I recently returned from an extended stay in the United States on a fellowship programme and I must at the outset state that the Americans are, by and large, a very friendly and sociable people.
The ones I met were also quite politically correct. Therefore, I was surprised by a question put forth by a concerned American: “Do you think there might have been some positive outcomes of European colonial rule in India, what with its mission of ‘a white man’s burden’, such as keeping Hindus and Muslims from annihilating each other?”
When confronted by my confounded look, the man asked: “But aren’t religious holocausts quite common in post-Independence India?”
That set me thinking. How did he get the impression that India is like Syria or Iraq? Honestly, though, one couldn’t blame him.
He reads Western press reports on India, written by clueless Western journalists — clueless because most of them haven’t bothered to learn an Indian language or live outside the bubble of anglicised-elite enclaves in India.
They frequently portray India as a communal tinderbox. These Western journalists garner their opinions with help from our elite English-language media, where secular as well as religious extremists have traditionally held a disproportionately loud voice: The former because they are insiders in this group and the latter because our English-language media loves a controversial copy.
Many of these secular-extremist journalists write searing articles on the massive religious violence in India. Words like ‘genocide’, ‘holocaust’ and ‘pogrom’ are bandied about freely.
The religious extremists, on the other hand, play up a sense of historical or communal hurt (depending on the religion of the target group) and relentlessly call for retribution.
Do these merchants of fear have a point? The corporate world has a dictum: In god we trust; for everything else, show me data. What do the numbers say about religious violence in India? Yes, we have had religious riots.
They have been human tragedies, no doubt about it. And we must learn how to crank up our administrative system to prevent these tragedies and to deliver speedy justice if they do occur.
We have had nearly 60 religious riots (incidents where more than five people have been killed) in India since the mid-1960s leading to a total death toll of over 13,000 (Source: Outlook).
I will repeat that they have been terrible tragedies. Also, in no manner do I mean to belittle the suffering of the victims of religious riots.
But were any of these riots holocausts, where millions have been killed? No.
A holocaust is what Adolf Hitler carried out in Germany (six million deaths in the 1940s), what Winston Churchill consciously precipitated in pre-Independence eastern-India (1.5 to 4 million deaths in the 1940s), the Partition riots (1 million deaths) or what Pakistan did in Bangladesh (1 to 3 million deaths in the 1970s) or what is happening in Syria right now (191,000 deaths and counting).
The Native American population was approximately 10 million in North America when Columbus famously landed. It was ultimately reduced to less than a million by the time the genocide stopped. Once again, without belittling the suffering of the victims of Indian religious riots, we need to be careful with the words we use.
Admittedly on an unrelated issue, according to the US Centers for Disease Control, in 2010 alone, there were over 30,000 gun-related deaths in the United States.
That single year’s gun-related death toll in the US is more than twice the total number of deaths in all the religious riots in India cumulatively in the last 50 years.
Now, I am not saying that everything is perfect in India. I am proud of my country, but pride should not blind us to our problems. There is indiscriminate killing taking place in India right now.
But it’s not happening due to religious violence. Five lakh female foetuses are illegally aborted annually in India ie 500,000 girls are killed in the womb every year.
This is 185,000% more than the annual deaths due to religious violence. Many more girl-children die from the systematic malnutrition that they are subjected to. Even when they grow up, Indian women suffer systemic harassment and violence.
It’s not just the government that oppresses them, but our entire society itself. If we want to save Indian lives, if we want to prevent a holocaust and gross injustice, this is where we need to focus. Across all religious/linguistic/caste/social segments, by far the most oppressed group in India today, is women.
It seems that scare-mongering about religion suits the purpose of our ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ extremists. I agree that religious differences are a problem; I would venture to add, it’s a global problem that the human species is grappling with.
But I seriously don’t think India is going to sink into a morass of religious violence. While some of our myriad communities may not be in perfect harmony with each other, we’ve learnt to co-exist, by and large, without resorting to mass violence.
For all the fearful words that are used to describe religious people in India, a vast majority of Indians are like you and me: Deeply religious, profoundly liberal and unwilling to kill for our faith.
The numbers prove that clearly. Sadly, we are not so non-violent when it comes to our girl-children and women.
If we truly love the idea of India, we should focus on the issue of women’s oppression, rather than attacking religion to assert our liberalism.
Sometimes, it’s better to let the data speak, rather than allowing fantastic prose to hog the limelight. You never know what agenda lies hidden beneath the prose.
Amish is the bestselling author of the Shiva Trilogy.
The views expressed by the author are personal