Sectarian politics affects Indians globally

By Dev Nadkarni

Religion is the currency of politics in India. Without religion and caste no political party can ever grab the attention of the voting public before an impending election. Creating or engineering religious issues out of thin air before an election is an old trick politicians have repeatedly used – but the sad fact is that even after six decades of independence, masses of people are still fall prey to such trickery.

Politicians, their lackeys and individuals who are after cheap publicity think nothing of wading into even a mere whiff of a controversy, making mountains out of molehills simply because of the publicity it generates and their grossly erroneous belief that it polarises people enough to strengthen their support base. Creating an ‘us versus them’ schism is their only stratagem to get the flock together – or so goes their belief.

In two instances last week the Indian government decided to wade into events it would probably not have bothered to even consider had it not been for state elections which are round the corner. Its hasty, poorly though out stands on the controversy generated at the literary festival at Jaipur – where British author of Indian origin Salman Rushdie was to have delivered an address – and TV host Jay Leno’s show in which he made a reference to the Golden Temple have proved once again that Indian politicians have a long way to go in separating real life issues confronting people as against peripheral but emotional ones that they believe deliver votes.

While there was no need whatsoever for the government to wade into these issues in the first place, it did so with gusto simply because there is an election at hand. In the process, it has not only tainted itself but Indians in every part of the globe as being hypersensitive, highly intolerant fundamentalists who have neither the intellectual capacity nor the broad outlook to take a different point of view in their stride.

Its stand on the Rushdie affair has been rightly compared to the authoritarian Chinese government’s style of clamping down on free thought and free speech in that country. Minister Vayalar Ravi’s ill-considered missive to the United States government on the Jay Leno affair got the curt response it so richly deserved. The Indian government has exposed itself as being a mercenary guardian of narrow minded, intolerant religious zealots, which receives its payments in votes. And India prides itself as being the world’s largest democracy.

The Indian ethos is one of the world’s most tolerant. India has been a melting pot of a range of religions, denominations, castes and creeds, which has not just survived but thrived over millennia. It has been the cradle of the eastern world’s four great religions, all of which have always lived in harmony, adopting one another’s practices and mores seamlessly.

But every society has its fringe groups who are big on bluster but essentially small in numbers. But it is common for the typical Indian politician to fall for the bluster, ignoring the silent but eminently sensible majority and jockey themselves to don the mantle of the great saviour of these intolerant, extreme, fringe groups and individuals who thrive on the pyrotechnics that controversies invariably generate.

The vast majority of people are only interested in getting on with their lives. A controversial author speaking at a literary festival or a highly popular television satirist making a passing comment can hardly affect their every day lives. But politicians taking up cudgels on behalf of the intolerant, publicity hungry lunatic fringe is what can severely affect their daily lives in many ways – something that the Indian political class fails to grasp.

By wading into such non-issues and needlessly glorifying them with their involvement merely for achieving their narrow political ends, Indian politicians are doing a disservice to Indians not only in India but all over the world in an increasingly globalised society.
The past week’s events have shown that the Indian politician and the government actually sponsors a narrow, sectarian mindset that is hardly representative of most Indians around the world.

First appeared in Indian Weekender, January 2012