Delhi's spirit resists divisive ideology



In late February President Donald Trump visited India for talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. As he departed Delhi, India’s capital, Trump praised Modi’s India for its commitment to religious tolerance and freedom.  

Protests against CAA in New Dehli (Wikimedia commons)

Officially India is a secular country. Indian secularism is not about excluding religion from public life. Instead, it seeks to ensure that as far as possible the State remains religiously neutral. Past presidents of India have included Hindus, Muslims and other denominations. A Sikh has held the post of Prime Minister. Independent India’s first education minister was a Muslim cleric. One of its recent defence ministers, George Fernandes originally trained to be a priest before becoming a train unionist and spoke 10 languages.

Of all Indian cities, Delhi is perhaps the most multicultural and multi-confessional. Founded in around 730 AD, Delhi was the capital of empires of nominally Hindu and Muslim persuasion. The Mughal Muslim king Akbar had a Hindu wife who scandalised the Court by maintaining a small Hindu temple in her quarters. Akbar started his own religion, known as Deen-i-Ilahi, and conveniently appointed himself as prophet. 

Syncretism has always been the religious order of the day in India’s capital, home to people from many ethnicities and faiths. 

It is also my ancestral city. My family are known as Dilli-wala (Delhi native). So many of my elders in Sydney were also Dilli-wala’s, regardless of their religion. No matter where they settle, whether Karachi or London or LA or Sydney, a Dilli-wala remains a Dilli-wala. My parents are both in this category even though one identifies as Pakistani and the other Indian.

Of course, Delhi is no utopia of religious tolerance. From time to time, conflict and violence do erupt. My father grew up in a district called Gurgaon during the 1940’s. When rioting broke out following the 1947 Partition and the influx of distraught Hindi and Sikh refugees from Pakistan into Delhi, my paternal grandfather decided to take his family to a town on the border of India and West Pakistan. I’ve heard stories of my young father and aunt travelling in a horse drawn carriage attempting to flee across town and avoid Hindu mobs. Their trusty driver, himself a Hindu, led them to safety and even lied to one mob that stopped the party that his passengers were Hindus.  


'Syncretism has always been the religious order of the day in India’s capital, home to people from many ethnicities and faiths.'


In this case, as with so many others, it is outsiders who all too often initiate the trouble. Violent extremes don’t sit comfortably with Delhi natives. The most recent violence was in response to a campaign of peaceful protest against changes to India’s citizenship laws. These changes would grant citizenship to asylum seekers from neighbouring countries (Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh) except Muslims.

This could well affect ethnic or sectarian minorities such as Hazara Shia refugees fleeing violence and terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Such a blanket ban takes little account of the nuances of various intra-Muslim tensions, traces of which also exist in India itself. The laws are clearly designed to be an exercise in confessional engineering aimed at marginalising India’s largest minority community.

The quiet peaceful protests were met with extremely hostile and provocative rhetoric from political leaders of Modi’s party. The ideological leanings of this party are often referred to as Hindutva. This divisive ideology seeks to transform India into a Hindu theocracy. Among its early followers were the assassins of Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi.

Hindutva regards India’s Abrahamic communities — Muslims, Christians and Jews — as a foreign cultural and religious force that must be kept in check. Christian communities, including those in southern India whose presence goes back over 1,700 years, are often targeted for their social service work among poor low caste Hindu communities.

It would be most inaccurate to imagine the recent Delhi pogrom to be a wire between Muslim and non-Muslim communities. A young Hindu boy tells of how his Muslim neighbours protected him and other Hindus from attack. A Sikh man and his son transported around 100 Muslim women and boys to the relative safety of a Sikh neighbourhood. Sikhs handed Muslim men Sikh turbans to wear so as to confuse Hindutva thugs. Meanwhile the Catholic Archbishop of Delhi called on all Christian churches to provide shelter to Muslim and other citizens fleeing the violence.

The divisive and foreign Hindutva ideology goes against the culture and spirit of Delhi. Recently Modi’s party were trounced in local elections. Almost always the violence and hatred is caused by outsiders and resisted by the Dilli-walas. But with an openly sectarian government in power, the locals might yet become infected.



Irfan YusufIrfan Yusuf is a Sydney based lawyer and blogger.

Main image: Protests against CAA in New Delhi (Wikimedia commons)

Topic tags: Irfan Yusuf, India, Delhi



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Existing comments

Irfan Bhaya, a brilliant and generous analysis, availing towards the virtuous on all sides and typically, as well as justifiably, excoriating towards the Hindutva and their thuggery. Not before time either; anybody searching the internet these days would easily encounter chilling changes in Hindu ideology, unabashedly among the so-called educated mercantile classes, whose often new found wealth has blinded them to the influence of Gandhi, himself a Hindu from Gujarat, where Modi and his minions have emerged in recent years from the mire of Indian poverty to sell their particularly odious brand of Hindu-nationalist snake-oil to the gullible.
Michael Furtado | 05 March 2020

An interesting potted history of Delhi, and, to an extent, India, with the odd misspelling, glossing over and inaccuracy. Till Partition, Delhi was a majority Muslim city. Many of those who stand up to Modi and his BJP are themselves caste Hindus, such as the admirable Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party, which has kept the BJP out of office in the Delhi Assembly. Nehru himself was a Kashmiri Brahmin, but, in politics, he was avowedly secular. There is a long tradition of secular Hinduism in politics. You are correct, the Indian 'New Class', such as Modi, are much more inclined to bring militant Hinduism into politics. They are also not committed to the checks and balances of the Westminster System of Government. With the Nehru family-led Congress Party seeming to have lost its ''Get Up and Go', who will take up the mantle to preserve the old, decent, secular India? The new Nationality Law is a major step in demolishing that. It is a major battle in what appears to be an ongoing political war. If the war is won India will be a far, far worse place. I would weep for her.
Edward Fido | 05 March 2020

Infected? The people I work with in India are very specific with their english language. You chose Infected. Ok.
Dominic | 05 March 2020

It would seem that India and Pakistan are both becoming increasingly chauvinistic, each in its own way. For that you have to blame well funded and organised extremists on both sides. If Partition had not occurred a united India may have been a bulwark against this.
Edward Fido | 06 March 2020

Thank you, Irfan. I’d never heard of the dilli-wala before this. I wish I were one. God bless them in their holy resistance to such horrifying change.
Joan Seymour | 06 March 2020

Sorry folks. I use Aussie English. But if you like, I can add some “lakhsw@ and “crores “ and even some “zamindars “ into the mix.
Irfan Yusuf | 06 March 2020

Since this conversation is about extremist constructions of religion and its extravagant and usually exclusivist claims - once regarded as eclipsed as the world got smaller and its citizens began to see themselves in others, but sadly fuelled recently by the resurgence of a national identity that is often founded in religion, I would like to add this. The word 'infected', like 'contagion', is commonly deployed in social and cultural theory to denote the rapid spread of ideas that are inimical to the virtues of tolerance and respect for others, that are the hallmark of secular liberalism, which - its worth also saying in a Jesuit e-journal - has been the vehicle by which Catholics, especially in the Anglosphere, have come over the last generation or two, to be accepted as fellow participants in the democratic polity, entitled to avail of the human rights that all citizens enjoy for their own protection as well as that of formerly vulnerable others. While my fellow Indians are indeed sophisticated and polished practitioners of the language, as an expatriate of many years standing, I have found in recent years many younger Hindus, whose appeal to an exclusive and even racist Hinduism is evident.
Michael Furtado | 07 March 2020

Irfan has the nostalgia for the old Muslim Delhi, Joan Seymour. It is a world that he harks back to but knows is lost. We all have those places. Nothing wrong with that, if we can look honestly at the present, as he does. Returning to the present, we have to remember that Independence and Partition came over 70 years ago. In that time power in India has passed from the small English educated elite, such as Nehru, to the new, risen mercantile class such as Modi, who are much more self-consciously both Indian and Hindu. Indeed they consider both the same thing. In their hearts of hearts they believe you cannot be both a loyal Indian and a Muslim. They would regard you as a fifth columnist for Pakistan. In Pre-Independence India the police were an integrated force. Since Partition they are almost exclusively Hindu and seen by Muslims to be a partisan force whenever there is intercommunal violence. I could list all sorts of horrible pogroms against Muslims, including in Gujarat when Modi was Chief Minister there. The police did nothing. It was the Army which eventually restored order. Things are grim for the old, pluralist India.
Edward Fido | 10 March 2020


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