The speakers highlighted how India is moving away from the core values of the constitution and warned against the dangers of institutionalised religion.
New Delhi: On the 70th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, a group of retired bureaucrats and veterans of the Indian Armed Forces organised a conclave on ‘Hinduism and Hindutva’.
The panel of speakers, which consisted of Ram Puniyani, the chairman of the Centre of Study of Society and Secularism, poet and essayist Ashok Vajpeyi, and former Haryana MLA Swami Agnivesh, all spoke of how dissent is vital for democracy, particularly at a time when India is becoming more and more intolerant.
This conclave is a follow-up of an earlier one held in October 2017 titled, ‘A Fractured Polity – the Relevance of Gandhi Today’. The conclaves are a result of two groups – retired civil servants and veterans of the Indian Armed Forces – coming together after they penned open letters to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government in 2017.
On June 10, 2017, 65 retired veterans – all from different branches of Central services – issued an open letter to public authorities, constitutional bodies, and public institutions which highlighted how “a growing climate of religious intolerance that is aimed primarily at Muslims”. It gave several examples of such intolerance, from the killing of Pehlu Khan to ‘anti-Romeo’ squads.
Then, on July 30, 2017, over 100 veterans of the Indian Armed Forces penned an open letter addressed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and various chief ministers, decrying the attack on the constitution of India. They “condemn[ed] the targeting of Muslims and Dalits” and stated that the branding of dissidents as anti-nationals is an attack on the core values of democracy.
The three speakers, in their own fashion, discussed how India is presently moving away from the core values of the constitution – equality, liberty, and fraternity.
Puniyani provided a historical analysis of Hinduism, Hindutva and Indian politics. He began with how when the British ruled India, they played a dirty game of divide and rule and how some sections of society began to “present their political aspirations in the language of religion”.
India, as a British colony, he said, managed to retain old social classes even as newer classes were emerging. These newer classes, with their values rooted in equality and liberty, threatened the old order – rajas, nawabs, and zamindars. When their power was threatened, they turned to the language of religion instead of the language of power by claiming that ‘our religion is under threat’.
Which is why, on the one hand, India saw the emergence of parties like Babasaheb Ambedkar’s Republican Party of India and the Indian National Congress. On the other, the Muslim League was a result of the British declaring that “Muslim landlords and rajas are the representative of Muslims of India”. This eventually paved the way for the Punjab Hindu Sabha and the Hindu Mahasabha.
Puniyani then broke down the differences between Hinduism and Hindutva, and warned of how Hindutva attempts to encompass the culture, identity, and history of India’s people.
Vajpeyi brought the relationship between violence and religion in India’s history to the forefront. He spoke of how historically, religion has been a source of creativity.
However, today, violence is incited in the name of religion. “India had a rich history of dissent,” he said, adding how dissent is necessary to add something new to the discourse. Even though India has been moving forward in many fields, Vajpeyi said that we are stuck in a “theological frozenness”, a frozenness that comes from the lack of intellectual contribution to the field of theology.
Swami Agnivesh highlighted the importance of the freedom to choose one’s own religion in a democracy. Each one of us has the right to make an informed decision of the values we choose to follow, he said. Additionally, Swami Agnivesh spoke about the danger of institutionalised religion, warning that it becomes a vehicle to carry political aspirations while indoctrinating people and taking away their autonomy. He urged all present to think about one’s own consciousness, without the restraints of institutionalised religion or political aspirations.