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Religious Tolerance and Secularism
12/01/2005
By Ram Puniyani

In the heydays of debate on secularism, one of the formulations being put forward related to the relationship between Hindu tolerance and secularism. India is secular because it is Hindu. You can talk about secularism because majority of people are Hindus. A point similar to this was made by Mr. Lal Krishna Advani recently (Hindustan Times Lecture Series, Nov 2005) when he said that secularism disappeared from many of our neighboring countries, while it continues to be here in India. According to him the survival of secularism in India is due to the Hindu ethos, its tolerant values. His hint towards Islamic Pakistan and Bangla desh was too obvious; Islam and secularism don’t go together in this hidden message. Current times are the one’s ideology of Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilization”, as per which it is the backward Islamic civilization which is the threat to the Western values of democracy and freedom. These sweeping generalizations are far from the truth and a closer look at the state of politics all over the World and more so in South Asia itself will tell a different tale.

In the neighboring countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh (Muslim majority), democracy has been an elusive beloved, generally eloquent by its silence, present by its absence. The reasons are to be looked at in the social processes of abolition of feudalism rather than in Islam. There a many Muslim majority countries where democracy flourishes, Indonesia, Turkey being some of those examples. Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist country, has been the in the grip of military dictatorship, Sri Lanka another Buddhist majority country has been a democracy to a good extent. Nepal, the Hindu Rashtra has not been able to sustain democracy and the ruling dynasty has seen the bloodiest feuds for the sake of Royal power. Even in this microcosm of the World it is not possible to link religion and democracy. World over different countries, with diverse religious majorities have different systems of governance and the reasons behind that are again historical and social one’s. The one’s related to democratization, secularization (doing away with the hold of clergy on the affairs of the state) land reforms and not to the prevalent religion of that part of the World.

The Hindu tolerance is glorified to sow the seeds of intolerance and to attack secularism itself. The point made is that, look Galileo and other scientists had to suffer at the hands of the clergy when they went against the ideas propounded by the Church, but here even people like Charvak, who opposed the dominant ideas held by Brahmins, has been called Rishi (sage) Charvak. See this is the example of Hindu tolerance! There is a good bit of distortion here. Even Charvak has been deified much later in the typical Brahminical style, which goes on to co-opt the people and ideas whom it suppresses. This is done by upholding the name of the thinker and at the same time by burying his ideas. Currently that’s what is being done by Hindutva to people like Gautam Buddha and Dr. Ambedkar. Coming back to Charvak, Lokayat tradition, it was suppressed and wiped out totally. Today we do not have access to the writings of this tradition, what is inferred about it is from the writings of those who opposed it and the criticized it and physically eliminated it. The ideas of that tradition have been recovered from this criticism. Great tolerance! Lord Buddha also talked of ethos which opposed the caste system and the hierarchical notions of society. Buddhism was wiped out by the Brahmanical counterrevolution, Shashank and Pushyamitra Shung massacred monks and Buddhism was banished from this country till Dr. Ambedkar, through his studies chose it as the religion of his choice and himself converted in to it.  Many a saints, who came from low castes and were the vehicle of opposition to Brahminical system were done to death.

Dr. Ambedkar upheld the ideology of democratic secularism and put it forward in several of his writings and enshrined it in the Indian constitution. These ideas are being attacked openly by saying that this constitution is based on Western values so should be done away with. At the same time he is being called ‘A Great Hindu’ son. Mahatma Gandhi, who took along all the people for national movement, was also done to death by a votary of Hindutva.

Even in the West where great intolerance was shown to the scientists by the clergy, the democratic process came to be firmly established and these are amongst the places where secularism has got rooted in a much firmer fashion. As such in the pre industrial feudal societies the intolerance is imposed by the ruling clique of landlord and clergy. Most of the traditions in the World, within most of the religions can be broadly put in these two categories. The one related to the ‘institution’ of religion, which goes hand in hand with the powers that be and the second one of saints, who in turn are associated with the poor and deprived masses, in the ideological chains imposed by religious clergy and in the social and political chains imposed by the feudal powers, system of kingdoms. All religions have tolerant and intolerant traditions. To glorify one’s religion as tolerant and to compare them with other religions intoreant one’s is a clever deceit to glorify ones’ own religion.

Democratization in its core is constituted by doing away of the feudal lords, kings and their associates, the clergy. It is also asserted that Hindus did not have a church like the one in West. As such the clergy is there in all religions only its pattern of organization is different. In Christianity it has come up as the most well organized system, the Church. In Hinduism it is scattered, it is best expressed in the Marathi word, shetji-bhatji (landlord-priest).  Kings used to have their Rajgurus (Royal Priest, teacher).   In Islam as such there is no place for a separate group of clerical elements. In practice the matters are the same and a section of Mullahs and Maulavis do play the same role as that played by any other clergy in other religions.

The pattern is not uniform. The secularization, the reduction in the hold of clergy on social-political affairs, runs in parallel with the extent if democratic process. More the democratization, lesser the influence dominance of clergy. At places clergy has also changed its social role depending on the social situation. People like Swami Agnivesh; though in saffron robes are closer to the deprived and destitute, addressing their problems. Ramakrishna Mission was Swami Vivekananda’s contribution for a similar purpose. The whole trend of liberation theology works in the same direction. A sincere implementation of Zakat is aimed at the same.

The rooting of secularism in countries is not due to any particular religion. It is there due to the elimination/diminution of the powers of landlords/clergy. When it is claimed that Hinduism is tolerant so we have secularism, it has nothing to do with the truth. Secularism stands not only for equal citizenship rights of people of all religions, it also stands for the abolition of caste/class and gender hierarchy. None of the institutions of religion tolerate this equality of caste, class and gender. These values of hierarchy, in the post colonial phase have also assumed the form of politics in the name of religion, fundamentalism of different hues. Most of the fundamentalist movements emerging from different religions are opposed to the process of transformation of caste and gender equations towards equality. Talking of the things closer at home, India, one can see that Hindutva, the politics based on Brahiminical tradition of Hinduism, is cleverer. It does oppose the democracy and is trying to impose Hindu rashtra. It perpetuates intolerance, while claiming to be tolerant. Mahtama Gandhi’s murder maybe half a century ago, this act of intolerance was not a flash in the pan. Just a few years ago Pastor Stains was done to death along with two innocent sons for the sin of working amongst leprosy patients. The projection that our religion is in danger is again a common denominator of all religion based politics. The political goals of elite are given the status of interests of that religion. So Muslim League representing the interests of Muslim elite will call for Islam in danger and so the call for violence. The empowerment of Adivasis through education, by the Christian missionaries, is a threat to the interests of Hindu elite so Hinduism in danger and so the burning of Pastor Stains. Proud acts of tolerance!

India became secular through a struggle for democracy. India became secular through the efforts for caste and gender equality. It became secular through the efforts of those who participated in the freedom movement irrespective of their religion. Those opposed to democracy and the values of Liberty, Equality and fraternity stood by the side, Muslim League and Hindu Mahasabha; RSS, the embodiments the politics based on the intolerant traditions of those religions. The Hindu-ethos of saint tradition are tolerant and are the base of democracy like their counterparts in other religions. The intolerant traditions of those religions are represented by the politics which calls either for Hindu Rashtra, Christian state or Islamic state.