Nupur Sharma, Salman Rushdie and religious sentiments

Secularism does not mean privileging any religion or denouncing all religion

When back in the mid-1980s, Rajiv Gandhi decided to ban the import of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses on grounds of blasphemy (the author had, for instance, given the names of the Prophet’s four wives to four prostitutes in his novel), Left-liberal intellectuals rose as a man to condemn the move as unwarranted interference with freedom of expression. The right reactionaries were delighted with this addition to their ranks although their grounds for protest were entirely different; they damned the prohibition as tushtikaran or appeasement of the minorities.

This unprincipled alliance of the righteous left-liberals with the reactionary right eventually led to the defeat of the Rajiv regime. That opened the road to the BJP ceasing to be an “untouchable” in Indian politics. The decade of the 1990s then saw a series of BJP-supported governments and BJP-led coalitions that has climaxed over the last eight years into the consolidation of communal hegemony in the guise of hindutva. The left-liberals who facilitated this are left barking on the sidelines over Nupur Sharma’s gratuitous offence. Only the Congress has remained untainted by keeping its political distance from the BJP and its ideological distance from the sangh parivar.

Illustration: Bhaskaran Illustration: Bhaskaran

I personally have no religious sentiment; ergo, I have no religious prejudices either. But that does not mean insensitivity towards the religious sentiments of others. Indeed, it enables me to be sensitive to the religious sentiments of all communities precisely because I entertain no religious prejudices either. For three terms in the Lok Sabha, I represented a constituency that contains tens of thousands of shrines and hosts some of the most important temples on the pilgrimage circuit in Tamil Nadu. Also, as approximately 15 per cent of the electorate is Muslim, mosques of all description dot the landscape. And there are churches in all cities and many villages. In consequence, I would be dragged to diverse places of worship where I would see the beatific expressions on the faces of the worshippers while being left untouched myself. So, why did I not walk out denouncing this devotion as nonsense? Only because of my secularism. For secularism does not mean privileging any religion or denouncing all religion. Above all, it means respecting the right of others to hold religious beliefs that you yourself do not hold.

That is what the propagators of hindutva do not understand. They are not pro-Hindu so much as anti-Muslim. Which is why they have added nothing to philosophy over the hundred years since the term, hindutva, was invented. Their ideological guru, V.D. Savarkar, was no Adi Sankara. Their longest serving sarsangchalak, M.S. Golwalkar, was no Swami Vivekananda. Modi is no J. Krishnamurthy. They have not added anything to Hindu thought, but they have stretched out a long litany of complaints against Islam and minorities into a political campaign that has landed us where we are in hate-filled violence. It is because of the ethos in which Sharma has been soaked that she finds it normal to blaspheme the Prophet while insisting that the question of the Babri Masjid is not one of historical fact but of aasthaa—belief.

That is what is at the root of the violence consuming our country. Religion-based violence is spreading to non-religious issues such as the rioting over the Agnipath proposal. Gandhiji had warned that any departure from non-violence on any one path will only lead to violence in all other avenues of national life. The one who most determinedly opposed Gandhiji’s non-violence and did more than any other to identify violence with hindutva was Savarkar. The chickens are coming home to roost.