The refashioning of a secular polity
The new politicised versions of religion seen in operation today do not represent the revival of religious traditions, but are proposals for a `new world'. Based on the purging of real and imagined humiliation and the eradication of opposition and difference, these are counter-modernities. But why are they rooted in the minds of millions, asks RANJIT HOSKOTE.
"View of a mosque, with a Kali procession in the foreground", circa 1850, probably Calcutta, British artist, anonymous, oil on canvas.
I WILL always remember the 1990s as the decade in which the mythologicals came down to earth with a bang. Before that time, dreadlocked ascetics waving trishuls in the air had belonged on the sets of "Har Har Mahadev" or "Jai Bajrang Bali". Turbaned wizards mesmerising crowds with spells, likewise, had meant "Aab-e Hayat" or "The Adventures of Sindbad". And then suddenly, there they were, running amok, out in the open and on our TV screens. Some of them were calling for the destruction of mosques and spreading the saffron virus of communitarian hatred throughout Hindu society. Others were calling down perdition on the Republic of India and enrolling disaffected young people in the musters of subversion. The tides of fire, the rivers of blood that appeared at their summons were no longer the clumsy, but reassuringly familiar, special effects we had enjoyed as children.
The main threat that had confronted nascent democracies between the 1950s and the 1980s was the man in fatigues: the army officer who decided that the politicos had made a mess of things and the country needed the firm hand of the military to restore law, order and national pride. After the Revolution of 1979 in Iran, however, a new model of coup became available to dissident forces within Third-World societies. Ever since, the main threat to democratic governments in the less-developed world has come from men wearing the robes of sanctity, charismatic demagogues who appeal to the people in the name of religion, invoking the tropes of embattlement and redemption through violent self-assertion. These imitators of Ayatollah Khomeini do not always enjoy the popular esteem that the theologian from Qom did; nor can they always find an oppressive and unpopular regime to oppose, as he did.
Nonetheless, they cast themselves in his mould. Their claims emanate from a source above criticism and debate, for they are ministers of the Divine, are they not? Armed with the Mandate of Heaven, they brush aside the merely earthly norms of courts and constitutions, typically casting aside democratic governance and the rule of law in favour of an archaic mixture of theological ruling, tribal custom and patriarchal expediency.
What has given such figures an extraordinary hold on the imagination of millions of people in South Asia, in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan? One possible explanation is that, as the institutions of the State and civil society have been weakened or rendered dysfunctional, their rhetoric seems ever more persuasive. People turn to their message of apocalyptic redemption when the police join in pogroms and the courts are slow to dispense justice; when education does not guarantee employment, when the gulf between privilege and dispossession yawns inexorably wider. Modernity, as embodied in these institutions, can be an alienating environment; religion, in this turbulent age, is what people turn to when they are failed by modernity.
Against the unpredictability of the modern, religion in its politicised form guarantees the marginalised and dispossessed a place in a grand cosmic plan. It offers them a sense of community, of shared mission, whether it is through the demolition of the Babri Masjid or the Bamiyan Buddhas, the slaughter of pilgrims on their way to Amarnath or the torching of Muslim homes in Ahmedabad, the imposition of the edicts of Mullah Omar or the dance macabre on the way to the Ramjanambhoomi. Others may denounce them as militants, terrorists or hoodlums; but in their own eyes, these creatures of politicised religion are men charged with a divine mission, God's warriors. Politicised religion restores their dignity: it gives them a definite identity that no one can snatch away; the fact that it has a clandestine, adversarial element makes it all the more integral to their being.
The new politicised versions of religion that we see in operation today whether it is the Hindutva of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) or the Islamism of the jehadis do not represent the revival of religious traditions. Rather, these are counter-modernities, frenzied updates, proposals for a new world premised on the purging of real and imagined humiliation and the eradication of all opposition, all difference.
Marx had the traditional varieties of religion in mind when he enunciated his celebrated, but frequently misunderstood, description of religion as the opiate of the people, in his Introduction to A Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right. Marx's insight is a compassionate one: "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people." The soporific passivity and fatalism of religion, Marx observes, are the only consolation for a human being who is bereft of hope, who has been alienated from his own life and work, turned into a cog in a world-wheel governed by the logic of power and wealth. But the varieties of politicised religion that have become available today do not induce passivity in their adherents. On the contrary, they act as stimulants, inducing in their adherents a desire to effect a dramatic change in their circumstances.
* * *
I have suggested, above, that the man in fatigues has yielded place to the man in holy robes as the principal threat to democracy in the former Third World. This transition is not without its pleasing ironies of crossover, of course: General Musharraf, for instance, represents a class of military men who has colluded extensively with fanatical religiosi. There is also a certain symmetry between the two species, for the adherents of a politicised religion, like soldiers in an army, are in a permanent state of combat and vigilance. The world is fundamentally divided, for them, into Friends and Foes, the former to be protected and cultivated, the latter to be hunted down and exterminated.
Politicised religion is an unfinished project: it does not stop until it has converted the entire world, or its chosen territorial domain, to its cause. To gain its end, it can and does resort to the most brutal violence. Politicised religion is also a spectrum-narrowing force: it suspects and resents the polychromy of the imagination, and rigidly monitors the human possibilities of expression, creativity, art and thought.
Politicised religion is an unfinished project ... .
Brought up on a decent diet of mythologicals as most of us have been, we know that the genie, once out of the lamp or bottle, cannot be pushed back in. In the old days, the men in fatigues could, eventually, be ordered back to their barracks and the democratic process restored. But how, to bring these reflections to bear specifically on India, do we order the sants back to their ashrams, when, acting with considerable ingenuity, they have managed to infiltrate the democratic process, subverting it from within? And how do we order the mullahs back to their madrassas, when they are not Indian subjects, but guest preachers broadcasting from elsewhere?
In a deeply tragic sense, post-colonial India has brought down this catastrophe upon itself, by introducing electoral democracy into a society organised along blatant asymmetries of class, caste, ethnicity and religious identity a society that was never reformed. In such a situation, democracy automatically encourages the deployment of mass mobilisations based on agonistic and even confrontational forms of collective identity, whether offensive regionalism (the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam [DMK] in Tamil Nadu; the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra in its earlier phase), defensive ethnicity (the movements that culminated in the formation of Jharkhand and Chattisgarh) and, most dangerously, religious militancy (the Shiv Sena in its current phase; the VHP and the other front organisations of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh). This is the systemic weakness that the sants have exploited, crashing through the gate into civic space, which they now attempt to annex as they wage their religious war against the minorities. And the mullahs who preach their own, equally repugnant doctrine of religious war from across the borders are also opportunists: they have profited from the majoritarianism that was always implicit in our democracy, and which has been fully exposed by the steady emergence of the Hindu Right as a political force. When the sants and the mullahs come marching in, they set about creating a dominion of bodies, a vehicle for the dominion of souls that they command. They translate their apocalyptic visions of salvation or redemption in secular terms, as a quest for justice. This justice is to be obtained through the seizure of State power and the refashioning of the secular polity into a religious one or, where this is not possible, by creating a system of authority parallel to, and subversive of, the constituted State and existing civil society.
Those of us who stand on the liberal side of the political divide that currently prevails in India would prefer a polity that has been purged of rabble-rousing clerics. That is, to adopt Spinoza's distinction, we would like our public life to be based on the order of reason, which establishes values through discussion and debate, rather than on the order of prophecy, whose values are derived from sacred teaching that is not open to argument. The order of reason accepts that the world is the realm of the relative; the order of prophecy imposes upon the world the pattern of the absolute. And as Kierkegaard remarked, in some trepidation, the quest for the absolute in a relative world is a demonic one. Such is the nature of the demonic spirit that rides, unbridled, through India today.
Send this article to Friends by