Religion and politics in India

In Hinduism, Muslims

Temples and mosques — religion in indian politics


The corpses are yet to be found and cremated from courtyard of76 k the Kedarnath temple, much of it under several feet of  mud deposited by a raging Himalayan river, but a new wave of “temple politics” has well and truly begun in the country. The self-styled “Iron man” of India and a 2014 prime ministerial hopeful, Mr Narendra Modi, was the first one to offer that the Gujarat government would repair or rebuild the temple, holy to India’s one billion Hindus. His offer was instantly shot down by Uttarakhand chief minister, Mr Vijay Bahuguna, who also negatived offers of help by other Bharatiya Janata party leaders, saying that the state government, impoverished though it was, was fully capable of restoring the temple to its pristine glory. The temple attracts over a million pilgrims and tourists in the summer months before the monsoons make the treacherous journey too hazardous.

Mr Bahuguna’s fear that a rival political party will take the credit is well founded, for religion, of which temples of all sorts are the core, has been a major driving force in  subcontinental politics from before Independence. The freedom struggle and Mahatma Gandhi’s presence could not dilute the religious undertones  in the body politic, first manifesting in the division of Bengal long before freedom came. Independence from the British Raj was itself preceded by a partition of  the country into a truncated Hindu-majority but secular India and a new Muslim Pakistan amidst mass displacement and a bloodshed between the two religious  groups in which more than a million men, women and children may have been killed.

It was not surprising therefore that one of the major cultural actions of Independent India’s first government in November 12, 1947 was to order the reconstruction of the Somnath temple in Gujarat, which had been repeatedly razed by Muslim invaders, last  by M. Ghazni, and had become a symbol of foreign domination of Indian soil and its ethos. Patel, who consolidated the new Indian state by incorporating the former principalities, several times with military action, led the project, blessed personally by Gandhi. Somnath has since then become the venue for the launch of many a political movement, including by the Bharatiya janata Party. The sole voice of dissent in the Somnath reconstruction came from Prime minister Jawahar Lal Nehru who correctly saw it as  an attempt at Hindu revivalism.

India is not a theocracy, thanks mostly to Jawahar Lal Nehru and Babasaheb Bhim Rao Ambedkar’s vision, but this “principle” of reversing “historic wrongs” of the thousand year Muslim- Mughal rule, has been a recurring theme of the politics of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Hindu Mahasabha  — and their modern political wing, the Bharatiya Janata party. But other regional parties such as the Shiv Sena, have not been averse to it. Once in a while, the Congress also finds its leadership susceptible to what can be called temple politics.

The BJP, however, remains the main practitioner of this political art of  rousing religious tempers around temples. Its  patriarch, former deputy prime minister Mr Lal Krishna Advani,  launched the BJP’s revival in the late Eighties with a  long march demanding the  construction of a Ram Temple in Ayodhya replacing the Babri Mosque, seen as a hated symbol of Moghul rule, and allegedly built on the ruins of the birthplace of the Lord Rama. Mr Advani’s movement eventually led to the demolition of the mosque by Sangh mobs, in turn leading to a bloodbath in Mumbai and elsewhere. The party has since then kept the political fires alive by focussing on mosques in Varanasi, Mathura and several other places.

It is not that the Bharatiya Janata Party is the only party pandering to religious sentiments. In the Punjab and the Delhi-Haryana region, the Akali Dal emerges as a theocratic with its seamless involvement in the Sikh religion and  parliamentary party. Muslims too have their religious political fronts in states such as Assam, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala. In Kerala state, Muslim political parties are part of the ruling alliance. The Neo-Buddhists also did form political parties, specially in Maharashtra, but they do not have the same religious fervor as the others. Christians do not formally have  a political party, but at least one party, again in Kerala, is understood as reflecting the aspirations of the Syrian Christians of the region.

These parties have no real ideology other than exploiting the faith of their respective communities. Barring a vague belief in capitalist economics and an assertive regional chauvinism, they are still far away from envisioning a socio-political uplift of the people. They, by definition, no concern for people other than their own co-religionists. For want of a genuine political, social and economic agenda, they pander to the lowest common denominator, fueling religion  as the main source of identity, overcoming classical stratifications of caste and class, in their own pursuit of political power.

Ironically, India’s election code specifically bans the use of religion in elections. This law is routinely broken. Almost no one complains, because almost everyone  banks on religion to win the election.

[Published in UCAN, July 2013]

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