International: Religion, identity and democracy

Centre for Study of Society and Secularism
Most of the countries of the world are now becoming multi-religious thanks to faster means of transportation and employment opportunities in western countries and oil rich Middle Eastern countries.
The western countries were mostly mono-religious until early twentieth century. It was in the post-colonial society that migration from former colonies began towards metropolitan countries that these countries became multi-religious. Most of the European countries were Christian (Catholic or Protestant) in medieval ages. Only languages were different.
Later on the nation states came into existence on the basis of languages and most of the countries with few exceptions became monolingual as well in Europe. Thus the European nation states were quite homogenous. The USA was mainly populated by the Europeans and had common religion i.e. Christianity. But they were speakers of the different languages. However, Anglo-Saxon group was dominant and English became the national language and other linguistic groups from Europe adopted English and America became linguistically also homogenous. Thus the problems of religious and linguistic identities did not arise in most of the western countries.

However, Asia in general and South Asia in particular was always multi-religious and multi-lingual. As the politics in the medieval ages was based on feudal system and feudal system depends on monarchical and dynastic power and hence non-competitive, no problems arose. All religious and linguistic groups were loyal to one or the other dynasty. The politics in colonial South Asia with consolidation of the British rule became competitive. Different religious and linguistic groups, and particularly religious groups began to compete with each other for share in political power and government jobs.

Thus religion became a source of identity for political mobilisation and hence became a source of conflict. The power elites of Hindus and Muslims began to assert religious identities of their followers so that they may bargain for power on the basis of their respective numerical strength. Many groups among Hindus and Muslims had no clear religious identities being halfway between Hindus and Muslims. Hence purificatory movements like Shuddhi and Tablighi movements were launched to establish ‘proper identities’.

The electoral system introduced by the colonial powers proved more divisive. Political leaders began to generate religious identities to bargain for share in power. The South Asians stressed caste and regional identities before such as Bengali, Rajput, Pathan and so on. But the electoral politics in colonial India changed all this and Indians began to assert their religious identities such as Hindu, Muslim, Christian or Sikh.

On one hand, our freedom fighters were trying to forge a sense of common nationhood and unite various religious and linguistic groups for common struggle against colonial powers and on the other, the power elite from these religious groups were trying to divide on the basis of religious identities. Thus the efforts to form a common nationhood in a multi-religious society was quite challenging. The British rulers, on the other hand, were creating more fissures between Hindus and Muslims so as to consolidate their colonial rule. The British rulers and the Indian political elites thus reinforced each other in widening the gap between the two communities.

Thus it will be seen that communal politics was borne not on account of religion per se but by use of religion for political ends. Both Hindu and Muslim political elites invoked religious sentiments to further their own political interests. As the Hindus were in majority the Hindu communal leaders began to exploit majoritarian sentiments for creating Hindu Rashtra and a section of the Muslim leaders began to invoke minoritism and that led to two-nation theory.

Thus religious identities became powerful force in democratic politics and religious identities are posing a great challenge even today in all the South Asian nations. Our sub-continent was divided into three countries thanks to politics played by the power elites on the basis of religion and language. All the three countries have religious majorities and religious minorities and despite the division the problem continues.

In fact religion and democracy are not incompatible with each other if both function in their well -defined spheres. Religion is a spiritual force and democracy a political one. But serious problems arise when religion transgresses its limits to interfere with politics and democracy transgresses its limits to use religion for political ends. Religion should be used for spiritual growth and for inner needs of the soul.

Democracy should address the problems of the people and solve their worldly issues in a participative spirit. Both can benefit from each other in a positive sense. Democracy can infuse into itself the moral values provided by religion and religion can imbibe democratic spirit as religious leaders also tend to be quite authoritative. However, our experience shows that when religion is used only for identity politics and democracy only for power politics. It results in confrontation between the religious communities.

In the modern globalised world one cannot have mono-religious societies and one has to live with multi-religious and multi-lingual nations. Thus religion as a basis of nationhood will never create a peaceful society. It would lead to confrontation between different religious communities real people’s problems will always be sidelines. It should also be noted that majoritarianism is very negation of democratic spirit.

A true democratic country would ensure equal rights to all irrespective of religion, caste and creed. Religion, ethnicity or linguistic origin should not come in the way of fundamental rights. The rightist forces in all countries try to create religious chauvinism and equate majoritarianism with democracy. Majoritarianism, as pointed out above, is very negation of democracy. Not only that democracy has no place for majoritarianism but, on the contrary, a true democracy ensures additional rights to religious and linguistic minorities to protect their religious and cultural traditions. The Indian Constitution, for example, ensures these rights to minorities through articles from 25 to 30.

However, the communal and majoritarian forces call enactment of such provisions in the constitutions as ‘appeasement’ of minorities and try to incite religious feelings of the majority community. The BJP in India is wedded to the concept of Hindu Rashtra and through its chauvinistic propaganda creates basis for removing these articles from the Constitution. And makes minorities feel quite insecure. It is as a result of such aggressive majoritarian politics that Gujarat like situations arise. Gujarat carnage is a great shame for a liberal democracy like that of India.

India was the first liberal democracy in whole of Asia and it produced a model constitution ensuring rights to all sections of society despite well-entrenched social hierarchies and age -old horizontal differentiations. But the Jansangh now renamed as the BJP closely wedded to the RSS ideology is bent upon destroying the very spirit of liberal democracy. Religion, in a liberal democracy, cannot become the basis of governance. In fact majoritarianism does not benefit entire majority community; far from it. It benefits only a section of the community.

Aggressive majoritarianism also leads to minority communalism and then both feed each other. Aggressive majoritarianism strengthens religion-based identity and mobilisation among the minority communities as well and both together seriously weaken foundations of liberal democracy. Religion becomes a powerful source of political mobilisation among majority as well as minority communities.

Since late eighties Ramjanambhoomi, a religious symbol, became a powerful tool for mobilising the Hindu masses in the hands of the Sangh Parivar and it exploited it to the hilt to come to power. The Sangh Parivar politics has also weakened traditional toleration found in Indian society. Modern democracies cannot work effectively without tolerance. One can say that tolerance is the very foundation of modern liberal democracy. The Sangh Parivar, using religious issues like the Ramjanambhoomi has systematically cultivated intolerance towards minority communities in India.

Common nationhood in a multi-religious society is not possible if Hindu Rashtra or Islamic or Khalistani states are made the basis of politics. In a democracy, religion should never become the basis of politics. If religion becomes the basis of politics it would lead to worst of both the worlds. Religion will become more and more sectarian than spiritual and democracy will tend to be vehicle of majoritarian rule. The common people will be the ultimate losers in this game of political power.

Those who have real regard for the sanctity of religion would never allow it to be politicised or ideologised. Religion then ceases to be a morally and spiritually guiding force but becomes a powerful tool of power politics. As a result of this power politics Hinduism becomes Hindutva and Islam becomes a source of jihadi violence. Both Islam and Hinduism are sources of peace and non-violence.

Thus we should not allow religion to be politicised at any cost and democracy should remain a source of people’s participation in decision making and for welfare of common masses. One must understand the difference between religion as a faith and religion as a political ideology.

Published in Secular Perspective Nov. 1-15, 2004

Centre for Study of Society and Secularism
Mumbai:- 400 055