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Syncretism at core

India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj occupied a vantage seat at the St Peter’s Square at the Vatican on September 4. Sitting with her were dozens of high-ranking officials who were part of the Indian delegation. They were there to attend the canonisation of Mother Teresa.

No doubt, it was a purely religious function. Many might have found it incongruous that a secular government and that too led by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would send such a large delegation to the Vatican. Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted from China to recall how Mother Teresa, who was born in Albania but chose India to work, had earned the respect of one and all.

Modi recalled how the nation bestowed on her its highest civilian award – Bharat Ratna (Jewel of India). The official delegation consisted of even a communist like the finance minister of Kerala. All this is because the secularism that India practises is different from the one practised elsewhere.

Secularism in the west means keeping equidistance from all religions. In India, it means respecting all religions equally. That is precisely why nobody in India finds it strange that the state meets the expenditure of organising the world’s largest gathering of people at the Kumbh mela on the banks of the river Ganga every 12 years. The same state also subsidises the Haj journey of its Muslim citizens.

While secularism is a new concept in the rest of the world, it is deeply embedded in India, where all religious ideas were welcomed with relish. Therefore, it is not just incidental that the first mosque outside of Arabia came up at Kodungallur in the southern-most state of Kerala. And that too during the lifetime of the Prophet (Peace be upon him).

The same southern state has a large population of Christians many of who proudly, though erroneously, mention their Syrian connection. Similarly, it had a significant population of Jews, most of who migrated to Israel when that state was formed. Indians had a maritime tradition that goes back to at least two millennia. Traders and those fleeing persecution always found welcome in India. It is a different matter that some like the British who came as traders ended up as rulers.

It is not for no reason that India has world’s second largest population of Muslims. In India nobody saw Mother Teresa as a Christian, though religion might have been the single-most important motivation for the frail woman. Instead, everybody saw her as the ultimate lover of the poor. Anyone wearing the blue-bordered sari, which is the iconic habit of her sisters, is invariably held in love and respect.

The Baha’is are a small group but they have the magnificent Lotus temple in Delhi which attracts a large number of visitors every day. People of all faiths see the temple as an ideal place for meditation and prayer. It is not that there have been no periods of religious strife and tension in India.

In fact, there have been many incidents of violence before and after Independence but they were all considered as aberrations. The state was never a party to them. Even where some rulers appeared to have sided with the rioters, the judicial system was strong enough to teach them a lesson.

Small wonder that organisations like Al Qaeda and Daish have not been able to get recruits from India. True, a dozen or so from among 160 million are reported to have got attracted to Daish and left the Indian shores to take up arms. But they are a negligible insignificant number.

There were fears that secularism was in danger when the BJP came to power on its own at the Centre in 2014. They saw some incidents – like a few attacks on churches in Delhi – as straws in the wind. They forgot that when India became independent in 1947, it could have become a theocratic state with Hinduism as the state religion.

Such an idea did not occur to the founding fathers of the Constitution who laid greater emphasis on the syncretic traditions of the country whereby every citizen had the right to practise and preach his or her religious belief. That is precisely why nobody looked askance at the large Indian delegation that consisted of Hindus, Muslims, Christians and even Marxists that went to the Vatican where Mother Teresa was declared as Saint Teresa of Calcutta.