Saturday, August 30, 2008

Secularism and Religious Identities I

Looks like I hold seemingly ‘contradictory’ positions on some serious issues. On one side I am an ardent supporter of original definition of secularism where state and religion are completely separated, and yet I am an advocate of religious group identities. I believe a vibrant democracy that has diverse groups, such as India, should have mechanisms to address the interests and aspirations of various group identities, and one of those identities is religion.

Some readers find these positions contradictory. While I support the idea of formation of an Independent Kashmir which derives its group identity in religion, I completely oppose any move by Indian government making decisions on civic matters based on religious belief systems- as seen in Ram Sethu Controversy or sops for Haj Pilgrimage.

In the previous article, Kashmir exposes India, I talked about India’s inability to recognize and address aspirations of religious group identities. This inability, according to me, is an inherent deficiency of a multicultural democracy that has so many diverse groups living within. At the same time, in the article, Secularism Redefined I and II, I strongly upheld the separation of state from religion.

So why do I contradict myself?

Though some people find these positions to be contradictory, I feel I am consistent.
To give an analogy- while observing light and its motion, one may discover its properties of diffraction, interference and slowing down in denser medium, suggesting it is a wave, but it also exhibits properties of a particle causing photoelectric effect. So, light is both a wave and particle, but usually we only look at one theory at a time to explain a phenomenon that it exhibits. If we were to use wave theory to explain the corpuscular behavior, we will run into ‘contradictions’. At the end of the day, one needs a wave-particle duality theory to explain the behavior of light.

I believe that India has to be secular and at the same time it should recognize religious identities. These attributes are not mutually exclusive and in fact a secular and plural democracy has to realize this fast and embrace them as state objectives.

The reality is that India and Indians have never learnt or understood these concepts.

Why don’t we recognize religious groups as legitimate identities?

India has shown contempt for recognizing religious groups as legitimate identities (though its political outfits have always used it for their vote banks – and hence the hypocrisy). Our idea of shunning religious identities is not something new. It has its origins in our freedom movement. Mahatma Gandhi abhorred it and so did Jawaharlal Nehru and few others. In fact, Nehru abhorred all such group distinctions. He was not even ready to carve India along linguistic lines after Independence. Gandhi never wanted to create reservations based on caste or electorates based on caste because he felt that it would lead to further division. During those times, the prevailing thought was – ‘impose a single identity to blur all local identities’.

This phenomenon was not confined to Indian leaders. The whole world was reeling itself in this new ideology called nationalism, which promoted the idea of blurring all local identities to impose one single identity onto everyone to treat it as a single group, not multiple groups. According to them, a nation had to have a single group and that’s how Europe was divided into many countries. Europe was distinctly a continent of countries with single identities. There was no pluralism there. Fascist movement is nothing but an exaggeration of that ideology.

Countries like Soviet Union and China had people of different ethnicities, religions and languages in their countries. Their solution to impose one identity was communism that fed on nationalism. They embraced atheism as a state policy. They ignored all religious identities and wanted to believe that religion did not exist. The only way they dealt with the inherent inadequacies of such a system was ruthless suppression. They suppressed every voice of dissent with brute force. As far as the outside world was concerned, it was a utopia where many group identities coexisted under one ideology.

Nationalism was an ideology for both fascist and communist countries. It was based in creating one identity for all, and force was used to achieve it. Italy, Germany, France, Russia, China, etc, all saw national movements where the identity of majority was imposed onto all minorities. They were not very exciting times for minorities. World War II came as a culmination of these movements that led to death of 50 million people. Some communities were completely wiped out and some were decimated.

One of the learning from World War II was a sense of sobriety in those countries which faced the wrath of the destruction in the name of nationalism. The countries that witnessed the war in their lands did not tout nationalism with the same vigor anymore. However, the nations that did not witness the war in their lands continued to promote nationalism. India is one of those countries.

Before Indian Independence, all group identities were anathema to Indians. If not for vociferous Ambedkar we would not have had reservations based on caste, and without them we may have had a major civil war in this country right now. Ambedkar has inadvertently averted a major bloodshed in this country. He faced opposition from leaders like Gandhi and Nehru who did not want to see people grouped along caste identities. Those were the times where imposing one single language, one single dress, one national symbol, were carried out to unify Indians under one banner, all in the name of nationalism. That’s why many leaders of that time wanted to impose Hindi to unify all Indians under one banner. Thanks to Tamils we don’t have a National Language.

One identity which grew to prominence and caused lot of trouble to pre-Independent Indian leaders is religion. They had to face the harsh realities of what two different group identities could do when pitted against each other. Muslim-Hindu/Sikh riots created havoc in this country even before India became independent. While Ambedkar stood for creating equal rights and fair representation for lower caste Hindus to emancipate them from servitude of thousand years, Jinnah created a new nation for his Muslims taking them away from the rule of majority Hindus.

However, the story was not complete.

Many Muslims made India their home. Almost all Sikhs made India their home, so did many Buddhists, Jains, and Pasrees. India was home to many religions, and it intended to stay that way. India would not be a nation-state. It would be a multicultural democracy. While Pakistan defined itself a Muslim nation, India defined itself a multi-religious nation. And then, as if it had to prove Pakistan wrong, India became overzealous in its definition and decided not to recognize religion as a distinct identity ever again, fearing it would lead to breakup of the nation once again.

Added to this pain of Partition, India saw unprecedented scale of riots where more than half a million people, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, died on the streets. The new nations saw train loads of massacred bodies sent across the border to the other side as gifts. It was a horrible time. India continues to shudder when it is reminded of those times.

Because of these distasteful events that happened during its creation, India has never got to terms with religious identity. It fears it. It abhors it. The pain it has endured during the labor has left an indelible mark on India. It’s as if the labor was so painful and complicated that it had affected its psyche forever. India has matured into an adult on all other areas, but when it comes to religion it has nightmares and becomes restless as if it is a mental disease.

Because of this India has failed to accept religion as a legitimate identity to deal with group politics.



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