Religious slights are the buzz as India marks Republic Day
Followers of India's three main religions - Islam, Hinduism, and Sikhism - have balked loudly at cultural slights this week. There's a reason for it, and it's not all politics.
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Unlike some Western Christians, who have come to see the Bible as a book of good behaviors, wrapped around a few ancient fables, many Hindus regard their own sacred scriptures, such as the Vedas and the Bhagavad Gita, as literal truth. Sikhs see the Golden Temple as a sacred space in which men and women from all classes and religions can worship God equally. When Prime Minister Indira Gandhi sent tanks in to the temple grounds to go after a violent separatist group in 1984, destroying parts of the temple and killing more than 500 people, it kicked up immense controversy. She was later killed by her own Sikh bodyguards.
What politics have to do with it
Education has rubbed off the sharper corners of bigotry that many Indians may have once had for each other's faiths, but it has done very little to weaken Indian reverence for their own faith. So when Indians say they are offended by a certain statement, they generally mean it.
Even so, such offense is often overstated by Indian politicians, for their own political agendas.
It’s important to note that this is an election year in India. Even though India's Constitution – enacted 62 years ago and celebrated today on Republic Day – enshrines secular values and religious freedom, in practice India is a nation where different religious communities live with their own, vote for their own, and protect their own interests, sometimes ahead of national interests.
The break down
Islam is the second-most practiced religion in India after Hinduism, but at 13.4 percent of the population, it's still a minority group looked upon with suspicion and treated as one would treat an enemy. A constant theme at Delhi dinner parties, is conversation on the penchant for Indian Muslims to root for Pakistan during cricket matches. Indian Muslims frequently seek protection under the Indian Constitution, which prohibits the abuse of any religion.
The large but disparate Hindu majority often feels threatened by smaller and better organized minorities, and is quick to take offense when the ancient faith of Hinduism is disparaged by outsiders. (Many British colonial administrators showed favoritism for Muslim princes, because at least they found the Islamic faith more comprehensible than Hinduism.)
Sikhs, meanwhile, are a much smaller group, concentrated in the border state of Punjab, and after an ugly separatist movement tipped the country toward war and succeeded in assassinating Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, today’s Sikh leaders are trying to find a place for themselves in a newly globalized India. Within India, Sikhs are also often the butt of ethnic jokes, so it’s not a surprise if they take Leno’s joke as yet another slight.
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