As the nation waits with bated breath for the decision of the high court on the Ayodhya question, there is a palpable tension in the air. Travels have been cancelled, schools closed and provisions stocked up as people prepare for the expected backlash, whatever the decision may be. Of course, here in Shillong, the issue could not be farther from people's minds - we hardly hear anyone speak of it. But just looking at the headlines over the last few days clearly indicates the level of fear that the whole Hindu-Muslim argument is generating. And the worst part of it all, is that this decision to be made by the High Court will hardly be the end of the matter. Whichever side loses is sure to appeal the matter in the Supreme Court and we will have another prolonged courtroom drama that is likely to last for some years.
But that is in the future. Right now the common man is readying himself for the expected onslaught of the lunatic fringe of both these esteemed religions, a sad reminder that even 63 years after Independence, the deep-seated hatred that has festered over many centuries and been stoked by repeated assaults on common human decency by both sides continues to spread its poison through the veins of our society. And that is a sorry tale to tell of our much-vaunted, secular, democratic country.
I remember the time I travelled to Gujarat shortly after the riots of 2002. Ostensibly, I was there to research a famous health insurance scheme run by an organisation there, but actually, I just wanted to be a part of the scenario and witness first-hand what had happened. I will never forget getting off the bus in Ahmedabad in the middle of the night, getting into the first auto that came by and asking the driver to take me to a hotel. (Being young and adventurous, nothing had been planned - I can't imagine doing something like that now!!). After we had driven about a kilometre in silence, he slowed down and turned around. 'Are you a Hindu or a Muslim?' was the question he asked, making no attempt to hide the menace in his eyes and voice. I have never been so afraid to proclaim my faith before, but when I mumbled 'Esahi' (Christian), he lightened up immediately and we proceeded to the end of the journey in silence. I never did find out what faith he belonged to, I was too busy keeping myself from spilling the insides of my tummy after the shock. But for me, that was the story of Gujarat in a nutshell. Everything depended on whether you were a Hindu or a Muslim. Not what you believed in. Not what those two great religions taught, Not if you practiced any of the prescribed stipulations that these religions demanded. You may have never seen the inside of a temple or a mosque your whole life. But that was all immaterial. 'Are you a Hindu or a Muslim?' And nothing else mattered.... It was, for me, a great insight into the unbelievable stupidity of man.
Of course, we Christians are no better. Among ourselves, if there is a difference to be found in theology, we will be sure to find it and then harp on it until it becomes the most important thing in all the world. And our treatment of people who do not share our faith has stained our hands much worse than any of the other great world religions. From the Crusades to the Holocaust, not forgetting the Inquisition and the Ku Klux Klan, Christians have been instrumental in state-supported genocide of those who believed differently from us. And remember, we profess faith in a God whose best known character is love. Love so strong that He chose to come down and die for us. But human nature is fickle-minded at best and evil at worst and it is so easy to use religion to further our own vested interests. It has been used countless times in the past and continues to be the tool of those whose ultimate interest is power and world dominion.
And the saddest part of what has happened in our country is that so many people have been fooled by very people who have perpetrated these abominations. In Gujarat, the mastermind of the 2002 genocide wins every succeeding election by a greater margin. Throughout the country, the political party which introduced the concept of using religion to win votes continues to fascinate the minds of the common man and even some intellectuals. In fact, but for the severe bankruptcy of its leadership, it is likely that they would be in power even today. The lunatic fringe is no longer at the periphery. It is now mainstream and occupies a central position in the polity of today.
So as I await the judgement that is expected today and the backlash that may follow, the suspense has made way for a deep sadness. Sadness that even after our country has made such great strides in education, health and economy, we are still morally and intellectually impoverished. Morally, because we cannot see how wrong it is to attack our own brothers and their property over religion. And intellectually, because we fail to realise that a policy of 'a tooth for a tooth' is only going to end up with everyone having no teeth.
And in that sadness, I lift up my country to God. He knows its struggles and its failures. Only He can change the hardened hearts of those who are baying for blood. And maybe He will chose to act through you or me. Maybe He will put in my way small situations that will help me to show that forgiveness and love are actually possible. Maybe, He will give me an opportunity to melt a hardened heart by my readiness to be hurt and refusal to fight back. When He does, I pray I will be ready........