Rise of religion vs Respect for religions: We need to find a middle ground

Victims in a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ will not just be atheists, people of other religions and people of lower castes within Hinduism, they will also include most believing Hindus as well

Photo Courtesy: Twitter/@DilliDurAst
Photo Courtesy: Twitter/@DilliDurAst

Ranjona Banerji

I’ve wracked my head and my heart over writing this for weeks. It’s a contentious subject and it’s on the spin of a coin how easily people will get upset. The problem will lie with my ability to explain; not anyone’s ability to comprehend.

It’s that impossible, touchy, fractious, controversial, hated word: secularism.

There, I see your hackles rise already.

If anything is clear about humans, it is that we like to believe. The enormous concrete fist of communism could not wipe out religious feeling and after the Soviet Union stopped being the Soviet Union, there it was, religion. State-enforced “secularism” cannot work without trampling on people’s feelings, whether or not you believe Karl Marx was correct about religion being the “opium of the masses”.

In India, the idea of secularism has its own trickiness. And it has received a lot of flak over the years, some of it understandable. Given our pluralistic society, given our recent history of Partition on religious lines, given our older history of invasions given the hue of religious imperialism, whether by the invader or the invaded, there’s a minefield under our feet.

As we head towards the RSS’s idea of a Hindu Rashtra, being set down by the ruling BJP, can we ignore secularism though? We know that the European Age of Reason arguments do not hold in India. Even a mention of the words “separation of church and state” leads you into a raging maelstrom. So no, a rigid separation is out. The ridicule that religion received as a result of a growing scientific temper, has only been counterproductive. The consequent increase in religious fervour against science in the US for instance, in the rise of “creationists” as a legitimate lobby, proves that.

The notion of “tolerance” with which we fooled ourselves in India for generations, ignoring the molten lava under our feet will not work either. Tolerance in this context has come to mean “I’m putting up with you because I have no option”. We know how inadequate and dangerous that notion is.

But now you’re wondering, okay, all this is anodyne stuff. Where is the contentious bit? When are my hackles going to rise? When is the righteous judgment of my religious fury going to rain down?

Rise of religion vs Respect for religions: We need to find a middle ground

Right. Here we go. The thing is, we cannot exist as a democratic republic without this secularism thing. And our future as a Hindu majoritarian state is nothing short of horrific. Assuming that there is much wrong with every political party in India, there is absolutely nothing that is right with the RSS’s idea of India and the BJP’s plan for a Hindu state. It will not be a Hindu state for one. It will be Hindutva, a warped and frightening version of Hinduism as dictated by Nagpur. It will be full of insecurity which will lead to oppressive authoritarianism. The victims will not just be atheists, people of other religions, people of lower castes within Hinduism, they will include most believing Hindus as well.

Am I being harsh enough? Basically, for India to survive without internecine warfare, without fracturing, without imploding, we need secularism. We cannot survive as a majoritarian religious state. And given all the evidence of the last six years, we cannot survive with the current dispensation in charge.

The rise in religion-based hatred is directly matched with the decline of Indian democracy and democratic institutions. Not to forget India’s living indices – from the collapsing economy to failing agriculture, healthcare, education, development, defence, foreign relations, and just about everything else. The complete incompetence of the Central government when it comes to pandemic management should provide enough clues except for diehard bigot supporters.

We are also a country where religion and culture are closely intertwined and at times synonymous. Instead of a standoff between state and religious belief, instead of enforced top-down secularism, instead of a condescending “tolerance”, we have to find a more comfortable, less condescending middle ground.

I vote for Respect. You don’t have to agree with every religion. You don’t have to like every aspect of every religion. But dislike must not be state law and policy. Instead, we can choose to let everyone do their thing. We have a set of laws for all, we can reassess from time to time taking everyone on board.

It’s that old, cliched saying about unity in diversity. Humans are diverse. Culture is not homogeneous. And divided we fall.

(Veteran journalist and commentator the author is based in Dehradun. Views are personal.)

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