Violence during festivals is not new in India. This year too, in the last week of March, there have been incidents of violence across parts of the country in relation to the Ram Navami processions. Members of the Hindu community gathered in large numbers to carry out processions through towns and cities. This coincided with the Muslim community’s holy month of Ramadan. And thus, as the processions passed through Muslim-majority areas of the cities, they were met with hostility.
Festivals as Political Mobilisations for Power
In understanding the reasons for violence during festival processions, we must go into the history of celebrating religious festivals as a community. In 1896, the Indian freedom fighter Bal Gangadhar Tilak, in his newspaper, the Kesari suggested that religious festivals be moved from the private to the public sphere and become large political rallies. In other words, Tilak argued for the festival to become an occasion for a large number of Hindus to unite for a common cause. In the subsequent years, Tilak and other leaders organised large festivals on the occasion of Ganesh Chaturthi. [Source]
This political power would help the Hindus unite both against the British but also, significantly, against the Muslims. Since the members who could be in legislative bodies were limited, the Hindus want to ensure that every Hindu would vote to get a Hindu to power. And so, the festivals became opportunities to unite the Hindus in a bid to gain power over the supposed rivals.
Power is seen in the idea of “who owns the land” and “who is a foreigner”. Power is seen as taking revenge over the wounds of the past. It is seen as a tool to lord it over others. And thus it is often resisted by the minority community. They do not want to admit defeat and humiliation. And such resistance is the fuel required for escalation.
Physical resistance, counter-resistance, escalation, and more violence.
Festivals as opportunities for physical communal unity
In exploring mob mentality in religious rioting, the psychiatrist Sudhir Kakar says that a procession is necessary for the creation of a physical group. This is an embodied group — a group represented in the bodies rather than the mind of the members. Such embodied community allows for the individual to be lost in the crowd and mindlessly do things he/she normally wouldn’t do (such as violence). Thus, the procession strengthens identification with one’s community and increases the distance from the other community. [Source]
The Church as peacemakers
In this context of violence, the citizens of the kingdom of God are called to be peacemakers. They are called to be apostles of peace — ‘sent’ by their King — the Prince of Peace. But how do we do that?
Radically reconceptualising power
Jesus the King is not born in a majestic palace but rather in a humble stable. He is a King with authority who turns all notions of authority and power on their head. Rather than having his disciples wash his feet, the King washes the feet of his disciples. Rather than defend himself from unjust accusations, this King suffers injustice in silence. Rather than ask his subjects to die for him, this King dies for his subjects.
And thus, the church as subjects of this King can demonstrate to the world around them a radically different idea of power. When attacked, the church can show strength by offering the other cheek rather than retaliating. When accused unjustly, the church can show strength by responding with grace and truth. When placed in positions of power, the church can use that power to serve rather than oppress.
Radically loving embodied community
In dying for His subjects, the King bought them adoption into the family of God. In a sense, therefore, members of the church are blood brothers and blood sisters. This church is to be seen as a radically embodied community. The human need for community is holistic — emotional, spiritual, but also physical. It is important for the church to meet week after week and engage in the ordinary physical acts of communion — shaking hands, giving hugs and physically being with each other. The King himself instituted a physical ritual as the act of communion — eating the bread and drinking the wine.
The propensity and allure of religious processions point to the human desire for embodied community. The church can offer something much better — real embodied community, but one that is united by love and sacrifice. One where the needs of others are held higher than one’s own.
The church as an island of refuge
What is the cost of religious rioting? Carts and stalls that provided a meagre livelihood to their owners destroyed… People who may often be the sole breadwinners and the hopes of impoverished families cut up and killed… Devastation, destruction and death.
In the sea of religious violence and human brokenness, will the church in India be an island of refuge — of healing, of love, and of hope?
Being Indian and Christian
Being Indian and Christian is my weekly newsletter in which I try to understand the world (popular culture or news and events from India or around the world) from a Christian worldview. If that’s something you’re interested in, I’d be honoured if you signed up!