By Julio Ribeiro

As a rule, human beings tend to respect men and women of the cloth. Christian priests and nuns are greatly respected by believers and even former students of Catholic schools. Muslim mullahs in Islam are followed by those who profess the faith. And so also sadhus and sants of the Sanatan Dharma.

Many of them have a huge following among the devout. Even the not-so-devout pay obeisance to so-called godmen and approach them for favours when the occasion requires.

True religion should make a person, irrespective of the faith he or she follows, a better human being. So if the priests themselves preach murder and hate, that would be most unexpected.

The sadhus, the seers and the sants who participated in the Dharam Sansad at Haridwar in the Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled state of Uttarakhand around Christmas spewed unprintable venom against the Muslims that would leave one wondering whether religion, any religion, preaches murder and mayhem.

Studied silence

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as is his wont, kept a studied silence. I did not expect Home Minister Amit Shah to protest. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath I would place in the same category as the seers and the sants who were seen and heard in the Dharam Samsad. The only brave leader of the saffron party who spoke out against this battery of saffron clothed sadhus was Venkaiah Naidu, the country’s vice president.

Of course, Naidu hails from India South, where saner voices are often heard. Obviously, Venkaiah Naidu is a politician of the old school in the Vajpayee mould. Members of the minority communities, like me, must thank the Almighty for small mercies.

The atmosphere in our ancient land is becoming more and more menacing for the minorities. Modi’s obeisance to the Constitution when he first entered the portals of Parliament in 2014 is now seen in hindsight as one of his recurring sleights of hand. We have become so accustomed to his doublespeak that even when he speaks the truth one is inclined to wonder if there exists in his words a double-entendre.

The minorities are being pilloried consistently of late. Whether this is part of a strategy to gain traction in the coming state elections one does not know.

But what one does know is that both Muslims and Christians have got the jitters. The idea of India that this new dispensation dreams of is totally alien to the concept of an united country envisaged by the founding fathers of our Constitution. The very concept of a secular country, where those who followed a religion different from that of the majority have equal rights and equal citizenship status, is being dissolved in the vitriol of Hindutva rhetoric.

As a student at St Xavier’s School in Bombay seven decades ago, I shared my bench with Hindu, Muslim and Parsi classmates. At no stage did I or they feel any difference in the way we were treated by the Jesuit priests or by Catholic teachers who presided in the classroom. At no stage did I or they feel that we were a different breed because of our religious beliefs. In fact, religion never entered our thoughts and our daily discourse.

So also in college and at the work place where I did a two-year stint as a sub-editor in the National Standard, now renamed the Indian Express. Sharda Prasad, the news editor, who later became the Prime Minister’s Press Advisor, when India Gandhi was the incumbent, was very kind and supportive of a fledgling journalist.

Spreading like cancer

In my 36 years with the Indian Police Service, I never for a moment felt that I was being targeted for being a member of a minority community. On the contrary, my bosses who were predominantly Hindus, chose me for difficult assignments, very often far before my turn in the order of seniority.

If I had a run-in with a senior it had no connection with religious identity. It was more because of jealousy or even more likely an apprehension that I would squeal or expose wrongdoings.

All genteel secular equations will now change in the present atmosphere of majority dominance. If this evil is not squashed in its infancy, it will spread like a cancer and destroy the India of our dreams. In the larger context beyond public service if it is allowed to creep into the ethos of the Armed Forces, we as a country will sink rapidly.

The hate that has now spread in the body politic is everywhere. The divisiveness that has now become a fact of existence in India will become as ingrained in the body politic as the endemic corruption spawned by previous regimes. Just like we are finding it almost impossible to excise the day-to-day corruption that has destroyed our entrails, communalism spawned by the present rulers will destroy the unity that is a “sine quo non” for existence and that even Modi lip service to.

Destroying India’s unity

The sants of Haridwar need to be put behind bars without any further ado. Any further dithering on the action to be taken against them because the electoral fortunes will get unbalanced will only destroy the essential unity that the country badly requires.

 

A country as vast as India with its multi-religious, multi-lingual, multi-cultural dimensions can ill afford to have its 15% Muslims and 2% Christians alienated. Modi knows this. But his deafening silence on the issue is militating against unity.

It is a happy coincidence that along with the country’s vice president, four former chiefs of Indian Navy, one former chief of its Air Force, several retired bureaucrats, writers, intellectuals and now students of the leading management schools and their teachers have come out on the side of reason. The Home Ministry succumbed to pressure and restored the licence of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity to receive foreign contributions. It should hear our voices and move against hate and divisiveness also.

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Julio Ribeiro served in several senior positions as a police officer and was India’s ambassador to Romania.

This article was first published in The Scroll

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