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Abide With Me & Gandhi: Why a ‘Christian’ Hymn Rattles Today’s India

The denial of Abide With Me’s universality unsurprisingly comes from a group that has repeatedly undermined Gandhi.

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Abide With Me & Gandhi: Why a ‘Christian’ Hymn Rattles Today’s India
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Just weeks after the hate speeches against Muslims and Christians in Haridwar, at a time when India has witnessed Muslims and Dalits being lynched over suspicions that they were carrying beef and the accused in some episodes were honoured by members of the country’s governing party, just days after Muslim women found themselves being ‘auctioned’ online for the second time in a span of a few months, and while Christian gatherings and places of worship are under attack in various states, the elimination of ‘Abide With Me’ from the annual Beating Retreat ceremony in Delhi might seem like a minor matter. But it is not.

The Beating Retreat is a public event featuring India’s defence services personnel marching to music played by their own bands. Each year, the programme has featured Abide With Me, said to be one of Mahatma Gandhi’s favourite hymns, in a segment of quietude uncharacteristic of military displays.

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When the Oppressed Turn Oppressors

It can be argued that there is irony in playing a hymn loved by the apostle of non-violence during a parade that is obviously not about ahimsa (non-violence). However, this considered, thoughtful contention is not the line being taken by those who endorse the scissoring out of Abide With Me.

The song is a “colonial legacy” they say, and the decision to remove it is part of an ongoing attempt to divorce modern India from its British colonisers. The reference here is to the fact that Abide With Me was written by the 19th century Anglican Minister, Henry Francis Lyte, who was a Scotsman. Of course, those proffering this argument are not struck by the contradiction in their stand, considering that the Beating Retreat ceremony itself is a colonial legacy this government is happy to preserve, and that many of them are articulating their views in English, the language most widely spoken in the world as a result of British expansionism during the colonial era.

The truth, as we all know, is that oppressed people choose what to delete and what to retain once they have escaped their oppression.

That is a separate discussion. In this column, let us examine the reductive – and strategic – description of Abide With Me as a “colonial legacy” by advocates of the present government.

'Hindus, Don’t Waste Your Energy Fighting the British': RSS

The founders of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological parent of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which currently runs India’s government, had from their early days identified Christians as one of three groups they considered the primary enemies of India.

While Indian freedom fighters sought to push British imperialists out of India and establish self-rule, MS Golwalkar, the second RSS chief, was quoted as saying: “Hindus, don’t waste your energy fighting the British; save your energy to fight our internal enemies that are Muslims, Christians and Communists.”

The marginalisation and persecution of India’s Muslim minority by overt and covert means have been widely chronicled by liberal analysts. The propaganda against the country’s Christian minority – aided in no small measure by the Hindi film industry in the north up to the 1990s – has been less understood.

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Another Attempt to Vilify India's Christians

Since Independence, there has been a concerted effort to paint Indian Christians as dregs of the colonial era, descendants of the colonisers and traitors who left Hinduism for opportunistic reasons, along with portraying Christianity itself as a Western religion that came to India with the imperialists. The sociopolitical forces that spread these falsehoods have pulled off one of the most successful propaganda exercises in Indian history, with even many well-meaning Indians buying into at least some of their claims.

Fact: Jesus Christ is a historical figure who was Asian, not a Westerner. Fact: Christianity first reached India approximately 1,500 years before the colonisers arrived on Indian shores.

In a rational world, neither of these points should matter since, in a secular democracy, all citizens should be free to choose their religion – whether it is of Asian or Western origin – for whatever reason they deem fit and whenever they deem it fit to do so. And indeed, there are Indian Christian communities of less ancient vintage too. The only reason why it becomes necessary to emphasise these aspects of history is that the Indian right-wing has made – and continues to make – every effort to erase these realities in a bid to vilify India’s Christian minority.

The labelling of Abide With Me as a “colonial” hymn is part of this effort, a well-thought-out element of the propaganda that has contributed to this vilification of Indian Christians.

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Abide With Me Is Universal to All Religions

In its origin, Abide With Me is a Christian hymn, not a colonial hymn; in its meaning, it is universal to all religionists, and the only people who could justifiably argue against it are atheists and agnostics. But they, of course, are not the ones favouring the exclusion of Abide With Me from the Beating Retreat ceremony.

Lyte was a Christian who happened to be Scottish, and his lyrics are about an individual’s closeness to a supreme being, both in life and death. Abide With Me is sung at Christian funerals across India, it is sung with devotion by Indian Christians both in its original language and in Indian language versions. It is also sung by scores of followers of non-Christian faiths who relate to its meaning, and by both believers and non-believers with a fondness for great poetry and music. Describing it as “colonial”, though, is an extension of the long-running tactic of equating everything of Christian origin with the colonisers, so that, by extension and insinuation, India’s Christian minority, too, are equated with the colonisers in the public psyche.

Abide With Me, as we know it, does not contain the words “Jesus” or “Christ”, which is what gives it relevance to anyone who believes in a God, irrespective of their religion. It has, hence, been astonishing to hear a comment on a TV channel this week that the reference to a “Lord” in Abide With Me makes it too Christian to have a place in a government function in a secular country.

“Lord” is a generic English word, not specific to Christianity, and is commonly used as a title by practitioners of various faiths while speaking in English: Lord Ram, Lord Krishna, Lord Buddha, Lord Jesus Christ.

Denying the universality of Abide With Me comes, not surprisingly, from a political grouping that has repeatedly chosen to undermine Gandhi over the years.

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How Gandhi's Teachings Weren't Limited to Hinduism

The Mahatma’s affection for Abide With Me is an indicator of his awareness and conviction that being a devotee of one religion does not preclude the possibility of embracing and/or benefiting from what other religions have to offer. Gandhi was a committed Hindu whose satyagraha and ahimsa drew heavily from multiple sources including, very significantly, from Jesus Christ’s teachings.

The dictum “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, let him slap your left cheek too” that some Indians mistakenly attribute to Gandhi actually came from the preachings attributed to Jesus in “The Sermon on the Mount” in the Bible (Matthew: Chapter 5, Verses 38-42).

'The Greatest Christian of the 20th Century'

Gandhi’s understanding of Christ was so profound and pathbreaking that the revered American civil rights activist, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., went on record to state that he had always felt this particular form of non-violence proposed by Jesus was useful only in inter-personal relations, until Gandhi’s work taught him that it had immense practical value in mass movements, too.

“Christ showed us the way and Gandhi in India showed it could work,” he said.

Citing another quote from Jesus – “I have sheep in other folds too” (John: Chapter 10, Verse 16), widely interpreted to mean that “Christian” simply denotes one who shares Christ’s values, whether or not they are baptised – King went so far as to proclaim, “It is one of the strange ironies of the modern world that the greatest Christian of the 20th century was not a member of the Christian church.”

That a Christian pastor continents away could say that he understood Christ better because of a devout Hindu in India is a compliment to be treasured by all Indians, Hindus and non-Hindus. To accept that compliment though, one has to acknowledge the influence of a religion other than Hinduism on Gandhi, India’s most venerated freedom fighter. But doing so would be a terrible inconvenience to the present majoritarian governing party, which belongs to an ideological fraternity that seeks to transform India into a country where Hinduism has primacy and religious minorities occupy a subordinate position.

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Who, Really, Is an 'Indian' Today?

To return to the point with which this column started, the exclusion of Abide With Me from this year’s Beating Retreat ceremony is no minor matter.

At a time when religious minorities are under heavy attack in India, this move cannot but be seen as an intentional slight to India’s Christian minority, who form just 2.3 per cent of the country’s population. It is yet another message to Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and all other minority communities on who gets to define what counts as “Indian”.

(Anna M.M. Vetticad is an award-winning journalist and author of The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic. She can be reached at @annavetticad on Twitter, at @annammvetticad on Instagram, and at AnnaMMVetticadOfficial on Facebook. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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