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Religion, Politics and the Modern State
05/04/2004
By Ram Puniyani

Last two decades have witnessed a constant invocation of religion in the arena of politics. From George Bush’s crusade against terrorism to Osama bin Laden’s Jihad against the greatest Satan, US, to our own home bred Hindutva ideology which aims at Hindu Rashtra, one constantly gets to hear that politics is to be guided by religion. So when Mr. Advani, the pioneer of Ram Temple movement which brought Hindutva to the fore, stated in Ahamadabad that if there was no religion in politics then it was of no use to him (July 26 2004), it was not much of a surprise.

There are many an arguments on this line, which regard Secularism as a western concept, it being against religion, it being appeasement of minorities, it being an artificial graft in the body politic of India the country, which is the land of spirituality etc.

It is not only the Advani parivar, which will argue on these lines. This parivar is in the company of Talibans, Zia Ul Haque and others from near the borders who also conduct their politics in the name of religion. On the face of it the two trends may sound antagonistic while there is a deeper conceptual unity in both the streams. This stream is joined by an unexpected quarter of Post Modernists, the likes of Ashish Nandy to whom Secularism is a Western graft unsuitable and unnecessary here as diverse communities here have been living together peacefully in the same geographical area.

Somewhere in the middle of this argument Gandhi is quoted as if he was against secularism, also Nehru is quoted as being against religions and imposing this ‘alien’ concept in Indian context.

This Advani-Nandy duo suffers from multiple confusions. To begin with secularism is not a mere Western concept. It is true it began in the west. But it began not to sort out the quarrels between religions but it came up with the introduction of Industrialization, with the emergence of two modern classes, Industrialists and workers. Till that time it was the King-Landlord who had the divine sanction to rule on the direct approval of the almighty. While King was the Son of God, landlord his representative, the clergy the most visible part and the custodian of religion, was the legitimizer of this ideology.

Secularism essentially was an outcome of secularization process in which the divine power of the king-landlord and the social hold of clergy was done away with.

While secularization is presented as an external process, the deeper inner logic of this was to do away the hierarchy of caste and gender. In Indian context due to colonial rule and the Landlord-British alliance, the process of secularization could not be completed. The hold of Landlord-Priest and the accompanying values of caste and gender hierarchy persisted though in less intense form. At this point of time secularization process was represented by Jotiba Phule, Savitribia Phule, Bhimrao Babasaheb Ambedakr and Ramasamy Priyar at social level and by the likes of Gandhi, Nehru and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad at political level. While many a differences can be seen if one sees their ideologies in a superficial way, the deeper unity of their thoughts was apparent as these luminaries spearhead the social process of opposing the inferior treatment to Shudra and women at social level and relegating the clergy-landlords at political level.

Advani is able to confuse himself as the word religion has many components and many meanings. Gandhi did state that those who think religion has nothing to do with politics understand neither religion nor politics. This is his oft-quoted sentence. But what does ‘his’ religion mean, needs to be seen. The first and foremost, one has to see the claim of being custodian and so the arbiter of religion is taken away from clergy, Mullah and Brahmins. Than one has to see that religions’ facets are diverse, moral values; holy books; holy places; communitarian functions and the like. Also one has to see that within a single religion there are various sects. What people like Gandhi and Azad mean by religion is totally in contrast to what Advani, Taliban, Jinnah and Godse mean by it. As per Gandhi, “ Indeed religion should pervade everyone of our actions. Here, the religion does not mean sectarianism. It means a belief in ordered moral Govt. of the universe. This religion transcends Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity etc.  It does not supercede them. It harmonizes them and gives them reality.” (Gandhi quoted in Madan 1997,3 Indian Journal of Secularism). The claim of Nandy's that Gandhi could do without the concept of secularism is again based on the ignorance about values of father of the Nation, “ Religion and state will be separate. I swear by my religion, I will die for it. But it is my personal affair. The state has nothing to with it. The state will look after your secular welfare, health, communications, foreign relations, currency and so on, but not your or my religion. That is everybody’s personal concern”. (Gandhi quoted in Madan, 1997,4 IJS).

One has seen than impact of religion in the politics through the politics of Muslim League, Hindu Mahasabha, RSS, Taliban and the like. It will be worth its while to think as to with what aspect of life we associate religion with. With the dictates of clergy or with the humanistic teachings of saints. Here, there is no point in asserting that clergy and saint were both religious. Yes both of them were talking in the language of religion, clergy on behalf of those in power and saints on behalf of those poor and destitute struggling for their survival. One has seen Advani’s ‘politics with religion’ leading to demolition of Babri Masjid, Taliban’s ‘politics with religion’ leading to demolition of Bamiyan Buddha.

The relationship between State-Politics and religion could not have been defined better than what Nehru has to say on the issue, "What it means is that it is a state which honors all faiths equally and gives them equal opportunities; that as a state, it does not allow itself to be attached to one faith or religion, which then becomes the state religion ... In a country like India, no real nationalism can be built up except on the basis of secularity ... narrow religious nationalisms are a relic of the past age and no longer relevant today."