In Search of ‘Religious’ Secularism

Why the Liberal’s Call for Religious Language is Indifferent to the Political Aspirations of Minorities?

In search of 'Religious' Secularism

  The New York Times

With laying of the foundation stone for Ram Mandir a new age has begun, as much in the life of the Republic as in the mood of leading public intellectuals. Yogandra Yadav’s recent article-‘Secularism gave up language of religion’. Ayodhya bhoomi pujan is a reflection of that. He squarely blamed secularists for not taking into account the importance of religion in the life of the people. The ‘defeat’ of secularism is accounted for secularists’ disdain for religion in politics which led to the political space ‘exposed’, to be exploited by the BJP. In other words, the pooh-poohing of religious language of politics, inter alia, paved the way for the current political malaise. The meaning for such a turn can be found in political despondency and irretrievable loss of state secularism. While loss of secularism is decried in the public domain, any discussion about its implication on minorities especially Muslims is avoided.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s article – ‘Ayodhya’s Ram temple is the first real colonization of Hinduism by political power’- has also indicated a gentle nudge in that direction. He tried to somehow link political colonization of Hinduism to the overall deterioration in the health of the Republic. His political articulation signalled a clear departure from his distinctive writings seeped in the language of universal rights and justice drawing from the political tradition of liberalism.

This search for tolerance, as the closest alibi of western secularism, from within Indian tradition is well-intentioned but its translation in the public sphere by injecting religious language is fraught with danger. The effort to rescue piety and catholicity of Hinduism from the clutches of Hindutva by infusing non-communal, religious language of politics, a la Gandhi, is nothing more than exercise in self-defeat. The argument is that Hindutva has robbed the moral content of Hinduism which is intrinsically all-encompassing, amenable to accommodate diversity and difference of all kinds and therefore its tolerant cultural repertoire can be employed politically to turn the clock back to the bygone era of tolerance.

There is no historical precedent in recent history where religious language of politics did not culminate in communal disturbance no matter how noble the intention might have had. For example, despite integration of Khilafat with Non-cooperation movement in an effort to build Hindu-Muslim bonhomie; Gandhi could not control spate of communal violence which returned with renewed vigour during rest of 1920s and 1930s. If moral stature of a person like Gandhi, who had overwhelming support from Hindus and Muslims alike, could not control the passion inherent in religious political language what kind of possibility do we have in imitating him at this juncture? It is true that for Gandhi, as he wrote in Young India in 1922 that ‘human society is not divided into watertight compartments called social, political and religious. All act and react upon each other.’ Few years later in 1925 he reiterated the same view ‘for me politics bereft of religion are absolute dirt, even to be shunned’. Needless to say, religion or dharma functioned as moral compass for him rather than commonplace meaning we generally ascribe to religion. However, despite the heavy influence of Gandhi on our constitution makers, it is incontrovertible fact that our constitution is modelled upon the Westminster parliamentary system which stipulates the disjunction between the sphere of private and public in conventional terms. It did not forbid its expression in the public yet its association for political end was deemed nothing short of sacrilegious.

In our times, liberal political language appears to be abandoned in this new search for indigenous source of tolerance. What can crudely be called Hindu version of liberation theology. It is a political strategy or rather thought employed by basically liberal but anti-modernists who try to unearth the liberal tenets in the Hinduism of yore. In their bid to impress on the masses they highlight how Hindutva has hijacked the ‘true or pure’ Hinduism which has place for all kinds of beliefs, people, cultures and religious groups. In short, they try to turn the clock back by employing the same religious or cultural repertoire, as Hindutva does, but for different political objective. Their objective appears to be benign, non-communal, tolerant but still marked by search for hegemony from within the tradition itself. It implied the exclusion of Muslims as free political agent in the electoral process as trade-off for the ‘general good’ of the community in the sense of physical security. In due course, it will have full potential to turn this kind of political language into Indian version of political Islamism. It will transform majoritarian identity into what Arjun Appadurai has called – ‘predatory identity’- with all its attended consequences.

It will further reduce the minorities to the status of pure vote bank whose role would signify nothing more than small numbers. It will only fulfill the long-held agenda of RSS to downgrade Muslims as second grade citizen by pushing them outside the pale of politics altogether. For instance, how is non-communal, issue-based politics of AAP which uses Hanuman as electoral trope to counter BJP’s politics of Ram different so far as political empowerment of Muslims is concerned? Let’s assume that there would be no communal disturbances in such political utopia, nonetheless, what would be political choice for religious minority in such as area of competitive religiosity by mainstream parties? It would be political contest between tolerant and intolerant Hindu electorates without any recognition of Muslims citizen as equal stakeholder in the political process.

Iqbal Ahmad is pursuing PhD in Modern History from Centre for Historical Studies, JNU.