On May 22 May in Meghalaya, Adelbert Nongrum, lone MLA of a regional political party in Meghalaya called Khasi Hills National Awakening Movement (KHNAM) did something silly in the Legislative Assembly. He knelt down, read Bible verses and prayed in the Legislative Assembly. The legislator from Shillong North constituency was taking part in the discussion on COVID-19 and the preparedness of the state government post lockdown. The apparently devoted Christian knelt on the floor, read the Bible even before the Speaker could give him permission and prayed for while also requesting other members to bow reverently. He then stated “We should take COVID-19 as a punishment as we are sinful human beings, hypocrisy, abortion, recognising same sex marriage are going on all around the world…This is not just a war against the invisible enemy but a fight against our faith.” Fortunately, the ‘actions and words’ of the legislator were expunged after another member raised a point of order later.
The conduct of the respected member has elements fanaticism and can have uncomfortable repercussions. If any other member decides to read the Koran, pray in the Muslim way and make statements based on the faith of that religion Nongrum will have to welcome it. If another lawmaker reads the Bhagavad Gita, prays to Hindu deities the lone KHNAM MLA can’t oppose it for he himself has set a precedent. At the swearing ceremony of the present Lok Sabha last year, many members of the BJP chanted ‘Jai Shri Ram’. Is Nongrum comfortable with this slogan in parliament?
Nongrum may be convinced of his faith but Assembly is not the venue to manifest and preach his faith. It is a temple of democracy and secularism. It is an institution to uphold the Constitution and defend the rights of all religions. Any MLA can go to church, temple, and masjid to pray and preach. A Member can also be a street preacher if he or she so desires. In the House religious exhibition is forbidden. Therefore, the Speaker should have immediately stopped the Member from carrying out his stunt. He should have chastised the member.
There is a very thin line between religious conviction and extremism. If there is a crossover it can be treacherous. Wars, conflicts, hostilities and battles in history were borne out of religious convictions. History of Christianity and expansion drives of Islam aided by kings and emperors are marred by bloodshed. When religion and politics are intertwined, it becomes lethal. All major religions claim that Love, Peace and Brotherhood are key principles but none has stainless hands. Medieval, modern and even late contemporary history has seen large scale violence all over the world, in the name of God and religion.
Adolf Hitler was a very convinced man. Therefore, his “Holocaust,” killed six million Jews, accounted for two-thirds of Europe's Jewish population and imprisoned many more in concentration camps. The dark and painful Hitler era is associated with religion. In 2001 the world watched with dismay at the bearded Talibans bombing the world’s largest standing Buddha statues (170 feet) in Bamiyan valley, Afghanistan built in the 6th century prior to the arrival of Islam. The militia destroyed the 1700 year old world’s heritage known for their craftsmanship convinced that statues are symbols of idolatry. ISIS is notorious for murdering innocent Americans and Europeans by slitting their throats on camera. For the men in black killing ‘infidels and enemies’ of Islam is a noble obligation pleasing to Allah.
Extremism exists even among the so called good and religious individuals and groups too. In one of the BBC debates a British radical and jailed cleric, Anjem Choudary made no secret of his ‘dream’ of seeing the USA under Sharia law and an Islamic flag flying over the White House. He has the same vision for Europe. Another fanatical Muslim cleric, Abdullah el-Faisal was jailed in England for urging his followers to kill Americans, Hindus and Jews as God wills that they do not live. According to extremists like them the first world counties would be liberated from their vices only under Sharia.
We condemn Muslim extremists out right but Christian fanatics too abound. Radical pastors condemning atheists to hell for refusing to believe in God are not uncommon. They readily denounce lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders ( LGBTs) for their ‘abdominal’ acts and predict the ‘eternal fire’ for them unless they ‘repent and mend’ their ways. For this category of preachers no one will be saved except those believing in Jesus Christ. Even among Christians denominations reciprocal condemnations fly around. Sections of Protestant groups would deplore Catholics for ‘worshipping’ Mary and the saints. Catholics would ridicule other denominations as churches founded by men.
In Buddhism, whose basic virtue is Ahimsa, fanaticism does raises its ugly head. In Buddhist majority Sri Lanka incidents of attacks on Hindus, Muslims and Christians by Buddhist nationalists are on record. With a great history of co-existence, religious intolerance has been on the rise in the island nation since the civil war ended in 2009 and post Easter Bombings, 2019. Instances of religious hatred, discrimination and harassment often take place as nationalist organizations enjoy ‘impunity’ from civil authorities. In Buddhist dominant Myanmar the situation is even worse. Religious and ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims is alleged by UN bodies. In August 2017 hundreds of villages and thousands of homes were plundered by the military forcing an exodus of 600,000 people to Bangladesh.
It is clear religious zeal is the major cause of strife in the world today. This obsessive enthusiasm for one's own religion is a form of fanaticism. Adelbert Nongrum’s fervour in the Assembly too is fanaticism, though mild. Did he do what he did to impress sections in the society? It is too farfetched to interpret his devotion as an attempt to portray KHNAM a ‘Christian’ party? Does his theatrics aim at increasing the tally of his party in the next Assembly election the religious route? If this is true then KHNAM is Meghalaya’s BJP.
A book says that one sign of maturity is to shun categorical and generalised statements on matters with no certitude. Using phrases ‘I think’, ‘probably’, ‘may be’, ‘it might be’, ‘I could be correct/wrong’, etc indicate a mature mind. Nongrum is sure that COVID-19 is God’s punishment on mankind. How does he know? Does he rule out alleged human neglects at various levels? What if one of the conspiracy theories is established to be the cause of COVID-19? Personally he may be convinced that COVID-19 is God-sent but in public forums pandemics have no religion.
The world/society is divided on religious line. If afterlife is a leap out of the present then one wonders whether divisions exist in the yonder as well. It looks to me Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Muslims will still huddle together in their own places of worship. Different Christian denominations will also assemble in their own respective churches. If we don’t foresee such a state of life then why the divisions here on earth? If we vouch for such a divisive existence then death is worthless. Death is worthwhile only when all barriers are removed and suffering is ceased. It would be an endless misery if we lived for eternity in a state of division because division brings suffering. Exclusiveness, tolerance, and acceptance may have to be real here and now.
COVID-19 will present a dilemma to governments like Meghalaya as to when religious gatherings can be permitted. Religious gatherings means inter movements of people, assembling in an environment where physical distancing is a challenge and thus endangering infections of coronavirus.
In many countries like the USA, Italy, Brazil, Spain, the Middle East and India right wings are ruling. These parties win elections appealing on religion rather than on their work. Look at Donald Trump! He has ordered reopening of worship of places in the midst of COVID-19 outbreak because, for his non-performance, this is the best bet for him to be re-elected this October. Extreme left led by China, Russia and North Korea where religion is suppressed is also unhealthy. We need a middle path where religion is free but is kept out of politics. Any form of religious, political or racial fanaticism is rejected, Adelbert Nongrum’s included.(Published on 1th June 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 23)