The use of religion in Indian politics


And the floundering pillars of secularism

Members of the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) march to mark the Hindu New Year in Allahabad on March 30, 2014. Photo: AFP

Rajkumar Singh 3 July 2019

On the eve of independence, India decided to establish a secular state with its own characteristics of religious tolerance, liberty and equality. Religious tolerance is a key element in the concept of Indian secularism because it has been a significant element of the country’s historical tradition.

Secularism in India is a way of life. In a country where there are at least 12 religions, over 300 castes, nearly 4,000 sub-castes, over 100 major languages and more than 300 dialects, the only way to reduce internal tensions is to inculcate tolerance and co-existence. The idea of secularism in a country like India with its pluralist tradition lasting over thousands of years cannot succeed without respecting pluralist ethos.

Dilemmas of a secular state

The use of religion for political purposes was almost nonexistent at the time of independence. It is curious to note that communal politics gained strength after about 40 years of national government. If it was entirely due to the forces of traditionalism, it should have appeared at the time when forces of modernity had gained traction in Indian society and economy. Since the ’60s, Indian politics has seen drastic changes in style, language, modes of behaviour, reflecting the actual cultural understanding of rural Indian society rather than the Western ideals of the elite which inherited power in the Nehru years.

There are two consequences of this amalgamation of religion, politics and public administration. First, it has given prominence in public life to religious leaders like “sants” and “mahants”, “imams” and “priests”. They have started playing an active role in governmental decision-making. The interference of religious leaders in administrative matters can prove dangerous to India’s secular democracy.

Second, practices and festivals have started making serious inroads into public life. As a result, a sea change has occurred both in Hindu religious community and in its relations with others. In these changed circumstances, the Hindu community was called into action, not as one of the various Indian communities, but as “the Indian community”. It was not only the religious revivalist forces but also the modernising reformists who equated the Hindu community with Indianism and patriotism. Steps were taken deliberately to create a Sanskrit-based Hindu language, Hindi, as against the earlier composite language. Further, there are two variants of this expression of Indianness. One is the overt religious concept of Hindutva; and the other is the “secular” expression of Indianness as based on ancient Indian culture. The first is a religious concept, the second a cultural one; but both together relate Indianness to the tradition of what is now identified as Hindu civilisation. According to the lines drawn above, the political parties of India may be grouped as religion-leaning and secularism-leaning.

Increasing importance of religion

In India despite partition on the basis of religion, the country resolved to be a secular state and promulgated its Constitution in 1950 accepting equal rights for all citizens irrespective of their caste, creed or race. It was undoubtedly a great step forward. But it was not easy to translate the constitutional ideals into practice in a society as complex as that of India. The Indian state was characterised as a “soft state” by Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal in his book Asian Drama: An Inquiry into the Poverty of Nations. The Indian state remained not only soft towards communalism but it also encouraged it, if it paid political dividends. 1970 onwards the central and different state governments started the practice of arranging iftar parties for Muslims during Ramadan. Now, political leaders compete with each other when it comes to throwing lavish parties at national and state capitals and the practice has continued even in the regime of the BJP. Wide publicity is given in the media as to who attends these parties and what is being served. It is forgotten that such politicisation of iftar is a sacrilege of a religious practice which may not be taken lightly by Muslims.

Louis Dumont, one of the most influential writers on Indian religion and society, viewed sadhus as the agent of development in Indian religion and speculation, “the creator of values” responsible for “founding of sects and their maintenance”, and for the major ideas and social innovations. Under these changed circumstances, this consensus on the role of religious figures began to transform during the time of Indira Gandhi who relied on populist measures and appeal when it came to specific categories of voters. She drew Hindu religious figures into the limelight through her patronage of religious institutions and played the “Hindu card” against the minorities. The case of Sikh religious leader Bhindranwale is an example of her creation. She was systematically encroaching on the traditional vote bank of Jana Sangh. Indira Gandhi also co-opted Muslim religious figures in her attempt to hold on to the Muslim vote, pursuing her strategy of what was then called “Fatwa politics”. Thus, the ideology and practice of secularism in reality were confronted with multifaceted and multi-dimensional challenges.

Use of religion in politics

Secularism in India began to face turbulent weather with the revival and strengthening of religion-leaning political parties in the country. The pro-Hindu strategies of the ruling Congress reminded the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) of its actual role for which they had been struggling in the previous decades. Earlier in the ’70s, several proposals were made for a judicious deradicalisation of the BJP’s slogans from groups inside the party itself.

The decade also witnessed communal propaganda bring in a few dividends and the irreversible decline of the Jana Sangh. At this juncture, it was felt inside the party that it should subtly shift its appeal to the middle-class. Instead of the traditional appeal to Hindu chauvinism, it should try to project itself as a substitute for the Congress, asking for support not because of its ideological differences with the Congress, but because of its similarities—offering a cleaner, more efficient, less corrupt government. After the dramatic success of the ratha yatras (public processions in a chariot), its own agenda was rewritten in a retrograde direction, but it is remarkable how clearly the party has not rejected its other, more secular constituency.

From the early ’80s, Hindu communal organisations increased the scale, aggressiveness and violence of their operations under the general direction of the militant Hindu right-wing party RSS and its mass fronts: the VHP, which coordinates religious bodies, and the BJP, its electoral wing. Again in the mid-1980s, elections were held to the Lok Sabha in 1984 after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, and the BJP, under the presidentship of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, got only two seats. Vajpayee resigned and LK Advani considered a hawk in the party, took over and gave BJP new hope and a decision was taken by the leadership of BJP to promote Hindu militancy to snatch the Hindu vote bank from the Congress.