Religion, Atheism and Secularism

Ram Puniyani

Last three decades have seen an unprecedented presence of religion in social and political space. Somewhere the acts of terror, somewhere communal violence and somewhere the political influence of religious right on society and political processes, all these phenomenon have overshadowed the deeper inequities in the society, the aspirations of people for dignity and rights amongst others. Now comes a book which predicts that religions will become a minority vis a vis the practice of secularism in the decade of 2040s. The book is “Why Atheism will replace religion: The triumph of earthly pleasures over pie in the sky” written by Nigel Barber. This book relates the rise/fall of the religion with economic power and makes an observation that atheists are much more in developed countries.

The book is based on the study of 137 nations conducted by the author and concludes that in the countries; more developed the welfare system; higher is the number of atheists. The book’s crunch line is, in countries where distribution of income is even, lesser is the number of religious people. The author is a prominent psychologist. He makes a prediction that people will feel lesser need of supernatural beliefs when the tangible world is providing them for their real needs. Also in a survey conducted in America 20% people identified themselves as Atheists.

There is some terminological confusion here to begin with, while the study is a very reasoned one, and links the lack of security with the belief in god and practice of religiosity. Surely many a religions themselves have atheism as a component of their structure. Some streams of Hinduism like Charvak deny the existence of God. Jainism and Buddhism also do not talk of a supernatural power, but it’s another matter that followers of these religions converted the prophets of these religions themselves as Gods and are worshipping them. In the broad umbrella of Hinduism there are many traditions, Brahminism, Nath, Taantra, Bhakti, Siddh etc. In Hinduism itself the concept of God is also very diverse, from the polytheism with multiple Gods and Goddesses, tri-theism (Brahma Vishnu Mahesh) to the single God; Ishwar and then to the concept of formless power all these concepts are coexisting together merrily today.

In India thee atheist tradition starting from Charvak, in present times it found a strong articulation amongst communists the epitome of which has been Bhagat Singh with his famous tract, ‘Why I am an Athiest’. Also radical social reformers like Periyar Ramsamy Naicker gave the atheist movement a powerful lift. The rationalists association is nurturing the same to a great extent.

Other religions, where there is a single God, the concept of God keeps varying between the God with form and body to the formless power. Many decades ago a plethora of books debated about the existence of God. But last three decades in particular have seen a very different phenomenon i.e. gross abuse of religions’ identity by the political forces of status quo. Earlier to this, one saw in the beginning of 20th century, in the decade of 1920s, Christian Fundamentalism was a response of the conservative sections of society to the process of social change brought about by the process of industrialization and education due to which Africa-Americans and women started coming to social space. Islamic fundamentalism makes a political appearance with the regime of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran. Here it was the politics related to oil and the high handed politics of Western powers which foiled the popular revolution and brought in a cleric as the head of the state. It was during this period that conservative versions of Islam were promoted by some of the rulers who were scared of popular urges for democracy. Salafi version of Islam is one such which was used in Saudi Arabia to keep a tight leash over the popular aspirations so that the Saudi oil can keep flowing in to the tankers of oil companies controlled by US-UK giants.

It is the same Salafi version of Islam which was brought in to the service of US hegemonic interest to control the oil in the region.  This version was taught in the Madrassas in Pakistan. These Madrassas were set up with US instigation, money and syllabus, through which the Mujahedeen, Taliban Al Qaeda emerged and played into the hands of US designs of throwing away Soviet army from Afghanistan. In India, the insecurity of the section of middle classes in the face of rising presence of dalits and women in social space in the decade of 1980s led to the political abuse of religion’s identity by BJP when it took up the issue of Ram temple.

While the author of the book is talking about the release of the hold of religiosity and God with rising affluence, today sitting in South Asia the scenario seems to be the other way around. In Pakistan the hold of Mullahs on the social affairs is a big obstacle to the firm rooting of democracy there. In Sri Lanka again thousands of Tamils were butchered while attacking LTTE, lately one is seeing an attack on Christians and Muslims there. Not to be left behind, in Myanmar, the retrograde political forces are attacking poor Rohingya Muslims in the name of Buddhism.

One must add that there is no contradiction between secularism and religion. The author of this book is not clear on this. With secularization process, the role of clergy was relegated to the private sphere of society but religion as such was there. God was there. It’s now that with prosperity going above the critical levels that more people are feeling less need to call upon God to help them live a secure life.  In South Asian countries a complex process had been witnessed all through. While people with great amount of religiosity and belief in God like Mahatma Gandhi and Mualan Abul Kalam Azad stood for secular state, the non practicing Muslim like Jinnah led the movement for a state in the name of Islam and an atheist Savarkar, was the ideologue of Hindu nation. Many a leaders of Hindu national politics may not be so religious but in the political arena, they create mass hysteria in the name of religion and God.

One wishes to agree with the authors’ prediction. Hope it is not restricted just to Western countries. What is more important is to realize is that mass spectacles of religiosity are an expression of deeper social insecurities, which are being cashed in by the politicians of ‘status quo’, who are deliberately using this religious identity to ensure that social distribution of resources to weaker sections is stalled. Today in India one can see a clear cut battle between those who stand for social welfare, and struggle to bring in measures go in that direction on one side. On the other are those political forces that resort to polarize the communities along religious lines, around identity issues. The latter have a social base amongst the socially insecure middle classes and the backing of section of big corporate houses. Seeing the pains of this battle between two paths, one turns pessimistic at times whether if at all, South Asia can get over the imposition of God-Religion in political arena and focus on improving prosperity with equitable distribution in society. In many a propaganda-claims being made for ‘development’ the factor of equitable growth is missing and that’s where the real definition of development lies. The bluff of development by communal forces has to be countered and the emphasis on the growth with concern for equity, affirmative action for the victim religious minorities and dalits-adivasis is the core around which the battle against the blind religiosity and assertions of politics in the name of religion has to be taken forward.

Western countries though far from the ideal in prosperity and growth, at least do not have the baggage of politics of religion’s identity in such a strong way as is prevalent in ‘post-colonial’ states; that is dogging South, West Asia in particular. This book gives the hope as far as prosperity and equity is concerned one hopes that this applies to the troubled countries where abuse of religion’s identity is playing havoc with the concept of human rights and survival of large sections of society.

Issues in Secular Politics, II August 2013


Category :- English Bazaar Patrika / OPED

With Modis at the helm

Suhas Palshikar

Come 2014, BJP will serve each state a different Modi. There will be at least three

The BJP hopes to derive an advantage from the elevation of Modi to the national level. It has certainly prompted the party rank and file, not to mention the public, to surmise that Modi would be the BJP's choice for leadership at the national level in future. So it is worthwhile to assess Modi's possible contribution to the BJP's electoral fortunes in the approaching general elections. What is the advantage that Modi may bring to the party?

In the short period that he has been operating at the all-India level, Modi has brought three themes into sharp focus. First, development and governance, second, (Hindu) nationalism, third, anti-Congressism — vikas, rashtravad and Congressmukt rajneeti. The three themes are expected to appeal to three different social sections and can have differential impact on popular choices.

Modi won the last assembly elections in Gujarat on the plank of development and governance. This theme has become quite attractive to a cross section of society. In the aftermath of the cynical non-performance of Lalu Prasad, based on a belief that governance does not matter if you talk the language of social justice, governance has become a key component of the repertoire of political parties. The idea of vikas appeals to most voters, so Modi's emphasis on development is expected to work wonders. However, this electoral dividend will accrue only if his performance is highlighted in different states of India. But many state governments — including those governed by the BJP — will claim to have brought development to the state. So, in order to project himself as the messiah of development, Modi will have to invoke Gujarat, which will inevitably underscore his image as a state level, rather than national level, leader and his Gujarati pride will be counterbalanced by the regional pride of different states.

Precisely for this reason, from the time of his much-publicised address at a Delhi college, Modi's speeches have been empty of specificities and rich on generalities about making the nation strong and turning the education system into a heaven. These would momentarily appeal to the younger lot, but are sure to become inadequate in the long run, as the electoral campaign unfolds.

Hence, Modi has to take recourse to the other, and more emotive, theme of nationalism. When the nation-state is not in crisis, nationalist rhetoric tends to be vacuous or jarring. Therefore, Modi's development-plus-nationalism agenda suffers from being too general and can appeal only to the well-oiled sections and the youth. So he skilfully invokes Hindutva. His claim that he was born a Hindu and so "happens" to be a Hindu nationalist just by circumstance — apart from being comical — is incapable of fulfilling the expectations that he has himself created among militant Hindutvavadis. Thus, again, the newly shaped Hindu nationalist Modi will have limited appeal, unless he goes back to core issues that define the secular-communal cleavage. At the moment, Modi appears to be avoiding that and yet aiming to gain from the Hindu image. This will attract only those who are already attracted to him. But Modi must be aware of this catch. So, he does a doublespeak: on the one hand, he conceals his Hindu nationalism behind a developmentalist nationalism for the consumption of the urban middle classes, on the other hand, he sends Amit Shah to UP as his "representative". Perhaps, the gameplan is to shape different holographic images out of one Modi. Each state will have a different Modi — a backward state will get the vikas purush, the more urbanised states will get a rashtra purush or lauh purush, key states of the north and west, more prone to Hindutva, will get the "Hanuman" of Lord Ram. While this strategy relies on the fact of state specificity and the need for a variegated strategy of campaign and electoral messaging, whether that will bring new votes to the BJP is a big question.

Modi must be aware of this predicament. His supporters and he probably hope that as a demagogic leader, he may succeed in swaying public sentiment on the basis of generalities and differential appeals. In this task of image building, he would of course be aided most competently by the TRP-thirsty electronic media, eager to telecast his speeches live or most extensively.

Yet, there is a possibility, and a strong one, that Modi's BJP may not actually get enough votes across sections and states to win a sizeable parliamentary presence — matching the Congress's 2009 presence. Therefore, the third arrow to Modi's bow is directed less at voters and more at non-Congress parties. A mere tactical appeal to these parties to join hands with the BJP may not work. So, Modi employs the language of Congress-mukt rajneeti — politics free of the Congress. Apart from the very evocative imagery that can appeal to traditional non-Congress voters from the middle classes, this theme is actually aimed at non-Congress elements across the political spectrum. By positioning himself as the leader bent on cleansing the system of the virus of the Congress (including a leader of foreign origin), Modi expects that his less-than-acceptable credentials on secularism will be ignored by parties when they do business after the elections. This theme is thus Modi's insurance policy for handling the compulsions of post-election coalition. Just as Modi's past (of letting the driver crush the puppy) comes in handy for the Congress in blackmailing self-proclaimed secular parties into a possible alignment, Modi's Congress-mukt rajneeti coaxes the habitual anti-Congressism out of quite a few political actors. Veteran socialists and social justice supporters found virtue in the BJP during the mid-1990s because they were anxious to keep the Congress away from power, and Modi expects to forge a post-election alliance on that basis yet again. In a post-Congress polity, it is not certain that this appeal can be a very strong basis for forging a new NDA. But before that happens, Modi's BJP will have to pass the electoral test and win enough seats to negotiate with others.

The trouble is that voters are likely to be much more discerning than Modi expects them to be. As such, an empty language of development and the potently emotive language of Hindutva will have limited appeal. It is not yet clear if Modi will be able to mobilise sections beyond the middle classes, new sections of voters that the BJP has not tapped yet — Dalits, Muslims, lower OBCs and the poor more generally. If he does that, his chances of winning a handsome victory will be more realistic. Or else the BJP would have made a risky gamble.

The writer teaches political science at University of Pune

courtesy : "The Indian Express", Tuesday, July 30 2013

Category :- English Bazaar Patrika / OPED