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Today’s question: the Christian hymn ‘Abide with me’ has been dropped from India’s Republic Day celebrations. Is this right?
Excellent question. Since 1950, the military has played ‘Abide with me’ in Republic Day celebrations. Now, the Government of India decided to remove the Christian hymn ‘Abide with me’ from Republic Day Celebrations. Before I address this, we should look at the ideology that is driving India’s ruling elite in our time. Prime Minister Narendra Modi made interesting comments at a meeting organized by Brahma Kamaris, a religious sect devoted to Hindu nuns. He said,
“Friends …. We (also) have to admit that in the 75 years after Independence, a malaise has afflicted our society, our nation and all of us. It is that we turned away from our duties and did not give them primacy. In the last 75 years, we only kept talking about rights, fighting for rights and wasting our time. The issue of rights may be right to some extent in certain circumstances, but neglecting one’s duties completely has played a huge role in keeping India vulnerable.”
Mr.Modi says fighting for rights wasted India’s time in the last 75 years. It made us weak and vulnerable. We should be focusing on our duties. First of all, we can see Modi’s sorrow in those words. India is wide open in our times with every idea from every corner of the world landing in India in a few minutes. We see people protesting for their rights in New York City, San Francisco, and then in Delhi and Bengaluru. Modi is frustrated with this reality, ‘Why are you obsessed with rights? I would like to see you fulfilling your duty to build the India I imagine’.
The India he imagines is an India where Hinduism is elevated in all segments of society. He was giving this speech to a group of Hindu nuns. You cannot imagine him giving this speech to a group of Christian nuns or Muslim nuns. In Pakistan, Islam dominates every area of life from how they run the government, how their train their military to what people can eat, what people can study and whom they can marry. Islam dominates every aspect of life. Modi would like to see a Hindu version of Pakistan in India, where Hinduism dominates all areas of life. He is building big statues, he is changing songs, he is showing his yoga postures, he is taking his public baths in Ganges. He is trying hard to create a Hindutva state but he is not reaching there as fast as he would like to. He is frustrated with the reality on the ground, which is, people’s obsession with rights. Western media used to portray Hinduism as a peaceful, vegetarian, meditation focused religion. Thanks to Modi. Now they perceive it as an intolerant religion. That might explain Modi’s irritation to some extent. He is chiding people for their obsession with rights.
Why are these people obsessed with rights? Because India is still a liberal democracy run by a secular Constitution. Some Hindutva scholars rightly diagnosed the problem: India’s constitution giving equal rights to every Indian citizen regardless of his or her social status, caste, religion and region came in their way to establish a religious kingdom.
If you consider the number of people who are guided by it, India’s Constitution is the greatest document in the world. It gives equal rights to over a billion people. The Indian Constitution is built upon certain basic premises: all people are created equal and are endowed with life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. India’s Constitution also upholds separation of church and state. It makes elevation of one religious group over other religious groups unconstitutional. It makes the Government promoting one religion over other religions unconstitutional. That aspect of the Constitution became so unpalatable to Hindutva leaders. They would like to see a Constitution which gives special status to one religion.
So in recent times, Hindutva groups started attacking the Indian Constitution as a vestige of Colonialism. They would like to see Laws of Manu replace the Constitution. J Sai Deepak says every basic premise that formed the underlying foundation of Indian Constitution came from Christianity. He says secularism is Christianity in disguise. Neutrality towards all religions is Christian political policy.
I completely agree with him. The idea that every individual is worthy of equal dignity, worth and basic rights born out of Christian conviction that all human beings are created in the image of God. The idea of neutrality towards religion born out of Jesus’s famous dictum – render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s. According to this Christian ideology, we have to fulfill certain duties for the government like paying taxes, obeying the laws and honoring government leaders. We should also fulfill our duties for God like worshiping him, following his principles and honoring him in our lives.
Sai Deepak says this inherently Christian character of India’s Constitution and political philosophy is at odds with Hindutva which elevates one religion over the other. He calls for decoloniality which means removing all Christianity inspired power structures from the public square. He must be happy to see this hymn removed from Republic Day celebrations.
Removing the ‘Abide with me’ Hymn from the Beating Retreat ceremony is part of that decolonization of the Indian mind from all Western influences. But that is a wrong project. Not everything Western idea is bad and evil. Mahatma Gandhi recognized that. He loved that hymn. He was a devout Hindu but he loved this Christian hymn because it brings God into the life of the individual from birth to death.
It was written by Scottish Anglican minister Henry Francis Lyte. Suffering from tuberculosis, he spent many years in ill health and weakness. Abide with me. He heard those words on the lips of a dying friend and wrote that hymn. The words were taken from Luke 24:29, ‘Abide with us; for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent’.
Abide with me; fast falls the eventide
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the Helpless, O abide with me.
God is the help of the helpless.
It is God who gives us freedom
It is God who gives us value and dignity
It is God who gives us morality
It is God who gives us responsibilities
It is God who gives us rights
Human rights are essential for the security of all people. If America stops believing in human rights, people of color would suffer most. Similarly, if India stops believing in human rights, people of weaker sections would suffer most.
A Dalit woman who is raped by a high caste man, would ask, what happened to my rights? A poor man whose land is occupied by a politician, would ask, what happened to my rights? A farmer who had to deal with a powerful global corporation, would ask, what happened to my rights? A Christian who cannot worship in peace, would ask, what happened to my rights.
Prime Minister Modi is wrong. It is poor people and the weaker sections of society who need human rights most. The rich and powerful do not bother much about the concept of human rights. They get the biggest piece of the pie.
Prime Minister’s talk of duty or ‘dharma’ takes us back to pre-Republican era. Dharma dictates that our duties must be in accordance with the caste system.
Brahmins…their duty is to be scholars and priests
Kshatriya…their duty is to be warriors, kings and landholders
Vaishya….their duty is to be merchants
Shudra…..their duty is to be artisans, and laborers
Dalits and tribals..their duty is to do jobs no one else touches like cleaning bathrooms, disposing of the dead bodies.
That duty based system reinforces the caste system and forces the lower classes to perpetual subjugation. A rights based system at least gives hope to people of all classes to be optimistic about a future where they get equal opportunities.
The Prime Minister also draws a false dichotomy between rights and duties. In fact, rights and duty go hand in hand. One does not destroy the other. One does not weaken the other. When you give equal rights and value to all people, that would enhance their self-confidence to perform their responsibilities well.
During the Emergency, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi government brought enormous changes to India through the 42nd Amendment to the Constitution. It reads, ‘…It is also proposed to specify the fundamental duties of the citizens and make special provisions for dealing with anti-national activities’.
The Indira Gandhi government wanted to achieve its objectives at any cost, even at the cost of impinging on people’s liberties. Thousands of poor people were forcefully sterilized in the name of population control. Thousands of journalists were imprisoned in the name of peace and harmony. Thousands of political opponents were arrested in the name of curbing ‘anti-nationals’. They said, people have a duty to help the government achieve its utopian state.
So, we don’t want to go that route again. People’s God given rights must be respected and protected, no matter what the cost.
Now, let us end with a happy note.
Abide with us…..After Jesus was crucified and buried, two disciples were walking from Jerusalem to a village called Emmaus. A stranger joined them and gave them a long speech on divine revelation. They wondered about the identity of this stranger. At the end of their journey, they realized that the stranger was Jesus himself. It was Jesus, who was raised from the dead, talking to them. They asked him, Abide with us. Abide with us. Resurrected Christ is still abiding with his people. He gives us freedom from sin and slavery. That is the goodness we can all celebrate on this Republic Day.
Removing this hymn from India’s Republic Day celebrations is not a good idea because this hymn inspired millions of people from different religions to remember the fact that freedom comes from God, not any human government or leader.