Religion-based politics has always had a devastating effect on any society in the world. Europe finally managed to separate the “Church’ from the ‘State’ – making religion a matter of personal belief and not letting the state take any interest in matters of faith.
Europe had also gone through internecine war among different sects of Christianity, resulting in the death of hundreds of thousands of innocents during the Middle Ages – as is happening throughout the Muslim world now, where differing sects are killing thousands in internecine wars in the name of religious purity.
Tragically, East Punjab (Indian Punjab) – after going through turmoil and religion-based violence during the 1980s – has again been engulfed in a violent atmosphere. For narrow political gains, Gurmit Singh, self-styled as Ram Rahim Singh, accused of very serious crimes of murder, rape and mass castration was ‘forgiven’ for his ‘religious misconduct’ by Sikh preachers. He dressed up as Guru Gobind Singh in the past, for which he was charged with ‘religious misconduct’ by Sikh preachers.
Suddenly forgiving him for his ‘religious misconduct’ (later withdrawing the order under pressure from the people) was enough to cause turmoil in Punjab. And as if that was not enough, widespread incidents of sacrilege of religious scripture started appearing in the media, further engulfing Punjab in a precarious situation. As always, the state’s reaction to such incidents is like that of Pakistan during the Zia years; the state of India has resorted to amending the law to give life imprisonment for sacrilege of religious books. It is well known that given the reputation of the Indian police, such laws are used for political or personal vendetta, much like in Pakistan.
The manufactured ‘cow controversy’ by a lunatic fringe of Hindutva elements added fuel to fire, leading to the brutal lynching of a Muslim man Akhlaq in Dadri. Earlier during the Lok Sabha elections communal tensions were manufactured to create polarisation in western UP, leading to riots in Muzaffarnagar, for which many present BJP MPs stand accused; they benefited from this polarisation and won the elections.
The murder of rational scholars like Narender Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and M M Kalburgi by Hindutva fringe – with no tangible action against these extremists – increased social tensions to new heights. Even the BJP’s somewhat liberal elements like Sudheender Kulkarni fell victim to these communal elements.
And Anupam Kher leads a march in Delhi to say that ‘there is no intolerance in India’ with NDTV correspondent Bhairvi Singh being manhandled by his ‘tolerant’ marchers.
Writers, artists and scientists protesting against this alarming situation by returning national awards are painted as ‘anti-state’ and traitors by these Hindutva supporters. Shahrukh Khan and Aamir Khan were the latest additions to this list of those they want to ‘send to Pakistan’, as if Pakistan is the Kala Paani of today.
The Hindutva elements indulging in this politics of religion hate Jawaharlal Nehru, who as first prime minister, tried to build a secular and democratic India with emphasis on scientific attitude and education. The country suffered massively during the many incidents of violence, in fact massacres of minorities, due to religion-based politics, whether under the BJP or Congress or other parties.
After 2014’s massive BJP victory, Hindutva fringe elements and RSS-like organisations have become more confident about creating another communal conflict. This has affected Punjab also, which suffered massively at the hands of Bhindrawale-inspired Khalistani religious elements. The country is at a crossroads again.
At this moment Bhagat Singh’s wise warning comes to mind, which he penned in 1927 in an article in Kirti in reference to the 1924 Kohat communal riots:
“Under these conditions the future of Hindustan seems very bleak. These ‘religions’ have ruined the country. And one has no idea how long these religious riots will plague Hindustan. These riots have shamed Hindustan in the eyes of the world. And we have seen how everyone is carried on the tide of blind faith.”
Bhagat Singh refers to the ideals of the Ghadar Party, whose centenary was celebrated recently.
“In 1914-15 the martyrs separated religion from politics. They believed that religion was an individual’s personal matter and no one else should interfere in it. Nor should one let religion push itself into politics because it does not unite everyone or make them work together.”
The recent rise of Isis and the belligerence of Hindutva or Khalistani or jihadi organisations in India and the world would alarm any thinking Indian, whether it is Aamir Khan or award returnee writers/scientists/artists. The Paris attacks shook the whole world, and the danger is very much there in our own land as well.
To fight back growing religious intolerance and fundamentalism in India, we need to revive the spirit of religious and communal harmony and unity – found at the time of the freedom struggle. Will those in power in the states and the centre rise to the occasion and check the tide of rising religious intolerance and violence in Indian society, threatening the very idea of a culturally, religiously and linguistically diverse and harmonious India.
One has to return to the Nehruvian idea of India as a true ‘secular’ state – not of the ‘sarv dharam sambhav’ variety, but of ‘separation of religion from politics’ in the real sense. The same is true for Pakistan, which needs to go back to Jinnah’s vision of a democratic Pakistan.
The writer is a retired professor from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and is one of the writers who recently returned the Sahitya Akademi awards.