By Albert Thyrniang
On May 22 last, KHNAM MLA, Adelbert Nongrum did something silly. He knelt down, read Bible verses and prayed in the Legislative Assembly. The KHNAM legislator from Shillong North was taking part in the discussion on COVID-19 and the preparedness of the state government post lockdown. The apparently devoted Christian also 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, his actions and words were expunged after another member raised a point of order later.
The conduct of the MLA has elements of 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-in ceremony of the present Lok Sabha last year many of the members of the BJP chanted ‘Jai Shri Ram’. Is Nongrum comfortable with this slogan in parliament?
Nongrum may be convinced of his faith but the 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, however, religious exhibitionism is forbidden. Therefore, the Speaker should have immediately stopped the Member from carrying out his stunt. He should have even chastised the member.
There is a very thin line between religious conviction and extremism. If there is a cross-over 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 much bloodshed and faith is at the root of it all. When religion and politics are intertwined it is 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 all in the name of God and religion.
Adolf Hitler was a very convinced man. Therefore, he murdered Jews 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 Taliban’s bombing of the world’s largest standing Buddha statue (170 feet) in Bamiyan valley, Afghanistan. The statue was built in the 6th century prior to the arrival of Islam. The militia destroyed the 1700 year old world heritage known for its craftsmanship because they were 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. In a BBC debate, the British radical and jailed cleric, Anjem Choudary made no secret of his ‘dream’ of one day 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 countries would be liberated from their vices only under Sharia.
Christian fanatics too abound. Radical pastors condemning atheists to hell for not believing in God is common. They readily denounce lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender (LGBT) community for their ‘abominable’ acts and predict the ‘eternal fire’ for them. 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 India fanaticism and intolerance are ubiquitous. Murders, lynching, violence, riots and persecutions of minorities have been common since Independence. In recent years this fanaticism has climbed sharply giving rise to Hindu supremacy. Active Hindutva outfits with fascist backgrounds nurture, promote and spread this extremism. It is worrisome that the Government of the day seems to be tilted towards fanaticism with legislations like CAA and executive decisions like NRC.
In Buddhism, whose basic virtue is Ahimsa, fanaticism too does raise its ugly head. In Buddhist Sri Lanka attacks on Hindus, Muslims and Christians by Buddhist nationalists are on record. Instances of religious hatred, discrimination and harassment often take place especially post civil war (2009) an Easter Bombings (2019) as nationalist organizations enjoy ‘impunity’ from civil authorities. In Buddhist dominated 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.
Clearly 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. Is there an agenda suspected? Did he do what he did to impress sections in the society? It is too far-fetched to interpret his devotion as an attempt to portray KHNAM as a ‘Christian’ party. Do his theatrics aim at improving the tally of his party in the next Assembly election via 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’,‘it 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 neglect 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 a god-ordained illness but in public forums pandemics have no religion.
The world/society is divided on religious lines. If after life 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 sufferings cease. 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 the Meghalaya Government as to when religious gatherings can be permitted. Religious gatherings involve movement of people, assembling in an environment where physical distancing is a challenge, thereby endangering infections of the coronavirus. In this connection here is a suggestion. Let people of a locality go to the same church irrespective of denominations and worship in any form. Also a time schedule may be prepared for different denominations at the same church. Presbyterians may pray in a Catholic church. Catholics may attend Mass in a Presbyterian church. In this way movement of people will be reduced and the spread of COVID -19 minimised. This is a crazy proposal but would God mind such an arrangement?
In the USA, Italy, Brazil, Spain, the Middle East, India and its neighbours the right wing is ruling. These parties win elections by appealing to religion rather than their work. Donald Trump has allowed reopening of places of worship amidst the COVID-19 outbreak because for his non-performance, this is the best bet for him to be re-elected this October. The 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 should be rejected, Adelbert Nongrum’s included.