India’s Hindu identity

The shooting of N. Dhablokar, the passing of the Anti-superstitious act, the commemorative stamp of Satya Sai Baba, the arrest of a man for fishing in the religious town of Tirumala and a letter we received from Mr.Sanjay Salve all in the past few months has prompted a long over due post on one of our most common Sunday morning debate topics: secularism, religious freedom and the blatant goose-stepping of Hindu culture all over public institutions – we even asked the readers of this blog to take a survey about it. In June 2007 Mr.Sanjay Salve, an English teacher at the Savitribai Phule Secondary School in Nasik Maharashtra, after 12 years of ‘excellent service’ (so say his performance reports) one morning decided he was not going to recite or sing the (Hindu) religious prayers that the teachers and students engaged in every morning before classes began. Instead of folding his hands in prayer like he had done for ten years, he put his hands behind his back. The headmaster, Madhukar Bachchav, noticed his action of protest and demanded a written explanation from him. “I told him I am an atheist and cannot participate in prayers to any god, that such compulsion violates the Constitution,” says Mr. Salve (quote from the Hindu article Pray, What wrong did I do)

Article 28(3) of the constitution reads: No person attending any educational institution recognised by the State or receiving aid out of State funds shall be required to take part in any religious instruction that may be imparted in such institution or to attend any religious worship that may be conducted in such institution or in any premises attached thereto unless such person or, if such person is a minor, his guardian has given his consent thereto Cultural and Educational Rights ( Articles 25 and 26 also pertain to religious freedoms.

For invoking his constitutional right Mr.Salve has been penalised by the school’s management: he has been denied a pay upgrade, consistently given below than satisfactory performance reports and other teachers, once his friends, now avoid speaking to him. Interestingly, the school is named after a female 19th century social reformer who was the first female teacher in a school for girls from marginalised castes. 35% of children in this school are Muslims and Mr. Salve is a Dalit who believes in the tenants of Buddhism.

Mr.Salve took his case to the government authorities and despite the education board’s repeated warnings to the school (from 2009-2012) including threatening to cut off funds, the management stood firm. In 2012 Mr. Salve approached the High Court for strict compliance with the secondary school code citing Rule 45 (9) of that code which directs schools to begin the day with the national anthem. It mentions no prayers or pledges.

We read about Mr.Salve’s valiant yet lonely stand against the imposition of religion in the Hindu newspaper in September 2013. The DH wrote to Mr.Salve expressing his admiration for standing up for the constitution. There are many Savitri Phule schools in Nasik, finding the right one took many phone calls, with the help of someone who spoke Marathi. Given the publicity Mr.Salve has received and the schools antagonism towards him, we were concerned that our letter may not reach him. So the DH sent the letter by registered mail, where only he can personally sign for it. Miraculously, he wrote back!

His reply was: Dear Sir, Thank you for supporting me for the fight for my fundamental rights. Ultimately the High Court has upheld this cause. Sorry for being very late to respond to your letter. I couldn’t reply earlier as I was buys taking rounds to the High Court. Expecting your support in future so that my morale will increase and I’ll fight tooth and nail against such injustice. Regards, Sanjay Salve.

Mr.Salve told the Hindu that ever since the shooting of Mr. Dhablokar he fears that standing up for his right not to believe will cost him his life. Mr. Dhablokar Phule was an anti-superstition activist and ‘rationalist’ who fought for us to use our scientific mind rather than drown in the darkness of superstition. In August 2013, the 65 year old social reformer was shot 3 times, once in the head, by two youths on a motorcycle, while he was on his morning walk. His crime: the eradication of superstitious practices propagated by godmen and others that preyed on people’s vulnerability. He campaigned for the passing of the Anti-superstition Bill in Maharashtra for many years. His colleagues in the rationalist movement say he stood up against “that which was a restriction to the human mind”. He never challenged people’s religious beliefs but he was against the unscrupulous, misleading unscientific behaviour of godmen. Unfortunately this labelled him as anti-Hindu. His killers are yet to be found.

In November this year, the Karnataka State government stalled plans for a bill legislating against superstitious practices and black magic, the drafting of which was given to the National Law School of India University, Bangalore. Once again, the draft bill has been misread as ‘anti-Hindu’ when in fact it only calls for banning of practices that are “harmful, exploitative and offensive to human dignity” and not religious belief or practices which are guaranteed fundamental rights under the Indian constitution. (Full text of the draft bill here: .

The draft bill defines a ‘superstitious practice’ as  any act which causes grave physical or mental harm to or results in financial or any sexual exploitation or offends the human dignity of another person or a group of persons, by invoking a purported supernatural power, with the promise of curing such person or group of persons of disease or affliction or purporting to provide a benefit, or threatening them with adverse consequences; or any act specified in the Schedule K.

Paragraph 20 of the text has a list of the superstitious acts and caste based practices including: forcing women to parade naked in public in the name of worship; segregation of menstruating women; adopting violent methods to cure diseases; proclaiming to have possessed godly and spiritual powers; throwing  babies on a bed of thorns to cure diseases; persuading, propagating or facilitating rituals that involve self-inflicted injuries such as hanging from a hook inserted into the body (sidi) or pulling a chariot by a hook inserted into the body; forcing any person belonging to vulnerable sections of society to carry out humiliating practices such as carrying footwear on his or her head (ii)  segregation of people on the basis of caste while serving food; stigmatisation or condemnation of any person on the basis of time or place of birth; declaring the guilt or innocence of any person by subjecting them to physical or mental harm such as forcing him to hold a flame with bare hands etc. These are actual practices that continue to thrive in many parts of Karnataka with regional variations around the country.

The lines between superstitious and religious practices are blurry in this country. I could quite convincingly make the argument that all religious ritual is superstitious – if I don’t pray to Lord Ganesha before opening my business, it will fail; if I don’t place kukum and swatiskas on my appliances and books at Saraswathi pooja, the gods won’t be favourable to me; if I don’t wear these crystals and stones given by my guru then evil will control my life.

Hindu beliefs seem to have entered many spheres of our lives. A few days ago, the Indian Postal Service said they would release a stamp commemorating Satya Sai Bhaba on his birth anniversary (he died in 2011 and would have been 88 this year). He received fame and fervent devotion from his followers for his ‘miracles’ such as materialisation of rings, watches, holy ash; clairvoyance, healing and even bilocation. But his critics were equally fervent and controversy followed him as he was branded a fraud by many and was later accused of sexual abuse. But there’s no doubt that the money he raised while alive and continues to in his death has funded social projects including – free hospitals, drinking water projects and educational institutions. But someone like Mr.Dabhlokar would not have approved of those unscientific claims – many documentaries produced in Britain have looked in to the issue of this secret swami.

A government order I dug up on the good old internet on the Rules for Issues of Commemorative Postage stamps by the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology clearly states: The occasion to be commemorated must be the birth centenary or 10th /25th /50th /100th death anniversary. Stamps can be issued no sooner than ten years after an individual’s death.” But it also goes on to say that “Exception in this regard will however be considered to be made for personality from the field of Art, Culture and Music.” I guess religion falls under the ‘culture’ banner. Rule 15 says, Religious symbols, prefixes/suffixes with the name of personalities will not be incorporated in the design.” I could make a well reasoned argument that the image of Satya Sai Baba is a symbol – a symbol displayed in countless living rooms and prayer rooms across the world, from which miraculous pourings of holy ash are reputed to have emerged, is just as symbolic as the word om.

The fact that the Ministry of Communications, an arm of the Indian government condones the use of religious personalities on official release I find interesting. I was always led to believe that India was a secular country (the insertion made in the preamble in 1976) meaning that a) all religions are considered equal and b) the State has no religion. However, the word securalism has not been clearly defined in the constitution, it just assumes that the State will be impartial in matters of religion and there is no State religion. In my book secularism and religious freedom are different – the former relates purely to the State and the latter to citizens. America claims to be secular but their money and pledges read ‘one nation under God’ and ‘in God we trust’. What up?

In the case S.R Bommai vs Union of India the supreme court in its ruling says, “the Indian State will not identify itself with or be controlled by any particular religion”. And yet we see the Hindu religion, its symbols and practices splashed all over the arms of government. Take for instance the naming of government buildings, ships, tanks and missiles. Most of them have sanskrit names derived from Hindu mythology: INS Airavat (the elephant that carries god Indira); the weapon Trishul (the 3-pronged spear wielded by Shiva, Ganesha and Durga); our biggest tank is called Arjun; a jet fighter called Tejas. Take even the motto of the Indian Navy: Shaam Noh Varunah (May the Lord of the Oceans be auspicious unto us). Varuna is the Hindu god of the oceans, not the Indian god – and how can India have a god anyway unless we de-link the word secular from our constitution. Names of weapons and armaments have Sanskrit names or those derived from Hindu mythology. Does this mean that we identify only with these symbols? While many of our languages derive from Sanskrit – still many do not.

We asked readers of this blog to take a 7 question survey (which is still open) in Feb 2013 and we analysed the results. Some of the questions were: do you consider the Mahabharata to be an Indian epic, Hindu epic, other type of work?; When you hear the names Airavat and Arjun do you think they are Indian names, Hindu names or Other types of name?s; When you hear the word ‘Sudarshan Chakra’ do you think it is: a weapon of the God Vishnu, who is a Hindu God; a weapon of the God Vishnu who is an Indian God, something else, I don’t know? (Chakra is the name of India’s nuclear submarine, which derives from Sudarshan Chakra.); We asked whether people thought secular meant: religious tolerance, religious freedom, or neutrality in matters of religion. We also asked people to tell us their religion and whether they lived in India or were not Indian and how religious they were.

We got 41 responses to the survey with 75% of people said they were Hindu, 2.4% Muslim and 7% Christian and 2% other – this closely reflects India’s general population according to the 2011 census data (80% Hindu, 13% Muslim and 2.3% Christian) although Muslims are under-represented in this survey and Christians are over represented.

Contrary to our beliefs and expectations, 58% said the Mahabharata was an Indian epic, 58% said Arjun and Airavaat were Indian rather than Hindu names, 49% think that secular means neutrality in matters of religion with a quarter each saying it means religious tolerance and religious freedom. As we expected, 70% said Sudarshan chakra was weapon of god Vishnu who is a Hindu god; 54% said religion was a waste of time and 85% of people were Indians living in India.

Unfortunately to do any cross-tabulation (matching one variable, such as the person’s religion with their other responses) I’ll have to pay the site money!

The take home message is that the lines between what’s factually Hindu and what is Indian are blurry. Have the Mahabharat and Sanskrit language become so entwined with Indian culture that it has lost its religious character? But when the name of a god is mentioned, like in the Vishnu question, people tend to say it’s related to being Hindu rather than being Indian. Perhaps the names of gods is more obviously Hindu than the names of characters in the Mahabharat (like Arjun). If we had asked names like Ram, Ganesh or Krishna it may have triggered more ‘Hindu’ responses. Also, maybe for those less religious (like the majority of our sample) the lines between Hindu and Indian is blurry because they just don’t care about religion; but those who are very religious are probably more protective of their religion and would clearly identify things on a religious basis.

I find this blurring of lines between what is Indian and what is Hindu to be fascinating. While there is a majority Hindu population in this country, we pride ourselves on our diversity and yet we see evidence of Hindu traditions in many government activities. Even the inauguration of a Navy ship is done by breaking a coconut over the bow – this is a Hindu tradition during poojas.

The US names its battleships after cities, naval heroes, battles and sometimes from mythology. The Brits have even got names like HMS Flirt and HMS Blonde and HMS Dapper! Of course they also have names of Royalty on their weaponry. I share Pranay Sharma’s plea in the Outlook magazine when he says that ‘Many different cultures and religions made significant contributions to the making of modern, secular India. Let us consider why we should not celebrate the achievements of our scientists, sch­olars and entrepreneurs by using all the other influences that shaped us. Let us move away from this obsession that we have developed about Sanskrit. Perhaps, the time has come for the next indigenously developed Indian aircraft carrier or a naval vessel to be named from a pool that is much deeper and wider, and truly celebrates the diversity of secular India”.

I leave you with the bizarre incident of the man in the religious town of Tirumala who was arrested for fishing because fish is meat and meat cannot be consumed in this religious town. This has to be an abuse of the man’s fundamental rights. Can you really impose religion on an entire town? (e.g Pushkar?) Are there towns in India where one cannot consume pork because it offends Muslims?

We have to ask ourselves how willing are we to stand by and let religion take over this country; how much are we willing to let the rules and fundamental rights and freedoms granted to us be abused because someone’s religion is offended; why is religious identity taking over what Indian identity is? Why are we not celebrating science, rational thought and the brilliance of the human spirit as much as we glorify and cling helplessly to religion, rites and rituals. (Note: religion and science is another can of worms – while men of science are entitled to their religious beliefs – although I can’t understand how that plays out in their heads and hearts – such as ISRO Chairman K.Radhakrishnan visiting Lord Venkateshwara temple in Tirumala before the launch of the Mars Orbiter or Albert Einstein’s quote: Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind.”)

Sanjay Salve said on protecting his fundamental rights: “I will battle till the end…it’s about my identity…”

What’s our Indian identity turning in to?

Is religion taking over Indian identity?

Is religion taking over Indian identity?

About nonsense girl

Galley slave, qualitative researcher working in development, married my best friend, writing about my life, my family, my dog, TV, Indian culture, astronomy and my garden.
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