Since the beginning of time – and time is measured by the appearance of gods and prophets – people have been dying in the name of religion.
Every few centuries, a new religion enters the world, commanded by a god touted to be benign by his followers, but who suggests gently that everyone in the world should be converted to his religion for one’s own good, and one’s failure to convert would render that person better off as worm food.
I would like to read a religious scripture that advocates no violence, physical, mental, or emotional. I am yet to come across one.
The global constant with all religion is this: one can be punished for voicing one’s thoughts on religion, because an opinion is believed to “hurt the religious sentiments of others”.
It is under this law that Kamal Haasan has got himself into more trouble after his remark on Nathuram Godse being a terrorist.
Having entered politics with the reality show Bigg Boss for his campaign vehicle, the founder of Makkal Needhi Maiyyam sparked off a controversy by describing Godse as independent India’s first “terrorist”. He is believed to have been replying to Modi’s challenge – “show me a Hindu terrorist”. Godse, Kamal Haasan said, was Hindu and a terrorist.
The actor has been a vocal atheist for decades, and regularly speaks against religion. His audience usually comprises his fans, who lap up everything he says, and fans of cinema, who roll their eyes at his speeches and wait for his films to release.
Since he turned politician, North India is suddenly interested in the man, and everything he says is reported on national television (which believes Delhi is the centre of the universe, and views everything in the context of Delhi).
By continuing to do what he has been doing for decades, Kamal-the-politician unlike Kamal-the-actor is taking on Delhi, the seat of power of a government that has got where it has with its saffron street cred.
For his remarks on Godse, Kamal Haasan has had eggs, a shoe, and even stones thrown at him at rallies.
In typical style, he stirred a bigger controversy in the process of explaining his remarks – he said every religion has its own terrorists.
For his pains, he has been slapped with cases in court across the nation.
And those who are writing about it – as I am – are careful to word their opinions in such a way that they cannot be accused of hurting religious sentiments.
Religious sentiment is a powerful tool. Kings and politicians have come to power for centuries by pandering to religious sentiment. It is why American presidential candidates have to prove they go to church. It is why foreign diplomats wear headscarves when they visit the Middle East. It is why Pragya Singh Thakur, herself a terrorism accused, calls Godse a “patriot”.
It is also why people are afraid to speak about the real issue, which is not whether Godse was a Hindu or not, a terrorist or not, a patriot or not; it is not whether Hindu terrorists exist, or whether an assassin is a terrorist. The real issue is the power of religion, and the hold it has over all of us, those who follow it, and those who want to question it, and those who would like to critique it.
The problem with all religious scripture is that it belongs to a different era – unless we’re talking Scientology and its contemporaries – and is written in languages that are no longer widely spoken.
This makes religion necessarily open to interpretation.
But the fear that this could lead to interpretations that are not convenient has led groups in each era to appropriate religion, to anoint its interpreters, to accuse those who question these interpretations of heresy, and to punish them with everything from death to airline travel so they can present themselves at court over the ages.
For Pragya Singh Thakur’s statement that a murderer was a patriot, Narendra Modi declared that he would never forgive her.
That is fair enough. Forgiveness is his to dole out, and no one is particularly affected by it unless they choose to be.
But to declare that no one has the right to voice an opinion, even an opinion that can be backed by facts, is to stifle all room for debate.
A religion remains in the realm of philosophy for as long as it allows room for debate.
Once people become afraid to dissect its perceived edicts, it is no longer philosophy. It becomes a tool for power, and usually oppression.
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The legislative dangers of election year
Priyanka and the inheritance of power
The G.O.A.T vote: When opinion offends
The hooligans in our homes
Why the Ambanis should rule India
Ten things the chowkidars failed to protect
Nandini is the author of Invisible Men: Inside India's Transmasculine Networks (2018) and Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013). She tweets @k_nandini. Her website is: www.nandinikrishnan.com