Thursday, August 23, 2007

TIRUPATI AND THE TOMB OF JESUS

Sometime back, the Andhra Pradesh government had declared the area around Tirupati, covering an area of 80,628 acres, as a religious and autonomous township where no other religions can be preached and no churches or mosques can be built. Predictably, this drew low key criticism from the media since a Congress and not BJP government is in power. Now, Christian groups and bodies are up in arms against this decision, saying that this is a denial of their fundamental rights under pressure from communal groups. Quite rightly, they believe that the secular Indian constitution guarantees all citizens complete freedom to propagate their religious beliefs. Both these news have been adequately covered in the print media and television, without bias.

A few months back, it was very briefly reported in a newspaper that Discovery channel had decided not to air "The Lost Tomb of Jesus' in India due to the agitation by the Catholic Secular Forum. Prior to this, seven states had banned the film 'The Da Vinci Code' under pressure from Christian organizations. These states included not only those in the North East, and Goa and Kerala, which have a significant Christian population, but also Andhra Pradesh and Punjab, having much less Christians. Now Andhra has a Christian CM. As far as Punjab is concerned, there are hardly any Christians there, making one suspect that the ban had nothing to do with hurting of their sentiments, the reason given for the ban. Perhaps it was due to the influence of powerful Sikh religious leaders who did not want even Sikhs to be exposed to such a frank and free, if fanciful, examination of religion, in the fear that this might lead to questioning of certain facets of their own religion, thereby loosening the vice-like hold that these religious leaders have over the masses. See the extreme reactions to the imitation of Guru Govind Singh by the Dera Sacha Sauda head ?

The media and others cried hoarse when 'Perzania' was unofficially banned in Gujarat. Heckles were raised when Thackeray said he will see 'Black Friday' to decide whether it would be allowed to be screened in Maharashtra. No less is the noise every year when a very, very few cranky guys lead isolated protests against the celebration of Valentines Day. But, the ban on the screening of the two films related to Christ had the media and others deafeningly silent. Films made by Christians belonging to a Christian country and screened all over the Christian world banned in secular India! And one of the groups in the forefront of that ban was the Catholic 'Secular' Forum! Why was everyone silent on this blatant attack on secularism?

What are assorted Christian groups in India actually afraid of? What does secularism really mean to them? They are shrill in opposing anti conversion laws, demanding freedom of the right of Hindus etc to convert to Christianity. Is that freedom meant to be one way? Is not the banning of these films tantamount to denying Indian citizens the right to freely determine their beliefs and choices, based on information available without any restriction even to practicing Christians in other countries? These films have not been made by people of other religious denominations to tar Christianity. The whole world has seen them. Is not this ban as bad and intolerant as, if not worse than, that the ones sought by ‘non-westernised’ communal Hindus? Is this not insidious moral policing?

It is indeed unfortunate that no one of any note has bothered to criticize and expose this lopsided secularism, which is nothing but blatant communalism. Worse, this is communalism being preached by a very empowered, westernised and educated lot of people who otherwise publicly swear by secularism. To them, secularism means unfettered freedom to convert Indians to their religion while denying them their fundamental right to see and read material about religion which might adversely impact the conversion rate!

Why this Janus-like response? Are our liberals afraid of annoying and falling foul of very, very powerful groups whose pervasive influence runs right into 10 Janpath. Is that why there is an almost conspirational silence in the media on this issue while the Tirupati protest gets ample coverage? Do we lack the integrity to address these questions up front? Are our ‘liberals’ so afraid of being even remotely associated with Hindu communalists that they will turn bat blind to non-Hindu communalism?

If secularism is to be celebrated in this country and communal forces have to be effectively checked, a clear message has to be communicated to the nation that communalism is not religion specific. For this to happen, the media and liberal opinion makers have to take the lead, without fear or favour, the cliché notwithstanding. Tirupati and The Tomb of Jesus have to be seen with an even eye.