By Patricia Lee Sharpe
Lodi Garden is not a manicured place. Its ambient vegetation is Delhi’s scrubby woodland, the scrappy growth that springs back after a dose of over-civilization. But there are lawns, too, stubbly grassy expanses to play cricket on, to picnic and lounge on, under a pleasant winter sun. Picture also meandering pathways bordered here and there with Delhi’s favorite cold season flowers—marigolds, calendulas, dahlias. Finally, as if to add a bit of fantasy or morbid reality, there are the elegant tombs that give this delicious garden its anchoring in history, one for Muhammad Shah (1434-45) of the Sayyid dynasty, another for the eponymous Sikander Lodi (1489-1570), not to mention intimate little mosques and a stone bridge that once spanned a Moghul irrigation canal and now ornaments a lake. Very romantic.
So romantic that young lovers lurk everywhere in the gaze-confounding, identity-obscuring dappled shade. They cuddle on well-shaded park benches. They sit side by side, dangling their legs over the lake. They stroll on path and off path. One guide book calls Lodi Garden a lover’s lane, an understatement, if anything.
The system works like this: parents assume their normally well-watched offspring are safely enclosed in classrooms at one of Delhi’s many colleges or universities, but school days are also days of escape from parental control. India’s future doctors, lawyers and teachers, like most students everywhere, are rabid for experience in—ahem!—life as well as book learning. The educational process is subversive in more than one way.
Many Delhi students are commuters, so the pairing up potential drops drastically on weekends, which did not bode well for the romance industry this year. Valentine’s Day would be falling on a Saturday. Sales might be very disappointing. Still an effort had to be made. Red, pink, violet—hearts ballooned and blossomed everywhere. Pasted on windows. Dangling from ceilings. Iced on cakes. Adorning heart-shaped boxes of chocolates. Every stationary store featured I-love-you cards and e-cards were no doubt ready for sweethearts’ in-boxes, though I didn’t actually check that out. The modern celebration of St. Valentine’s Day is rooted in Christian tradition, but why shouldn’t the chubby image of Cupid or Eros be welcome in India, and why shouldn’t parks be full of lovers, given the frankly erotic imagery of some Hindu temples? And surely the stories of Krishna and Radha aren’t cherished purely for their spiritual symbolism.
But every culture has its prudes and purists aka fundamentalists who devote themselves to sucking the romance out of life. What’s more, Indian cultural nationalists, such as the Hindu Mahasabha, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Shiv Sena and related groups, refuse to see any agreeable convergences between East and West, which, to their everlasting despair, have indeed met and melded in many ways, bringing yoga and gurus to America, Dominos pizza and Valentine’s Day to India. This year, emboldened perhaps by the religiosity and Hindu extremist origins of the current Prime Minister, mobs of saffron shirts (or should I say kurtas) were determined to snuff out all manifestations of Western decadence. Love isn’t just for a day, they sniffed. It’s for every day, but only for those who are properly married.
How silly! Or was it?
And so, they announced, they’d be forming shaadi or marriage squads tasked with swooping down on unwed hand holders come Valentine’s Day to perform the rite that would legalize their impious amorousness. No kidding! A self-appointed religious police force—and this wasn’t Saudi Arabia or even Pakistan. I had flashbacks to my years in Karachi, during which salafist-oriented Islamists often threatened violence to eliminate music and dance as well as Valentine’s Day from the lives of the young. As a result, anything like culture had gone mostly underground. But in cosmopolitan Delhi these threats seemed quite funny. Given the need for a sacred fire and spoonfuls of goopy ghee at traditional Hindu marriages, how the deed would be done? With a cigarette lighter, perhaps?
In fact, the forced marriage threats weren’t funny. They’re part of a very dangerous pattern that’s been emerging since the BJP’s huge parliamentary victory somewhat less than a year ago. The threatened anti-Valentine’s Day brigades in Delhi were one more manifestation of the tolerance for intolerance that has been unleashed since the BJP’s Narendra Modi became Prime Minister.
Reconversion and Church Burning
Reconversion efforts, for instance, are underway. Chalk up the score! So many Christians recovered for Hinduism. So many Buddhists. So many Muslims. All without duress. Supposedly. But no one believes that helpless poor minorities in remote villages are renouncing their deepest religious convictions voluntarily. Meanwhile, attacks on Christians, sporadic in the past, or localized, as in Odisha for spell in the 1990s, have increased, too. In Delhi, in particular, the number of churches looted, vandalized and/or burnt in recent months has been shocking. Worse, it’s a phenomenon that was for months shockingly ignored by top authorities. The newspapers did their job. The incidents were reported. Photos were published. Victims were quoted. But from the office of Prime Minister Narendra Modi: silence. Modi did not utter a single word condemning the outbreak of dangerous communalism in the nation’s capital. He did nothing to stop it.
Was the anti-Christian campaign allowed to continue, perhaps, because the Christians responded in a characteristically Christian manner? They didn’t form enraged, murderous mobs to fight back, as Muslims historically do when, say, Hindu bigots dump pigs in front of mosques. No. These mild people chose to rely on the law. Let the crimes be investigated. Let the perpetrators be arrested. So they waited, like lambs, for justice to be done, which probably surprised no one. Perhaps the Christian reputation for docility explains why the Hindu nationalists have started with them. Their project of recreating a purely Hindu India might go further faster if it started with churches.
Modi Turns His Back
And so Modi ignored the church desecrations as they spread and multiplied—until he was forced to follow a little moral guidance provided by none other than the U.S. President Barack Obama, who was taking his own humble pie lap re intolerance in America: too many white policemen were killing unarmed blacks. Obama, characteristically, didn’t confine his analysis to America. He generalized. In the world today, he said, there’s too much ethnic and religious violence. Too much intolerance. Even in India, he noted. It needs to be curbed.
Poor Modi. He was trapped. Not only did he have to speak out against intolerance, as per the all too visible church incidents, he felt a need to make up for his peculiar silences by invoking Gandhi, the patron saint of ethnic accommodation, a figure that the Hindu right hates as venomously as it’s possible to hate any public figure. Too soft on Muslims is the rap. (In Pakistan, of course, critics say he was too Hindu, which is why, they insist, the Muslims had to split.) Among the family of Hindu-oriented organizations to which the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party belongs the loathing for the Mahatma is so great that a movement exists to honor Gandhi’s assassin as a Hindu hero. No doubt there was much gnashing of teeth among current Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leaders as old comrade Modi bowed to international pressure. The Hindutva crowd regrouped within a few days, however. The state legislature in Maharashtra, where the Shiv Sena is strong, decided to make the consumption of beef universally illegal within the state. Were Christians and Muslims consulted? Of course not. Let them eat lentils.
Meanwhile, the students of Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University and associated colleges were not to be cowed, let alone forcibly married. Communicating by Facebook (what else?) they mobbed the street in front of the Hindu Mahasabha offices in Delhi, where in good Indian fashion many courted and a few achieved arrest. And so the shaadi squad was forced to back down. They’d only be handing out roses, they said. Not red roses, though. Virginal white roses.
Two Types of Response
The orders came from above evidently. With the world’s attention now focused on Delhi, the rightists had to be restrained, according to an unnamed Hindu Mahasabha leader who was quoted in The Times of India: “The party [Modi’s party, the BJP, of course] has asked us not to take up any such programmes in the city. The situation in Delhi is not conducive, especially after the poll debacle [although triumphal in national elections, the BJP had just been slaughtered by the Aam Admi party in recent Delhi state elections] and the recent attacks on Christian institutions.”
Hundreds of miles away from the showcase city, however, the shaadi brigades were mostly allowed their rampages. Here’s a run down of Valentine’s Day madness in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, larger than any European country: “Lovebirds were publicly humiliated and manhandled by members of the saffron outfit in Lucknow, Kanpur, Jhansi and Vuladshahr; in Gorakpur police were seen chasing couples from parks and public places.....In Lucknow...activists....forced closure of shops....While boys were slapped, girls were humiliated....In Kanpur, Shiv Sena workers misbehaved with couples...and forced them to do sit-ups....” I'd call this terrorism, wouldn't you?
Still, despite much police eye-closing, there was some good news. “Several activists were arrested and detained on charges of breach of peace.” And one of the utterly shameless victims declared, “These unruly elements want to cage love, but will never succeed.”
At this point, clearly, the BJP alliance is not looking good in the eyes of the younger, educated generation about whose opinions, in the long run, at least, they should have some concern. Even the young women they claim to be protecting are getting uppity. While an anti-Valentine’s Day holy man in Lucknow went so far as to blame a recent notorious rape case on “the blind aping of western culture like Valentine’s day,” girls in Dimapur in the state of Nagaland spearheaded a lynch mob that hauled an accused rapist out of prison and dragged him to death. Lynching is never a good idea. But maybe this unfortunate incident will encourage India’s police establishment to stop blaming the violated and prosecute the rapists. Vigorously.
No doubt the Indian National Congress has imploded. Its ever-underperforming young leader has slunk off on a “leave of absence,” heading perhaps for the mountains to meditate on illusion. But the BJP’s strong electoral mandate is rooted in economics, not religion, however much Modi’s Hindu revivalist buddies may feel that they have thereby been empowered to summon up a pure Hindu raj that never existed. Muslims have been active in South Asia for some 1200 years, Christians for 2000, and scholars are increasingly certain that the Vedic religion brought to the subcontinent by the Aryans was quickly and thoroughly infused with influences from the beliefs of the descendants of the more advanced Harappan culture. Like ISIS and the Taliban re Islam the Hindu chauvinists are politicians seeking power by conjuring up a unidimensional Disney-like fantasia, pure but phoney.
Modi may be sympathetic to the reconversion efforts. He probably is. But if he wants to stay in power, he needs to curb the Hindu right and concentrate on building a more prosperous India for all. His first few months didn’t wreak a transformation. It couldn’t, naturally, though some expected it, thanks to Modi's overselling of his Gujerat "miracle." Moreover, those hopes are dwindling, especially since the budget just submitted for the country as whole, though it lays out some good ideas, has none of the vision voters hoped for so fervently when they gave him his majority in the lower house. Absent economic growth with reasonable trickle down, Modi's longevity as PM isn’t guaranteed.
For now, however, Modi retains some wiggle room. And he has a choice. He can concentrate on the economy or he can nourish his right wing following by giving the Hindu revivalists free rein. So far India has been lucky. Despite plenty of encouragement from Pakistan, Indian Muslims have been fairly impervious to the blandishments of violent salafist Islam. But reasonable people can be pushed only so far, and religious war in India would make the blood-drenched unrest in the Middle East seem like foreplay.
The good news is that India is indeed a democracy. Modi will be voted out if he can’t deliver the economic goods. Let’s hope that too much damage isn’t done before that happens—before he succeeds in creating a more vibrant economy, before the Hindu right does irreparable harm.
Quotes and student march photo thanks to the Times of India.