India is wasting energy on pointless sectarian fights
You might think that, given the poverty, filth and illiteracy in the country, Indians spend all their time debating how to end those issues. You’d be wrong. They prefer to waste their energy on fiddle faddle. After observing recent television and newspaper debates, you begin to think that maybe the country remains a byword for poverty because it just can’t focus its energies on the really pressing problems that deprive Indians of dignity and comfort. Two debates have dominated public life of late. The first one is over the Taj Mahal, a symbol of India. A government booklet listing the famous monuments in the state where the Taj Mahal is located omitted to mention it. A cry went up from opponents of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which promotes a Hindu ethos, that the Taj Mahal had been left off the list because it was built by Muslim emperor Shah Jahan. The government of Uttar Pradesh state later issued a clarification saying the Taj Mahal had been left out because the booklet outlined only new projects, not existing tourist attractions. But it was too late. Heated quarrels had begun. Opponents of the BJP said the Hindu party simply couldn’t stomach a Muslim mausoleum being the symbol of India when India is a Hindu-majority country. In this inane exchange, some Hindus repeated a hoary and preposterous claim that the Taj Mahal was not a Muslim monument at all and that it was originally a Hindu temple. This claim is popular among some groups of Hindus afflicted by an inferiority complex. Given the praise they lavish on their ancient civilization – claiming that ancient Hindus invented the airplane, cosmetic surgery, and stem-cell technology, no less – it is galling that the symbol of India throughout the world was built by a Muslim. It left you shaking your head in disbelief. Some BJP politicians have a problem with the Taj Mahal, which has put India on the map, because it’s not a Hindu monument and therefore they have to belittle it. Worse was to come. The second debate flared up on Oct. 9 when the Supreme Court imposed a ban on the sale of firecrackers on Diwali. This was to help keep unbelievable pollution levels in the Indian capital down, but some Hindus erupted again. “Why target only Hindu festivals? Why does no one ban the Muslim sacrifice of a goat during Eid?” In prime-time television debates, seemingly educated Hindus turned a simple health problem (how to keep a lid on pollution) into a sectarian fight. They played the victim, as though they, the majority, are always being picked on. The ban was turned into an attack by the Supreme Court on Hinduism. Astonishing exchanges occurred, with Hindus saying defiantly that they would, come what may, defy the ban and burst crackers on Diwali. One politician said, “soon they’ll be banning Hindu cremations too because the smoke pollutes the air.” If a debate on the right to breathe can be turned into a Hindu-Muslim fight, then anything is possible. Meanwhile, in Kerala, a few Hindu women who have converted to Islam and married Muslim men are being portrayed by Hindu groups as the victims of a “love jihad” waged by Muslim men who have brainwashed them into forsaking their original faith. It’s a “Muslim conspiracy” to lure Hindu women away. Everything these days is a Muslim conspiracy. Other countries also sometimes expend energies on debates that might seem less-thanessential to outsiders. The recent differences in America over removing Confederate statues because they symbolize white supremacy and U.S. President Donald Trump’s defence of them as “beautiful,” is one example. But America doesn’t have hundreds of millions of people who don’t have a toilet or a home, or electricity. It doesn’t have the highest number of malnourished children in the world. It doesn’t have slums where the poor are forced to live in rat holes that dehumanize them. India’s problems are vast, urgent and life-and-death. If the energies of those who run the country or those who influence public debate are going to be channelled into trivia (hate-filled trivia at that), its name will remain a synonym for poverty. Amrit Dhillon is a New Delhi-based writer.