Unpacking Religious Nationalism

Religious Nationalism front pdf

Review of  ‘Religious Nationalism – Social Perceptions and Violence : Sectarianism on Political Chessboard‘ by Ram Puniyani, Media House 2020

“Blatant dictatorship – in the form of fascism, communism, or military rule – has disappeared across much of the world. Military coups and other violent seizures of power are rare. Most countries hold regular elections. Democracies still die, but by different means.

Since the end of the Cold War, most democratic breakdowns have been caused not by generals and soldiers but by elected governments themselves.”

(How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt)

The contrast had never been so sharper.

Modi and Bilkis Dadi of Shaheen Bagh sharing the list of 100 most influential persons of the year brought out by Time Magazine this year.

It is history that Modi had failed to make it to the Time magazine’s list in 2018 as well as 2019. The year 2019 had definitely witnessed his appearance on the cover of its international edition with a headline which was equally jarring to his followers. (https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/time-magazine-calls-modi-indias-divider-in-chief-in-its-international-edition/articleshow/69266218.cms)

His inclusion in the category of ‘leaders’ this year has also not been much enthusing to them either. The magazine did not have kind words for Modi which underlined ““almost all of India’s Prime Ministers have come from the nearly 80% of the population that is Hindu, only Modi has governed as if no one else matters.

On the other hand eighty two year old Bilkis Dadi – who sort of became face of a women led anti citizenship law protest at Shaheen Bagh in Delhi, a movement which had electrified the nation, had emerged as symbol of resistance and hope, challenging the present regime.

As India inches towards what is being called as ‘black hole of authoritarianism’ (https://thewire.in/rights/bilkis-dadi-conspirator-for-the-state-inspiration-for-indian-women) and there are growing concerns over shrinking of democracy there and a divisive politics getting further legitimised, this concern is increasingly visible in the number of monographs and books which have appeared on this dangerous turn which the biggest democracy in the world has taken. (*In fact, as we go to the press, there are reports that Amnesty International, the premier Human Rights Organisation , has decided to halt its work on ‘upholding Human Rights in India due to reprisal.’ (https://www.justicenews.co.in/amnesty-international-india-halts-its-work-on-upholding-human-rights-in-india-due-to-reprisal/)

Ram Puniyani, the affable n relentless campaigner for communal harmony and peace, has also come out with a new book ‘Religious Nationalism – Social Perceptions and Violence Sectarianism on Political Chessboard‘ (Media House 2020, Delhi, Price Rs 495/-) which adds another dimension to the on-going debate. As an aside it needs to be recalled that it was only last year that an attempt was made to terrorise him for his writing and propaganda work targeting communal and divisive forces. (https://www.newsclick.in/when-strange-visitors-called-ram-puniyani)

As the author put it the book is ‘an attempt to look at the divisive politics, and its role in creating the social common sense, the demonisation of minorities and the agenda of religious nationalism..The overt part of the agenda is to marginalise the religious minorities, at a deeper level the victims of this agenda are dalits, women and Adivasis as well.‘ ( P 36) Underlining the accompaniment of the divisive politics with Corporate agenda of exploitation, loot and plunder, the ‘Introduction’ makes it clear that it will be focussing mainly on the ‘social aspects of the politics‘ as far as looking at the generation of perceptions, hate and biases and how it paves the way towards religious nationalism.

The book is divided into twelve chapters beginning with Social Common Sense : Hate and Violence ;  Ancient India : Origin of Aryas, Caste System and Roots of Science, Medieval Indian Kingdoms – Power of Faith ; Shared Heritage : Common Aspiration ; Colonial Period ; Kashmir Turmoil : The Plight of Kashmiris ; Hindu Communalism, RSS and Hindu Nationalism ; Muslim Communalism in India ; Communal Violence in Post-Independent India ; Conversions and Anti-Christian Violence ; Ambedkar, Dalits and Contemporary Politics ; Fundamentalism, Women’s Rights and Hindu Communalism. The last chapter is Politics, Religion and Terrorism.

The first chapter unpacks the social common sense which it sees as ‘set of ideas which majority in the society comes to believe‘ (P . 41) as true which need not be true which impact orientation of peoples towards other issues as well as communities. Beginning with medieval times and traversing through the anti-colonial period it traverses the shaping of social ideas in India. For it the colonial rule played a key role in the ‘introduction of communal historiography‘ (P. 45) which was facilitated by the ‘process of homogenisation‘ where ‘ whole religious community is painted in the same brush‘ ( -do-) It further discusses how with the ‘rise of the freedom movement‘ three versions of nationalism came into existence, ‘Indian Nationalism, Muslim Nationalism and Hindu Nationalism‘  which also gave rise to three versions of history. The chapter extends into contemporary period and also takes a look at the ‘Global dimensions’ ( Page 54) of the phenomenon and discusses how social perceptions are guided by factors like ‘Manufacturing Consent’ – which was raised by Noam Chomsky etc.

The next three chapters basically focus themselves on Ancient India which discusses ‘Origin of Aryas, Caste System and Roots of Science ; Medieval Indian Kingdoms and how a Shared Heritage emerged during all these tumultuous developments.

The chapter on Ancient India makes a revelation which has not been reported widely.

It tells how Modi government has appointed a committee to ‘put a seal on this “Hindu first” version of history’. The said panel referred to as the committee for “holistic study of origin and evolution of Indian culture since 12,000 years before present and its interface with other countries of the world” ( Page 63) The basic idea behind this project is to question the ‘long taught version that people from central Asia arrived in India much more recently, some 3,000 to 4,000 years ago’ ( P 63)  (https://pib.gov.in/PressReleaseIframePage.aspx?PRID=1654152)

A close look at the expert committee itself expose what does it mean by an Indian.

There are 16 members on this committee. .. All 14 non-ex-officio members are men. All of them are North Indian, Hindi-speaking men. Going by a quick headcount of surnames, .. they all seem to be Brahmin or upper-caste Hindu men.

There is not a single woman among them, nor a single Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist, Zoroastrian, Jain, Jewish or Animist, no self-identified Dalit or Adivasi, no one from the northeastern provinces of India, not even a token South Indian. (https://thewire.in/government/ministry-of-culture-india-history-expert-committee)

One can easily see that the whole idea behind the formation of this ‘expert committee’ seems to be that the government is solely worried about furthering its Hindu triumphalist agenda and is not at all bothered about the latest theories about when the first humans appeared in the Indian subcontinent.

Tony Joseph, who has authored an important and much acclaimed book ‘Early Indians’ ( 2018, Juggernaut), dealing with this subject had in fact shared his insight earlier itself in an article which he had written for ‘The Hindu’ (https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/who-were-the-first-settlers-of-india/article19621078.ece) It had talked about two competing theories about when the first humans appeared in the Indian subcontinent. “The ‘early version’ says they arrived 74,000 to 120,000 years ago from Africa through the Arabian peninsula with Middle Stone Age tools such as scrapers and points that helped them hunt their prey, gather food, or make clothes,” he wrote in The Hindu. “The ‘late version’ says they arrived much later, around 50,000 to 60,000 years ago, with upgraded technology such as microlithic (tiny stone) tools that might have been used to give sharp tips to arrows and spears.” (-do-)

In the chapter ‘Shared Heritage’ the author discusses the emergence of syncretism in medieval India which according to J J Roy Burman ‘..conveys the fusion or blending of religions of identification of gods, taking other observances or selection of whatever seems best in each other’ ( P 144) and the celebration of religious diversity and pluralism. Prince Mohammad Dara Shikoh, talks about this interaction in his book “MajmaUlBaharain’ where he describes India as the ‘meeting ground of Hinduism and Islam (P 146). According to the author ‘The most valuable relics of the harmony of mediaeval society which has survived the onslaughts of different communal forces is Sufi Dargah (shrine)’

After delineating the features of Indian society which emerged during medieval period, the author moves to the colonial period wherein he takes up not only the changes which were brought in by the Britishers but also the emergence of various political formations and the growing assertion of communal forces – namely Hindu nationalism and Muslim nationalism

Coming to partition he is of the opinion that “there are three major factors which resulted in the partition of the country. First was the British policy of divide and rule, second was the Muslim Communalism representing interests of the Muslim Jamindars, Nawabs and the third was the Hindu Communalism ( RSS- Hindu Mahasabha) ‘ which similarly represented interests of the Hindu elite. ( P 173)

It is interesting to note that in his continuing discussion on Hindu and Muslim communalism he brings to the fore a comparison between ‘RSS and Muslim Brotherhood‘ ( P 231) which is normally not done. Quoting Rahul Gandhi it underlines how ‘RSS is trying to change the nature of India‘ and how it is ‘similar to the idea that exists in the Arab World of Muslim Brotherhood. The idea is that one ideology should run through every institution and one idea should crush all other ideas‘. The author adds how for both these organisations ‘charity is the superficial part of their work as the core agenda is to impose particular type of social relations, those of inequality in the society‘, ( P 233) how both are ‘exclusively male organisations, harping on the past golden era, harping on opposition to modern values.’ (-do) and both use religion’s identity to enhance their agenda.

In the next chapter ‘Communal Violence in Post-Independent India’ the author shares his understanding that ‘Communal violence is predominantly a colonial modern phenomenon‘ and provides details of incidents of major communal riots in last thirty- fourty years. He also deals with the oft repeated perception which says that such a ‘violence is a spontaneous clash between two communities‘ ( P 270) Quoting Paul Brass, an outstanding scholar of communal violence, who has written extensively on it and has shown how ‘Institutionalised Riot Systems‘ have come into existence here, author discusses the ‘three key elements in the Instituionalised Riot Systems” ( P 270) One, riots crafted to achieve specific goal ; two, an organisation to train and distribute roles ; three, an organisational apparatus.

The author takes up the issue of Dalits and Contemporary Politics in the next chapter where he explains the challenge posed by Hindu nationalist politics to the Constitution in general and dalit rights in particular. How this ‘politics is in total contrast and opposition to Ambedkar’s goals and it is trying to co-opt SC/ST through organisatios like Samajik Samarasta Manch-Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram‘ (P 320) and how on the other hand ‘this politics is making cultural manipulation-social engineering by creating SC/ST icons in the mould of Hindutva politics‘ The issue of women’s rights is the theme of the next chapter, where it is emphasised that ‘the politics in the name of religion, the politics of RSS combine here in India or that of Taliban’s in Afghanistan, Islamic Fundamentalists, or even Christian fundamentalists all operate on the same wavelength as far rights of women is concerned.‘ ( P 341) In the postscript the author takes up the issue of NRC-CAA and explains how they are violation of plural democratic ethos.

Overall the book – which is suffused with many references which can be searched latter – makes easy reading and also conveys the danger posed by Hindu Nationalism to the values of Indian constitution and the values of democratic freedoms in a succint manner.

On rereading the book one gets a feeling that it could have been edited further and made more tight. For example the last chapter ‘Politics, Religion and Terrorism’ seems superfluous in the overall context of the book.

Secondly, the author’s celebration of composite heritage and syncretism ( see ‘Shared Heritage : Common Aspiration’) can be appreciated more positively in the present ambience which is saturated with hatred of the ‘other’ where one witnesses increasing normalisation of the secondary status accorded to religious minorities. It is quite refreshing to read or listen to our past where apparently such things were absent and there was more bonhomie of sorts between people and people.

One can trace its roots to the anti-colonial movement where celebration or promotion of this syncretism or compositeness was a major plank used by the leaders of the anti-colonial movement.

In fact it is a well-known that among secular progressives

“[t]here is the belief – indeed an article of faith – that India has been, through most of its long history, a diverse, pluralist and tolerant civilization – the land of Buddha, Kabir and Nanak, of Ashoka, Akbar and Gandhi.” (https://kafila.online/2014/08/23/learning-from-babasaheb-harsh-mander/)

We have been even taught in our school textbooks that ours

is a culture in which every major faith in the world found through the millennia the space and freedom to flourish and grow, where persecuted faiths have received refuge, where heterodox and sceptical traditions thrived alongside spiritual and mystical traditions, and where ordinary people live and instinctive respect for faith systems different from their own.”(-do-)

Perhaps with passage of time it is important to probe / investigate why this syncretism or this compositeness easily crumbled at the time of partition and how this part of South Asia became a gory site of mutual bloodletting – when at least officially 200,000 to 2 million were killed and 14 million people were displaced.

A more penetrating and wide ranging analysis of what can be called as ‘lure of composite culture’ seems to be the need of the hour.

Subhash Gatade is a senior journalist



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