Politics and Religion: India’s Holy Mess–An essay by Susheela Menon

Why does religious tension have such a robust grip on the psyche of a nation that cradles many faiths and is no stranger to dissimilarities and differences? Is religion in India morphing into a fearsome mutant devoid of logic or love?

FullSizeRenderThe less religious I become, the more interesting religion seems to me. Its absolute power over the masses and its ability to create belief systems that stand the test of time baffles my mind. Raised in India – one of the most religiously diverse countries in the world – my fascination with religion began only when I moved away from it.

As a little girl growing up in Bombay (now Mumbai), I never once wondered why so many different places of worship populated my city. It felt all too natural – ringing temple bells, hearing the melancholic azaan or walking into churches with beautifully carved wooden doors. Religion was an inseparable part of life and it seeped into me like everything else. I stood in line for a share of the prasad distributed in temples, and listened to the Arabic call for prayer emanating from the courtyard of mosques every evening. I marvelled at the little cross that hung around my schoolteacher Falco’s neck and worshipped Ganesh – the elephant God of the Hindus – as he sat smiling at devotees who sang and danced around him. I sat cross-legged during poojas while priests rubbed holy ash on my forehead, and inhaled the sweet smell of sacred camphor that burned bright in temple sanctums. Religious processions and festivals added some fun to my otherwise mundane existence. I lit crackers during Diwali without questioning why Sita – Lord Rama’s wife — didn’t have a bigger role to play in the Ramayana. I watched the epic television serial – Mahabharat – without once wondering why it depicted Draupadi as mere property of the Pandavas, to be gambled and lost in a game of dice. Those arrows shooting across the sky, ready to pierce or be thwarted by the Kauravas on the vast battlefield of Kurukshetra, held my attention. I almost wished Arjuna had died instead of Karna, and fell in love with Krishna, who helped the righteous win the war.

As we discussed the show in school, I didn’t think that my Muslim friends, who heard our stories without knowing much about Krishna or Karna, felt left out. I wanted them to listen and be enthralled because Mahabharata wasn’t religion to me. It was a story – a powerful, engaging story. I went to Catholic weddings and saw couples in love, wondering if they would kiss. I didn’t see Christ hanging from his cross, his forehead covered in blood. I didn’t ask why my friend Farhan’s mother didn’t wear the bright red dot of vermillion Mother wore between her eyebrows. I marvelled at Aunty Joma’s sparkling Christmas tree and enjoyed the special fruitcake she baked every year for Christmas. I didn’t ask why Mother never went to church or celebrated Christmas. I knew we didn’t have to. The child in me absorbed these differences and let them be.

However, as I grew, I learnt that religion was much more than a set of guidelines. It was so much more than the Gods it worshipped. It had come to rule our identities and dictate every aspect of our lives. One could keep it benign or turn it into a malignant force, depending on what one sought through it.

India has seen a near 25% increase in incidents of communal violence in the first five months of 2015 under the NDA government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, compared to the corresponding period of the previous year when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance was in power. Home ministry data shows that 287 incidents of communal violence were reported between January and May this year compared to 232 in the first five months of 2014. Deaths in communal incidents also saw a spike to 43 from 26 last year while the number of those injured in such clashes increased to 961 from 701, the figures show.

(The Economic Times, 21 July 2015) (1)

I was barely eight years old when I first sensed the underlying currents of religious resentment. The carpenter we had hired sawed through a block of wood as he spoke about how Indira Gandhi’s Sikh bodyguards had pumped many bullets into her. She was no more “all because of those Sikhs”, he said. It was 1984. The Congress party ruled India then.

I listened in terror to stories of Sikhs being burnt alive in Delhi but I believed this could never happen in Bombay. My city was kind, or so I thought. The Bombay riots of 1992 — in which 900 people died and thousands were injured, mostly Muslims — shattered my trust in the city of Bombay. Hindus and Muslims were at each other’s throats after Hindu extremists climbed upon and demolished a sixteenth century mosque in Ayodhya in north India. The brutality with which men raped and killed their own natives shocked the people of Bombay who were once proud of their city and its amazing diversity. I had already left Bombay then and was a student in Kerala (South India), but I soon realised that no part of India was immune to religious tension. Though Kerala didn’t see as much violence, a few stray incidents were reported in the town I stayed in at the time. The old Muslim man, who worked from morning till night in his shop near our home, fled the place when a few vandals torched his shop. I asked my neighbours why he left. He could have rebuilt his shop. They told me he left because he was heartbroken, and how does one rebuild a heart?

The destruction of the Babri mosque was one of the worst examples of communalism in Indian politics and a direct attack on the secular fabric of India. Soon after the riots abated, a series of bomb blasts in Bombay killed hundreds of people in 1993. Yakub Memon, accused of plotting the attacks, was given the death penalty this year by the Supreme Court of India. Amidst much discussion on whether he deserved to die, All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) chief Asaduddin Owaisi proclaimed (2) that Memon faced the death penalty because of his religion. Owaisi heads a right-wing Muslim party that aims to be the sole representative of Indian Muslims. The rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is in power, has created much dread in the hearts of minorities and it is this fear that politicians have always exploited. Insecure Indian Muslims, who do not trust the BJP or its mother ship, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) — a Hindu nationalist organisation, have become the best vote banks for shrewd leaders like Owaisi. Muslims are not the only people who are wary of the RSS. Early this year, hundreds of Christian protestors were detained as they gathered for a march to the Home Minister’s residence to protest against a string of attacks on churches in India. They blamed Hindu hardliners for the violence and expressed disappointment at the Prime Minister’s silence on the subject. Few trust the police when it says that these attacks were not communal.

I made the wicked mistake of asking why Memon was hanged while Bal Thackeray – indicted by Justice Sri Krishna for the Bombay riots – got a state funeral. I was labelled an anti-Hindu and a pseudo-secular by those who didn’t have any good answers. They told me about evangelism and radicalisation, and the need for Hindus to be more aggressive. What I didn’t hear terrified me more. Equality, justice and truth didn’t appear anywhere in the conversation, which ended before it could begin. Will future generations remember the riots or will our textbooks tell a different story? History itself is in danger of being hijacked by those in power.

A country of 1.2 billion, India now has 966.3 million Hindus, who make up 79.8 per cent of its population, and 172.2 million Muslims, who make up 14.23 per cent. Among the other minorities, Christians make up 2.3 per cent of the population and Sikhs 1.72 per cent. (5) The many Gods we create continue to divide us as religion grows to be bigger than the lives it is meant to enrich. There are alarmist whispers about Muslims taking over the country simply by growing in number. I hear about Hindu resentment against Muslim intolerance and illegal conversions by Christians, and wonder if such religious sensitivities always existed. I absorb these details the way I once absorbed the melody of temple bells or the soulful lilt of the azaan. I long for the child in me but I have grown up. I am convinced today that man has turned the idea of religion on its head to suit his convenience. Nothing can prove this better than the nature of India’s appeasement politics.

The BJP, which governed India when the Babri mosque fell, wielded power in 2014. The Supreme Court recently issued notices (3) to senior BJP leaders asking why they shouldn’t be asked to stand trial for their alleged complicity in the Babri demolition case – twenty two years later. Prime Minister Modi himself has come under criticism for not doing enough to stop the Hindu-Muslim riots that broke out in 2002 in Godhra (Gujarat) after a train carriage carrying hundreds of Hindus was set ablaze by miscreants. What is more worrying is the sudden resurgence of religious debates that divide the nation further. Prime Minister Modi is astute enough to know that progress is impossible without change, but is India ready for change?

Indians do see a ray of hope in the judiciary, which has many a time disregarded politics and religion to announce judgments that uphold justice and human rights. That’s what it did decades ago in the Shah Bano case (4) when the court overlooked religious opposition and ordered that Shah Bano, a divorcee, was entitled to maintenance from her husband, but politics intervened yet again to appease those who considered the verdict an attack on Islam. Though Muslims are divided on what the Quran actually says about maintenance, many from the Muslim community protested against the Supreme Court judgment forcing the Congress party to rework the law by passing the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986, barring Muslim women from getting maintenance after divorce under civil laws. A provision of the Act limited the husband’s liability to pay maintenance to his divorced wife only for the period of iddat (roughly three months immediately after the divorce). The Shah Bano case stands as a landmark in the political history of India and is a big inspiration for those who support a uniform civil code – a common set of laws for all citizens irrespective of the religions they belong to.

Religious extremism has also repeatedly interfered with artistic freedom and free speech in India. Artists and novelists who overstep boundaries set by guardians of our many Gods are abused, bullied or even hounded out of the country. Author Salman Rushdie had to pull out of a literary festival in Jaipur in 2012 because his life was believed to be under threat. The 1988 publication of his book – The Satanic Verses — brought about a fatwa calling for his death by Iranian leader Khomeini, which forced the author to remain in hiding for many years. The Satanic Verses is banned in India. Reputed Tamil writer Perumal Murugan gave up writing this year because of protests from right-wing Hindu groups, who ran a campaign against his book Madhorubhagan (One Part Woman) claiming it denigrated a Hindu deity. The author had to seek police protection for his family. Let down by his own people, he withdrew all his books from sale. No political party stood up for him as mobs went on a rampage for many days, burning copies of his novel and demanding his arrest.

I find that India is now seeing a domino effect on its religions. An aggressive Hindutva agenda is giving way to Christian insecurity and Muslim resentment. It is provoking people to create conspiracies and fight phantoms in their rush to protect Gods that ultimately need no protection. Agnes of God, a play that tells the story of a novice nun who gives birth and insists that the child was a result of virgin conception, recently ran intro trouble with Christian groups in India, who want it banned. There are some who haven’t seen the play yet but want the ban enforced anyway because they do not want to be seen as tolerant or “soft” anymore. Rising Hinduism is strengthening extremist views in other religions too. Alarm bells are ringing in the minds of writers and artists, who see this as a threat to their livelihoods. What else can explain the strong stand taken by writers across the country, who denounce the silence of the Sahitya Akademi – a national organisation dedicated to the promotion of literature in India – by returning their Sahitya Akademi awards? Many of the country’s most talented writers have blamed the organisation for being silent on the killing of rationalists and thinkers like MM Kalburgi, Govind Pansare and Narendra Dabholkar, who were shot dead for expressing views that challenged religion as it is practiced today.

As I write, Kerala is seeing beef festivals being organised in protest against the killing of a Muslim man amidst rumours that he had beef in his home. I think back to the times when my family – we are Hindu Kshatriyas and we worship the cow – got together most evenings for piping hot beef cutlets served near the beautiful Shankumukham beach in Trivandrum, Kerala’s capital city. Yes, the cow is sacred to us but it is also food. The thought of killing a human being to protect an animal is new to me. My father shouts into the phone about growing “goondaism” while my mother mutters under her breath. There’s little my old parents can do.

On my way home this year, I looked at my birthplace in a new light. I noticed subtle signs of worship, of prayer, of the different Gods that ruled different parts of the country. A Hindu chant floated across from a tower that stood right in the middle of a very crowded junction. A tall minaret spied on me from behind a school. A massive cross loomed over a busy commercial bank as the azaan signalled an end to the day-long fast of Ramadan.

Religion thrives everywhere in India and blends in with the tedium of lives in cities and towns. However, it no longer seeps gently into us. It thumps its chest and bellows at its opponents. It looks grim, almost deadly. It stares at us from the ash on a Hindu man’s forehead or through the hijab covering a Muslim woman’s hair. It watches us from the little crosses atop numerous churches and lives in the thin white thread found clinging across a Brahmin man’s chest. It grows in synagogues and fire temples, and dwells on hills and seas. It was, is and always will be part of us — silent and mysterious, but compelling and sometimes, toxic.

I shall stare back at it from the margins — dreading, hoping, believing and giving up. I will continue to look for its secrets and symbols each time I drive past streets that reveal the might of India’s oldest ally, one that has undoubtedly become its biggest worry.

The views expressed here are solely of the author and Kitaab bears no legal responsibility whatsoever for their expression.


  1. Sharma Aman. “Communal violence in the country up by 25% in first five months of 2015”. 21 June 2015. The Economic Times. http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2015-07-21/news/64683114_1_communal-incidents-clashes-ministry
  2. India Today. “Yakub Memon being hanged because he is a Muslim: Asaduddin Owaisi”. 23 July 2015. http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/asaduddin-owaisi-says-yakub-memon-being-hanged-because-hes-a-muslim/1/453625.html
  3. Anand Utkarsh. “Why shouldn’t you face Babri charges again, SC asks Advani, Uma & Co”. 1 April 2015. The Indian Express Ltd. http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-others/babri-demolition-case-sc-issues-notices-to-advani-other-bjp-leaders-on-plea-asking-why-conspiracy-charges-should-not-be-restored/
  4. “Opinion – News Analysis. The Shah Bano Legacy”. 2003. The Hindu. http://www.thehindu.com/thehindu/2003/08/10/stories/2003081000221500.htm
  5. Singh, Vijaita. S Rukmini. “Muslim population growth slows”. August 27 2015. The Hindu. http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/census-2011-data-on-population-by-religious-communities/article7579161.ece


  • Gosh, Sushi, this is a complex subject. And here am I, a westerner, daring to put my interpretation on it, although I have made many visits to India, which I love. I think that the reasons for this violence are as complex as the interplay of all the faiths. And without writing a reply that risks becoming longer than your original post, I think the important points are:
    1) It is not a modern phenomenon. There was much violence during Partition, of course, and relations between Hindu and Moslem have been variable since the arrival of the first Moslem invaders from Afghanistan in the 11th Century. There is, as they say, history between them.
    2) The flashpoints seem always to be the crowded cities. In the rural areas, both Hindus and Moslems tend in general to live quietly side by side, attending each other’s festivals. The population of India is becoming less rural and more urban.
    3) The British (to our lasting shame) exploited and exacerbated divisions between the religions, as well as adding to the mix by the evangelical way that we pushed Christianity, especially in the early to mid-Nineteenth century. We tended to favour one religion over the other at times, too, which hardly helped.
    4) The rise of secularism throughout the modern world, which includes India, of course, which leads to adherents of religions in general digging their heels in and becoming more aggressive and defensive of their religion.
    I suspect that there will be many who think I am speaking out of turn, and I know that there are many other factors involved, but I hope this may be a small contribution to the discussion.

    • Thank you, Mick. I have focused mainly on India’s religions being exploited by its own people. Yes, tensions were always there. Yes, there is harmony too in most places. The British did what they did and most religions try to protect their Gods most of the time. However, I believe it may have been less painful had religion never entered the realm of politics. I think it’s a toxic mix.

      • Agreed. It is a toxic mix in most countries where it happens, and there are very few countries where it has not happened at some time. The encouraging thing is that as time passes and the world moves forward, we begin to find fewer countries where it is now the case. We can only hope that this trend continues, although I do understand that it is not likely to change in India very soon.

      • That’s right. India needs many things now. What it doesnt need is more violence, more distrust, more hatred. Hope for the best. Thanks!

  • Impressive 🙂

  • Nilanjana Sengupta

    Enjoyed reading this Sush, reflected the concern of so many of us….

  • Very insightful….

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