Veeragathy Thanabalasingham/Daily Express
A major controversy has broken out over the recent visit by Rahul Gandhi, the soon- to-be president of Indian Congress Party, to the famous Somnath temple, located on the shores of the Arabian Sea on the southernmost part of Indian Prime minister Narendra Modi’s home state Gujarat. The visit in the run-up to the crucial State Assembly elections, raised many eyebrows, but the real storm was caused by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which claimed Gandhi had made an entry in the register meant for non-Hindus at the temple.
Somnath temple is revered by Hindus and enshrines the first of 12 ‘Jyotirlingams’ (devotional objects) of the Hindu deity Shiva. The management of the temple had made it mandatory for non – Hindus to seek permission before entering the main temple.
The BJP’s motive in stoking the controversy was to portray Gandhi as a non-Hindu. Party members circulated the page of the register where apparently two entries were made for Rahul Gandhi and Ahmed Patel, one of the senior leaders of the Congress Party, and a Member of Parliament from Gujarat and demanded that Gandhi “come clean” on his faith.
There is no gainsaying that the BJP stirred-up the controversy with the dubious motive of polarizing the voters ahead of the elections. It went to town with the story that the political scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family had declared himself to be a non-Hindu and many BJP spokespersons demanded Gandhi prove whether he is a ‘Hindu or Catholic
On this issue Vidya Subramaniam, a leading journalist from The Hindu, brought up an interesting point, albeit sarcastically, when in an article on the dilemma faced by Congressmen, she questioned the party’s decision to flaunt photographs of Rahul Gandhi wearing the sacred thread, instead to asking why it was wrong to be a Catholic.
Even Prime Minister Modi slammed Rahul Gandhi for his visit to Somnath temple, albeit from a different angle. Addressing an election rally in one of the towns in his home state last week, Modi noted the country’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, had opposed the idea of erecting a temple, and said pointedly that if there was no Sardar Patel, the temple of Somnath would never have been possible.
Media reports quoted Modi as saying “Today some people are remembering Somnath. I have to ask them, have you forgotten your history? Your family members, our first Prime Minister, was not happy with the idea of a temple being built there.”
Just how unbecoming it is for a Prime Minister of a country like India to stoop to criticizing a visit of a prominent political leader to a historic temple, is moot, but in the context of the wave of religious fanaticism sweeping across India, mainly due to the Hindutva policies encouraged by the Modi regime, controversies of this nature have become an emotional factor in political life.
Rahul Gandhi, who was compelled to clarify his position regarding the visit, has said that he had signed his name in one of the visitors’ book at the temple, but people associated with the BJP had copied his name on to another, and accused the BJP of creating the controversy in the run-up to the Gujarat Assembly elections.
“My family are devotees of Shiva. My grandmother and my family are Shiva devotees. Religion is our personal matter. We don’t give or take anyone’s certificate on religion. We don’t do trade in the name of religion,” he is quoted as having said.
One of the main reasons for today’s internal conflicts in countries around the world is the mixing of religion with politics. We are witnessing a global trend where religion is increasingly being used as a platform for political mobilization. Some argue that religion has emerged as a political determinant around the world.
In this context, it is encouraging to hear that Rahul Gandhi, while explaining his position regarding the controversy surrounding his visit to Somnath, declared that religion is a personal matter for his family and that they did not do trade in the name of religion. Here we see a young political leader who is on the threshold of becoming the President of the oldest political party in India, courageously coming forward to protect the secularist credentials of his party and the country disregarding the political fallout amidst surging Hindutva propaganda.
Religion is essentially and basically a private matter that concerns only individuals and should never be confused with politics. Religion teaches men to live a good and moral life in the interest of the majority of the people.
All religions do not believe in the existence of God. We have the example of Buddhism, whose founder Gautama Buddha, preached there was no God and that man is the master of himself. Of course Buddha’s teachings have nothing to do with Buddhism as it is being practised in Sri Lanka and elsewhere today. But the point that is being made here is that religion and the belief in God do not necessarily co-exist.
Therefore it is wrong to bring in God into the affairs of men. Seriously speaking however, today politicians of all hues do try to invoke the help of the God for their side. As in India, in Sri Lanka too, we see politicians starting their election campaigns by going on a pilgrimage to temples. We have also the examples of our ministers, whose first act in their new post is to pay pooja in the temples. And if things don’t turn out well, it is all common to see politicians and their followers dashing coconuts at temples to curse their opponents. These are all examples of unscrupulous men trying to cheat both men and God. This is hypocrisy at its worst.
There is no denying as to how wrong it is to bring God in to the affairs of men. It would have been understandable if there were some agreement about one God for all peoples of the world as in the Tamil saying ‘Onre Kulam, Oruvane Thevan’, as attributed to the Hindu saint Tirumular.
But that is also not quite correct, as the Hindus have their own God (or Gods), as do the Christians and the Muslims, while Buddhists believe in none. In this context, one can’t help but wonder how one should invoke the blessing of one God without incurring the wrath of another. This is why it is safer and more logical to leave God and religion out of politics.
Religion, as we’ve been taught, concerns itself with the soul of men. In other words, it caters to the spiritual aspect of his life. Politics on the other hand caters to the material aspects of man’s life. These two should not be allowed to mix.
One of the greatest achievements of Rahul Gandhi’s great grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, was to insist and also see that it was put down in the Constitution that India, that should is a secular state.
His socialist views triumphed over the views of the Hindu chauvinists who wanted a Hindu India. Unfortunately today, Hindu chauvinism is able to assert itself across India endangering its secular fabric. Identification of religion with politics usually leads to regressive results, which can be seen in most part of the world today.
(Veeragathy Thanabalasingham is Consultant Editor of Express Newspapers Ltd.)