‘India is a geographical and economic entity, a cultural unity amidst diversity, a bundle of contradictions held together by strong but invisible threads.’
– Jawahar Lal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India
When the Partition split what had been one nation into two, on religious lines, the shockwaves caused by the cleaving apart of the lands were both immense and horrifying. The justification of the exercise was to birth a nation called Pakistan, populated exclusively by Muslims who were disillusioned with India. The demarcation on maps however was easier to achieve than in reality; there were people of various faiths on either side of the newly created border, and in the months that followed, the soil on either side was soaked with the blood of innocent people, caught on the wrong side of lines that were suddenly and arbitrarily drawn up. Around this time, there was also a strong push to also try and declare India as a nation specifically for Hindus. When Gandhi vehemently opposed the move to make India a Hindu nation, many hardliners from the Hindu right-wing outfits were furious, and Nathuram Godse, a member of the Hindu nationalist party Hindu Mahasabha, assassinated Gandhi, when he was out for a multi-faith prayer meet, plunging the nation into fresh turmoil. When the constitution of independent India came into effect just two years later however, the preamble declared India to be a sovereign socialist secular democratic republic, ensuring that the killing of Gandhi did not catalyze the movement to turn India into a Hindu-nation, as the perpetrators had hoped.
Religious freedom in post-independence India
Post-independence India has always been officially secular, but the politicization of religion too has always been a feature. While religious freedom is a fundamental right in India, with every citizen having the right to practice and promote the religion of his/her choice, the issue of religious conversions has always been a touchy issue, and has led to many violent clashes. Society also looked down upon people who switched religions, so it was often the most downtrodden classes of people who decided to hop religions. The Dalit Buddhist movement of 1956, launched by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar triggered an exodus of nearly half a million former Dalit people (Hindu communities considered untouchable), as they were fed up of being mistreated by the upper-caste Hindus. Many Dalits were also wooed by Christian missionaries with the prospect of a life without discrimination and perhaps even some monetary incentives. These efforts were viewed both with concern and anger by prominent Hindu right-wing organizations. The barbaric murders of Australian bishop Graham Staines and his two infant sons in 1999, by the Hindu far-right outfit Bajrang Dal, supposedly to put a stop to the alleged forcible religious conversion activities initiated by Staines, brought international focus onto the phenomenon of growing religious intolerance in India. The issues with religious conversion have over time led to amendments being made to the freedom of religion act, by many individual states in India. For instance, the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, 1967, mentions that no person shall “convert or attempt to convert, either directly or otherwise, any person from one religious faith to another by the use of force or by inducement or by any fraudulent means”. The bone of contention often is proving this use of force or inducement. The law is often violated, and vigilante justice is often meted out, as was done in the case of the murder of Bishop Staines and his children, merely on the basis of suspicions of wrong-doing. Law enforcement also tends to be swayed by the prevailing politico-religious conditions, which often results in perpetrators getting away with anything from hate-speech to rioting, in many cases going on to occupy greater positions of political and administrative power.
Separation of religion and state
Since Independence, the Congress party has been in power at the center, for fifty four of the seventy four years, and while they’ve been accused of their religious leanings, it was never part of their official electoral manifesto. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) however changed all that when they started explicitly campaigning with the promise of building a temple venerating the Hindu god Ram, in the disputed land which housed a mosque until it was razed down in a day of frenzied mob attacks in December of 1992. Now, in 2020, even in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi inaugurated the ceremony signalling the beginning of the construction of the temple, and in a way also signalled the beginning of a new era when the Government can openly endorse a religion, instead of having to stay away from religion(s). The long-term effects of these actions on the secular nature of India is yet to be understood, but the outlook is grim.
Prashanth Dwarakanath, Swedish based Indian blogger