Mainstreaming religious politics

Amulya Ganguli

The Karnataka government’s decision to grant minority status to the Lingayat community is clearly intended to boost its prospects in the forthcoming Assembly elections. However, the assertion that the Lingayats constitute a religious community separate from the Hindus is yet another instance of how religion continues to play a major role in politics although secularism is supposed to be a cardinal feature of the polity.
One reason why the secular concept was given such importance was as a reaction to the traumatic experience of Partition which was marked by violent outbreaks based on religious identities. Notwithstanding the intention of the intelligentsia since then to keep matters of faith out of the public discourse, religion could not be negated if only because secularism was derided, especially by the Hindu Right, as a Western concept out of sync with the Indian reality.
The Hindutva brigade never hesitated, therefore, to champion the cause of religion. Its task was made easier by the Congress’s flawed interpretation of secularism which made the party extra-sensitive to minority rights. In the process, it played into the hands of the Muslim fundamentalists as was evident in the Rajiv Gandhi government’s negation of the Shah Bano judgment on alimony for divorced Muslim women.
It is only now when the BJP has succeeded in exploiting the Congress’s mishandling of the secular concept that the latter is trying to erase the image of being a “Muslim party”, as Sonia Gandhi recently said. But, as the Karnataka initiative shows, religion has returned to centre-stage in the Congress’s politics.
What is more, if it succeeds in the gamble of using faith as a means of faring well in the assembly polls, it will be another nail in the coffin of secularism. As it is, Rahul Gandhi’s visits to various temples, which would have appalled Jawaharlal Nehru, are likely to play a significant role in restoring the primacy of religion in public life although, ideally, it should be kept confined to the privacy of one’s home.
True, the Congress president’s temple run, as it is called, is not restricted to the places of worship of the Hindus only. But even if he has extended his forays to mosques and churches, the fact remains that he is projecting himself as a man of faith and not an agnostic, as his great grandfather was.
In fact, it may have now become extremely difficult, if not virtually impossible, for an acknowledged agonistic or an atheist to become a politician although there were famed atheists in ancient India belonging to the Charvaka school of thought. Instead of taking off from there to go forward, India is travelling backwards to resemble the Islamic countries, where religion holds the people captive with regard to the lives of women and restricts the elevation of aspirants to positions of political power only to the believers.
Rahul Gandhi’s flaunting of his faith may be seen as a tactic to wrong-foot the BJP, which can no longer brand either him or the BJP’s opponents as anti-Hindu although it can continue to mock him, as several saffron stalwarts have done, by saying that he does not know how to perform an “aarti” or sits in a temple as if offering namaz. Even then, there is little doubt that the Congress chief has blunted one of the BJP’s supposedly potent propaganda weapons although no one can say to what extent it succeeded earlier in convincing the people that it alone was the sole custodian of Hinduism.
It may also be uncharitable to describe as a political ploy Rahul Gandhi’s visits to the various places of worship of different faiths – an exercise which the BJP cannot undertake, since a visit by a saffronite to a mosque or a church will undermine the party’s basic anti-minority creed. But even if the Congress president is sincere in his devotion, the public manifestation of his ardour is out of place in an avowedly secular country.
Whatever the political fallout for either the Congress or the BJP, such visits may well send out the message that the concept of secularism, which is intended to separate religion from public life, is now a dead letter. It may adorn the Constitution, but has no meaning in real life. The open display of veneration for religion by prominent politicians also carries the danger of legitimizing aspects of faith like casteism, which used to be deemed as the bane of the country’s social life, but is now accepted as a reality which not only cannot be denied, but is also of considerable use as a political tool.
The Congress’s Lingayat card can be the thin end of a wedge, for who knows whether it will not revive the Ramakrishna Mission’s demand for declaring the followers of Ramakrishna Paramhansa, the 19th century Bengali mystic, as non-Hindus and granting minority status to his “religion”? The Supreme Court rejected the demand in 1995, but there may be other sects, which will be encouraged to embark on a path of securing the status of a separate religion, thereby opening a Pandora’s box. (IPA)

Monday, 9 April, 2018