There are times when it is a privilege to be a religious minority. There are also times when it is a pain and a peril. As a rule, it is privilege that paves the way to peril. So, there is a need to be careful, responsible.
I get a lot of propaganda material these days. That’s the one thing available aplenty. All free of cost and GST too. These daily "surgical strikes" target Muslims and Christians. The chargesheet against the former is well-known and requires no repetition.
In my case, I am told, now and then, that I am occupying land I have stolen from Hindus and that I must get out. I am also informed that Christians carried out many pogroms in the past in which thousands of Hindus were exterminated, an information that is wholly new to me. Of course, I have had heard, to my infinite shame, of the Goa Inquisition. But the present produce from the mill of communal rumour-mongering is of a different brand altogether.
I get videos on the atrocities that Muslims are inflicting now on Christians in the Middle East. Some are so bizarre that they make my stomach churn with disgust and my heart contract in horror. A closer look, I know they are doctored. All the same, they leave a lingering taste of nausea in my mouth; something in between the taste of fever and the taste of death.
I am being prompted to imbibe enmity. But I don’t want to. All I know is - and I believe this firmly - that if I have an enemy at all, it is myself. Anything to the contrary is a lie. It is not that I haven’t hated and despised. Yes, I have. But there isn’t a single instance - big or small - in which I was wholly right or I have not been corroded by its poison. I don’t fear enemies all that much, it is enmity that I fear, the enmity that infects me.
A massive, subterranean effort is underway to sow poisonous weeds in the garden of our shared life. That cannot be helped. But there is something that can be. The targets can stop being their own enemies. Please do. Let me offer an illustration to back up my request.
Who hasn’t heard of Nero, the Roman emperor in 1st century AD? He has lent his name to an aphorism, which pertains to the musical turn he took at a time of grave civic peril. The story behind the episode is roughly as follows:
Nero was keen to build a new, sprawling palace for himself. He was particular about where it should be located. But unfortunately, the site was occupied by the plebeians. It had to be cleared. He found a way out. (Very modern in his problem-solving methods, you see.) He caused a huge fire, which raged for six days. When it died out, it was re-started and sustained for another three days, till the rest of the site was completely gutted.
This was smart thing to do, but not a very popular one. So, his brain began to tick. Invent a scapegoat. He did. Christians.
The Jewish Christians, who had settled on the outskirts of Rome in large numbers, looked the most plausible object. Why? And that is what is relevant to our present argument.
They were unmindful of their image in public. They lived ghettoised, on the alibi of their doctrinal prescriptions and proscriptions. Their lifestyle - most of them were utterly poor and lived in sordid conditions, pursuing trades and vocations that carried no social merit - became a wall of alienation, which aided easy proliferation of prejudices.
The blame for setting fire to the city was thrust upon these poor, innocent people. This inaugurated a period of unspeakable persecution, characterised by the sort of cruelties and tortures distinguished as much for their ingenuity as for their barbarity.
Minority communities in India need to grow, develop and become a blessing for the nation (Credit: Reuters photo).
Of course, one can argue that Nero would have scapegoated these Jewish Christians, irrespective of how they lived and what they believed. Probably. But it would have been a trifle embarrassing to do so. The negative image of his victims enabled Nero to turn their torment into public entertainment. Why wouldn’t he fiddle, then?
You may not be able to prevent anyone from setting fire to your house, but you can, believe me, prevent him from fiddling for the joy of it.
Much of the work I have done in public life pertains to minority welfare. A couple of things dawned on me through my first-hand experiences. First, we ghettoise ourselves and then complain of being marginalised from the mainstream. It is important to realise that, living in a democracy, citizenship mandates developing "similarity of sentiments". (This idea, by the way, goes all the way back to Aristotle.)
I should not be misunderstood. I am not advocating homogenisation, which I disapprove of vehemently. But, I am convinced that there has to be a meaningful synergy between minorities and the mainstream. No one can live wholly for himself, entirely on his own terms, and expect the full complement of benefits germane to belonging together. Even if it is possible and safe, it should not be done.
Second, minority communities need to grow, develop and become a blessing for the nation, to a greater extent than they are at present. This they can. The worst disservice they can do to themselves is to shrink into victimhood.
The extent to which individuals and communities can be degraded depends, in part, on the scale of their underdevelopment. Minority communities owe it to themselves and to the nation to grow in stature and human resources. If there is a gospel relevant to their predicament today it is the gospel according to development.
Muslim and Christian communities are burdened by a comparatively hypocritical, self-seeking leadership, cynically indifferent to their plight. These parasitical saviours pride themselves on the bargaining power the size of their communities affords them. Muslims matter far more, in this respect, than Christians, who now feel as if they are political waifs in India.
That is not such a bad thing, provided the orphans have fire in their bellies. If not, they will attract incremental disfavour. Adversity is not, in itself, a tragedy. What make it one, are attitudes and response strategies.
Religion must no longer be venerated as a fetish, to which lives and freedom are to be sacrificed. Religion is made for man, not man for religion. So, it is foolish to die for religion.
Nothing that hinders human dignity, fulfillment and empowerment should be tolerated in the sphere of religion. There is no value greater than life. No, not even God. If anyone urges you to the contrary, ask him to prove by personal example. He will shut up and leave you in peace.
For God’s sake, let’s be rational. (Good for the followers of all religions, by the way.) The conflict between reason and religion is a lie invented by those who want to sell you as electoral merchandise. Superstition can only cripple you. It thrives on ignorance. How can ignorance be a gain? No one has a right to tell you to do or observe anything merely in the name of orthodoxy.
Ask, “Does this idea, practice, dogma, ritual make sense to me today? Does it help me to improve myself? Does it empower me?” If the answer is “no”, please be joyfully heretical, for your own sake.
I find it hard to disagree with Bertrand Russell when he says - true faith can be found these days only in heretics.