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Delhi's spirit resists divisive ideology

  • 05 March 2020


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.  

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