Greek mythology recounts the tale of Cassandra, the daughter of King Priam of Troy. When her brother Paris took away Princess Helen from Mycenae in Greece, King Agamemnon took Cassandra as his sister-in-law. After capturing Troy and, subsequently, sharing the spoils of war, Agamemnon took Cassandra as his “share” and returned only to be treacherously murdered by his own wife Clymnestra and her paramour Aegisthus. Cassandra’s warning to Agamemnon was not heeded and she was also slain. But why was her advice ignored? Earlier the god of beauty, Apollo, had fallen in love with Cassandra in Troy and promised her the gift of prophesy. She accepted the offer, received the gift, but refused him her favours. Angry Apollo decreed that no one should believe her prophesies.
This is how the term “Weeping Cassandras” was coined and her name came to be associated with any prophet of evil who was not to be believed.
Ours is an age of doomsday prophets. Nearly six decades ago, Selig Harrison’s famous book, India, the Most Dangerous Decade had created an extensive impact. Soon after, Nehru’s twilight phase set in and ever since, the phrase, “the most dangerous decade”, has been repeated far too often. But with hindsight and in the contemporary context, it seems that it was akin to crying wolf.
This, however, does not mean that divisive forces are not lurking around to raise their voices whenever there is an opportunity. Amazingly, the iconic nature of the cow or Gau Mata, representing man’s oneness with nature, started changing over time and it came to represent the worst in the socioeconomic system. Political battles around the cow intensified. Ironically, the bovine species became a symptom of the deep fissures within society.
On 5 April this year, gau rakshaks allegedly affiliated to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal attacked five persons in Alwar while they were transporting milch cows. One of them died. On 11 July 2016, a cow protection group attacked a group of Dalits who were skinning a dead cow in Gujarat, and four of them were lynched. This resulted in large-scale violence in Gujarat. In 2015, Mohammad Akhlaq was beaten to death and his son severely injured in UP in the wake of rumours that the family had consumed beef. A video last year showed volunteers of the Gau Raksha Dal forcing two beef smugglers to eat cow dung and drink cow urine.
In fact, only eight states in India allow unrestricted cow slaughter. Recently, Gujarat became the first state to make cow slaughter punishable with life imprisonment. In the wake of the ban on beef and the crackdown on illegal slaughter houses in UP, the Chhattisgarh chief minister threatened that “we will hang those who kill cows”.
In retrospect, with the founding of the Indian National Congress, there were conscious efforts to build an Indian nation on a liberal, humanistic, secular and democratic foundation. The values were shaped by Western philosophy and adapted to India’s specific conditions. A true democratic spirit was sought to be inculcated; this envisaged majority rule with respect for the minority. One of the most important adaptations related to secularism. In the West, secularism was born out of a political struggle against the monarchy and the church.
Thus, separation of the church from the State and separation of the church from politics were the striking features of western secularism. The other essential component was separation of the church from education; this followed the assault of science on religious beliefs and superstitions. Whether the biblical theory of genesis or Darwin’s theory of the origin of species should be taught became a key question in the campaign for secularism. As a result, secularism of life in the West went pretty far.
In India, however, secularism was born and subsequently evolved under altogether different circumstances. After 1857, the British suspended proselytization. Its education system was secular in character. However, through its divide-and-rule strategy, it encouraged the growth of religious consciousness and then religious antagonism. By the time Mahatma Gandhi appeared on the political scene, feelings of religious separation had intensified. He did not reverse the trend, but he did counter the second stage of the British intent to provoke religious antagonism. Thus in India, secularism was the response of the leaders to this gameplan of the alien rulers. It was evolved in the struggle against the British intent to articulate religious antagonism by emphasising commonality and harmony between various religions. This attained fruition in the philosophy of sarvadharma sambhab ~ equal respect for all religions or “Hindu-Muslim Bhai Bhai”. This philosophy of equal respect for all religions and the compulsion to thwart the British policy of “divide and rule” on religious lines, prompted Gandhi to initiate the first countrywide independence movement by blending the Khilafat agitation with the non-cooperation upheaval of the 1920s.
The campaign to separate religion from education was not interwined with the national movement. In fact, the two premier religion-based educational institutions ~ Benaras Hindu University and Aligarh Muslim University ~ were the centres of learning for the early generation of patriots. Subsequently, when the Muslim League mounted its offensive, Gandhi preached the separation of religion from politics. But this message could not be carried to the level of mass consciousness. And as for religion and education, it never occurred to Indians that the two should be separated. As a result, blending religion with education was made constitutionally legitimate in independent India with regard to minorities through Article 30 ~ “All minorities whether based on religion or language shall have the right to establish and administer institutions of their choice.”
It was Nehru who tried to transcend the secular consciousness beyond the level evolved during the national movement. But he achieved only limited success. Later, neither the Congress headed by Indira Gandhi or Rajiv Gandhi, nor the non-Congress non-communal forces, could sustain the minor advance made by Nehru. Instead, a regression in consciousness set in. The slide is now sought to be accelerated and is threatening to wipe out even the gains of the national movement summed up in sarvadharma sambhav. Instead of equal respect for all religions and commonality and harmony between them, some prominent forces in India tried to foment antagonism between religions, indeed between Hinduism and Islam.
But it must be realised that Hindu hegemony in a multi-religious, multi-linguistic and multiethnic nation cannot be established without bloodshed. Behind the trappings of a strong Hindu rashtra is likely to be an inherently weak nation and a divided populace. Authoritarianism will increase and this will destroy the edifice of liberal democracy based on which the Indian society has been built.
Independent India’s democracy may not be as liberal as some of the western democracies, but it was the first underdeveloped country to opt for universal suffrage. Barring some aberrations, both religious and ethnic minorities coexisted peacefully with Hindus. India’s record in terms of solving the problems of linguistic and ethnic minorities has been exceptionally encouraging. However, it has been rather distressing with regard to religious minorities, particularly the Muslims. But the national consensus did not tilt towards Hindu communalism.
The writer is a former Associate Professor of English, Gurudas College, Kolkata