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Current Affairs ( 1 Nov 2013, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Being Hindu Indian or Muslim Indian



By Chetan Bhagat

01 November 2013

One is always apprehensive about writing a column on religion. Most Indians don't discuss it in public, fearing misinterpretation. The only people who talk about religion are passionate extremists. Consequently, in our society extremists control our religion and politics panders to this.

Important religious issues are ignored in the process. One such issue is confusion that exists in the minds of youth about interpreting their own religion and its place in modern society.

Let us begin with Hinduism. There is a section of Hindus who believe in mutilating themselves to please the Gods. They poke their cheeks with javelins. They pull chariots with metal hooks dug into their back. Hindu Sadhus live the life of ascetics.

Meanwhile, millions of Hindus go to the temple only occasionally. They believe in God. However, they neither follow nor are aware of every guideline given in Hindu scriptures. Many Hindus eat meat and consume alcohol, but also pray to God and celebrate the major festivals.

So let's pose a question — what is a Hindu supposed to be? Is the cheek-poking devotee a benchmark? Is a Sadhu the ideal Hindu? Or is a regular middle-class person, working in a bank, consuming chicken, drinking beer and occasionally visiting a temple also a good Hindu?

Obviously, there is no clear answer. Everyone in the examples above is a Hindu. So what does it mean to be a Hindu in India? We can only guess, but here's an attempt at a list of modern Indian Hindu values.

The modern Hindu prays to Hindu gods, celebrates a few Hindu festivals. He follows at least a few of the Hindu practices, which vary from person to person. He does not impose his beliefs, rituals and faith on anyone else and is tolerant of others' beliefs. He ignores regressive tenets in our holy texts suggestive of gender inequality, caste discrimination or violence.

The above list is neither exhaustive nor accurate, for we have never intellectually discussed what it means to be a Hindu in 21 {+s} {+t} century India. The final list can emerge only after much debate. However, such a list is needed as it attempts to build a practical consensus on religion's place in our society.

We also need to ensure that this list not only follows what the religion prescribes, but is also aligned with aspirations and progress of the country as a whole. If we went back to strict orthodox Hinduism of the 16th century, for instance, it would hamper us from being part of today's globalised world.

Similar discussion and list of values are needed for other religions, particularly the other main Indian religion — Islam. There are nearly 50 countries in the world where Muslims are in a majority. However, there is no one interpretation of Islam.

For instance, take Saudi Arabia where Muslims are 97% of the population. Saudi legal system does not work on a separate constitution, but involves a strict, conservative interpretation of sharia law. Examples of Saudi laws include the need for women to cover up in public, a woman's testimony being invalid (or carrying much less weightage than that of a man's), and punishments such as beheadings, lashing and stoning for a variety of crimes.

The laws are imposed strictly. In a fire at a Saudi school, firemen allegedly did not let girls leave the burning building because they were not covered enough. The girls died. Many criticise the Saudi system, while others praise it for leading to low crime.

Let us take one more example of Turkey. Vying for EU membership, Turkey grants large amounts of personal freedom to its citizens. Religion and politics are separate. A secular constitution governs the legal system. Astonishingly, despite a 99% Muslim population, wearing the hijab is banned in universities and public or government buildings (although this has been recently relaxed) as some view it as a symbol of religion, which needs to be separated from state institutions.

Other Muslim-majority countries are somewhere in the middle. Malaysia is somewhat liberal, Iran isn't, Pakistan is in the middle, etc. that brings us back to the same question. Who is more or less Muslim in the above examples?

Obviously there is no one right answer. What we do know is a Turkish Muslim is expected to behave differently from a Saudi Muslim. So let us ask this question. What should an Indian Muslim aspire to be like? Should it be like Turkish Muslims, Saudi ones or somewhere in the middle?

I will not attempt an answer, as it is not my place to do so. The answer will come from the community itself, answering the following — where do we want Indian society to go? Do we want to progress and create a nation where our youth can meet their aspirations? Are we fine with regressive and violent interpretations of our religious texts? Or is it OK if we selectively choose what works best for our society?

Such debates are required, but are sadly missing as they are discouraged by our divisive politicians. India's influencers, intelligentsia and those who care for society across religions need to talk and work these issues out. If we do not, extremists will continue to hijack our religious debates and divisive politicians will keep exploiting the confusion, much to the peril of the nation.