Dear Hindu brothers and sisters:
No doubt you would have seen the recent chilling videos of saffron-clad Hindu religious leaders from Haridwar and Delhi calling for the extermination of Muslims in India. You may have also read about the disruption of Christmas celebrations in many parts of India and the increasing threats faced by pastors and places of worship.
We hope that you are as shocked and dismayed as we are that such vile acts could be happening in our names.
On the other hand, perhaps you are among those who feel that there is no reason for alarm and that these are fringe groups not worthy of our attention. Or, you may be part of that vast silent Hindu majority, who are either ambivalent about Hindu nationalism or are reluctant to speak up.
Whatever be your inclination, we hope that you will take some time in the new year to reflect upon India’s long tradition of respecting diversity and pluralism, as it enters the 72nd year of constitutional democracy.
‘Majority rule with minority rights’
US President Thomas Jefferson, one of America’s founding fathers, in his inaugural address in 1801, spoke of “majority rule with minority rights” as the essence of a constitutional democracy.
“…bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect...”
It was a cruel irony of the time that those famous words were addressed only to the newly independent white colonists, and did not consider Blacks, Native Americans, and women as worthy of inclusion under the “sacred principle.” Nonetheless, the foresight of the US founding fathers in protecting the nation against the “tyranny of the majority” and their attention to safeguarding minority rights, have stood the test of time.
The Bill of Rights, which captures the essence of President Jefferson’s words, is the bedrock of the American dream, which is today conferring equal rights to immigrants of all faiths and ethnicities, including Hindus. No one can take those rights away on the basis of the colour of their skin, or the language they speak, or the Gods they worship.
But if ever constitutionally guaranteed minority rights were to be stripped away by a democratically elected government, we would be left only with brute majoritarianism, which would inevitably open the door to mass discrimination, violence, and even civil war – as it happened in Sri Lanka after the rights of minority Tamils were taken away overnight in 1956.
Unfortunately, what we are witnessing in India today is not just majoritarianism, but a run-away majoritarianism, which is not only threatening the constitutional rights of religious minorities, but is obliging open calls for mass violence as the solemn duty of Hindus.
Whether those calls pose an imminent danger or not is beside the point. The Indian Muslim community is taking them seriously, as they must. The latest incitement is clearly intended to drive fear and confusion among the minorities and to intensify attacks against them at the merest excuse and call it self-defence – a tactic often used by Hindu nationalists.
At this critical moment for Indian democracy, it is important for all of us to ask ourselves, what kind of India do we wish to bequeath to future generations? A nation torn by internecine conflicts like in Afghanistan and Lebanon? Or a secular, pluralistic – if imperfect – democracy?
For Hindus like us, this is also a moment to recognise that we possess far more power than others to put a break on India’s run-away majoritarianism. In fact, our failure to use that power will not be forgiven by history.
So, as we wish you all a Happy New Year 2022, we humbly offer some thoughts for your reflection:
- Contrary to what we are repeatedly told, minority rights are not special privileges that are denied to the majority community. It is a necessary mechanism under constitutional majority rule to ensure that everyone is treated as equals in the eyes of the law. In fact, the fundamental rights enshrined in the Indian Constitution were heavily influenced by the US Bill of Rights.
- Hindus are huge beneficiaries of constitutionally guaranteed minority rights in countries around the world. Is it not a travesty that many of them are joining hands with Hindu nationalists in India to attack minority rights as appeasement?
- In any case, “appeasement” is not a bad word, as we are often led to believe. Indeed, it is the very nature of democracy, as politicians juggle the demands and expectations of various sections of their constituencies. If American politicians are holding back criticism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in return for campaign funds from Hindu Americans, that too is a case of appeasement.
- Hindu Khatre main hai, Hindus are in danger, has become the new war cry of Hindu nationalists. This is driven by the false narrative that the Muslim population will outgrow Hindus in the near future (“population imbalance” as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh calls it). But, if you care to look at the census data, you will see that the growth rate of Muslims is actually slowing dramatically, and, at the current rates of growth, Hindus will remain a substantial majority for the foreseeable future.
- Laws enacted by Bharatiya Janata Party-controlled states to curtail religious conversions and inter-faith marriages are based on this false narrative of “population imbalance”. An important question to ask yourself is how you might feel if a low-level bureaucrat were to someday tell your children or grandchildren whom they can marry and what gods they may worship?
- Virtually no Hindu spiritual leader outside Haridwar has condemned the recent hate speech and violence. If they continue to remain silent at this time of crisis for India (and for Hinduism), then what are we to make of their larger role in society, outside their ashrams and devotees? Doesn’t “Vasudaiva Kutumbakam”, the world is one family, not mean anything to them anymore?We must challenge our own spiritual gurus to publicly denounce hate speech and violence against the minorities and Dalits. There can be no better way to put the brakes on hate speech and violence than condemnation by respected spiritual leaders.
- We are often told that we are alarmists and that things are not really as bad as we make them out to be. But please remember that it is easy to be in denial or become complacent when you are surrounded mostly by people like yourself and you are not the target of all the hate. If you live in such a communal cocoon, please challenge yourself in the new year to reach out to a Muslim or a Christian or a Dalit or an Adivasi who has been a victim of hate campaigns and discrimination.
As Eboo Patel, author and interfaith leader puts it, the essence of pluralism is not merely tolerance, but a true recognition that there will be times when your self-identity (say, as a believer in ahimsa) may directly clash with the self-identity of your neighbour or friend from another community (say, as a meat eater). A truly pluralistic society is one where we care for one another despite such seemingly unbridgeable differences, in the larger interest of the community that we are part of.
Bishop Desmond Tutu, who is no more with us, once said, “God is not upset that Gandhi was not a Christian, because god is not a Christian! All of god’s children and their different faiths help us to realise the immensity of god.”
That must be the new mantra of all faith communities in India if they wish to save Indian democracy. They must work hand in hand with their secular brothers and sisters who are on the frontlines every day defending religious freedom and democratic rights for all.
Raju Rajagopal and Sunita Viswanath
Co-founders, Hindus for Human Rights (.org), USA