Elevation of religion of majority as de-facto State religion can undo the founding values of our Constitution
While our Constitution categorically proclaims India to be a sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic, the current ruling regime wilfully chooses to ignore this constitutional promise
The widely telecasted inauguration of the ‘Kashi Vishwanath Corridor’ by Prime Minister Narendra Modi abundantly displayed the nefarious designs held close by the ruling regime for this country. The invocation of Hindu symbols and ritualistic practices by the PM in an official function of the State gave a de facto official status to the majority and majoritarian religion in the country.
These developments throw open numerous questions regarding religion - its scope and effect, State - its role and function and most importantly the relationship between State and religion particularly in a multi-religious, multi-cultural country.
While the Indian Constitution categorically proclaims India to be a sovereign, socialist, secular and democratic republic to be hoisted upon the principles of justice, liberty, equality and fraternity, the current ruling regime wilfully chooses to ignore this constitutional promise.
Choosing to stand true to the vision manufactured in Nagpur, this right wing Brahmanical regime is prioritizing intolerance. While direct physical violence by this force is most evident before us, one has to be equally vary and vigilant of the deep discursive violence inflicted.
As a multi-cultural, multi-lingual, multi-religious society we are being subjected to absolute de-historicization and erasure. All this being in line with the political project nurtured by Golwalkar and Savarkar of establishing a Hindu Rashtra.
Secularism as an idea and a governing principle in the execution of State functions has been oft disregarded and discarded. For a political formulation whose imagination is centrally propped upon religion, the multi-cultural reality of the sub-continent is unpalatable.
While a singular definition of secularism has been evasive, modern nation-states have since long grappled with this principle. Role of religion in society has always been a highly debated issue. From Greek city states to modern industrial towns, philosophers, theorists, politicians have pondered on how to understand and engage with religion especially in its association and effect in community formation, identity consolidation as well as governance.
With the onset of industrial revolution and modernity coupled with the establishment of nation-states, there was an accelerated interest to arrive upon a resolution regarding the relationship between the State and religion.
One of the earliest approaches adopted by nation-states was a policy of separation of State and religion. It was deemed appropriate to relegate religion to the domain of the private and personal into which the State will bear no role or intervention. The product of a social contract, the nation-state ideally in its essence is concerned with civil governance with the principles of justice, liberty, fraternity and equality.
How to engage with religion in a fair manner, particularly when the State is interested in undercutting the possibility of the tyranny of the majority, has been challenging for the modern nation-states. In early days, it was a stance of absolute separation of State and religion. The emergence of territorial nationalism played an important part in diminishing the importance of religion in the organization of a state. Religiosity remained in the society but the grip of organized religion on the State and its secular functioning was loosening.
The French Revolution and the American War of Independence furthered this break more radically than previous events. Large sections of population in revolutionary France were moving in opposition to the dominance of clergy, the property it held and the influence it wielded.
The First Amendment to the US Constitution gave a definite shape to the relationship between a democratic secular State and religion by proclaiming, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” US President Thomas Jefferson strongly advocated for a “wall of separation between church and State.”
Scientific Socialism, since its inception, understood the role religion plays in an unequal exploitative society. As Marx famously wrote, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.” When it came to the influence organized religions might have in a state, Lenin pointed to the unequal nature of society and declared: “Unity in this really revolutionary struggle of the oppressed class for the creation of a paradise on earth is more important to us than unity of proletarian opinion on paradise in heaven.”
When nation-states were fast becoming the dominant mode of organizing societies, it was getting clearer and clearer that religion was to remain a private affair, separated from the functioning of the State in most parts of the world.
Modern political thought firmly tried to establish a detachment of State from organized religions through means political, social and legal. In India too, reformers constantly tried to do away with the dogmatic and orthodoxy practiced in the name of religion and tried to bring our society more in conformity with modern democratic values.
Raja Ram Mohan Roy relentlessly struggled against the Sati custom and cited ancient scriptures and modernist values both to support his program, against a vehement opposition from the orthodox section of the society which included his own mother. Many more like Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, M.G. Ranade, Syed Ahmed Khan dedicated their lives to social reforms.
A binding factor amongst these reformers was their emphasis on having a rational look on religious texts and focus on education.
More radical reformers like Mahatma Jyotirao Phule, Savitri Phule and Fatima Sheikh carried their program for reforms deeper in the previously neglected and marginalized sections of the society. Works of these reformers loosened the grip of orthodoxy, superstition and dogma on society and established rationality and humanism at the core for deliberations in the upcoming mass phase of the freedom movement.
The lives and work of these reformers came to form social-ideological bedrock on which leaders of our freedom struggle further developed while fighting the British.
Significant energies of our freedom movement were invested in driving away the British but at the same time, our leaders were conscious of how independent India would constitute itself as a nation-state and what defining values it will represent to the world.
Secularism was a hallmark of the major participants in the freedom struggle. Gandhi, while proclaiming himself a Hindu, never tolerated discrimination on the basis of religion. Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhash Chandra Bose, Sardar Patel, Maulana Azad and other luminaries were steadfast in their commitment to a future secular State.
Dr. B.R. Ambedkar gave the clarion call for annihilation of caste and initiated perhaps the greatest social reform on this land. EV Ramaswamy Periyar established rationality at the core of Tamil Society and Sri Narayana Guru’s calls for the end of discrimination on the basis of one’s birth found many echoes.
From the leaders of the Ghadar Party to the Left revolutionaries led by Bhagat Singh, complete unanimity prevailed regarding the role of religion in the independent Indian State: it was to be a private affair with the state keeping equidistance from all organized religions.
The manifesto of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Army stated: “With regard to the communal question, the revolutionary party contemplates to grant whatever rights the different communities may demand, provided they do not clash with the interests of other communities and they lead ultimately to hearty and organic union in different communities in the near future.”
This spirit of peaceful and harmonious co-existence of different religious communities with State being the equidistant and secular entity found expression in our Constitution making later when Dr. Ambedkar replied to those who were asking the infant State to follow the religion of majority that “it will be a calamity to the nation.”
The republic that was inaugurated was a secular democratic republic with fundamental rights ensuring non-discrimination on the basis of faith. The pro-British minority which advocated for a State religion or a theocracy found little takers among the population of the country.
It should be underlined here that the greatest of freedom fighters of our country who sacrificed everything for the national cause were all adherents of a secular State.
In India, we saw the rise of the RSS-BJP in the uncertain years after the financial crisis of 2008-09, riding the chariot of Hindutva. The Hindu religion as it was practiced had no institution akin to the Church and it remained heavily localised in practice. The RSS and their obsession with uniformity has propelled them to devise monolithic interpretations of certain strands of Brahmanical texts which they wish to impose on this extremely diverse society. This thought is not only dangerous for communal harmony and tranquillity but it can also push us back in history by hundreds of years by diverting us from issues of material interest.
Certain contemporary developments have been disturbing in this regard. Very recently, a few municipalities in Gujarat embarked on a mission to outlaw public sale of non-vegetarian food. A BJP MP, also from Gujarat, issued an ultimatum to tribals that the benefits of reservation will be snatched away from them if they do not convert to Hinduism in two months.
Religion is increasingly asking for greater space even in secular domains like foreign policy and municipal works. The elevation of the religion of the majority as the de-facto State religion becomes a real threat in this context which can potentially undo the founding values of our Constitution.
We should be conscious of the famous saying by the French thinker Voltaire: “Whoever can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”
The rise of religious common sense may be challenged and rejected only by bringing back the focus on the real and concrete issues pertaining to dignity, livelihood, health, employment and housing.
The important question before us is, should we let religion interfere, or take over, with the workings of a secular State or should we resist this deviousness of the Hindu right? Is it the tryst with destiny of our nation? Is there way forward?
The lessons of our independence movement and the sacrifices of countless freedom fighters point us to only one direction and it’s not difficult to guess.
Views are personal
The writer is General Secretary, Communist Party of India.