Let me take the liberty of making a distinction here, a dividing line between the ways in which we react to situations, between the decisions we might make. The reader will forgive me in my choice of words for the same, if they don’t appear to be completely dichotomous to him/her.
There are two ways of responding to a given situation. One is the right thing to do – the easy, obvious way out, the way which appeals straight to common sense, and one which doesn’t take too much mental effort. The other is the correct thing to do – this is the more difficult path; one which doesn’t come naturally but with some deliberation, one which requires an amount of sustained courage and sacrifice, and one which might also amount to self-deception in certain cases, albeit superior in moral terms.
If one goes by the above definition, then India and Indians have always (well, almost) opted for the correct option, rather than the one which is right.
Had the revolutionary movements caught on and had Gandhi not returned from South Africa as he did, we would have ousted the British by force anyway. Post the partition of Bengal and then Jallianwala, the British had themselves put a time limit on their stay in this country. India wanted to be free and Gandhi or no Gandhi, it would be so. Whether sooner or later is a matter of speculation. But the revolutionaries never found enough ground to make a serious impact here. The common Indian did the correct thing – of resorting to peaceful methods of protest, of hartals and fasts instead of murders or assassinations or guerilla fights.
During the partition of the country and the birth of Pakistan, we had an option (maybe unlikely, but an option nonetheless) of declaring ourselves a Hindu state, to say that Pakistan has been created specifically for the Muslims, let India be only for the Hindus. But we didn’t. We did the correct thing – of declaring ourselves secular; India, which since time immemorial has kept as its own and assimilated numerous cultures and identities shall not divide itself on the basis of religion.
Post independence, when the Cold War was gaining momentum, we had the choice of pledging our loyalty to the Soviets - our close friends and a country for which our then Prime Minister had a soft corner. But we didn’t. When everyone in the world was taking sides, wondering what the less harmful option was, we joined hands with certain other countries to form the Non-Aligned Movement. Again, we did the correct, honourable thing.
The correct thing. That has almost always been India’s choice. Needless to say, this choice has been fraught with much struggle and sacrifice, but it has also given us something to be proud of, of making us believe that we are indeed special. We are proud of the fact that our independence struggle was a lot less bloody than others around the world. We are proud of the fact that we are secular, that it doesn’t matter here whether one is Hindu, Muslim or Christian. We are proud that we have a mixed economy, that we are not slaves to any other nation, that we are truly sovereign.
None of the above decisions or any other has hurt us more than our choice to proclaim ourselves secular. These years have seen the Hindu majority clash with every single sizeable minority; the extent of the Hindu-Muslim clash need not be elaborated upon, then we had the Sikhs massacred in ’84, and now, the historically harmonious relationship between the Hindus and the Christians has received a serious battering post the anti-Christian violence in Karnataka and Orissa. Time and again after independence, India has had to pay the price for doing the correct thing. It has had to bear the consequences of upholding its ethical values. And to its credit, never has it deterred from its belief in the principle of secularism and how essential it is for a nation such as this.
But more than sixty years on, there seems to be no end or even the possibility of an end to the issue of religion. The past few years have seen unprecedented attacks on civilians by religious fundamentalists. And it’s not only the Muslims; Malegaon has come as a blow to several self-righteous Hindus as well. But more disturbing than the actual violence has been the people’s reaction to it. Suddenly, it seems that our unshakeable faith in people of all faiths has been replaced by a visible tentativeness. Hindu socialites appear on television acting all pally with their Muslim friends, as if that alone is the proof of their belief in the concept of secularism. Simultaneously, Muslim leaders and elite are being told that it is their responsibility to keep the sentiments of their community in check and stars like Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan appear on news channels speaking on Islam and terrorism, reiterating again and again how one doesn’t stand for the other, as if they were expected or required to do so.
Are we really secular as we think we are? If yes, then what indeed does one mean by being secular? Does just having friends of different religions qualify? Or sharing your bus seat with a Muslim? Or having your food with him? Yes, perhaps, if these above actions are done with zero mental effort or thought, then we are genuinely secular. But do we? Do we not feel uncomfortable when passing through a Muslim-dominated area in the city? Do we still not discourage our Hindu son or daughter from having a Muslim spouse? In other words, do we not treat the Muslims as our paying guests – ‘We’ve given you space here, consider this as your own home, but do maintain a certain distance from us, please.’?
At times, the pretence or self-deception being indulged in by the average Indian comes shamelessly to the fore. Take, for example, the film Chak De! India. A story of a Muslim hockey player who is branded a gaddar or traitor just because he misses a crucial penalty kick. He then goes on to coach the women’s Hockey team to World Cup glory. Thus, he proves his loyalty in the most spectacular way and all is forgiven. What people fail to notice and what’s rather unsettling is the fact that he does have to prove that he is loyal to his motherland, that he is not a Pakistani in his heart. Would the same treatment be given to a Hindu if he happened to make the same mistake? I doubt it. But the predominantly Hindu audience sees nothing wrong. I wonder how the intelligent Muslim would have taken this implicit insult.
If this is indeed the case, if we are not genuinely secular, then we can be sure that there will be no end to communal hatred and violence here. What has been going on for more than sixty years now might just go on till eternity. It is all very well doing the correct thing, but it is also very important to be authentic about it, to believe it inside. Otherwise, all of one’s actions add up to a detailed, elaborate charade, and when practiced on such a large scale, it can prove to be the country’s nemesis. For once, we need to rethink and ascertain the responsibilities that come along with being correct rather than right.