Nanakmatta Sahib

‘Religious Leaders Must Foster Harmony Not Discord’

Lakhwinder Singh, the head Granthi at Nanakmatta Sahib, Uttarakhand, says the principle of compassion for all and discrimination to none must be inculcated in every human being

Dharmguruon ko dharm ki hi bat karni chahiye, siyasat nahi karni chahiye (A religious guru must work in the domain of religion, not dabble into politics). Similarly, politicians should serve people rather than try to be representatives of religion. While I agree that the situation in our country might have become communally charged of late, I won’t say that religious leaders have failed in their duty.

Most gurus do foster communal harmony. Anyone who has truly understood the essence of divine will show compassion to others. Any religious leader who propagates hate towards other communities or talks about them in bad light isn’t a guru. A priest interested in politics isn’t serving God, only his or her own interests.

A guru is meant to guide everyone, same goes for the politician: both should not discriminate. A guru gives people roots, while a political leader gives them wings. Both should be above hatred. Guru Nanak Dev Ji has taught us that seva and daya (service and compassion) are the pillars of true Dharma. Sikhism believes that humanity is always bigger than community.

Across the world, wherever there is an upheaval, political or natural, you will find Sikhs at the forefront. Even right now, people from Khalsa Aid are helping those affected by war in Ukraine. A true religion is born out of compassion. So one of the first rules of Sikhism is non-discrimination and ensuring that we helped those who are in a difficult situation. Blessings for all, wellbeing of all – sarbat da bhala.

Singh believes in compassion for all, discrimination to none

Religious leaders must give hope to the people. We cannot just sit and lament at the situation, we need to do something about it: spread compassion and love. If we want the mahaul of our country to change, then we need to slow down the hustle culture first of all. Only when families get time to sit and talk with each other can compassion truly flourish.

ALSO READ: ‘Religious Gurus Duty Bound To Build A Righteous Society’

If children don’t feel loved or heard how can we expect them to spread love and compassion to others, especially towards women? When a family is strong, it makes the mohalla strong and then the town and then the state, country and finally the world…you get the drift. World peace begins at home. I believe faith will always be stronger than political outlooks.

As about the ongoing hijab controversy, I feel that people should understand that the essence of religion lies not in our clothes, but in our hearts, especially in how we behave towards others. Jaisa des, waisa bhes means you understand the importance of culture as well along with religion. We have a school uniform, especially so we all understand that we are ‘uniform’ while accessing education.

So I feel that people from either side should not fight over these issues. However, I do feel sad about the condition of women in our country. Our mothers and sisters definitely need to be treated with so much more respect. We cannot hurt women in the name of protecting our own religion or trying to prove any other point in general.

As told to Yog Maya Singh

Weekly Update: Could Covid Horrors Return to Haunt India; Hatred Rears Ugly Head, Again

In a late night address to the nation on Saturday, December 25, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that India would be administering third shots of vaccination (booster jabs) for those above 60 with co-morbidities as well as for frontline healthcare workers. He also announced that children aged 15-18 would also be eligible for COVID vaccines. These are timely decisions given that COVID’s latest mutant, Omicron, could spread rapidly in India. The challenge of vaccinating a population as large as India’s is daunting but the good news is that, at least according to official reckoning, 75% of adults have received the second dose of the vaccine.

That’s the good news. The not so good news is that if you take the entire population of the country, then just a little over 41% are fully vaccinated.  Also, it may be a fact that the renewed surge of the virus may be inevitable. According to official estimates, at the time of writing, there have been around 422 reported cases of people infected by COVID. The actual figures in a country as large and as divided by inequality, accessibility, and lack of testing facilities could be way higher. The earlier waves of COVID’s spread were marked by a pattern: initial detection rates were slow, leading to complacency; and then, like a sudden horrific storm, the country was gasping for oxygen and hospital beds.

From most reports based on, albeit limited, research into the Omicron virus it seems that the latest mutant of the pernicious pandemic virus is milder, particularly when it affects fully or partially vaccinated people. However, these are not conclusive findings because the Omicron variant was detected very recently. What is known and is of concern is that this variant is more contagious and spreads much faster than earlier variants.

The other area of worry is the experience of other countries where Omicron is spreading. In Europe, UK, and the US, it is seen that the virus is affecting younger people (aged below 30) more than it is the older population. While there is little research yet to establish reasons behind this phenomenon, the fact is that India’s youth (18-20 year olds) account for more than 20% or more than 260 million people (that is more than half of the total population of the EU region of 447. million). Also, a large proportion of the Indian youth is not vaccinated yet. In that context, Prime Minister Modi’s announcement of vaccination for 15-18 year olds is in the right direction.

There is, however, another area of concern. Many countries in Europe have already slammed the emergency brakes in the form of new restrictions on public events, commuting, entertainment venues, and so on. Many states in India have also taken similar action. But when it comes to compliance by the Indian public, it is a different matter. The correct use of masks is nowhere near universal in India’s densely populated cities; and bans on congregations and public events are still flouted routinely. These can have alarming consequences.

When the second wave hit India, the anguish that millions suffered was heart-wrenching. A total of 48,000 people are estimated to have died as a result of COVID in India. Many more have suffered or are still suffering long-term consequences of the virus. Public memory is short but this is a virus that we need to be prepared to grapple with for a long time. And, while the authorities can attempt to do their bit by ensuring vaccination for all and stipulation of restrictions, much of the onus is on us, the ordinary citizens of the country, to be sensible in the face of adversity.

Hatred Rears Its Ugly Head… Again

The perceptible change in Indian society–no matter which socio-economic echelon you look at–is the increasing insecurity, anxiety and existential angst that minority communities in India have been experiencing over the past decade. It is probably not a coincidence that such feelings have intensified after the Hindustva-espousing BJP-led government came to power at the Centre in 2014. This has manifested in several events: a spate of violence involving alleged cow slaughter; pre- and post-election rioting; and targeted discrimination against certain minority communities.

In mid-December, at a three-day convention of Hindu hardliners in the ancient city and religious pilgrimage destination of Haridwar, several speakers made speeches that were inflammatory and could spark or incite violence against minority communities. In some instances, what was said was in innuendoes. But in a few, there were undisguised call for violence and even genocide.

In a country where secularism and equality for all are principles enshrined in the Constitution, instances such as these coming nearly 75 years after Independence are abhorrent. More importantly, it is the response of the authorities that is of concern. Although there were many protests against the speeches and FIRs were filed, no one had been arrested at the time of writing, more than a week after the convention was held.

What is also of concern is the silence of those in power. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has yet to comment on or condemn the speeches. His colleague, home minister Amit Shah has also not responded. Hindus make up 79.8% of India’s population and Muslims account for 14.2%; Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains account for most of the remaining 6%. A surge of majoritarianism and hatred of the kind that is demonstrated by the Haridwar gathering is an ugly development in a democracy that prides itself on tolerance and equality. If, in the hour of need, people at the highest level of power choose to remain silent, does it not legitimise the hate?

Modi Govt Has Dented India’s Image Abroad

When External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, a seasoned diplomat who understands America well, declined to meet a US Congressional delegation that included an Indian-origin member critical of India’s current Kashmir policy, eyebrows were raised. Besides Kashmir, the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and a National Register of Citizens (NRC) that are widely perceived as discriminatory have painted a negative picture of India abroad.   

Signals are unmistakable. United States Ambassador to India, Ken Justor, has removed from his official web account pictures of him visiting different religious shrines. Diplomats posted in New Delhi do not speak on record but they convey their ‘concerns’ privately. Their classified reports sent back home couldn’t be positive.

Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe, although a friend of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and foreign minister of Bangladesh, India’s friendliest neighbour, recently postponed their visits. Dhaka is having to do diplomatic fire-fighting to prevent domestic fallout. While foreign governments are silently monitoring, some of their lawmakers, representative bodies and the media are vocal.

For many weeks, protests over the two laws are raging across the country and not just in the winter-hit North; in cities and not just the university campus where they are accused by the Modi Government and its voluble political and ‘cultural’ arms as housing “urban Naxals”. The government says these protests are engineered by disgruntled political parties and groups of Left-liberals and “anti-nationals” who are “pro-Pakistan”, having an agenda to “break” (tukde-tukde is the term).

The reality is quite different. Violence which has hit many a university campus, critics say, is officially sponsored. Only, the government does not want to acknowledge it. Over 25 protestors have died. Unsurprisingly, the world sees it as a Hindu-Muslim conflict. Nothing draws international attention to a country more than a religious conflict.

Some of the government’s political allies and members of the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) are, after supporting it have, quite opportunistically, done a U-turn.

The government has been assuring foreign governments that its actions, taken and those intended, are its “internal matter”. But widespread protests indicate that concerns persist.  Being a democracy, shutting out the Internet in parts of the country in this information age, legislating and acting without conducting due processes and marshalling of evidence before declaring chunks of population as “illegal immigrants”, even if they came from neighbouring countries, cannot exactly be seen as “internal”.

More so, because far from being a hush-hush exercise, it is part of a high decibel public discourse. The government’s credibility is being seriously questioned. Its aggressive, even toxic justification, calling supposed illegal migrants ‘termites’ and its policy’s critics ‘traitors’ has worsened things.     

Worst, perhaps, is enacting CAA to accord unsolicited citizenship to people in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. If it is meant to undo ‘injustice’ done to them during 1947 Partition, as the official argument goes, why Afghanistan, not really a part of the British Empire, and where India has invested billions to earn goodwill, is included? Why Buddhist majority Sri Lanka, the Maldives with near-total Muslim population, Hindu majority Nepal are excluded remains unexplained. Why a number of communities with microscopic or zero populations in those countries like Jains and Zoroastrians, are included? It is obvious, by process of elimination, why Muslims are not.

Asking people of other countries to become Indian citizens casts aspersions and is an affront to their sovereignty. Two questions arise. One, have those people sought Indian citizenship and two, what has been done about those who have sought and are already in India?           

The Modi Government with over four years left to renew its current popular mandate is firmly in saddle. But the restiveness at home has certainly hit its popularity abroad. What message an expelled foreign student on university exchange scholarship and a Norwegian woman tourist asked to leave for participating in protests carry back? 

Leaving out political shenanigans, the issues coming to fore are how the world looks at India. Since its Independence, it has been comfortable with an India that, despite all its flaws, is pluralist, tolerant of its great diversities and essentially democratic and federal, where rule of law by and large has prevailed. Indeed, progress following economic reforms of the 1990s, democratic values, culture and the positive role of the diaspora have defined India’s image so far.

Pakistan figuring in India’s political discourse has had many debilitating effects. It has revived the “two-nation” theory – treating Hindus and Muslims as separate ‘nations’ that India had rejected right from the beginning. But this has been Home Minister Amit Shah’s principal justification for enacting the twin laws.

The Hindutva fervour has made India seem a mirror image of Pakistan. Ordinary Indians seem like Pakistan-haters and by implication, wary, suspicious and even hostile to fellow-Muslims. Despite recurring sectarian violence that is mostly politically inspired, this has not been India’s record.   

The tragedy is that Modi Government’s own development agenda has been overtaken by the political one. This is compounded by an economic slowdown, a halved GDP, dip in rural spending, increasing evidence of joblessness and farm distress. Most of the political agenda that it is in haste to implement is strongly divisive and two together have contributed to its current image abroad.

Many Indians reject this as foreign ‘interference’ in internal matters. But being democratic, India is not water-tight. There is no absolute freedom, be it political or economic on how religious, ethnic and other minorities are treated in a country. Support to this thinking comes from some European scholars who are mesmerized by Hinduism but are unable to distinguish it from the political agenda currently sought to be thrust. Sadly, many Indians have also fallen victims f this.       

Some of the Modi Government’s own achievements during its first term (2014-2019) are being undone on the diplomatic. Modi’s close rapport with Trump, including “Howdy Modi” has not prevented Congressional censures, the US from trying to block crucial defence purchases, restricting visa facilities, pressurising on “buy more” of American goods and getting India into the US-China trade crosshair. Rapport with Saudi Arabia and the UAE have fetched investment pledges. But that has not stopped the two royalties from holding a Kashmir conference to boost Pakistan’s standpoint. The personal rapport that Modi has painstakingly struck with many a world leader has its limits.

Ditto, the diaspora. They respond to the Indian situation because the governments in the countries they live treat them accordingly. The admiring crowds that thronged Madison Square Garden and Wembley are silent. After Shinzo Age postponed his India visit, a small group was shown supporting the controversial laws in Tokyo. You wonder for whose benefit these expensive shows of solidarity are staged. Politicizing diaspora, even assuming many are Modi admirers, has its limits too.

Granted that we are living in a world — societies down to individuals and families — that is getting divided, if the birthplace of Yoga does not have peace for its own citizens, its plans to become “vishwaguru” (teacher to the world) carry little relevance.

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com