India gained independence on 15 August 1947 largely through non-violent resistance. This was led by Mahatma Gandhi, a Hindu, who had begun to learn the value of direct action in South Africa, and who in turn inspired a generation of American Christians struggling against racism.
However the partition of India, creating an independent Pakistan, was less peaceful. Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims were caught up in massive violence, in which millions of people were uprooted from their homes, injured or killed.
Much of the world was still recovering from the Second World War, in which so many casualties were civilians, and trying to grasp the scale of Nazi brutality, including the death camps.
Many European Christians were persuaded to cooperate in, or at least permit, horrific brutality towards their Jewish neighbours, as well as barbarism towards gypsies and other ‘inferior races’, disabled people, leftwingers, gays and lesbians. Yet others resisted because of their faith, braving torture and death to defend the vulnerable. Here, too, religion was shown at its best and worst.
Secular ideologies, too, were proving double-edged. While some communists struggled for justice and dignity for all, others were entrapped by the brutal authoritarianism of Stalinism.
In India, the high hopes at the time of the independence movement have not always come to fruition. Elsewhere too, in the past sixty years, there has been more slaughter of the defenceless, abandonment of the needy and despoilment of the earth, often in the name of God or progress, as well as numerous instances of heroism and mercy, also inspired by faith or sometimes humanism.
To act justly and compassionately in today’s world, discernment is needed, rather than wilful ignorance and wishful thinking. Yet some liberals talk as if religion in general is benevolent and worthy of privileged treatment, as if trainloads of dead bodies never crossed the newly-created India-Pakistan border, and fundamentalists speak as if adherence to a particular interpretation of a particular text is a guarantee of virtue, as if the Bible had never been misused to justify murderous anti-Semitism and unquestioning obedience to the state.
There are also militant atheists who appear to believe that getting rid of religion would lead to world peace, as if supposedly scientific theories such as eugenics had not been used to justify the sterilisation or even murder of ‘lesser breeds’, and technology had not led to the creation of the atom bomb as well as mass-production of penicillin and other breakthroughs in medicine.
There is much to learn from realistic, rather than romanticised, recollection of the past, including the post-war era and gaining of independence by India and Pakistan, if true freedom from destructive systems and behaviours is to be achieved, and human potential fulfilled.
© Savitri Hensman was born in Sri Lanka. She works in the voluntary sector in community care and equalities and is a respected writer on Christianity and social justice. She is author of ‘Re-writing history’, a research paper on the row within global Anglicanism: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/research/rewriting_history