Leaders of six major religions in India came together last week and called for an end to branding people as patriotic or unpatriotic based on religion, region or community, amid increasing attempts to exploit religious sentiments for political gains.
Leaders of Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Muslim and Sikh communities gathered on April 5 in, Margao in the western state of Goa to express their dismay at communal tension building in states such as Bihar, West Bengal, Rajasthan and Odisha, ahead of crucial elections.
"We strongly object to anyone taking control of individual decisions. No one is to be categorized as anti-national or non-patriotic based on his religion, region or community," said a joint statement issued at the end of a meeting on “Collective Action for Dialogue and Social Harmony”. It was sponsored by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI), in collaboration with the Agnel Region of the Society of Pilar and Bharatiya Sarva Dharma Sansad and others in Goa.
In particular, the faith leaders denounced the attacks last week on three Catholic churches in Rourkela, in the eastern state of Odisha, “at a time when the peaceful Christian community was celebrating their feast of joy – Easter.”
Freedom of choice, rights
The statement said that “every Indian has his dignity and respect and the night to decide what one eats, to marry the person of one’s choice, to choose the education one selects and the freedom to practice whatever faith one wishes to profess,” alluding to pro-Hindu groups imposing restrictions on Christians, Muslims and socially poor Dalit groups.
“We take strong exception to anyone taking control of these individual decisions be it on the part of the state or by so-called cultural organizations,” they said.
“We vehemently denounce mobs that go around taking law and order into their hands and appeal that the Constitutional norms and articles be respected and implemented in letter and spirit. Dalits be given their rightful place in society,” they said.
The faith leaders also demanded that the “rights of the tribals, the marginalized, the workers and the poor be upheld and protected.”
India is preparing for general elections in April 2019 as reports emerge of religion-based tensions in the crucial states of West Bengal, Bihar and Rajasthan.
Local reports suggest tensions are politically engineered to divide people on the lines of religion and caste as rival political parties project themselves as champions of sectarian interests.
The elections are crucial for both the ruling pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to retain power and for rival Congress to emerge from its lost political prominence.
Hindu groups that support the BJP are accused of attacking people who eat beef, arguing the cow is a revered animal in Hinduism, and violently dealing with those opposing Hindu nationalist ideology, branding them as unpatriotic.
What faith leaders say
The statement signed by CBCI Secretary-General Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, President of Bhartiya Sarva Dharma Sansad Sushil Goswamy Maharaj, Chief Iman of India and President of Imam Umer Ahmed Ilyasi, Chairman of Bangla Sabhi Gurudwara Paramjit Singh Chandok, International Mahavir Jain Mission president Vivek Muni and founder of Mahabodhi International Meditation Centre Bikku Sanghasena in Ladakh, strongly condemned those who are seeking to inject the poison of hatred in the society.
Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas emphasized “India was built a secular multi-religious peaceful society. This was not an accidental decision but was a choice that Indians made.” “Today,” he lamented, “there is a certain tendency to look at ourselves different from others, thereby destroying the unity in diversity model and making it intolerable.”
He said at least 270 sectarian incidents, including vandalism on churches, were reported in the past two years.
Maharaj said that considering non-Hindus as non-Indians is tantamount to an insult. "If today one religion cannot see another, then India cannot go forward," he warned.
Sanghasena noted that man has made a quantum jump in science but has lagged behind in building up human relationships. He asked people to "come out of the mentality that my country is bigger than yours, my God is superior to yours ... because we live under the same sun and same moon on the same earth."
Imam Ilyasi said those who destroy society, especially in the name of religion, are not humans but devils.