dear the values of respect for life, compassion for all beings, closeness to nature, filial piety towards parents, elders and ancestors and a highly developed sense of community... It can be said that Asia has often demonstrated a remarkable capacity for accommodation and a natural openness to the mutual enrichment of peoples in the midst of religions and cultures."

Amartya Sen, a Nobel laureate in Economics and one of the great Economists from India, points out that the two great emperors of India, Asoka (3rd Century BC) and Akbar (16th Century) at different times imposed tolerance for different religious traditions so that all religions could survive in India. Asoka who was responsible for spreading Buddhism across the various lands of Asia was highly respectful of the religious traditions of others who did not subscribe to his spiritual tradition. "For he who does reverence to his own sect, while disparaging the sects of others wholly from attachment to his own sect, in reality inflicts, by such conduct, the severest injury on his sect." Akbar too enjoined that "no man should be interfered with on account of his religion, and anyone is to be allowed to go over to a religion that pleases him." It is into this world of nonviolence, respect, harmony and cooperation that existed in India’s cultural fabric that the forces of violence made their slow entry.

Partition of India

The seeds were sown long before but they remained dormant for a long while. The Moghul invasion of India had created an atmosphere of hostility between the followers of Hinduism and Islam in India. But it is the partition of India in 1947 that aggravated the conflict. In order to prevent the granting of Independence, the British rulers encouraged the leaders of the Moslem community to create a division in the Independence movement which in the end was finally responsible for the partition of India.

The partition resulted in a great bloodshed. Violence was unleashed from both the communities against each other. The once smoldering fire was ignited to flash into a great conflagration, destroying the lives of thousands of people.

From that time onwards, violence became unstoppable in India and the radical elements in both communities indulged in random killings on flimsy grounds. The violent conflicts that preceded the separation forced millions of refugees to flow into India.

The percentage of Moslem population was 10% in 1951 but now it has increased to 14%. This has created great suspicions in a few fundamentalist Hindu leaders who think that Islam will outpace Hinduism in the not too distant future. Many Moslems have continued to maintain their fondness for Pakistan even after it became an independent nation. This too created doubts about their loyalty to India in the hearts of a few Hindu leaders.

All these factors got mixed up to create antagonistic feelings between the two religions, nurturing the rivalry between Pakistan and India but also within India between increasingly militant Hindu groups and India’s substantial Muslim minority. The rise of political parties with radical fundamentalist views on religions has affected deeply the political and cultural landscape of the country. With the emergence of fundamentalism as the face of a few political parties, there began to emerge anti-Christians attitudes in many parts of the country. The attack on and the murder of the Australian missionary and his children in the state of Orissa and later the brutal attacks against and massacre of Christians in Kandmal, Orissa, the disturbances in Gujarat, Karnataka etc. can be traced to this fundamentalist streak guiding the policies of political parties.

The Kashmir Dispute

The main cause for hostility between the followers of Hinduism and Islam was therefore the partition of India in 1947. The British colonial Government thought of delaying the granting of freedom to India if a breach could be established in the movement for Independence between the Moslems and the Hindus. The Independence of India, thus, was obtained at a terrible cost. Thousands of people on both sides lost their lives. Mass killings and destruction of property took place in spite of the pleading of Gandhi to stop violence. People had to flee their country to the neighboring India or Pakistan because of their differing religions.

The second cause for the aggravation of Hindu-Moslem hostility was the annexation of Kashmir with India. Kashmir was initially attacked by Pakistan when they found that Kashmir was not going to join that country. The Hindu king of Kashmir requested Indian help in this conflict with Pakistan. He decided, then, to annex Kashmir with India. This was viewed with great hostility by Pakistan as they claimed that since Kashmir has a Moslem majority, it should have aligned with Pakistan. The simmering dispute culminated in a bloody war between India and Pakistan in 1961.This dispute became the progenitor of many wars and conflicts between India and Pakistan.

In particular, this led to a wave of terrorist attacks: there were eight attacks in Mumbai in 1993, the largest attack being that of July 2006. That attack targeting westerners killed 172 people. All these attacks were traced to Islamist terrorist groups. Hence, many Hindus began to associate Islam with violence and terrorism. The communal divide between the two religions became irreparably widened.

Hindu Radicalism

Hinduism too produced its radical outfits. The RSS and VHP with a radical ideology make their followers violently hostile to Moslems and Christians. The so-called Sangh Parivar (Family of Organizations) tries to create a sense of fundamentalism among its followers and encourages them to be very hostile to Christians and Moslems. The founder of the Sangh Parivar is Vinayak Sarkar who wrote a pamphlet called "Hindutva: Who is a Hindu" in 1928. According to him, a Hindu is "someone who regards India as both a fatherland and a holy Land." Of course, this would alienate the Moslems as they would consider Mecca to be their holy land.

RSS (Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh) was founded around this time with emphasis on personal discipline and service to the Hindu Nation. Their main leader was M.S. Golwalker. Under his leadership, the RSS produced other fundamentalist Hindu groups which all together make up the Sangh Parivar.

According to the Economist magazine (May 18th), the RSS did not project their goals of building a temple to the Hindu god Rama at Ayodhya, the end of separate legal codes for Hindus and Moslems, laws against conversions and the abolition of the constitutional safeguards for Kashmir during the recently held parliamentary election in order to get elected from all sections of the society: "Most young voters who cast their ballots for Modi’s party were enchanted only by his Gujarat model for growth."

The vicious nature of this Hindu fundamentalism was seen in 2008 when terrible violence was unleashed against the tribal Christians of Kandamal, Orissa. Christian churches and institutions were destroyed and people were mutilated and killed. International protests arose against this brutal carnage.

Background of the attacks against Christians at Kandamal

The murder of a Hindu Sanyasi Swami Lakshamanada belonging to the Viswa Hindu Parishad by Maoist groups was attributed to Christians. A violent Hindu mob attacked Christian houses and churches and created an atmosphere of great horror. Many had to flee, giving up their houses and everything they owned, into neighboring forests for protection and safety. Nuns and priests were brutally attacked. Thirty eight people were killed in the riots against Christians incited by the BJP legislators. It is reported that more than 1400 homes and eighty Christian houses of worship were destroyed. The tragedy at Kandamal is another instance of vandalism and terror unleashed by the Hindu fundamentalists.

Politicization of Religion

Another phenomenon that has been observed in recent decades in India is the politicization of Religion. As any observer of India’s religious and cultural landscape is aware, religious affiliation is deep rooted in India. Unlike in the West, where one’s religion is kept in the private domain of the individual’s life, in India, religious affiliation colors every facet of one’s life. Cultural organizations, food, friends and family relations are affected by one’s religious affiliation. Nothing happens in the lives of Indians without reference to his or her religion. Hence, one can imagine the havoc that can be played in the society when political parties try to exploit religion for their narrow ends. Religion, then, becomes a cause for separation and division instead of unity and integration.

Some political parties and their leaders have seen the advantages of this short route to success and power through the politicization of the religion of their adherents. They create panic and diffidence in the hearts of their followers by exaggerating the overblown advantages of the followers of other religious groups. This politicization of religion will definitely damage the democratic structure of India, which still remains free and democratic in spite of the vagaries exhibited by these parties that thrive on hatred of other religions and fanaticism. Tolerance, mutual understanding and respect for the other’s religion become casualties in such a political process. In this scenario, if the extremist groups of any religion go hand in hand with political parties, it becomes more dangerous for the peace and harmony of the society.

One of the major causes of the recent riots, communal violence and destruction that took place in India is in fact this myopic mentality of political leaders who try to grab power through the short route of politicizing religion. Such narrow-mindedness will definitely weaken the democratic foundation of India and hence has to be prevented from influencing the body politic of India.
Approaches to Solve the Problem

In spite of the progress made in the economic front, there is much to be done on the social front by bettering the social relationships among the communities belonging to different religions. What is often mentioned as the success of the integration of people belonging to different nationalities through the "melting pot theory" has not happened in India. Communities and castes remain within their closed boundaries. The face of the New India often is tarnished by communal riots. Whole community is held responsible for the crimes committed by a few in a particular community. The political leadership of India has to rise above these partisan considerations and should keep the good of the whole of India in their mind. They should stand up for a united India which gives freedom of worship to all religions and groups.

What Ashok, Akbar and Mahatma Gandhi have said and practiced should become the way of life for all the Indians. As the defense analyst, Krishna Kumar has noted, "the Indian Moslems... should raise themselves above the petty concerns of material injustices and should not entertain any bitterness, envy, or anger against the majority community." He also adds that the "the majority community must always provide constitutional guarantees that the minority rights will be respected, not trampled." He further notes that ’liberty entails a responsibility to justice. Let no one’s freedom become someone else’s torment." What Abraham Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg is true even now for all: "Malice towards none, charity for all."

Through education and through greater enrollment of students at colleges and universities, the young people can be made more receptive to a broad outlook and be freed from the harangues of ill-educated leaders , religious as well as political.

Secularism as envisaged in the Constitution of India respects the equality of all religions and not the removal of the importance of religion. Writing in The Hindu(June 6, 2014) Hasan Suroor, a columnist, observes the need to respect the secular tradition of India in order to prevent the growth of religious fundamentalism and radicalism: "The Indian brand of secularism never discouraged religiosity or the celebration of religion." Secularism, hence, can act as a bulwark against communalism and fundamentalism, which believes in reducing the minorities to serfdom. Amartya Sen is also of the opinion that the secular tradition that is preserved in the Constitution of India is the best antidote against the vagaries of violence that would be unleashed by an excessive adherence to a communalistic mentality: "The principle of secularism, in the broader interpretation endorsed in India, demands symmetric treatment of different religious communities in politics and in the affairs of the state."

- cardinal george alencherry

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