A steep descent from secular heights

India's journey of 75 years, instead of strengthening our oneness, now sees Hindus turn away from Muslims and Christians. Is this the right direction?

Muslim schoolgirls protest in Jaipur against BJP MLA Balmukund Acharya's remarks against hijab, calling out 'Baba maafi mangega (the Baba must apologise)' (screengrab from a video shared by @NargisBano70/X)
Muslim schoolgirls protest in Jaipur against BJP MLA Balmukund Acharya's remarks against hijab, calling out 'Baba maafi mangega (the Baba must apologise)' (screengrab from a video shared by @NargisBano70/X)


"Jai Hind! Vande Mataram!”

That’s how the pilot of the flight taking us to Patna signed off, after informing us that we were descending from a height of 35,000 feet.

It felt like we were plunging to a different depth; a different kind of turbulence was gnawing at me. Did my fellow travellers have the same sense of unease?

I wanted to ask the crew why ‘Vande Mataram’ had to be tacked on to the old greeting of ‘Jai Hind’. But then I wondered if I was overreacting. On 26 January this year, in my university housing colony, the slogan of ‘Vande Mataram’ was raised after unfurling the national flag. I didn’t object. Why?

Why can’t we understand that ‘Vande Mataram’ is associated with painful memories of violence for Muslims? ‘Bharat mein rehna hai toh Vande Mataram kehna hai’ is a slogan many Hindus do not see as problematic.

Sitting in the same aircraft, why did it feel like we weren’t in the same moral universe? Is this normal?

A story from Jaipur came to mind. A first-time MLA of the ruling BJP went to a government girls’ school with a fair number of Muslim students. It was possibly the school’s annual day function, and parents were also in attendance.

The MLA wanted the assembly to chant ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ after him. He didn’t stop here. “Saraswati Mata ki Jai”, he said, expecting the girls to repeat it after him. The response was muted. This infuriated him. He raised the bar with the next slogan: “Jai Shri Ram”. The Muslim girls kept mum. He then lambasted the principal for allowing the students to wear hijab.

Newly elected BJP MLA in Rajasthan, Swami Balmukund Acharya (photo: Balmukund Acharya/Facebook)
Newly elected BJP MLA in Rajasthan, Swami Balmukund Acharya (photo: Balmukund Acharya/Facebook)
Balmukund Acharya/Facebook

In reaction, the girls staged a public protest, demanding action against the MLA’s uncalled-for insistence and interference. They asserted their right to wear hijab.

Meanwhile, other BJP members added their voices to the MLA’s strident call to ban hijab in schools.

I found it very encouraging that these young girls were bold enough to stand up for themselves, and indeed, for their principal. They sang the Saraswati vandana five days of the week, they said, so why should singing the dua on Fridays be a problem?

Why indeed.

I recalled a conversation with a politician friend from Bihar, who has built a school in his village. Some parents complained when they learnt that the dua is the school prayer. While he refused to be browbeaten into changing it, he continues to feel distraught. Why this aversion to anything Muslim?

And what kind of fallout did the MLA’s tirade have on the lives of those schoolgirls in Jaipur?

I learn that Hindu students are now telling their Muslim classmates, “If you wear hijab, we will wear saffron.” What a sinister instance of tit-for-tat. Hindu girls, who never customarily wear saffron stoles and never had any issue with hijab, now feel compelled to compete with their schoolmates with retaliatory identity markers. Shared spaces are torn apart. Camaraderie and coexistence in the classroom whipped into antagonism.

To call it mutual antagonism might misrepresent reality. The zone of assault clearly springs from the Hindu sensibility being forged into an opposition with the ‘Other’, be it Muslim or Christian; a division into ‘us’ and ‘them’. If ‘they’ eat meat, vegetarianism is to be thrust upon them. If ‘they’ celebrate Christmas, so too must Tulsi poojan be done. If Valentine’s Day is so popular among all, it must be marked as Mata Pita Diwas instead.

It is the Hindus who flaunt their muscle-power in front of mosques and chant the Hanuman Chalisa while Muslims are performing namaz. Collective recitation of the Hanuman Chalisa is not a daily practice in the life of a devout Hindu the way namaz is for a devout Muslim. Why then are Hindus surrounding Muslims and singing the Hanuman Chalisa?

It would be farcical if it weren’t such a sad and ugly expression of hate and intimidation. Interrupting the faithful at prayer is wrong, but not for the Hindu right.

We don’t see Muslims or Christians celebrating their special days with intent to humiliate or even inconvenience Hindus. They don’t make inflammatory stops before temples or chant anti-Hindu slogans in their religious processions. So, it cannot be called mutual antagonism. All one can say is that they are befuddled by Hindus targeting their religious occasions with anti-Muslim arrows.

This division is revealing itself in different ways. We have news from Karnataka of tensions over which flag is to be hoisted at public events—the tricolour with the Ashoka chakra or the saffron pennant with Hanuman’s face. The same political party that had cried blasphemy when farmers hoisted the Nishan Sahib at the Lal Qila is organising state-wide agitations to replace the national flag with the Hanuman flag.

In Manipur, the battle lines are drawn between the Kukis and the Meiteis. Forget reconciliation, even intersections have become unimaginable.

In Assam, we hear the chief minister issuing statements daily claiming that ‘Miya’ Muslims are not Assamese. Here is a constitutional figure telling his own people they don’t belong.

These schisms have widened in the wake of the inauguration of a State-sponsored and BJP-controlled Ram temple on the site of the illegally demolished Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. Countrywide excitement among the Hindu majority was induced by the government through its mouthpiece media. Donations were collected in housing colonies, colleges and institutions to celebrate the inauguration.

All houses were to be illuminated for the occasion. Those that chose not to risked the ire of their neighbours. Many Muslims felt compelled to participate.

The PM described it as the end of 500 years of mental slavery. The cabinet hailed it as the liberation of the nation’s soul. What’s the use of saying that this sentiment is not shared by a significant section of the country. Do any of us matter?

Such are the thoughts that assail me when I think about my nation. The journey of 75 years, instead of strengthening our oneness, has seen Hindus turning away from Muslims and Christians.

Their hearts are hardened. They have been made to believe that this is a crusade, a righteous war of revenge against Islamic invaders, whose depredations modern-day Muslims, our compatriots in this nation, must pay for, through pitiless lynchings and everyday aggressions.

My return flight was on the same airline. No announcement was made about the heights we were descending from, no slogans chanted. The pilot told the crew to prepare for landing. I heaved a sigh of relief.

But for how long? What turbulences awaited me on the ground?

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