Seven religion stories that dominated 2011

The year 2011 saw me at my erratic worst. The biggest reason is that developments in the economics, finance and business space multiplied to levels unforeseen — as the credit crisis continued, Occupy movements gathered momentum and finance suddenly became evil. My preoccupation with matters of money overwhelmed those of religion, which were less volatile. In any case, here are the 10 stories around religion that dominated 2011.

The ban on Gita
In what can only be termed as a manipulation of the judicial process to garner five minutes of fame, a public prosecutors in the Siberian town of Tomsk in Russia appealed to the local court there to ban the Bhagwad Gita because it is “extremist”. I use the word manipulation because nobody can be that stupid. Or that ignorant. I knew the ban will not be held up by the court and wrote as much last week. As I write these lines, news is streaming in that the ban has been lifted. Under normal circumstances, this story would not have seen so much publicity. But with minister of external affairs (MEA) SM Krishna turning a local-religious issue a diplomatic one, the story got global traction. “We appreciate this sensible resolution of a sensitive issue and are glad to put this episode behind us,” the new MEA spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin said. “We also appreciate the efforts of all friends in Russia who made this outcome possible.” One question: does the Russian government run the Russian judiciary as well?

A censorship attempt that failed
When minister of communications and information technology Kapil Sibal — a lawyer to whom free speech is essential — tried to muzzle social networking websites earlier this month, the furore it created must have shaken him. The ban was ostensibly because there was blasphemous material against religions posted by misguided elements of various religions. He said it could cause riots. He also showed pictures of his leader, Congress president Sonia Gandhi that had been defaced in a highly vulgar and unacceptable manner, to journalists. Service to religion and serving the “Family”, he should have known, are two different things. But using the lever of religion he tried to muzzle the millions of voices that use Google, Facebook and Twitter. Of course, it backfired — like most things this government has been trying to do, the looming Lokpal Bill failure for instance.

Ramdev, gurus and politics
In June, when yoga guru Baba Ramdev decided to fight against black money and bring all of it back from Swiss accounts, he was castigated. Those wanting to keep the status quo said a guru should stick to his job; let us do ours. That raised a question: isn’t a yoga guru a citizen of India, doesn’t he vote and therefore isn’t he as political an animal as the politician? I don’t think Ramdev knows enough about international laws, treaties and the way they are drafted. Only dictatorships, for instance, write laws retrospectively — no democracy does, as it violates the basic principles of “rule of law”. But while his lack of understanding can be debated and denounced, you can’t put a blanket ban on gurus wanting to do good for the country. I respect his sincerity, his earnestness to make India a better place. His voice — however silly, however dreamy, however untenable — needs to be heard. I hope we will hear more of him in 2012.

Ayodhya: another six decades for verdict?
On May 10, the Supreme Court stayed the Allahabad High Court’s September 30, 2010 judgement on Ayodhya that directed the division of 2.77 acres of land of the disputed Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid site in Ayodhya into three parts among Hindus, Muslims and the Nirmohi Akhara. “The High Court’s judgment is something strange,” the two-judge bench comprising Justices Aftab Alam and R.M. Lodha said. “A new dimension has been given by the High Court as the decree of partition was not sought by the parties. It was not prayed for by anyone. It has to be stayed. It’s a strange order.” I agree with the judgement and in an earlier post, I had critiqued the judgment saying it has gone into the realm of theology from the confines of law. What Supreme Court’s stay means is that after 61 years of legal battle we are back to square one. This judgement will buy peace for the next few decades. By then, hopefully, the next generation of Hindus and Muslims would have forgotten why they fought in the first place.

Sai Baba RIP: it’s hard to be a saint in these times
For 37 million devotees, the passing on of Sai Baba on April 24 came as a shock. Not only was he their spiritual guide, he built hospitals, colleges and schools in Puttaparthi (Andhra Pradesh). Predictably, his death led to a public discourse that meandered towards the material — leadership and money. The wealth found in Baba’s room, for instance. But it is not spiritual leaders who command my attention, it is their devotees. Faith lies in their hearts, not in that of the guru. One of the mature devotees told me that “He has not gone, He is still here, doing His work and will continue to do it.” To the outside world, Baba was known for his miracles, but to his devotees, he was God. Baba’s biggest gifts, however, were two — hope to his devotees trudge on in the hard journey of life with inner spiritual strength; and education and healthcare to the poor around Puttaparthi.

The retirement of Dalai Lama
This, I believe, is the biggest achievement that any leader anywhere can do — to retire, to let go when nobody wants you to. By giving up the political leadership of the Tibetan people on May 29, 2011 and restricting himself to the spiritual leadership, Dalai Lama walked the talk and showed that he had no desire for political pursuits. That leaves him with three commitments — promotion of human values such as compassion, forgiveness, tolerance, contentment and self-discipline; promotion of religious harmony and understanding among the world’s major religious traditions; and commitment is to the Tibetan issue. The Chinese call him various names and has raised the issue diplomatically many times. It is nice to see India stand up to the pressure of a bully and as a result, we are privileged to have him among us.

After Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, a new spring in the air
What began with the suicide by burning of a vegetable seller in the market of Tunisia to protest the repressive police in 2010, has become a trend in the Islamic autocracies in North Africa and West Asia. A year later, we have seen dictators fall in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. And today, leaders of Bahrain and Syria are under pressure from the world to follow Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Muhammad Hosni Sayyid Mubarak to another dictatorship Saudi Arabia. They can also follow Libya’s Muammar Muhammad Abu Minyar Gaddafia to his grave. And as we give our wholehearted support to the people so they can live in freedom, the only question we need to ask in 2012 is: who’s next. The question we don’t need to ask is: is the spring Islamic? Reason: Islam is only the face for a greater religion that’s gripped the area — freedom.

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