Who would have thought it? Liberals in India and Donald Trump on the same side, both claiming Christmas as a bada din for believers? Happy holidays or Merry Christmas? The United States president is determined to make Christmas great again, moving away from the bland political correctness of “happy holidays”.
But closer home, in India, a small but determined group is also celebrating Christmas for vastly different reasons.
Last week, columnist Vir Sanghvi tweeted with a photograph of himself wearing a red Christmas cap.
Sanghvi said over the phone, “I am trying to make the point that Christmas has always been celebrated by all Indians.” His tweet has certainly struck a chord, on social media at least, and his wife, the journalist and columnist Seema Goswami, changed her display picture and started the hashtag #MeriChristmas.
Certainly, the Christmas of my childhood – admittedly cottoned within middle-class privilege – was celebrated without any self-consciousness of making a political statement. The pluralistic India of my growing up years saw absolutely no contradiction between Christmas celebrations and being a devout believer of any other faith, or of no faith at all.
For us, Christmas was a festival that comprised in equal parts a Christmas tree with cotton wool masquerading as snow, a fat man with a white beard called Santa Claus, gifts and carols.
An Indian festival
By the time I grew up and became a mother, Christmas still was an avowedly Indian festival. My daughters insisted on believing in Santa Claus till an alarmingly late stage, but all of it was in good fun, even my faux grumbling and even though I had by then established my non-religious cred.
Remarkably, my atheism could be accommodated within the belief of the rest of my Hindu, temple-going family. This was a Hindu faith that understood that no god would be offended if you performed puja and hung up stockings for your children. No faith would be eroded if you shared kheer with your neighbours on Eid and invited them to the feast for the Ganpati festival.
So how did we come to this pass, where we need to reclaim Christmas, where I as an atheist feel compelled to say, yes, I am celebrating too? After all, lest we forget, the tree, gifts and ho-ho-ho are merely the secular accoutrements of the decidedly religious event of a baby born in poverty to redeem the world.
It is remarkable how far we have come on this journey that began in May 2014 with the electoral sweep of the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party government. This was a journey that began with the viewing of Christmas as a suspect word, with December 25 rechristened Good Governance Day since it is also the birthday of Atal Behari Vajpayee, a man who, it has been widely reported, was so furious with the Gujarat riots in 2002 that he wanted to sack the chief minister of the state at the time, Narendra Modi.
This is an era that began with a spate of attacks on churches in 2015 – nine in six months – shortly after Modi was sworn in as prime minister. It took his expression of “deep concern” for the attacks to stop just as mysteriously as they began.
But the resentment simmers. As I write this, reports come trickling in from Rajasthan – a state that has demonstrated to minorities with remarkable efficiency just where they stand – that Vishwa Hindu Parishad men have barged into a community centre in Pratapgarh, disrupting prayers and throwing away prayer material, alleging forcible religious conversion.
In Madhya Pradesh, another BJP-run state, a car carrying carol-singing priests and seminarians was set on fire (bringing to mind the grisly end of missionary Graham Staines and his minor sons in 1999 in Kendujhar district, Odisha). The priests were unhurt but went to lodge a complaint at the police station where they were promptly arrested on charges of being on an illegal conversion mission.
In this new India, in Maharashtra, where the BJP is also in power, Amruta Fadnavis, the chief minister’s wife, has been roasted, ironically, by the Right wing for attending a charity event called Be Santa that collects Christmas gifts for underprivileged children.
What kind of person sees a sinister plot in distributing gifts to marginalised children? How insecure is your faith to see dark designs in the singing of carols? And how weak is your belief in your religion if you believe it cannot withstand what you call a conversion plot?
In the fundamentalist Hindu narrative, Christianity, like Islam, is a foreign faith. Hence, when Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati threatened earlier this month that she and her followers would convert to Buddhism if the BJP did not stop its atrocities on Dalits, there was barely a murmur. But carol-singing priests suddenly become a threat as agents of a vast global plot to harvest souls for Christ.
The Hindu Jagran Manch has warned Christian schools in Aligarh to not celebrate Christmas because it is not an Indian festival. The manch is dead wrong. Christmas is very much an Indian festival – even now. You have only to look around.
At a corporate hospital, I smile at the sight of excited adults, including a doctor in scrubs, taking selfies in front of a giant Christmas tree. At the traffic lights, children sell Santa masks and red caps. In Bengaluru, my friend’s daughter, a Hindu girl (since these things must be clarified in our new India), performs an impromptu carol concert with her best friend, a Christian girl. The money they raise will go towards buying oxygen cylinders for disabled children at a nearby orphanage.
My own daughters have long stopped believing in Santa. What I want them to continue to believe in is the idea of India, the India in which I grew up, where nobody apologised for celebrating Christmas and nobody felt the need to reclaim it because it was never lost in the first place.