Republican India's pride at the time of its birth was that it was a country where religion was not a factor in policy making, in contrast to the breakaway country of Pakistan where everything was decided by religion. That distinction is fading. We may not become a theocratic state, but religion is steadily moving to centrestage in politics and public life. The newest witnesses are A. R. Rahman, Sri Ram Sene and of course Salman Rushdie.
The reason for the rise of communalism is the rise of cynicism among politicians. If anything is more disastrous than corruption, it is cynicism. Remember Oscar Wilde's definition of a cynic – a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Cynicism drives the rulers of the land to forget principles, forget their obligations to the country, and make compromises with evil for short-term gains.
This becomes glaring at election time because selfish, shortsighted parties find it easiest to attract voters on the basis of religion and caste. People like Mayawati and Lalu Prasad, who would otherwise be blots on democracy, become rulers of the land on the strength of blind caste loyalties. Democracy itself has become a farce on account of these aberrations. But the aberrations continue, giving increasing momentum to religious reactionaries.
Consider the strange case of Hosanna. A. R. Rahman composed a song for a Hindi movie and the word Hosanna appeared in it. A gentleman named Joseph Dias representing a Christian organisation took objection. The use of the word in the song, he said, hurt the religious sentiments of the Christians and Jews around the world.
How did he know? Who authorised him to speak for “the Christians and Jews of the world” who seldom agree on anything anyway? Why does the word hurt these communities only when it is used in a Hindi song? It was used in the original Tamil and Telugu versions of the movie a year earlier and Shriman Dias had no problem with that. In any case, Christians and Jews might have used the word Hosanna in a devotional context, but that does not give them any copyright over it. It is a word that has become part of the English language and widely used by even journalists who sing hosannas to their pet protagonists.
If Joseph Dias had asked for a ban on the movie, perhaps the Government would have obliged with an eye on the presumed Christian vote. That is what the Government did when a Muslim cleric asked for a ban on Salman Rushdie coming to Jaipur. In one of the most stupidly handled issues of recent times, the Congress politicians in Delhi and Rajasthan played into the hands of a minority among the Muslim minority to thwart Rushdie's appearance at the Literary Festival. Many Muslim organisations had condemned the Muslim groups that threatened violence against Rushdie. So how may Muslim votes can the Congress win by appeasing only the extremists?
Majority communalism also had its day though it did not attract national attention. In Karnataka, Home Minister Ashok said there would be no ban on the Shri Ram Sene. He admitted, though, that this extremist Hindutva outfit was involved in the recent hoisting of the Pakistani flag in Bijapur; evidently the zealots had hoped to pin the blame on Muslims and thus create communal disturbances. When it comes to hate politics, majority communalism and minority communalism do not cancel each other out; they feed each other.
And they are hugely counterproductive. The clerics and extremists who campaigned against Rushdie actually made him larger than he was, the glamour figure who dominated Jaipur. If they had ignored him, he would have come and gone with nothing more than a few Page 3 flutters. In the event, the extremists also introduced The Satanic Verses to a generation that had grown up without knowing about it. Now they will be curious to read it. How self-defeating. And how moronic of the Indian state to succumb to a fundamentalist viewpoint.