The secularism debate: Here's why mixing politics with religion is a bad idea
Mixing up religion and politics can be disastrous for a country – Pakistan is an example. And that is why the BJP leaders who willingly give full play to religion in politics should be extremely careful.
Caste politics revolves around a higher goal: social justice. Ignore the chaotic way it manifests itself, it is finally about social groups bargaining for a better deal in the democracy. It is empowering and has made caste equations more equal in the country. The politics of religion serves no such purpose. It is regressive and bereft of a superior goal. Its capacity to divide and damage the society is immense. Both kinds of politics are exclusive, but the exclusion in the case of caste is more liberating while in the case of religion it is inhibiting.
That is one reason why all advanced societies try to keep religion and polity apart. Mixing them up can be disastrous for a country – Pakistan is an example. And that is why the BJP leaders who willingly give full play to religion in politics should be extremely careful. In a submission before the Supreme Court, three BJP-ruled states have said that religion can always be used in any sphere of society in the country unless it violated constitutional or statutory provisions. The court is hearing a case pertaining to the use of religion in political speeches and party manifestos.
One aspect of the argument is that since caste and religion are closely linked to the society both would be discussed in manifestos. There cannot be separate yardsticks while taking a stand on the use of either of them in politics. It implies if caste is discussed, religion would be too. Fair enough. Political parties cannot be expected to cut themselves off from the society they belong to. Some religious sects maybe the creation of social discrimination and inequalities, like the Deras in northern India are; hence there is nothing wrong with parties taking up the cause of their members. In any case, religion has always played a part in Indian politics, either through perverse secularism or straightforward communalism.
But the question is how far can you go?
Indian secularism, even in its perverted form, was hardly anti-religion or anti-Hindu or pro-Muslim in practice. The politics around it reeked of hypocrisy and opportunism though. What it managed for long was keeping religion on the fringes, at a safe distance from centre stage politics.
The discreetness may be going through the window now with the BJP no more playing coy about Hindutva or about courting religious/spiritual figures openly. That it’s a vote bank the party cannot let go is understandable; there’s something existential about it. But does it know where it has to draw the line?
Drawing the line is important because competitive politics will soon take over and other parties will be vying for chunks or the whole of the same vote bank. Given the culture of opportunism among our parties, it may not be long before other parties started shifting attention to the unwieldy yet significant mass of voters. The resulting competition would make them cede more and more neutral political space to religion. It is also possible that ambitions and jealousies within would lead to an implosion in the vote bank and creation of aggressive, demanding and unpredictable new players in the same space. Some degree of radicalisation in the society is also expected.
Several Islamic countries have suffered debilitating from this trend. India may not go that way anytime soon given the deep fault lines within its society but there’s a fear that forces of faith once unleashed will be difficult to control.
Like we have mentioned earlier, the politics of caste has a noble purpose; that of religion has none. Both emerge out of the society but have opposite impacts on it. The secularism debate must free itself from semantic quibbles – rest assured there would be no definition of it satisfying all. If at all there is, it would be quite different in practice – and go by the spirit of the word. To begin with, political parties can be restrained with their manifestos.
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