Religion in India Bubbles over into Politics

By Sullivan, Tim | The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, WV), December 31, 2014 | Go to article overview

Religion in India Bubbles over into Politics


Sullivan, Tim, The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, WV)


NEW DELHI - In small-town northern India, Muslims are offered food and money to convert to Hinduism. If that doesn't suffice, they say they're threatened. Across the country, the Christmas holiday is canceled for hundreds of government servants who spend the day publicly extolling the policies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Powerful Hindu nationalist leaders - some with close ties to Modi's government - say they intend to ensure India becomes a completely Hindu nation. But Modi himself? He has remained silent as nationalist demands have bubbled over into day-to-day politics, and amid growing fears among minority religious groups of creeping efforts to shunt them aside.

"We told him we feel insecure and fearful, said the Rev. Dominic Emmanuel, a Roman Catholic priest who was in a delegation of religious leaders who met a few days ago with Modi. "We told him, If there were just two words from your side, prime minister, we would feel so much better.'

But according to Emmanuel, Modi dismissed the fears as media exaggeration and told the group it wasn't his role to weigh in on every issue.

A largely Hindu country that has long proclaimed its multicultural character, India has a sizable Muslim minority, a small Christian community and even smaller pockets of other religions from Judaism to Zoroastrianism.

It's a country where barely 2 percent of people celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday, but where the day has long been set aside by families and friends - no matter their religion - for eating, drinking and gift-giving. It has been a day off from school and work as long as anyone can remember.

So when a top Modi official suggested that students come in on Christmas for lessons on "Good Governance - a key Modi platform - anger welled up quickly. While that plan was quietly shelved, hundreds of civil servants held high-profile activities across the country on Dec. 25 to herald Modi's governance policies.

If there was no outright anti-Christian message in these gatherings, Emmanuel says the subtext was loud and clear.

"It's not merely undermining the festival of Christmas, but it is trying to segregate a community and its festival, he said.

Nonsense, said Tarun Vijay, a writer, longtime supporter of Hindu causes and member of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP. The government activities on Christmas, he insisted, were to honor the birthday of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the last BJP prime minister.

"Was it his mistake being born on 25th December? he asked. "Is it sacrilegious for us to celebrate his birthday on 25th December?

Instead, Vijay accuses some of Modi's opponents of politicizing Christmas, calling them "hate groups.

"These are the people who are doing harm to Christianity, he said.

The rancor is rarely just about God. Instead, it's a complex interplay of religion and politics, as the dreams of Hindu nationalist voters combine with the after-effects of Modi's sweeping electoral victory earlier this year.

Modi was catapulted to power on promises to develop India's economy and root out the corruption and incompetence that had crippled the previous government. …

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