Updated: December 30, 2021 9:13:39 am
The widely telecast inauguration of the Kashi Vishwanath Corridor by Prime Minister Narendra Modi displayed the nefarious designs of the ruling regime. The invocation of Hindu symbols and ritualistic practices by the PM in a state function gave de facto official status to the majority religion. These developments throw open numerous questions regarding the relationship between the state and religion in a multi-religious, multicultural country.
While the Constitution categorically proclaims India to be a sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic, the current ruling regime willfully ignores this promise. Choosing to stand true to the vision manufactured in Nagpur, this right-wing Brahmanical regime is prioritising intolerance. While direct physical violence by these forces is the most evident, one has to be equally wary of the deep discursive violence inflicted. For a political formulation whose imagination is propped up by religion, the multicultural reality of the subcontinent is unpalatable. While a single definition of secularism has been evasive, modern nation-states have since long grappled with this principle.
Scientific socialism since its inception understood the role religion plays in an unequal exploitative society. Marx famously wrote: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.”
In India, too, reformers constantly tried to do away with the orthodoxy practised in the name of religion and bring our society in conformity with modern democratic values.
While significant energies of our freedom movement were invested in driving away the British, at the same time, our leaders were conscious of how independent India would constitute itself. Secularism was a hallmark of the major participants in the freedom struggle. Gandhi, while proclaiming himself a Hindu, never tolerated religious discrimination. Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhas Bose, Sardar Patel, Maulana Azad and other luminaries were steadfast in their commitment to a future secular state. B R Ambedkar gave the clarion call for the 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 based on one’s birth found many echoes. From the leaders of the Ghadr 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 organised religions. The republic that was inaugurated was a secular democratic republic with fundamental rights ensuring non-discrimination based on faith. The pro-British minority that advocated for a state religion or a theocracy found few takers among the people.
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 had no institution akin to the church and it remained heavily localised in practice. The RSS and its 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 but it can also push us back by hundreds of years by diverting us from issues of material interest. Certain contemporary developments have been disturbing in this regard. Recently, a few municipalities in Gujarat embarked on a mission to outlaw the public sale of non-vegetarian food. A BJP MP 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.
The elevation of the religion of the majority as the de-facto state religion becomes a real threat. We should be conscious of French thinker Voltaire’s words: “… whoever can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” The rise of religious common sense can be challenged and rejected only by bringing back the focus on the real and concrete issues of dignity, livelihood, health, employment and housing.
The important question before us is: Should we let religion interfere with, or take over, the workings of a secular state or should we resist this deviousness of the Hindu right? The lessons of our independence movement and the sacrifices of countless freedom fighters point us in only one direction.
This column first appeared in the print edition on December 30, 2021 under the title ‘Framed in Kashi’. The writer is General Secretary, CPI
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