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India is a secular nation but a deeply religious society

Asian Games medallist Jinson Johnson and former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister’s recent public invocation of God made me feel very grateful for two reflections of this ‘faith’ that were utterly non-sectarian, non-bigoted and sublime.

columns Updated: Sep 08, 2018 17:26 IST
Jinson Johnson celebrates after winning the gold medal(REUTERS)

God is not invoked these days. Not pointedly, at least. ‘Thank God’ as an exclamation is used mechanically with not much thought about God or even about thanks. It is just a sigh of relief.

And so I could not help notice two invokings of God that were dead serious on the last but one day of August.

The first came from Jinson Johnson on winning the Men’s 1500-metre race at the Asian Games. Watching him on the tracks was beyond excitement. It was exhilarating. Calm, to the point of being expressionless, he started comfortably, confidently and with no tension on his face. He was at second place for a major part of the race, falling to third and then fourth place. When this happened I gave up all expectations and resigned myself to disappointment – nothing new for us in international sport. But then something stirred in him. It stirred very quietly, very unobtrusively and before anyone could figure out what was happening he was back at number three, then at number two and to my amazement, was level with number one. Bolt upright, as expressionless as always, his legs moving like some leopard’s, his arms whirring like two fans. Come on, Jinson! Go for it Jinson! said practically everyone who was watching and sure enough there he was ahead of number one, ahead by a small distance first, then by a bigger, then by a yet bigger distance, until he was well ahead, was first and was going to hit gold and did. And on winning, he did nothing dramatic, he did not fall to the ground, cross himself or do anything that would show a thrill.

When asked the usual questions later, Jinson just said he thanked God, thanked God alone, and he said he did that for he had been praying for the result that was now his. Without doubt every runner on that track may be assumed to have prayed in some form or other like Jinson but Jinson’s reference to God was different. He was acknowledging his faith, his surrender to God’s will. And his handing over his win to God. The Kerala Christian was doubtless aware that he was saying something that was very personal, very intimate and that, in times when God is not invoked in public any more. At least not that pointedly or that often. I found this sobering.

The second invoking of God came at a public meeting in Chennai on August 30. This was a mammoth meeting called by the just-elected president of the DMK, MK Stalin to pay tribute to his late father, the five-time chief minister of Tamil Nadu, M Karunanidhi. A galaxy of political leaders attended the event and spoke about the departed leader, his democratic, secular federal politics and his administrative skills. More than one speaker referred to Karunanidhi’s faith in rationalism, a derivation from the fervent atheist Periyar. And all said it was now up to Stalin to take his father’s legacy forward and reclaim India’s democratic spirit from what most speakers described as the assault on dissent, on democratic freedoms, individual liberties. When the turn came to Farooq Abdullah to speak, he said struck an altogether distinct and distinctive chord. He said he was a believer. This was obviously said with the ‘rationalist’ background of the DMK. And he said that as that believer in God he was sure that Stalin would show the way to an India of the kind that its founders had in mind. ‘I believe in God’, he said more than once and each time with enhanced conviction. And referring to his own dear Kashmir he said that Kashmiris teamed up with India because of one reason and one reason alone and that was that they trusted ‘Karamchand Gandhi, the Mahatma’, a man of God.

Sitting in the audience that heard the former chief minister of J&K with rapt attention, I found his repeated reference in a political speech to God, quite distinct and distinctive. This was not a ‘May the Almighty bless…’ thing. It was an urgent, passionate invoking.

No two persons can be as different as Kerala’s Jinson Johnson and Kashmir’s Farooq Abdullah and yet within the 24 hours both Indians had invoked God, fervently, one in thankfulness and the other in prayerfulness. We are a secular nation but a deeply religious society and it made me feel very grateful for two reflections of this ‘faith’ that were utterly non-sectarian, non-bigoted and sublime.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi is distinguished professor of history and politics, Ashoka University

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Sep 08, 2018 17:25 IST