Reflections: India’s designer modernity

Europe’s past is India’s future. That dismal thought is inescapable amidst these tranquil Tuscan hills where the clash of arms between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines is a 500-year-old memory. If that ancient tussle between temporal and religious forces is ever again repeated in Europe, it will be because Asian migrants have brought with them the fanaticism and poisonous strife that is destroying their native lands.

But that is a remote possibility. Europe’s secular identity is too deeply entrenched to be easily disturbed. It’s the mind of Asia — or India — that causes concern as I read here in Siena of a man being killed in Dadri and of a legislator being brutally assaulted in the Srinagar legislature that is supposed to be the highest repository of democratic values in the state. That abuse of a democracy to whose letter we pay lip service while wantonly violating its spirit comes to mind in Siena’s Piazza del Campo, which has been called the finest square in Europe.

The red herring-bone paving of the floor under my feet is arranged in a sunburst pattern of nine segments to commemorate a more genuine democracy than the in-built hierarchies of Indian life permit. They represent the elected Council of Nine that ruled Siena from 1287 to 1355. It seems inconceivable here that the Prime Minister on the campaign trail in Bihar should talk of peace between Hindus and Muslims instead of roundly condemning the Dadri and Srinagar outrages that made a mockery of civilised values. The religious sanction for eating beef is irrelevant in this context. Indians who enjoy a succulent steak in a five-star hotel do not do so because the Mahabharata tells us that a hospitable monarch slaughtered 20,100 head of cattle every day for his guests. Nor do dalits eat beef because it is rich in protein.

The point is that people have the right to eat and drink what they wish without looking for any kind of justification, providing they do no harm to anyone else. As Omar Abdullah rightly says, his religion forbids pork and liquor but the bans apply only to him. He has no right to impose them on anyone else. He might have added that if he chose to flout those norms like the late M.C. Chagla, who had no inhibitions about pork although he was also a Muslim, it’s not for others to take him to task. At the same time however, I wonder if Sheikh Abdul Rashid, the Jammu and Kashmir MLA whom his Bharatiya Janata Party colleagues manhandled, wasn’t being unnecessarily provocative in reportedly throwing a “beef party” in defiance of the local Dograera ban, saying it was legal in the light of the Supreme Court order. Even radical free thinkers of the 19th century Young Bengal movement who made a fetish of drinking alcohol and eating beef to flaunt their non-conformism were more mindful of inter-religious sensitivities.

Their purpose was to demonstrate their disregard for the feelings of their fellow Hindus. It would have been a more serious matter if the Young Bengal pioneers had been Muslims. Or if they had chosen to indulge in pork to offend Muslims. A multi-religious society places certain restraints on responsible citizens. They must certainly exercise their fundamental freedoms but they must always take care to do so without infringing on the rights of others. As has been said authoritatively, a man’s right to swing his arms ends just where another man’s nose begins. The problem has been solved to some extent in places like Rome, Florence, Siena and San Gimignano by what some call the dechristianisation of Europe. It means no more than the triumph of the secularism in which the founding fathers of the Indian republic also believed but which India’s present rulers treat as a dirty word.

While struck by the magnificence of Italy’s churches, cathedrals, and basilicas, I cannot but notice that mainly tourists crowd these splendid edifices of European civilisation even in the throbbing heart of Roman Catholicism, the Vatican City state. Most of the few worshippers are elderly women; hardly any young people are seen in church. Yet, I am told Italy has a much higher church attendance than the Netherlands or Germany. Many British churches are being sold off as real estate; churches lie empty in France where the occasional visiting priest is often an African. No wonder Italian churches charge a stiff admission fee. They are more museums than the house of God. A Pew Research Centre and Wall Street Journal survey showed in 2010 that 12.4 per cent of Italians were not affiliated to any church. That did not mean the remaining 87.6 per cent were regular churchgoers. It only meant they were nominally affiliated with a church.

This decline of Christianity began in 18th-century France where religion was associated with both rank and riches. A series of revolutions delinked both the Catholic and Protestant churches from the state and sanctioned recent legislation banning religious symbols (crucifix, turban, burqa) that go against France’s secular ideal. Some Europeans fear that the ebbing tide of Christian faith will facilitate a Muslim takeover. But even taking into account the current influx of Syrians, Eritreans and Afghans, the numbers are still far too small to suggest any serious threat to a Europe whose stability is rooted in economic prosperity, rational thinking and a justified aversion to the experienced horrors of religious dogmatism. India is still caught in the cycle Europe has outgrown. The furore over beef confirms that beneath the symbols of Westminster democracy throbs the pulse of medieval Hinduism. India’s modernity goes no deeper than Narendra Modi’s designer jacket.

The writer is a senior journalist, columnist and author

( Source : deccan chronicle )
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