My dearest daughter,
As I write this letter to you, a new India is rising. Some say an era of hope, nationalistic pride and development is at hand, where lost greatness will be regained. Others predict an era of hate and darkness, where our worst instincts will overwhelm the founding principles of your country. By the time you come of age in 2028, the path your nation took back in 2017 would be amply clear.
Last week, I was wearing my optimistic hat, and I wrote that our Prime Minister, Narendra Modi--he may be yours as well--would not be able to convert India into a Hindu Pakistan because that would cripple his own ambitions of creating a “developed nation” by 2022: This does not mean you should expect neatness, order and prosperity around you. What you should expect is a Hindu India. The ascendance of a hate-spewing yogi with a criminal record was enough to shock my conditional optimism into pessimism.
It is hard not to be pessimistic. A tide of righteous resentment is currently sweeping your country, targeted at its minorities and at a tiny, elite--yes, I among them--who call themselves liberal and secular. These are terms you may never hear, but you know them because you lived these ideals. When you were seven, you had two best friends. One was Muslim, the other was Christian. You shared in their lives, and they in yours. Along with the Sanskrit invocations you learned in school and those stories of the Mahabharata and Ramayana from your grandmother, you learned hymns at church, knew when maghrib prayers began and once suggested that we fast during Ramzan. We were fortunate to live in a neighbourhood of great diversity and togetherness. Did you know that your first Diwali was organised by Muslim friends in a completely Muslim neigbourhood?
There are many things you may not remember because your memories might be overwhelmed by new India’s unending flood of discoveries: The rishis and munis who, we are already being told, invented flight, nuclear power and inter-species head transplants; the vedic mantras that may made possible India’s first mission to Jupiter; and how our national drink, cow urine, supposedly cures cancer. You probably know the cow as our national animal, but an aggressive, meat-eating creature once held that honour. Of course, the tiger must be extinct, its forests given over to development.
Much of what you heard when you were a child may now be myth.
For instance, that great Ram temple at Ayodhya: There was once a mosque called the Babri Masjid there. You have heard me say how wrong it is to strengthen your faith by destroying that of others, how wrong it is to be so insecure that you get pleasure by oppressing others, forcing on them your view of life and culture. Did you know that Karnavati was once Ahmedabad, Bhagyanagar once Hyderabad and Sambhaji Nagar once Aurangabad? Rana Pratap Marg in Delhi was, for decades, Akbar road, named after a great emperor who forged the best of Muslim and Hindu cultures but could not escape the tag of invader, because his forefather was one. Of course, the forefathers of your Prime Minister were also invaders from a time further back but are now Hindu, so that does not count.
In my era, to not be a Hindu--or to be a secular Hindu--is to invite scorn and suspicion at best and hate and violence at worst. We, as secular Indians, lose friends every day, as India’s majority buys into a narrative that minorities--especially those invaders -- must live at our sufferance. We, as Hindus, are now infatuated with the passions our new leaders have excited in us, and history tells us that mass infatuations do not easily fade. Around you, the signs of repression will be evident. Some minorities may have accepted their place, others may be in conflict with the state. India is empowering--as one commentator put it this week --the worst of itself.
But you, my dear, are a Hindu, however flawed a Hindu you may be if you have followed your parents’ path. To be Hindu is to be privileged--I fear for your friends who were not--and you can always cash in on that privilege. As I and your mother told you, you can be anything you choose. If you embrace another religion and select as your partner someone from another religion--unless such marriages have been banned--you know we will always approve. After all, growing up, some of your friends came from inter-religious marriages, where both mother and father retained their religions and imbibed your friends with the best of both worlds.
If you choose to be a Hindu, do remember the forgotten tenets of your religion and the wisdom of its scholars. You will find it ironic that Swami Vivekananda--yes, the same one eulogised by our great leader--said that quarrels and disputes over religion indicate the absence of spirituality, that his faith preached “universal toleration” and all religions as being true. Remember what the Upanishads say: “Sarve bhavanthu sukhinah...maakaschit dukha bhaag bhavet. May all become happy. May no one suffer.
Recall that heritage of love and tolerance, not the heritage of hate that infatuates your nation, and fight for and find your place in your India. There will be nowhere to run to because vast swathes of the world will be milder or more virulent versions of your country. The principles your family lives (or lived) by may fade, but they will never disappear.
As a columnist, I do not claim to be able to affect the course of a nation on a path to repudiate its own scriptures and principles. But, as your father, I will try to influence your life. I hope I was successful.
Samar Halarnkar is editor, Indiaspend.org, a data-driven, public-interest journalism non-profit
The views expressed are personal