Religious fundamentalism & freedom of religion in India

Religious fundamentalism & freedom of religion in India
Participants at a seminar on ‘Religious Fundamentalism & Freedom of Religion’ held at WSBAK, Aküvüto, in Thahekhü Village, Dimapur, on March 24. (Morung Photo)


A seminar in Dimapur offers multi-layered insight


Morung Express News
Dimapur | March 24


Fundamentalism, particularly of the religious kind, has been plaguing humankind for centuries. Intolerance in the name of religions has led to violence and bloodshed in the past, as it does in the present and promises to continue into the future. How do persecuted minorities protect themselves in the face of growing fundamentalism?
Eclectic Christian organizations came together in Nagaland to take a step towards understanding what religious fundamentalism in India entails, and examine possible responses to the encroachment on freedom of religion, during a seminar held at the Western Sümi Baptist Akukuhou Küqhakulu, Aküvüto, in Thahekhü Village here today.


Religious fundamentalism in India
Presenting a paper on ‘Religious Fundamentalism in India,’ Rev. Dr. Roger Gaikwad, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches in India (NCCI), explained that religious fundamentalism is “The over-emphasis on one or a few beliefs or practices which claim to be the fundamentals of a particular religion… A particular religious element is presented as symbolizing the nucleus of the tradition, thereby distorting the essence or the main teachings of the religion.”


With this distortion, fundamentalists, both state and non state, seek to gain power over ‘others,’ thereby undermining justice, equality and compassion. This has been all too common in the Indian Union over the years but more so with the coming of the right wing Saffron party at the centre as well as a majority of the states in the Union.


“The misuse of religion for communal considerations of power and privilege,” has led to a rise in “majoritarian tyranny” in India today. Combined with an attack on land rights of the indigenous peoples through a “dangerous alliance with neo-liberal market fundamentalists,” to quote the Organizing Committee of the People’s March press release in 2016, has created a “climate of intimidation that has led to mounting fear.”


Drawing distinction between ‘Hindu’ and ‘Hindutva’—one a religion, the other an ideology that defines ‘Indian culture’ in terms of Hindu values thereby laying basis for fundamentalism—Rev. Gaikwad questioned, “If, as is indisputably proven, Hindusthan is the land of the Hindus and is the terra firma for the Hindu nation alone to flourish upon, what is to be the fate of all those, who, today, happen to live upon the land, though not belonging to the Hindu Race, Religion and Culture?”


The question could find an answer with ideological motherships, like the RSS, that have been working in the North East for decades now through service-based institutions.


The response to this has to be “multi-dimensional, non reactionary, appropriate and as citizens of the country,” said Rev. Dr. Gaikwad while quoting Fr. Cedric Prakash, SJ.


To pose a challenge to Hindutva though, its central claims have to be understood and contested, for instance, “religions for whom ‘Holy Land’ and ‘Father Land’ are in India can be called Indians,” said Dr. S Akatoli Chishi, Assistant Professor of Religions, Trinity Theological College, while responding to Rev. Gaikwad’s paper. She suggested that the “Church, which has many educational institutions under its control, can respond through education on secular values, upholding the constitutional principles of liberty, fraternity and equality.”


Moreover, “as a church we need to check fundamentalism ‘within’ and be self critical of our approaches that marginalizes the other…education that promotes justice, human rights, equality and establishment of peace challenges the rise of fundamentalism,” Dr. Chishi maintained.

Freedom of religion
The seminar held today was organized by the NCCI, Student Christian Movement of India, Trinity Theological College, Oriental Theological Seminary, Baptist Youth Fellowship Dimapur, with participating partners as Dimapur Baptist Pastor’s Fellowship, Kohima Baptist Pastor’s Fellowship, Discipleship Bible College, Kohima Diocese and the North East Institute of Social Sciences and Research.


This solidarity became one of the platforms on which to assert the freedom to practice any religion, a fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution of India, a country founded to be a ‘sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic.’


Yet, hegemonic politics in India under the current regime have ignited intolerance and affected freedom of religion by pushing violence that is ‘physical, structural and symbolic,’ reflected Rev. Gaikwad in a presentation on ‘Ecumenical Responses to Religious Intolerance and Freedom of Religion.’


Bhumi Pujan (worship of land) before government constructions, calls for placement of goddess idols in education institutions, imposition of yoga and Surya Namaskar in schools, denial of affirmative action to Dalit Christians, anti-conversion laws, cooption of important days for Christians for observation of governance related days, anti-cow slaughter campaigns, Ghar Wapsi programs, and many more such moves have shaken the faith of minorities in the Constitutional promises that make India a united country in its diversity of religion and thought.


An ecumenical response to this onslaught on freedom, to protect the Indian Constitution, came from the NCCI, Catholic Bishops Conference of India, and other civil society organizations. Together, they have protested laws that bar ‘Scheduled Caste’ status to Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims, filed a PIL on the matter, held discussions on policies that demoralize Christian life and social undertakings, done a study of discrimination and violence against Christians and Muslims in India that called for, among others things, a change of the majority perception of religious minorities as ‘outsiders’ and ‘aliens.’


Such platforms of solidarity have also taken them to the United Nations Human Rights Council to report on the violations that have undermined the lives of minorities in the Indian Union.


Many of these issues have been off the radar of Naga Christianity as Christians “are a majority here,” observed Dr. Sashinungla Pongen, Assistant Professor of Christian History at OTS, in a response to Rev. Gaikwad’s paper. Though Naga churches have “stayed away from the tumultuous reality of minorities in India,” she wondered how Naga churches should take this up. “How do we become more rooted in our history and identity? How do Naga Christians interpret such practices as yoga? How do Naga churches define pluralism?”


Her astute questions came to be reflected in the discussion that followed, with points raised by the attendees. Rev. Gaikwad, in turn, gave responses that, if applied, could help churches become a “reforming movement” that strengthen local communities to withstand and question discrimination.


Pastoral Challenge
“We need to go back to the basics of our faith,” noted Kedo Peseyie, Pastor of City Church, Kohima, in a Pastoral Challenge he presented at the end of the seminar. “We are born again through the gospel. They can take away the outer layers but not my identity. We need to go back to historical faith.”


He challenged that, “Churches need to engage in intellectual efforts by connecting with seminaries. We need to go back to the word, not resort to rhetorical sermons. Our hope needs to be fixed beyond worldly identities, in the resurrection of Christ. The church needs to create a community of love focused on one another and love for our neighbours. Let us help others regardless of identity.”


Finally, in dealing with “fundamentalism within,” Pastor Peseyie hoped that Naga churches not just transcend identity lines but also connect with other sections outside the church by harnessing friendships with everyone irrespective of who or where they are.


In closing, Fr. Chacko K of the Shalom Rehabilitation Centre, prayed that “our theology become relevant and contextual” to respond to the challenges of the times.