The mounting unpleasantness of communal bigotry in our country prompts me to look back at the founding of the Indian Republic. Our nationalist movement did not divide over ideology or geography; it divided on the simple issue of whether religion should be the determinant of nationhood. Those who argued that their religion made them a nation left India and established Pakistan; the rest created a nation which, like the freedom struggle itself, sought to embrace all Indians.
There was also a practical consideration here. In dealing with the vast and complex realities of a subcontinent of 330 million people, and in devising systems and rules to embrace all of them, the founders had to acknowledge the need to produce political unity out of ethnic, religious, cultural, linguistic, and communal diversity.
They realised that in the India they would rule, there was no single standard, no fixed stereotype, no “one way” of doing things. In an era when most developing countries chose authoritarian models of government, claiming these were needed to promote nation-building and steer economic development, India chose to be a multi-party democracy—flawed, but flourishing. India’s pluralism was acknowledged in its constitutional and political arrangements, which encouraged a bewildering variety of social groups, religious communities, sectional interests and far-fetched ideologies to flourish and contend. This approach—called, with some inexactitude, “secularism”—is now bitterly challenged by the ruling party.
Many observers abroad have been astonished by India’s survival as a pluralist state. But pluralism is a reality that emerges from the very nature of the country; it is a choice made inevitable by India’s geography and reaffirmed by its history. India’s is a civilisation that, over millennia, has offered refuge and, more importantly, religious and cultural freedom, to Jews, Parsis, several denominations of Christians, and, of course, Muslims. Jews came to Kerala centuries before Christ, with the destruction by the Babylonians of their First Temple, and they knew no persecution on Indian soil until the Portuguese arrived in the sixteenth century to inflict it. Christianity arrived on Indian soil with St Thomas the Apostle, who came to the Kerala coast sometime before 52 CE and was welcomed on shore, if the legend is to be believed, by a flute-playing Jewish girl.
Islam is portrayed by some in the north as a religion of invaders who pillaged and conquered, but in Kerala, where Islam came through traders, travellers and missionaries rather than by the sword, a south Indian king was so impressed by the message of the prophet that he travelled to Arabia to meet the great teacher himself. The king, Cheraman Perumal, perished in the attempt, but the coconuts he took with him have sprouted trees that flourish to this day on the southern coast of Oman.
India’s heritage of diversity means that in the Kolkata neighbourhood where I lived during my high school years, the wail of the muezzin calling the Islamic faithful to prayer routinely blended with the chant of mantras and the tinkling of bells at the local Shiva temple, accompanied by the Sikh gurdwara’s reading of verses from the Guru Granth Sahib, with St Paul’s Cathedral just around the corner. Today, in my constituency, Thiruvananthapuram, the gleaming white dome of the Palayam Juma Masjid stands diagonally across from the lofty spires of St Joseph’s Cathedral, and just around the corner from both, abutting the mosque, is one of the city’s oldest temples, consecrated to Lord Ganesh. My experiences in Thiruvananthapuram remind me daily that India is home to more Christians than Australia and nearly as many Muslims as Pakistan.
That is the India I lay claim to.