Debating India


Sacred Cows, Their Horns

Monday 6 June 2005, by REDDY*Sheela

Religious symbols turn handy tools in obscurantist agenda. Jo bole, he’s gone.

Pramod Kumar, Institute for Development & Communication, Chandigarh

"It’s a desperate means to keep the flock together. Ordinary Sikhs are not listening to their dictates, shedding external symbols."

Swami Agnivesh, Arya Samaj Leader

"I have great respect for their Gurus but I can also ask why they cover their Guru Granth in silks and quilts instead of reading it."

S.S. Boparai V-C, Punjabi University

"Sikhism is a modern religion and has no reason to be defensive. The SGPC is limiting the definition of Sikhism."

Rev Valsan Thampu, Member, National Integration Council

"It’s because of the media that they (the Christians) stage such protests. TV and newspapers give them space. "

Mushirul Hasan, Historian

"Religious stridency can’t exist without political ideologies. Else, why would the protests over Valentine’s Day stop all of a sudden?"

T.N. Madan, Sociologist

"In a country which needs religious education more than any country in the world, religion is not taught in any school or college here."


It’s a Laxman-rekha few dare to cross, and Rahul Rawail, director of Jo Bole So Nihaal, was going to take no chances. For fear of offending "religious sentiment"-those two words that strike more terror than any others these days- Rawail prudently had his film cleared by two censor boards. There was the official one in Mumbai, and the unofficial one in the Akal Takht, Amritsar. But it was of little use: angry protests in Punjab preceded his worst nightmare-bomb blasts in two theatres showing his film in Delhi, killing one and injuring over 50, prompting his distributors to withdraw the film from many cinema halls across the country.

How could this happen, the crushed filmmakers are now wondering, despite all their precautions. The trouble, according to many who are in the business of keeping a wary eye out for the minefield of religious sentiment, is there’s no knowing when or where it will blow up in your face.

Just how quickly and mystifyingly the bar can be raised was illustrated by the SGPC’s (the Sikh top decision-making body) new demands on the filmmakers: the title of the film must be changed, it declared, because it is a religious slogan; words from the Gurbani, it decided as an afterthought, have been distorted; and some characters enter a gurudwara without removing their shoes and covering their heads. As a final straw came the assertion that none but Amritdhari (baptised) Sikhs play Sikhs in any film.

But this is not the first sign of Sikh institutions like the SGPC getting more assertive-some would say aggressive-about their religious identity. Last month, for instance, when a Sikh student was jailed by a Danish court for carrying a six-inch dagger, it was the SGPC which sprung to his aid, claiming his religious right to carry a kirpan. Similarly, Sikhs in Punjab, led again by the SGPC, are campaigning against the French government’s ban on turbans. At home, too, religious identity is being redefined. The Sikhs’ holiest shrine at Amritsar has shed its ’British-inspired’ name of Golden Temple. It will henceforth be known by its "original" names: Harmandir Sahib or Darbar Sahib. The Bikrami and the Christian calendar, too, are being dropped in favour of a new calendar, the Nanakshahi, invented by a Canadian Sikh. Names of Hindu gods and goddesses are being exorcised from SGPC documents like the one submitted to UNESCO for World Heritage status.

It’s a desperate means, according to Pramod Kumar, director of Chandigarh’s Institute for Development and Communications, "to keep the flock together".

Even as the SGPC is trying to go global, says Kumar, "ordinary Sikhs are not listening to their dictates, and are beginning to shed the outward symbols of their religion such as long hair and the kirpan".

"One reason why Sikhs are hypersensitive about their identity," explains Reverend Valsan Thampu, a member of the National Integration Council, "is because their religion lays too much emphasis on external symbols. There is an inherent problem in defining your identity in external symbols."

But it’s not the Sikhs alone who are using religious symbols to keep their people from straying in these transnational times Hindus in over 50 countries across the world, ably aided by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, are discovering a brand new feeling: the emotional distress people of other faiths cause them by putting their gods and goddesses in books, on T-shirts, on bikinis, shoes and toilet seats.

This fortnight, a Hindu activist in the US, with the VHP’s support, sued a California brewery for daring to show Ganesh, a mug of beer in one of his four hands, on the label of its bottle. The damages he is claiming for this offence: one billion dollars. As Gopal Vyas, a retired engineer now in charge of the VHP’s global operation from Delhi, says, "We’re surrounded by intolerant faiths and if you want to live honourably, we must get organised and fight back.This is the only way to stop this kind of disrespect. Otherwise, we keep protesting, they keep apologising, but nothing changes because they know we will go on tolerating."

And it’s not just abroad: Hindu activists, led again by the VHP, went on the warpath recently to protest against a Tamil film called Geethai because it was named after the holy text of the Hindus. The film’s producers prudently averted a confrontation by renaming the film Pudhiya Geethai (The New Geeta).

"It’s the competitive spirit," explains Arya Samaj leader Swami Agnivesh. "The VHP gets a handle because other religious leaders are doing the same thing." Even Christian groups, not especially known for their prickliness, are beginning to take the cue from others. Three months ago, yet another film, Sins, raised the hackles of a Catholic group in Mumbai for portraying a priest in love with a nurse. The till-then-unknown Catholic Secular Forum went to the Bombay High Court to stall its release on the familiar ground of offending the religious sentiment. The judgement went against them but what was perhaps more offensive was the Sangh parivar’s enthusiastic support for what was, after all, a B-grade film. "The film," according to an editorial in the Organiser, "tries to artistically present the intricate complexities of passion and sex." It adds: "There’s nothing which shows Christianity in a poor light. In fact, it could be the story of a Muslim, Hindu or Jain priest."

It’s competition, according to Dr Jasbir Singh Ahluwalia, former vice-chancellor of Punjabi University and head of the Guru Gobind Singh Foundation, that is at the heart of the Sikhs’ new assertiveness. "Whether Christian missionaries and the RSS in Punjab or the need for the Sikh diaspora to assert their identity vis-a-vis the US, it invariably leads to a reaction."

"The sense of competition," agrees historian Mushirul Hasan, "is tremendous. It’s even transforming the architecture of our cities and towns-these contesting symbols, this feeling that my temple/gurudwara/mosque has to be bigger than yours. It comes from the way ’religious leaders’ are chipping away at their communities’ self-confidence, with rallying cries like Islam/Hinduism/Sikhism is in danger."

The voice of sanity doesn’t stand a chance. As S.S. Boparai, present vice-chancellor of Punjabi University, says: "Sikhism is a modern religion and has no need for a defensive attitude.

If anything, it’s more prepared to meet modern times than other religions as it has no unreasonable ideas to defend. Sadly, religion today has come to mean money, power and influence.The SGPC is making rules which limit the definition of Sikhism".

Another reason why religious stridency is increasing, Hasan says, is because all of India’s many religious communities have gone global. "Boundaries are crumbling, both within the country and outside. The speed and access, in terms of funds, information, publication, is unimaginable. All thanks to electronic media and the internet." He adds: "I strongly believe they are orchestrated-religious stridency can’t exist without political ideologies. Else, why have the protests about Valentine’s Day stopped all of a sudden?"

But the real problem, as Agnivesh points out, is there is no healthy public debate on where to draw the line on religious sentiment. "The domain of theology," he says, "has been left in the hands of those least able to handle it-the priests. Religious leaders treat the faithful like sheep and religious sentiment becomes in their hands a powder keg, ready to go off at any time. No one dares, for instance, to question the jathedars on why the slogan Jo bole so nihal is so sacrosanct. Do they have a patent on it? Everyone’s afraid that if they say anything the jathedars will catch them by their throats."

Agnivesh insists the only way to free religion from the shackles of "religious obscurantists who exploit it for their own agenda" is to start a public debate on these subjects. "I have great respect for their Gurus but I can also stand up to them and ask why they cover their Guru Granth in silks and quilts instead of reading it." Even 50 years ago, he says, religious leaders of all faiths were able to sit together and debate fiercely for hours, questioning each other’s faiths and superstitions. "Now, even with so many religious TV channels, no one’s willing to host such a debate."

Sociologist and author of several books on religion, T.N. Madan, agrees. "While religious identities are becoming sharper and protests against offending religious sentiment getting more visible and audible, there is absolutely no debate in this country on theological subjects," he says. "There is no openness of mind as far as religion is concerned, it’s neither encouraged nor taught. In a country which needs instruction in religions more than any other country in the world, religion is not taught at any school or college here." Instead, he says, "religious intolerance turns a handy tool for political combat. The recent uproar over reservation of seats for Muslims in the Aligarh Muslim University-is it promoting a religious minority or politics?"

But others say that religion and debate are mutually exclusive. "Religious intolerance," says Rev Thampu, "is of two kinds: one very blatant, virulent and dramatic, the other more subtle, but equally intense. They both have one thing in common: intolerance is integral to a religious community."

One reason why Christian assertion of their religious identity is relatively low-key, says Thampu, is because of "the hundreds of denominations that have hardly anything in common". For him, the only words for the recent raising of Christian hackles over Sins is "unbearably silly and puerile. It’s because of the media that they stage these kind of protests. They are getting TV and newspaper space".

As Madan says, the educational level of leaders in a religious community is crucial. "If Syed Shahabuddin had not got into the controversy over banning Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, other educated Muslims may not have fallen in line. " While that is an episode Shahabuddin does not want to reopen, he is still ready to defend a community’s right to be indignant about what they hold dear. "All groups," he says, "whether linguistic, ethnic or religious, are touchy about infringement."

Does the State, in its anxiety to preserve law and order, sometimes end up pandering to this extreme touchiness? Opinions differ.Ask people like Sujato Bhadra, president of the Association for the Protection of Democratic Rights, which is contesting the West Bengal government’s ban on Taslima Nasreen’s Dwikhandita (Split in Two) for its allegedly un-Islamic content, and the answer is a resounding yes. "The Left Front government is clearly trying to appease the minorities and play votebank politics," she says. And goes on to add: "There is no justification for the ban. Taslima’s views are her own, based on some historical account. How can they possibly offend a minority community? The government is behaving just like an Islamic state."

Others, like Madan, insist that the State has to be prudent and cannot afford to take risks. Hasan, who himself has felt the heat of overruling religious sentiment during the great Rushdie divide, feels it cuts both ways. "We all make concessions to religious stridency, but at the same time, religious protests have their own autonomy and energy," he says.

So, whether it’s a state or its intellectuals who are doing the pussy-footing on religious questions, one thing is quite clear: it’s time to let the gods be.


By Sheela Reddy with Chander Suta Dogra in Chandigarh, Smruti Koppikar in Mumbai, Labonita Ghosh in Calcutta and S. Anand in Chennai

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