Maintaining the balance

Religion & Public Life

By Dusmanta Kumar

After the remarks made by former BJP Spokesperson and the controversy it kicked off within the country and internationally, one would have expected that corrective measures will be put in place to prevent the recurrence of such avoidable incidents. But that is not so. Unfortunately and very sadly, two people were killed in retaliation – a 54-year old Umesh Kolhe in Amravati and a tailor, Kanhaiya Lal in Udaipur. The Muslim community took out rallies in protest against the Spokesperson’s comments and the Hindu community did so in protest against the heinous murders of these two.
The vengeful utterances and hate speeches are made by boof-heads in all communities. Sample this, one Sarwar Chishti, khadim of Ajmer Sharif Dargah says on camera that, “Muslims were the rulers of India for hundreds of years and by changing the name of railways stations, the current government cannot erase the facts and warned the administration that such activities will only force the Muslims to aim to rule India again”. Worse, Sarwar’s son Adil Chishti made detailed derogatory comments on Hinduism and its multiple deities. He may have expressed his utter ignorance about Hinduism, but was it necessary? It is highly provocative and incendiary to make remarks on a religion, especially when it is not your own. Demand for their arrest is becoming louder.
In an atmosphere of visceral dislike of each others’ religious faith and political proclivities, comments made by one’s own religion is also being challenged, often viciously and violently. I am referring to the intra-religious debate with regard to comments made by the Member of Parliament Mahua Moitra. Demands are made in public for her arrest too. This was not expected of protagonists of Hinduism, which is famously known for its celebration of diversity of faith, perspectives and practices. If Mahua Moitra was articulating one perspective, that should be acknowledged unless it was based on falsehood. Her tone and tenor could have been softer and subtle. She is said to be articulate but a bit aggressive.
The above incidents must make us rethink our use of religion in public life. Although India is a secular State through its constitutional provision, the role of religion in public life is shrouded in misunderstanding as well as mystery. Secularism, I have argued consistently, does not work in the Indian context. The concept has been misunderstood and misapplied from day one. Secularism, as it originated, means separation of religion from the State. When people in Western countries, where it came from, refer to secularism, they mean working outside the church.
One of my friends in the United Kingdom once surprised me by saying he was doing some secular work in his free time in a particular afternoon. I was surprised as we treat secularism as a serious state subject or domain. When I asked him what he was doing, he said, he was gardening. So cleaning the car or doing odd-works around the house could be secular work.
We have entered this concept having such meanings in to the Preamble of our Constitution. Admittedly, a secular State in India meant religious tolerance, equi-distance and equal treatment to all religions. The latter two were not practiced ever, as they were not feasible. Religious tolerance was evident in our history and culture but is fast disappearing in public life. Secularism was perhaps confused with pluralism, which is an existential reality in India. There are at least 12 religions, over 300 castes, nearly 4000 sub-castes, over 100 languages and 300 dialects. The only way for all these diversities to exist without mutual tensions is to practice mutual tolerance and accommodation. That was not the case.
If we take that the State has little to do with religion in a secular framework. that is also not true, as we have practices to the contrary. For instance, Hindu temples and Muslim Wakf Board are run by the governments. Religious political parties have been registered by the Election Commission and are allowed to campaign – All India Muslim League, All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, Akali Dals etc.
Religion has been used as a tool for political mobilisation in elections although seeking votes on the basis of caste, religion and other identities is illegal. Now, religion has become a part of public discourse by people who are not even conversant with the essence and the scriptures of a particular religion. Such ignorance and indiscretion are causing serious strife in the society and problems for the Administration.
There are two ways to deal with religion vis-à-vis public life. One is to push religious discussion into the churches, temples and mosques, or into purely religious congregations. Political mobilisation on the basis of religion in a competitive electoral politics is perhaps unavoidable. When material conditions as a measure of social development become important elements of public discourse, religion and ethnic identities will take a backseat. It is also to do with setting a new discourse, one aimed at progress and development.
The second way to use religion is to acknowledge its role in individual social lives and let it spread to public life as well. In such case, a code of conduct for all citizens on speaking about religion should be defined. For instance, people belonging to a particular religion should not comment on the tenets of another religion, people should refer to religion only as a source of PSME – personal, social, and moral education. Religion should always be used for the betterment of society not for comparison amongst religions or undermining any.
At any rate, given the current clutter and confusion about the role of religion and the violent consequences resulting from them, the Government of India needs to come up with a white paper on rescinding the concept of secularism and putting a viable substitute in its place which could be pluralism. Let us note that France, which conceived the concept of secularism (laicite in French) has been re-examining it for years in the wake of sectarian violence in the country.
High time that India also rethinks it. The Bharatiya Janata Party has been accusing Congress of pseudo-secularism for years. Now that it is in power with full majority, it should correct this concept or replace it and allow religions to play their constructive roles in private or even in public life. This is the call of the time which we must take to cool the tempers and quell the tensions across the country. — INFA