Religious tensions in India, particularly between Hindus and Muslims, have been fraught over the past few years.
So when the Supreme Court recently awarded Hindus the contested holy site in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, where the Babri Masjid mosque stood for 500 years, fears that religious violence would erupt were palpable in India. When a Hindu mob demolished the mosque in 1992, violent riots broke out and thousands of Indians died.
Yet the Muslim community’s response to the Supreme Court’s verdict was a refreshing reminder of what kind of democratic society India was meant to be. The Muslim parties involved in the legal dispute said they would comply with the ruling and called for the Muslim community at large to maintain order and not protest.
Of course, this doesn’t mean the Islamic community agrees with the court’s decision or believes it’s fair. On the contrary, they have called it “unjust” and some of the litigants announced they would appeal court’s decision, which has been criticized as being based more on faith than facts. The senior Muslim member of parliament stated that while he accepted the Supreme Court’s supremacy in the rule of law, it did not mean the court was infallible.
I have written before about the complicated and violent history of the Ayodhya holy site, claimed by both Muslims and Hindus, the latter who believe it is the birthplace of the Hindu deity Lord Ram. Evidence presented to the Supreme Court by the Archaeological Society of India stated that there was a religious structure at the site before a mosque was built, but as many Hindu leaders throughout India would admit, it’s a question of faith as to whether it was the birthplace of a mythical deity. What’s even more puzzling about the case is that despite determining the demolition of the mosque in 1992 was a criminal act, the court decided to give the site to Hindus. Additionally, the court’s decision has been questioned by a previous Supreme Court justice, who pointed out that the Indian Constitution states that the status of religious structures would stand as current after the constitution was adopted in 1947 — a fact that the court acknowledged. Therefore, this case presents a concerning precedent for a country literally riddled with layers of interreligious history.
As much as the religious particulars of this case might seem strange and intriguing to the world, these types of situations are not uncommon in India. The truth is that India is a diverse and pluralistic nation like few others. It has the largest Hindu and the second-largest Muslim populations in the world, not to mention many other significant religious minorities such as Christians, Buddhists, and Sikhs. In a land so rich with diversity and with a long religious history, it’s no wonder that arguments about religion would often be at the heart of public discourse and, naturally, serve as the backdrop for social conflict. Otherwise, how is a pluralistic nation such as India supposed to function as a democracy?
B.R. Ambedkar, the architect of India’s Constitution, had a vision for our pluralistic society to also be a functioning democracy. Born a Dalit, from the lowest rung in the caste system, Dr. Ambedkar knew that India would only succeed as a democracy if it embraced its diversity as a strength and not as a weakness.
“Political democracy cannot last unless there lies at the base of it social democracy. What does social democracy mean? It means a way of life which recognizes liberty, equality and fraternity as the principles of life,” Dr. Ambedkar once said.
This ideal of social democracy is also why he made sure that freedom of religion and conscience was enshrined in the constitution. To Dr. Ambedkar, himself a convert to Buddhism, believed religious liberty not only included freedom to practice the religion of one’s choosing, but also freedom from having someone else’s religious beliefs imposed on oneself.
“The sovereignty of scriptures of all religions must come to an end if we want to have a united integrated modern India,” Dr. Ambedkar said.
Dr. Ambedkar understood that India is too pluralistic — too rich in its universe of cultures, religions, languages and peoples — for zero-sum approaches to complex, religious, and ethnic issues. A majoritarian hegemony over culture and life in India could simply not work.
Perhaps precisely wanting to follow Dr. Ambedkar’s vision, the Supreme Court of India opted for a decision that would promote peace and harmony in the nation. One can only imagine what would have happened had the court ruled in favor of the Muslims. This charitable response of India’s Muslims ought to present a moment of self-reflection for India’s Hindu interest groups as they ask themselves if their communities would have responded similarly.
“For once, the Supreme Court has actually drawn a fine balance between expectations, faith, secular principles and law,” observed Sajan Poovayya, a senior advocate at the Supreme Court.
But this kind of compromise only works if the losing party — Indian Muslims — express largesse and maintain peace in society. It also will only work if Hindu extremists stop their historical revisionism and give up their claim to other religious structures in India.
I hope that India will pass this latest test to our democracy, and prove that a diverse and distinct group of people can continue to come together to form one, unified nation. At least, this is the prayer of India’s Christian community, whose nearly 2000-year-old history on the subcontinent is anchored in the life and martyrdom of the Apostle Thomas.
Most Rev. Joseph D’Souza is widely considered one of the most influential voices of global Christianity. He is a justice and peace campaigner, civil rights advocate, interfaith peacemaker and Christian theologian. Rev. D’Souza is the founder and international president of Dignity Freedom Network, a multinational advocacy and humanitarian aid alliance dedicated to restoring human dignity to the poor, marginalized and outcastes of South Asia. Since its founding in 2001, the network has impacted an estimated 14 million people through its educational, anti-human trafficking, health care and economic development initiatives. Rev. D’Souza presides as moderator bishop and primate — or archbishop — over the Good Shepherd Church of India. He is a sought-after international speaker, participating in conferences, peace summits and civil society forums across the world and debriefing governmental bodies on religious freedom and human rights issues. He is a contributor at The Hill and The Washington Times, among others. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
© 2022 Newsmax. All rights reserved.