My Indian Christmas
Christmas is meant to be a season of goodwill but each year I find it more and more difficult to feel any sympathy for those in Europe who would like to ruin the festival. I am referring to those who say we shouldn’t celebrate Christmas openly because it is a Christian festival. Some argue that to celebrate Christmas openly breaches the secular principle that religion should have no place in public life. It is also argued that celebrating Christmas offends believers in other religions.
One Christmas I heard a discussion on the BBC World Service about whether we should even send Christmas cards. It was suggested that we send Happy Mid-Winter cards instead.
All this, I am thankful to say, is in sharp contrast to the way Christmas is celebrated in India. On the morning that I heard the discussion about mid-winter cards, I opened my newspaper and found a picture of Gopal Gandhi, then the governor of West Bengal, giving a Christmas party for the Christian children of the state. Every year I am invited by the President of India to a carol service in Rashtrapati Bhavan. The same spirit of open rejoicing pervades the celebrations of the festivals of all the other religions followed in India, and that means almost all the religions of the world.
Thousands of Indians of all faiths gather at Anandpur Sahib to watch Sikh warriors mounted on sprightly horses joust with eight-foot-long spears at the celebrations of the Sikh festival of Hola Mahalla. Delhi is illuminated by millions of lights on Diwali. Everyone likes to play Holi. On my first Christmas here, I was surprised to find Sikhs wearing turbans and other non-Christians in the congregation at Midnight Mass in the Cathedral Church of the Redemption.
Some of those who would like to spoil Christmas are what I would call “secular fundamentalists”, people who can see no good in religion, indeed see it as an evil influence. The militant atheist, journalist and campaigner Christopher Hitchens, who died this month, described himself as an antitheist and wanted all atheists to describe themselves in the same way. He said “the real axis of evil is Christianity, Judaism and Islam” and condemned organised religion as “the main source of hatred in the world”. Biologist Richard Dawkins, an equally militant atheist, or antitheist, went one further than Hitchens. In his bestselling book The God Delusion, he wrote, “Imagine with John Lennon a world with no religion. Imagine no suicide bombers, no 9/11, no 7/7 (the London bombings), no witch hunts, no Gunpowder plot.” He continued in that vein, suggesting that religion is the cause of all wars and violence. That is not only an oversimplification of the causes of those events, it also ignores the violence committed because of conflicts over ethnicity, language and territory. Some of the most horrific violence of the blood-stained 20th century has been committed in the name of atheism by Stalin and Mao Tse Tung.
Another group of those who would like to spoil Christmas take the political concept of secularism too far. There are many in India who speak of the form of secularism adopted by the founding fathers of the nation as if it involved being opposed to religion. Although he was not religious himself, Jawaharlal Nehru had a great respect for Indian culture and understood that the new nation must provide space for its ancient traditions. He was quite clear that India should show there was a middle way between a secular state that didn’t have any time for religion and theocracy, a way which respected religious beliefs and of course atheism or agnosticism. Nehru said, “When we talk about a secular state, this does not mean simply some negative idea, but a positive approach on the basis of equality of opportunity for everyone, man or woman, of any religion or caste.”
There is, of course, another side of this story, and news from the Maldives illustrates that. Apparently the authorities in the islands fear there might be a repetition of the trouble which erupted last year when Islamists protested just because a restaurant had been decorated for Christmas.
Although I dispute what Dawkins suggested, I can’t deny that followers of religions are all too often responsible for violence and that is particularly true of those who insist that their nation should only have one religion.
In India there are those who don’t respect the secularism that is enshrined in the Constitution and spread hatred against other religions. Recently we had another anniversary of the destruction of the mosque in Ayodhya and I was reminded of the obscene slogans, filled with hatred of Muslims, that I heard shouted on that day. I remember too hearing Dr Praveen Togadia of the VHP addressing a meeting in Raipur where he warned Indian Muslims to “‘accept Bharat or face what will happen when eight hundred million Hindus become Praveen Togadias”. Dr Togadia also accused the Catholic Church of “training an army of missionaries and nuns to convert Hindus”.
So the answer to observing this Christmas and indeed all other religious festivals is to do as India traditionally does, to enjoy them whatever your faith or lack of faith. That most Indians do quite naturally, and without any questioning.
Every Christmas that I spend in Delhi, friends of different faiths come to visit me. As I write this article I have just been visited by an atheist friend who has brought me traditional home-made mince pies.
But some might ask, why not remove all possibility of creating misunderstandings, or creating offence to non-Christians by substituting a mid-winter festival for Christmas. One answer must be that that would reduce the festival to a crass celebration of consumerism, nothing more than a shopping spree. Many of the traditions associated with Christmas would disappear. What place would there be for Father Christmas in a mid-winter festival? Christians would feel deprived by having their festival taken away. Finally, wouldn’t all other religious festivals have to be converted into what would be called “secular” celebrations. Mind you, I don’t believe this will ever happen in India provided no secular or religious fundamentalist tries to undermine the tolerant tradition of India which for centuries has provided a home where believers in almost every faith of the world are allowed to celebrate their religions.
The writer is a senior journalist and a well-known author. No Full Stops in India is one of his best-known books.