In a deeply religious society, struggling to balance modernity with tradition, is it is a mistake to consider religion a private business that has nothing to do with the state? Or should we concede that religion is too important a subject to be treated as an item outside the purview of the state?
Let us consider a few examples of how modern states have dealt with religion.
The United States is secular in construct. Yet Christianity pervades the State and inflames its politics. The secular divide is alive and well in the US. Right wing Christianity is the bedrock of the Republican Party, and a secular, liberal outlook informs the Democrats. Yet in daily life – with some broad exceptions – race matters more than religion. A black Christian man may find it difficult to get a job in some cases even though he is Christian, because of his skin colour. The Constitution, the Courts, the Bill of Rights and the system of Government do not acknowledge any religion and are willing to be tested on it – as indeed has been done over the past 150 years.
The United Kingdom – and indeed most of Western Europe – can safely be described as post-Christian societies. Though the majority of the population are born or descended from Christian parents, people today hardly practise it, and indeed, the Church struggles to keep places of worship open and staffed. Despite the Head of the State in the UK being the Defender of the Protestant Faith, no one in their right minds would describe the UK as being anything other than firmly secular.
China bans any form of organisation that could supplant or supplement the role of the Communist Party in Chinese society. Though the country is no longer Communist in practice, it controls religious practice and frowns upon those religions that have a focal point outside China. It regulates the Catholic Church, and it actively suppresses Islam. The State is determinedly secular (unless you consider Chinese Communism a religion it itself).
India was born in the middle of the worst religious strife seen anywhere. A theory that the two nations – Hinduism and Islam – were incapable of existing in the same political entity was floated, supported and given action to – all in 10 years time. But that did not solve any problem. The newly independent India ended up with more Muslims than the new State of Pakistan. Muslim majority states went to Pakistan. Hindu majority territories went to India. And those that had a mixed population were ruthlessly divided in the middle. Millions were displaced. Millions died. And the wounds are raw to this day.
It would have been natural for India to hew to a quasi-Hindu state structure. After all, the Father of the Nation was assassinated by a Hindu extremist and the nation was raw from the wounds of partition. Many members of the Congress were strongly pre-disposed to being Hindus first – Sardar Patel, K M Munshi, Babu Rajendra Prasad, for example. But the collective decision was to declare India a secular Republic.
Seventy-odd years on, the secular dispensation is under threat and I think it is because the weight of reality that challenges the ideological position. Secularism has also been grossly misused and misinterpreted. It is time to consider a modified version of the same philosophy, that may better reflect the Indian reality. Specifically, the Indian State seems to wish to renegotiate its relationship to its largest minority – Islam. So lets talk a bit about Islam.
A detailed reading of the Quran is revelatory. It is safe to say that many Muslims have not read it. I relied on translations and also commentaries (the one I used was by Barney Rogerson). In the middle of all the injunctions to kindness, brotherhood and love, there is much that can be taken literally by the ignorant and feed hate. Those parts of Christian scripture that are extreme in view are not taken seriously by 99.9% of its followers (except some crackpots in the United States). But Islam does tend to be black and white – and mullahs who do not understand the Quran re-inforce these contrasts instead of mediating them for the modern world. Perhaps this is part of its origin myth. The TopKapi Museum in Istanbul used to have letters written by the Prophet, saying to the receiver – “Convert Or Die”.
Islam has not been able to deal with the sudden and precipitous loss of temporal power from the 18th/19th Centuries. Examples – the end of the Mughals in India in 1857 (largely symbolic by that point), the humiliations heaped on Persia, the gradual then sudden destruction of the Ottomans and their significant satrapies (like Egypt), the Balkan Wars, the re-creation of the myth of Greece into Greek Independence —- I could go on. Wahhabi Islam and the Barelvi/Deobandi school start with this as the basis. Islam would have remained a quiescent religion for the rest of the 20th Century, nursing its grievances and lashing out once in a while, but for the discovery of oil in the desert sands.
Post the OPEC Oil Shock, and the abandonment of Bretton Woods (leading to the petro-dollar), real economic power now rests in the hands of Muslim nations. Combined with the resentment of the past 200 years, fed and kept alive by mullahs, and the ability to fuel that resentment with money, the world has become a dangerous place for anyone who is not Muslim – in greater or lesser degree.
The Muslim believes in Dar-Ul-Harb and Dar-Ul-Islam. Dar-Ul-Harb is a land where Muslims live that is not ruled by Muslims. The aim of a good Muslim (according to the Quran) is to be a good citizen but work towards the creation of a Dar-Ul-Islam (a land ruled by Islam). India used to be Dar-Ul-Islam and is now Dar-Ul-Harb. This loss is felt keenly by the extremist Mullahs.
In spite of these well-known ideological issues with Islam, what do we do about the huge Indian Muslim minority – largely law abiding, and largely in peaceful co-existence with the Hindu majority. Would extremism towards them help? I am not sure. It might have the opposite effect, and we would be handed with an administrative and law and order problem of a huge magnitude. Do we tell them “You are second class and by definition suspect because you touch your head towards Mecca five times a day and read the Koran”? What is the probability that this could lead to the creation of more extremists? This is akin to the view the Nazis had on Jews. They are suspect by race. There is no argument, no recourse, no redemption. Only death.
I started to wonder recently if secularism in the Indian context was, in hindsight, a mistake. I do not believe for a moment that there was any kind of mala fide in this. Indeed, decisions have to be understood in the context of the time and times during they were made. Given the ghastly riots in 1947, the reaction of Patel and Nehru was to banish religion from the State. This separation of Church and State, had it been done the proper way, would have resulted in many benefits. I can make a short list – the Uniform Civil Code, Right to Property, Right to Education, Regulation of Religious Places, Blindness to Faith in Citizenship. You may agree or disagree with the list, but you will agree that we have not been able to achieve what an ideal secular state should achieve. Perhaps it is because the ideal is never attainable; but I am willing to accept that many of the distortions were deliberate and conscious, and in cases, totally mala fide.
I think making India a Hindu State would not have been the right answer. Had India declared Hinduism as the State religion, it may have lead to worsening unrest and more bloodshed, as other Muslim areas of the country asserted identity over citizenship. It is too frightening to contemplate.
What if, in a counterfactual world, India had indeed accepted that faith formed a huge part of the lives of our vast uneducated millions. What if we had declared as follows: India is a religious state that is home to the great religions. It is home to Hinduism – that most tolerant and peaceful of faiths that has always allowed in people of all faiths and let them make their home here, regardless of how they came to this land and why. But in a poor, diverse, largely illiterate State like ours, the concept of citizenship in a modern state is likely to be misunderstood or not understood by many people. Therefore India needs to ensure that its religions work in the interest of the State. To do so, the government set up independent bodies answerable to the President, that would guide religious practices to ensure they serve the State. There would be a Hindu Council, and Islamic Council, a Council for the Christian Faiths, A Sikh Council and a Council for Smaller Faiths. Without getting into the how of it (which I am happy to attempt), the Council would provide guidance on how Hindu children (depending on language and area) would learn about their faith, ensure that the religious teachers of each faith were available in schools and colleges, that the teaching in each establishment would not educate against the State (thus addressing the big issue with Islam), that faiths that had transnational loyalties (Islam and the Catholic faith) were able to guide themselves to be Indian first (without going the Chinese Communist way in terms of regulation).
I think the big mistake that we are discovering is that rather than co-opt in the fact that religion is important, we have taken the western way and designed it out. Though the US is secular it is Christian in politics. Western European countries have lost their Christianity, and are now grappling with Islam. Their model also does not work. Pushing religion outside the State in India means that non-state actors take control. This is true of Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity. All the distortions taking place today are because of non-state actors. The reason leftist liberals take umbrage against the BJP today is because the BJP is incorporating Hinduism into its political message. Technically, unconstitutional by definition. But what if we change the definition?
The more reasoned opponent of the current secular framework believes an un-modernised faith cannot co-exist with a modern state. There are many things that our founding fathers could have done differently. We should remember that the poison of religion had infected Indian politics by the 1920s. A secular opposition to British Rule was easily fragmented and exploited by the British. Jinnah seized the initiative in 1940 and proceeded to define the terms of India’s Statehood in terms of what it could not be. It could not be a religious state just when one part of an ancient whole had decided to part on the basis of religion – leaving more Muslims in India than in Pakistan. The only sane response to this ridiculous state of affairs was to state clearly, that the new Indian State had no religion. Patel, Nehru and Gandhi could have done differently, but I look at the larger picture – toward the extraordinary lives they lead – and remember that mistakes made were not mala fide.
We are now at the cross-roads. We need to have an urgent debate about this. We need to sit down with our Muslim and Christian and Hindu friends, and discuss how to renew the Indian State.