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Dangers of playing politics with religion

Ghazala WahabGhazala Wahab

Fortunately, it is still not in your face. But if you look hard, you cannot miss the subtle signs of growing religiosity in the Indian society cutting across faiths; in the symbols people now choose to wear on their person, in the frequency of public display of religion and in the assertion of more religious rights. From the nebulous, spiritual sort of faith, which had an in-built mechanism of tolerance, more people are now seeking the ritualistic and sometimes the archaic, definitive form of religion. “India has always been a very religious country,” argues Ram Madhav, member, central executive and spokesperson, Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, a socio- religious Hindu body that has several offshoot organisations including political, educational and proselytising ones. “But even by those standards,” he admits, “there has been an upsurge in religiosity in the recent times.” And if one needed statistical evidence, the data is provided by the State of the Nation survey conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in 2007. According to the survey, a mere five per cent respondents said that their religious belief had declined over years, while 30 per cent said they had become more religious. Moreover, education and exposure to modern urban life appears to have made Indians more and not less religious. Similarly, urban educated Indians are more religious than their rural and illiterate counterparts.

While Madhav says, that it is the desire for peace in the face of materialism that is pushing people towards religion, historian Romilla Thapar, in an interview to a newspaper said that, growing religiosity is a by-product of globalisation that has led to the expansion of the middle class and the alterations in the value system. According to her, “Globalisation has resulted in the expansion of the middle class and a change in the criteria by which they have weighed values. You are left with a vacuum which is sought to be filled with religiosity.”Whether it is seeking unprecedented concessions from educational institutions in the name of religion, holding night-long religious activities, signing up with new age gurus or simple lifestyle changes to incorporate increased religiosity, the fact is more people are becoming assertive about their religious predilections, sometimes aggressively so. As if religion is no longer a personal, spiritual quest but means of forging social and political identities. As if advancement of the self can only be at the cost of denouement of the other. As Madhav says, “The core of Hinduism is very catholic and secular. A growing sense of Hindu values only strengthens secular values. So more Hindu you become, more secular you get. But this is not the case with other religions, especially Islam which is very different. In its case, more Islamic means more fundamentalist. Today, Wahhabi Islam is growing in India. This is a cause of concern for us.”

Heart of the Matter
Madhav gives the credit for the growing Hindu religiosity to the RSS movement. According to him, today, RSS that started in 1925 has 50,000 shakhas (chapters) all over India with the membership of roughly seven to eight million. It runs 28,000 schools in the country along with 100,000 projects in various tribal areas. “We have worked towards increasing the consciousness about the Hindu values in the country through our various organisations,” he says, referring to the political wing, the Bharatiya Janata Party, the students’ body, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the labour organisation, Bharat Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), an institute roping in global Hindus, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and so on. He says that the RSS- run organisations have presence in more than 80 countries in the world. Apart from schools, RSS also runs several institutes of higher learning. Interestingly, some of the RSS offshoots also run private military training academies. The only serving Indian military officer under arrest on charges of terrorism for executing an attack on a mosque was a product of one such academy. Since RSS is an extra-Constitutional, private body, it does not accept government funds for any of its educational and social institutions.

“This is the biggest worry,” says Islamic scholar and author Asghar Ali Engineer. “By refusing government funds, they brook no interference in their educational curricula at all levels. Today, there are millions of people in various industries and organisations, who have been trained by the RSS at some stage of their lives. And they bring their RSS-induced prejudices to their work and social sphere.”

Madhav shares the credit of this wave with the new age gurus, or television gurus. He says, “Gurus like Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Baba Ramdev and others present Hinduism in a very attractive package making it more acceptable and contemporary.” Even though they talk of spiritual awakening, very subtly the message of superiority of a particular religion is also passed along. In fact, some like Baba Ramdev, very cleverly weave nationalism into Hinduism (more on that later) by subtly suggesting that being Hindu automatically makes one nationalist.

This is where religious aggression and overt assertion comes in. An RSS foot- soldier and a businessman who joined the organisation when he was only 13, says in a matter-of-fact tone, “While all religions have their own strengths, only Hinduism puts you on the right path. No other religion has the wisdom that Hinduism has.” Born again Hindus are not the only ones who believe in the superiority of their faith. The whole premise of Islamic fundamentalism and intolerance (both in India and outside) is borne out of a sense of being the only ones on the side of righteousness. And because of this sense of superiority, there is a desire to display more than you actually practice. Wearing religion on your face is a way of conveying not only that you are different, but perhaps better.

Former Cabinet minister, author of several books and the BJP member, Arun Shourie says, “Today, there is a greater display of being religious as opposed to being religious. More people want to be seen to belong to a particular religion even if they do not follow its tenets.” According to Thapar, this kind of religiosity is actually, “a negation of religion, a valueless articulation that comes from the urge to be seen to belong to a particular religion and manifests itself in the construction of expensive places of worship and indulgence in costly rituals.” Agreeing, Engineer calls it the tightening of the grip of religion. He says, “It may seem that only Muslims are becoming more religious, but this is a phenomenon that is common to all religious communities in India.” Because of this new-found religious fervour, religion itself is becoming dogmatic. A fall-out of this is greater tolerance of religious intolerance.

Politics of Religion
While dogmatic religiosity is sometimes borne out of social insecurity induced by the modern day competitive lifestyle, it is also prompted by the need to seek a collective identity, which is where faith takes a backseat and display becomes the dominating theme. However, seeking greater religious control over fast spiralling out of control lifestyle is not the only reason why religion has suddenly become a badge of identity. As Engineer says, “Unless religion gets political legitimacy it cannot be a source of identity. Without political patronage, religion is nothing but a social system.” And it is the political patronage that makes religiosity a dangerous development. “Because then it becomes reactionary,” says Engineer.

Shourie agrees. He says, “Hindus in India started turning towards religion and religious politics when they felt that Muslims had organised themselves as a vote bank. So they wanted to organise themselves as well.” Giving an example of reactionary religiosity, Shourie says that in Bombay, Muslims use to offer namaz on the roads on Fridays thereby blocking traffic and inconveniencing others. “In retaliation to this, Shiv Sena (Maharashtra-based Hindu-centric political party) started Maha Arti (night-long religious revelry) as a collective assertion against what they perceived as state’s appeasement of the Muslim community.”

Which action caused what reaction, depends upon the politico-religious persuasions of the person. For instance, Engineer says that in India, Muslim fundamentalism has been a response to Hindu fundamentalism, which again has been reactionary. “Hindu fundamentalism leads to a sense of insecurity among the Muslims and they get pushed back to conservatism, seeking security in religion,” he says. “Similarly, Hindu fundamentalism grew primarily out of the insecurity of the upper caste Hindus, who felt threatened by the lower caste communities, particularly after the implementation of the Mandal Commission report.”

Engineer claims that had there been no Mandal, there would have been no Ram Janambhoomi Movement. “It was the threat from below that pushed the upper castes toward extremist religious beliefs,” he says, adding, “They were under pressure to maintain the exclusivity of their beliefs from the encroaching low caste people, hence new rigidities in terms of practices, which were hitherto unknown, were introduced. For instance, Lal Krishna Advani, a BJP leader, who spearheaded the Ram Janambhoomi Movement, is a Sindhi who has no tradition of worshipping Lord Ram.” According to Engineer, if this hadn’t happened, Muslims would not have been driven towards extremism and secularism would not have become a bad word, mocked as pseudo-secularism.

While Shourie also talks of cause and effect, his causes are different from Engineer, though the effect eventually may just be the same. According to him, Hindus were driven towards religious extremism (non-violent) in the 1980s when the government of the day overturned the Supreme Court order to appease a religious lobby. “When the Rajiv Gandhi government reversed the court order on Shah Bano case, it was seen as the capitulation of the secular forces in the face of irrational religious ones,” he says, calling the Shah Bano case a watershed in the Indian history. Subsequently, several other incidents happened in that decade and the next one which only widened the religious chasm between different communities in India. And what makes religiosity in India even more dangerous is that it has essentially been stoked by politics.

Initial Churning
Whatever may be the merit of this cause and effect argument, in many ways, the decade starting mid-1980s determined the shape the ambiguous concept of secularism would take in India. Since it was never clearly laid down in the Constitution what secularism would mean in India, it was always a toss-up between complete separation of religion and state on the one hand, and maintenance of equidistance from all religions, on the other hand. Given the painful birth process, which saw hitherto latent religious animosity spill out on the streets during the Partition, it was perhaps only understandable that the members of the Constituent Assembly did not want to give any rigid definition to secularism. It was hoped that between the two, the Indian political and the bureaucratic class would evolve an acceptable concept.

But, the Indian political class, and consequently the bureaucrats, could never strictly follow any of these paths. Neither was the state completely separated from religion, nor could it keep equal distance between any. Perhaps, one reason for this was that Indians politicians, with few exceptions, have been extremely religious and superstitious, starting with the first President of the country, Dr Rajendra Prasad, whose public life during his tenure was replete with openly religious activities, despite the advice of the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru who felt that the office of the President should not be associated with any religion. While Nehru was secular out of conviction, many of his compatriots spouted secularism only out of political expediency. Even during Nehru’s lifetime, not only the Congress party, but his own Cabinet ministers were divided over what was meant by secularism and the need to engage productively with the minority communities in India. As a result, it was left to the politicians to interpret the ambiguous definition according to their convenience (which often meant indulging in religious rhetoric for political gains) and secularism in India plodded along till the middle of the 1980s.

Given that Nehru, supported by Gandhi, had to actually fight with the several of his party-men to ensure that India did not become a ‘Hindu-Rashtra’ in response to Pakistan being a Islamic country and that the word secular was formally incorporated in the Constitution’s Preamble only in 1976, when India was pronounced ‘Sovereign Socialist Secular Democratic Republic’, it was obvious that there would be enormous pulls and pressure to incorporate greater religiosity, (basically of the Hindu variety because of their sheer number) in public life. However, it was not until the mid- 1980s that the government involved itself so closely with religious matters, thereby paving the way for greater religious assertions and discourse in public life.

Though barely a few years after Independence, politicians of all hues, including the Congress had started playing the religious card for electoral gains (trying to consolidate votes on the lines of caste, community and religion), it was ironically Nehru’s daughter, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi who plunged secularism to new depths, even when she was the one who incorporated the word secular in the Preamble. She flirted with religious extremists (Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale in Punjab) to get even with her political rivals. Once this low was hit, the ground became ripe for the crops of hatred spawned by religion. Devastating terrorism in the name of Sikh religion to secure a separate homeland, Khalistan, started in Punjab. Fanned by Pakistan, (incidentally, Khalistan is Punjabi for Pakistan as both ‘pak’ and ‘khalis’ mean pure) the Khalistani terrorism had far-reaching consequences for India. Inter-community relations between Hindus and Sikhs deteriorated, Indira Gandhi had to pay the price by her life, assassinated as she was by her Sikh bodyguards, and following this, the country saw the worst-ever massacre of Sikhs in India in 1984.

Her son, Rajiv Gandhi, who succeeded her, and came to Parliament with the biggest ever electoral mandate, fumbled at the initial test of secularism. The famous Shah Bano case which Shourie calls a watershed was the first mistake, where Gandhi listened to the wrong advisers. To make up for appeasing retrogrades among the Muslims, he then tried to appease retrogrades among the Hindus. He ordered the locks on the controversial Babri Masjid to be opened to allow Hindu devotees to offer prayers there.

This was the beginning of the Ram Janambhoomi movement on whose tide the BJP rode, first to greater number of seats in Parliament and then a few years later to power at Centre. Such was the momentum of the movement that the mosque was pulled down by a mob in December 1992, even as senior leaders of the BJP, including Advani watched from a stage built a little distance away from the mosque. This, according to Engineer, was the watershed for Muslims, who despite the long history of communal violence in the country had never expected violence of this level. Mob clawing apart an old, no matter disputed, structure even as senior politicians watched and the police and Paramilitary forces were ordered to remain on standby.

“Along with the mosque crumbled the illusion of a secular state where one believed that rule of law would be supreme, that despite personal prejudices, no politician could afford to be seen as being against any community,” says Engineer. “But the BJP shattered that myth. It reasoned that since the Muslims will not vote for it in any case, it might as well work towards alienating them from the mainstream and consolidating Hindu votes en bloc.”

Hence, two watersheds: one for the Hindus; one for the Muslims, in a short span of seven years and the idea of secularism was finally defined for India. Not separation of state and religion, not equidistance from all religions, but playing on the vulnerabilities and fears of the people in the name of religion. More politics became enmeshed with religion, more vulgar, ostentatious, competitive and violent religion got. The seeds of this increasing religiosity that one encounters today were sown a little before Independence and have since been nurtured by opportunistic politics. Since post-Independence politics in India has been dominated by people other than Muslims, a major portion of the blame for this deterioration also lies with them.

Fears Within
Funnily, both Hindus and Muslims in India, carry a strangely false and self-imposed burden of history. There is an irrational fear of the other amongst both communities which has been relentlessly exploited and continues to be, by opportunistic politicians. In the recent times, the Global War on Terror has added new prejudices to the existing ones against the Muslims, so much so that several right-wingers now make public statements likening Muslims to terrorists. In the General Elections of 2009, a greenhorn politician like Varun Gandhi of the BJP believed or was led to believe that he could romp home by fuelling the fear of Muslim terrorists amongst his voters, most of whom were Hindus. His party, despite the shock and protests by a handful, supported him, because clearly the party also believed that this would get it votes. Hence, for certain sections within the party he became the star campaigner and was invited to campaign for others as well. That he won his seat by alienating the Muslims and consolidating the Hindu votes shows that his faith was not misplaced. However, the BJP lost as the party and today when it mulls over the causes of its defeat, senior functionaries are convinced that failure was not caused by its religious politics. They believe that they lost because they have not been able to convey the correct concept of their brand of religion and politics to the people. This, probably, is the truth. But the confusion over what the new-age Hindutva, or the BJP’s brand of politics should mean, is understandable. The founding premise of the party was to represent the angry Hindu who does not get the fair deal in his own country, even as the minorities live off the government largesse. This resentment stemmed from the belief that the land belonged only to him, because the Muslims, having got their own country (Pakistan), were being devious by trying to get the best of both worlds. Apart from this grievance, the BJP, and its alma mater, the RSS, also tried to subtly weave in Hinduism as the official religion of the country and the Hindu way of life as the Indian way of life negating all cultural and social influences of other religions. This was done by deliberately running down other religions and cultural practices, as either alien or inferior.

The BJP calls Integral Humanism, its guiding philosophy, which was propounded by Pandit Deendayal Upadhyaya in the form of four lectures delivered in Bombay on 22-25 April 1965. In the course of his lectures, available on the official Website of the party, Upadhyaya narrates a meeting between Vinoba Bhave and Madhav Sadasiva Golwalkar, the second chief of the RSS. He says, “Once during a conversation between Shri Vinobaji and the Sar Sanghachalak of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Shri Guruji, a question arose as to where the modes of thinking of Hindus and Muslims differ. Guruji said to Vinobaji that there are good and bad people in every society. There can be found honest and good people in Hindus as well as in Muslims. Similarly, rascals can be seen in both the societies. No particular society has a monopoly of goodness. However, it is observed that Hindus even if they are rascals in individual life, when they come together in a group, they always think of good things. On the other hand, when two Muslims come together, they propose and approve of things which they themselves in their individual capacity would not even think of. They start thinking in an altogether different way. This is an everyday experience. Vinobaji admitted that there was truth in this observation but had no reasons to explain it.”

Such nuggets are cleverly woven into the four lectures in which Upadhyaya extensively quotes Western philosophers, historians, political scientists and characters from the Hindu mythology to drive home his theory about what nationalism means and how there can be no polity without dharma. His vision for the country excludes everybody who is not a Hindu because, according to him being Indian is synonymous with being Hindu.

In an extract from her book, God and Globalization in India, (available online), Meera Nanda describes religiosity as a trend which, “is a symptom of a deeper, more fundamental malaise, namely the failure of secularism. For all its professions of secularism, the Indian state has not developed a stance of either equal indifference to or equal respect for all the many religions of India. It has instead treated the religion of the majority as the civic religion of the Indian nation itself. The result is a deep and widespread Hinduisation of the public sphere, which is only growing under the conditions of globalisation.”

However, it is not fair to blame certain Hindu organisations alone for this. The process was made simpler by the Muslims themselves, who because of the compulsions of their religion not only look outside India for religious guidance, but have also empathised with the causes of Muslims across the globe, whether it was in Turkey (Khilafat Movement) or more recently Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan. This made it easier for the BJP and the RSS combine to completely de-link them from the idea of Indian nationhood.

Dangerous Mix
The seeds of divisive politics and increased religiosity in public space are now bearing fruits. While earlier cornered and marginalised Indian Muslims only receded more into their ghettos and behind the shadows of the imams, today because of the growing radicalisation worldwide they have found a new getaway: a collective global angst and the self-pitying feeling of victimhood, which seeks an outlet. It does not help that the so-called war against terrorism is killing more innocent civilians than the terrorists. This is, perhaps, more dangerous for India than any other country in the world because despite being a minority, Muslims comprise roughly 20 per cent of the population, which is now linked with the global Muslim community through Internet and television. No country can afford to keep this number as ‘others’.

While Shourie admits that this can ‘certainly intensify communal tensions in India,’ Sonia Sikka, associate professor, Department of Philosophy, University of Ottawa, Canada through an email interview, says, “Religious dogmatism is dangerous for all societies, as it leads people to cling blindly to the letter of their beliefs, and the established form of their rituals and social arrangements. Unfortunately, most of the time it is the most conservative and doctrinaire members of the community that end up defining it at public and political levels. In this situation, religion becomes a badge of identity, rather than a quest for transcendent meaning.

I think that’s all it is for the Saffronites in India, who are basically just cultural nationalists, and who need the Muslim ‘other’ in order to define themselves and advance their agenda. Of course, this antipathy towards Muslims cannot help but feed a reactive Muslim fundamentalism in India as well, and it is no surprise, in the present context, if the latter is starting to hook up with global Islamism. The enormous resources that religion offers for constructing a good society, for promoting virtue and peace and generosity, are simply lost in all of this.” This antipathy or at times even hostility only contributes towards making the Muslims more susceptible to exploitation by forces inimical to India. However, it is not the Muslims alone who have been rendered susceptible by such polarity and animosity between the communities. A section among the Hindus also has become victims of this mindset who are now resorting to violence to get what they think is their due.

Shourie, conscious of the perils of this kind of religio-politico cocktail says that the only way out is for the state to become, “Truly secular, fair and firm.” His three point agenda is: “One, individual alone should be the unit of state policy; two, the state should never concede to a group what it will deny another; and three, never concede to a religious group what you will deny to a secular group.” But clearly this is easier said than done. As Engineer says, divisive politics has brought religion in the public sphere. Mere profession of secularism will not push it back. Violence begins in the mind. Just as there is a need to monitor and control the curricula of the madrassas, the RSS-run schools and institutions also need to be made accountable.


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