Examining democracy and faith in contemporary India

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There does not need to be any tension between the religious adherence of participants in a democracy and the political duty of elected leaders when religion is viewed as more than mere institutionalised tradition. In Vedic literature, dharma serves as the systemic basis affirming the validity of a virtuous life. Similarly, in James 2:14-26, believers are reminded that "faith without works is dead." Faith and dharma are all-encompassing concepts that transcend doctrines and rituals; therefore, religion should not be exploited for political expediency.

Hindu nationalists often question if Indians upholding monotheistic worldviews can also respect their motherland. However, the political wave of Hindutva goes beyond this question. In December 2014, the BJP chief was acquitted of "murder, kidnapping, and extortion charges." In August 2016, the Hindustan Times reported that 31% of the Prime Minister's cabinet had criminal cases against them, yet none of them faced imprisonment. However, in a relentless quest to unite the 82% Hindu vote bank, there seems to be a different set of rules for leaders of the opposition who do not play the religion card for political gain.

Instead of safeguarding the democratic norms ensuring equality for all, prevailing authoritarianism is stripping India's heritage of deep spirituality and replacing it with the divisiveness of religiosity. Individuals are either idolised or demonised, using religion as a tool for negotiating cultural and social power dynamics.

Last year, the main opposition leader, Rahul Gandhi, was "found guilty of defaming Narendra Modi." The lower court pronounced a two-year prison sentence, and the high court refused to accept Gandhi's appeal. When the case was taken up to the Supreme Court, Gandhi was finally allowed to return as a member of Parliament. Similarly, leading members of the common man's party (Aam Aadmi Party- AAP) have been recently imprisoned due to money laundering and defamation cases against them.

When leaders are fighting against corruption, speaking on behalf of women, demonstrating care for children, and empowering the youth through educational programs and job opportunities, such leaders are being accused and harassed. But when leaders are ignoring the needs of the common folk and trying to divide the nation on the basis of religion, what remedy do the people have against such tyranny?

So far, the Supreme Court has proven to be the one consistent catalyst for social justice. However, since the ontology behind Eastern thought remains significantly different from the West, the impact of cultural exchange through a colonial past has presented ethical dilemmas and distressing social situations for a people who have not overcome the hurt of subjugation.

The current prominent Hindutva ideologue, K. N. Govindacharya, made a case for rewriting the Indian Constitution where Western ideals of an individual's human rights would be replaced by the focus on the interests of the collective Hindu whole. Ardent proponents of Hindutva push forth the narrative that the Muslim invaders came into a flourishing, progressive, Hindu India; the Christians came in as proselytisers; the Europeans characterised the worst of both these categories, therefore any foreign influence in India needs to be demonised in light of preserving Hindu superiority. This pursuit of preserving Hindu pride has simplified the view of religion and culture to a set of heavy-laden obligations and taboos instead of what it is meant to be – a freedom to experience life and truth in all its fullness!

In India, this tension and confusion have resulted in increased hate speeches, structural violence, and a vilification of the rich contributions of Muslim poets and artists, Christian missionaries, and secular-minded scholars. Even though at the grassroots level, society has maintained tolerance and, in many cases, even acceptance of diversity, yet on a political level, structural violence has been normalised.

Educated members of the BJP who respect India's Constitution and who place a greater value on India's economic development have spoken against leadership in the country, which points to structural and discriminatory violence. But beyond political discourse, in a culture steeped in spirituality, religion needs to return to its core of allowing each individual the freedom to choose their journey to have a personal encounter with God.

Regardless of our backgrounds, each person will stand face-to-face before God one day, and on that day, one will not be questioned on ethnic heritage, cultural commitment, religious labels, or any particular political party's orthodoxy. But according to Matthew 25:36-40, God will question each person regarding their ethic of care towards the distressed and the downtrodden.

Jesus was a practising Jew, but he often clashed with the religious leaders of his time because he exposed their hypocrisy. He wanted people to make sense of their lives by finding an authentic relationship with the ultimate divine instead of getting lost in dogma and unnecessarily politicised squabbles. Those who value dharma and faith need to return to its original meaning if we hope to see a peaceful, respectful coexistence of people, thriving in the world's largest democracy.

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