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Who's afraid of swami & friends?
Look around you. The world is shaking with indignation. Across nations, classes, religions and ethnic groups are quivering with anger over being denied a fair share in the pie or - sometimes more grievous - not being adequately heard. Novel, surprising methods of protest are emerging each day. From monks immolating themselves to students occupying streets, sects spewing virtual hatred to governments banning billowy burqas, bombs delivered like flowers to embassies or dropping out of friendly skies - these are volatile times, filled with violence but offering promise. The last emanates from a philosophy that looks inwards and reaches outward. This is 'multiculturalism', a political "embrace of opposites, a strategic celebration of difference. "
Sensing the dangers of other paths, political parties in the West have begun following precisely this. But India's largest and oldest political formation, the Congress, remains resistant to its multicultural moment - side-stepping great advantages. A Parsi tale elucidates: When they first arrived from Iran in the eighth century, their ship sailing into the western port of Sanjan ruled by King Jadhav Rana, the Parsis were not welcomed. Kept anchored, their vessel nudged about by Sanjan's waves, Jadhav finally sent the Parsis a glass of milk full to the brim. The message was clear: There was no space for them. But the Parsis' spiritual leader returned the glass - having added sugar. His message: We won't disturb your population, but we will sweeten your lives. This communication holds true today of the relationship the Congress shares with those it considers its opposites - spiritual groups and their leaders. If it wishes to sweeten its own political life when this is getting noticeably sour - and possibly gain an edge over rivals snapping at its heels - the Congress could avail of multiculturalism and reach out to those at distant poles. The party is no stranger to this practice, having once been the 'banyan tree' of Indian politics, giving shade to all and sundry, listening, absorbing, respecting. From those broader-minded days to now, when the Congress incorrectly positions multiculturalism against secularism, it is evident the party has forgotten its past. Instead of growing more expansive with age, it has grown narrower, failing to gauge the country's changing moods. This is harming the Congress most.
WINNING FRIENDS, INFLUENCING PEOPLE
Take one scenario. The recent move to inject FDI into domestic retailing lies in tatters, the BJP having voiced the supposed fears of small traders, fuelled by its certainty of being Indian mercantilism's sole representative. Now imagine this: If the Congress made friends with swamis and friends - substantial followings of professionals, students, peasants, artists, swathes of industry, what Machiavelli termed 'ecclesiastical principalities' - it would not have found itself so isolated when trying to explain FDI. Instead, sharing cordiality towards religious leaders and laities - both voters - it might have found its position easier. Winning friends, it would influence people. Not turn them towards an eager opposition. Other benefits could accrue. Hearing views from those it considers different would introduce fresh air to the group that went from banyan tree to AC room, guarded by lackeys, entered by children of political privilege. Such derisively titled 'baba-log' could have rich encounters with another kind of baba-log, the latter growing from a fertile earth of troubles, tragedies, hopes and dreams millions of ordinary people experience. Which political party would not want the advantage of hearing such representatives speak? Early after Independence, Congress leaders kept communications with spiritual leaders. Indira Gandhi admired Swami Vivekananda and interacted with Anandmayi Ma. Congressmen Arjun Singh and Giani Zail Singh visited UP's Deoraha Baba who blessed the Giani by tapping the latter's head with his foot, outraging many watching the thus-consecrated President. Others engaged with spiritual philosophers like Rajneesh and J Krishnamurthy. During the early 1990s, P V Narasimha Rao's regime approached the Sankaracharya of Kanchi to act as a mediator in the Babri Masjid dispute. Considering how despite the mosque's destruction and the ensuing riots, religious leaders in Ayodhya stayed cordial enough to share the transport to court hearings, deploying a familiar figure like the Sankaracharya could have been one key to this contention.
DISASTROUS COMMUNITY POLITICS
Except it was done so poorly. By the late 1980s, the Congress approached spiritual leaders with half the heart it once employed. A possible reason was Indira Gandhi's disastrous dalliances with community politics, deploying populist Hindutva in Punjab and Kashmir through the 1980s, miscalculations causing crisis among majority and minority groups, Sikh and Muslim sections pushed to the state's margins as noted by Asghar Ali Engineer. When the Congress mixed broad spiritualism with narrow community calculations, the results were catastrophic. After his mother's assassination, Rajiv Gandhi's discomfort with religion was evident. Yet, he tried - using Sant Harchand Singh Longowal for the Rajiv-Longowal Accord in 1985.
But Rajiv's other attempts were less confident. To placate Muslims, he allowed the banning of Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses and the scrapping of the legal order entitling divorced Muslim women to maintenance. In 1986, trying to compete with shrill Hindu sections, he threw open the disputed Ayodhya site, permitting a 'shilanyas' there - a terrible miscalculation. As the Hindu right organized the transport to Ayodhya of 'sacred' bricks from villages and towns, the Congress sensed doom, erroneously withdrawing from sadhus and sants flocking to Ramjanmabhoomi. The BJP moved in for the kill, appropriating charismatic religious figureheads - and their 'ecclesiastical principalities' - adding ammunition to a demolition drive, the fall-out of which we're dealing with 19 years later.
SPIRITUALISM GOES SECULAR
In this light, Rahul Gandhi's moves touring the Vindyachal temple, the Ravidas temple, the Golden Temple are steps in the right direction. "History begins, " writes E H Carr, "when men think of time in terms not of natural processes...but specific events they can influence. " Rahul may have understood the dangers of flirting with religion. However, another development makes his choices simpler - spiritual figures have grown secular today. Where once swamis, pirs and sants advocated renunciation or confrontation, encouraging followers to lose themselves in the jungles of asceticism or close ranks within society, today's spiritual leaders encourage regular living and battling exploitation and corruption. They teach physical and mental exercises towards better lives, lessons open to all -regardless of community. This shift in spiritual figures - transcending tight boundaries through a supple language of yoga, philanthropy and meditation - makes them ideal sources for a mass-based party. By ignoring them, Congress is playing into opponents' handsand overlooking an incredible intellectual history.
A RICH AND FLEXIBLE PAST
The Congress' origins do stand moored in a secularism that abhorred bringing religion into public space. Although many leaders, like G K Gokhale and Maulana Azad, observed faith deeply, bringing religion onto a shaky public platform trying to unify a young nation was considered divisive. Most Congress leaders came from a Western-educated urbane class, influenced by the West's moment of modernity when church and state separated. While the Congress' great leader, Mahatma Gandhi, stepped over this separation of spiritualism and statecraft, he remained the only one doing so. Mohamed Ali Jinnah scarred the party using religious identity for political gain, unleashing violence. A horrified Nehru enforced a clear separation in Indepent India.
But secular Nehru was also a flexible statesman, welcoming the Dalai Lama in 1959, the latter seeking refuge from Chinese attacks after walking over the Himalayas for 14 days. As the Dalai Lama began internationalizing the Tibetan cause, Nehru did not demand that he limit blending spiritual strength with political leadership. Invoking Nehru's name to brush religious groups off the Congress' sherwani reflects a mistaken understanding of how he saw his civilization. There was a context to Nehru's secularism. Today, that context has changed. Writing of post-modern Western societies, Anthony Giddens says, "Deities and religious forces provide providentially dependable supports: so do religious functionaries. " It's no coincidence Giddens was lead philosopher powering Tony Blair's regime which re-invented British multiculturalism and opened Downing Street to Diwali and Eid.
Such celebration, all heart, no bias, was a nationbuilding notion Indian thinkers developed ages ago. In the 1950s, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan wrote about Indian secularism not meaning a rejection of spiritual concerns. Instead, it meant respecting all faiths, ensuring religion isn't exploited for political gain but practised in freedom, its ideal goal being 'sarva-mukti'. Coming from the President of India, these views hardly reflect a nation - or a Congress party that looks contemptuous of spiritualism and its representatives. Radhakrishnan's philosophy echoed Emperor Akbar's 16th century imagining of Indian secularism, composed of the finest principles of each faith, their tenets understood through engagements with spiritual leaders. As Amartya Sen writes, "Akbar's ideas remain relevant. . . they suggest the need for scrutiny of the fear of multiculturalism. "
It is time the Congress takes heart and begins its own multicultural moment. One possible step is assuring India's spiritual - Deobandis to Digambarites, Arain to Agnes - that it values their beliefs and respects their philosophers. Three potential gains are the Congress saving itself from shrinking into a smaller shell. Replacing narrow community politics with wider humanitarian discourse, the party could defy communalism's ghosts. And finally, engaging with people of faith, it might just take away one of its opponent's main advantages.
Secularism in India did not emerge, unlike in Europe, as a result of a struggle against authority of church In Europe, it carried within itself an atheistic trend It implied an indifference towards religion, if not antagonism to it In India, religion has always been at the centre-stage of social life Secularism here conceived as a philosophy giving equal respect to all religions Congress was to be all-inclusive Three of its presidents came from minority communities: Badruddin Tyebji from Mumbai;W C Bonnerjea, a Christian, and Dadabhai Nawroji, a Parsi The Ulema, who were struggling against British rule, readily supported it This secularism, a multi-religious concept, was adopted by Congress as an all-inclusive philosophy
IT took the bloody battle of Kalinga with over 100, 000 deaths to turn Ashoka into the extraordinary emperor history knows him as. The feared third century autocrat turned Buddhist, adopted non-violence as state policy, limiting hunting and promoting vegetarianism. Ashoka built stupas, sprinkled inscriptions emphasising kindness across his huge empire, addressed citizens as a father and incorporated pluralism. He came to be known as 'Dhamma-Ashoka', the follower of dharma - and one of India's greatest rulers.
THE 16th century Mughal was one of India's most powerful - and most liberal - rulers. He adopted the pluralistic Sufi notion of Sulah-kul or 'peace to all' as state policy, rolled back the jizya tax imposed on Hindus and gave generous grants of land to Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Sikh groups. Deeply influenced by Jain monks, he gave up eating meat while shocking conventional theologians by developing Din-e-Elahi, a new school of religious thought which combined the best of diverse faiths.
NEHRU AND SECULARISM
Initially, Jawaharlal Nehru seemed to believe that secularism meant indifference to religion. Soon, he realised this model might not work for India and defined secularism as equal protection to all religions by the state. The state would provide equal respect to all faiths. The key thing was being even-handed
THE SOMNATH EPISODE
An early challenge to secularism involved reconstruction of Gujarat's Somnath temple. Sardar Patel, as dy PM, pledged Centre would rebuild the temple. The Cabinet, presided over by Nehru, decided to rebuild it at govt cost. Gandhi told Patel money should be collected from the people for this. President Rajendra Prasad installed the deity on May 11, 1951
KHILAFAT & CONGRESS
In 1920, Congress under Gandhi joined the Khilafat stir, a pan-Islamic agitation to protect the Ottoman Empire Muslim leaders and Gandhi joined hands. They launched a non-cooperation movement - a nationwide campaign of mass, peaceful civil disobedience This sealed a Hindu-Muslim bond
GANDHI AND ANANDAMAYI MA
Anandamayi Ma met Gandhi at his Sevagram Ashram. Gandhi addressed her as Mataji while Anandamayi Ma addressed him as Pitaji. Gandhi took her in his arms like a child and she buried her face in his chest. Among her devotees later were Kamala Nehru and Indira Gandhi
Rajiv Gandhi began talks with Akalis believing it would solve the Punjab problem. In 1985, Rajiv signed the Punjab Accord with Sant Longowal, a religious figure and Akali Dal chief. The govt conceded many Akali demands. Ban on Sikh Students' Federation lifted. It was decided that polls would be held. The day Longowal announced Akalis would join the polls, he was assassinated
THE BABRI MASJID DISPUTE
Sankaracharya of the Kanchi Math was involved in the Babri dispute. P V Narasimha Rao drafted him as a negotiator with Muslim groups
THE DEORAHA BABA
Holy man who lived in Deoria on a tree settled on the banks of the Saryu. He blessed devotees with his feet. He never ate and said he had emerged from water. President Rajendra Prasad was a devotee. Rajiv Gandhi too was blessed by him. Arjun Singh was also a devotee
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