As I fight my way through Bengaluru’s extra-hellish Christmas-eve traffic—in a city where traffic is normally hellish—the back seat of my car erupts in song. “Jaya jaya Girija bala Gajanana," sing the five-year-old and her seven-year-old sister, expertly taking us through the Carnatic invocation to the famous son of the Goddess Parvati (Girija) and Shiva. Yes, they sing of the popular obstacle-remover, Gajanana, or Ganesha (whose elephant head, we were told recently by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is evidence of ancient India’s surgical prowess). As their piece ends, the sisters enthusiastically join the other three children—my brat included—in belting out “Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer."
The previous night, at a party in a neighbour’s house, the woman with the vibhuti, or holy ash, on her forehead, watched indulgently as her son, after playing the mridangam with great dexterity, launched into “Oh Danny Boy". Exactly how did he go from playing an ancient Indian percussion instrument of divine provenance—Shiva’s mount Nandi plays it during the destroyer’s tandava dance, the fountainhead of life’s endless cycle—to a century old Irish ballad of sorrow and loss? I did not think of asking because dinner had been served. The vegetarians carefully dodged the Christmas-eve pork vindaloo and with a satisfied smile loaded up on chana and potatoes cooked by a Manipuri.
Ah, the joys of living in one of India’s few, truly multicultural neighbourhoods.
Not only do our children celebrate their nation’s diversity, they live it. That is a rare privilege in these angry, sectarian times. At their school, located next to a madrassa and a government Tamil school in a narrow lane where Muslims, Christians and Hindus live cheek by jowl, I am happy to see the care taken to celebrate all festivals, even if I am left struggling with the questions that follow.
“Appa, why are we not fasting?" my four-year-old asked me the day before Eid, after a classmate had explained to the class what her family did during Ramzan.
“We aren’t Muslim my love," I said, instantly regretting my answer. I see no reason why a four-year-old should be forced into a religious choice.
“Then what are we?"
“Er, um, Hindu, but we are Indian. We have lots of festivals, don’t we?"
She mulled that answer. “Yes, Diwali, Eid, Ganesha, Christmas."
Today, as the killjoys at Delhi’s ministry for human resource development celebrate “good-governance day", a barely concealed attempt to negate Christmas cheer, they might want to consider the effects of pigeonholing India’s diversities and setting a precedent for segregated celebration, separated communities and fenced-off minds.
Segregation is precisely what the joyless people of what was once considered the Hindu right-wing fringe wants. And although it isn’t a part of the high-decibel, largely idiotic public debate about religion and conversion, the Muslim right-wing does not think any differently. Many believe in living apart and enforcing regressive practices, especially on women. In a Hindu-majority country, especially at a time when strident voices in the majority find amplification, minority insecurities will only flourish.
Insecurity in general is a good explanation for strident religiosity. In 2004, US political scientists Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart proposed the insecurity theory, which said that as people become more insecure, they tend to become more religious. Using data from 76 countries, they found two core reasons for insecurity: high levels of inequality and low levels of human development.
Since then, a series of studies have explored the links between economic distress, insecurity and religiosity. In a 2010 study, Daniel Chen, an economist, demonstrated how Indonesians prayed more often and sent their children to Islamic schools in greater numbers, after the Asian financial crisis.
Although India has great hopes from Modi, it is also in the throes of great social and economic upheaval. Millions either have no jobs or work in jobs unsuited for their qualifications. India’s Hindu right-wing loonies may prove to be anything but. They are only too aware of these insecurities—and, of course, are subject to the same unsettled feeling—appear to be working to a plan, clearly set in motion soon after a favourable government took power. Developments of the insecurity theory throw up new questions. “For instance," asked Dutch sociologists Tim Immerzeel and Frank van Tubergen, in a 2013 paper, “Do people become more religious when they are unemployed themselves, or when the unemployment rate in their own country increases?" Insecurities, they say, are not just economic but existential, such as the threat of terrorism or a death in the family.
In other words, these appear to be fertile conditions for an appeal to people’s religious beliefs and an opportunity to plug in to their insecurities.
It is a particularly important time for the governments of the day—at Delhi and in the states—to soothe the insecurities of the majority and the minorities. The otherwise voluble Modi’s previous utterances and track record explain why he stays silent. This silence encourages moves to overtly and covertly segregate India’s communities.
No good can come of this segregation. If it grows and strengthens, it is conceivable that India may be, as some warn, on the same path that Pakistan was set on by former dictator Zia-ul-Haq; that the joy of multi-cultural life may be sucked out of this country; that one day Christmas will be a festival only for Christians.
In my little corner of India, there is yet no evidence of this segregation. Sometimes, my daughter goes to Sunday mass with her best friend. Sometimes, she brings her palms together and loudly intones “namaskara" as we pass the local “Allah house", asking when she can visit. Sometimes, she complains that it’s been too long since she visited a temple. I am not sure why she is so interested in religion, but I suppose her motivation is the prospect of sharing her joy with friends. It is a far stronger motivator than insecurity and hate ever will be.
Samar Halarnkar is a Bengaluru-based journalist.