Tag Archives: how religion divides rather than unites

The BJP in India: how religion and politics create a toxic mix.

The last two posts can be interpreted as an examination of the disadvantages of monotheism and the advantages of polytheism. However, in recent years Hinduism, a religion often thought to be polytheistic, has assumed some unpleasant characteristics on the back of the BJP’s rise to political power in India. What follows are quotes from an excellent “London Review of Books” article by Amit Chaudhuri (the article appeared in the 17.12.15 edition of the “Review”). On the basis of the quotes below, I am inclined to conclude that religion must be completely divorced from politics. Why? Because, when political parties shaped by religion secure political power, almost everyone suffers, even those who subscribe to the religion wielding the political power.

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Hindu Mandir, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

India always had, and still has, a huge amount going for it… For me, in many ways, India is the most exciting and stimulating country to be in. But the BJP… seems to be bad for whatever it is that makes this country so attractive… For the first time since independence, India feels unlivable in, not just for minorities under assault but for large swathes of the population.

The BJP is a deeply polarising party… The BJP thrives (as does any right-wing group) on division. The BJP polarises not only Hindus and Muslims (and Christians, Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists); it also polarises Hindus.

Many of us have forgotten… what Hinduism meant even forty years ago. But even those of us who aren’t religious are often products of that amorphous older definition. Despite the disgraceful legacies and realities of Hindu society, such as the caste system, there was once an open-ended confusion about the matter of what constitutes it as a religion. Hinduism had no central book, it was reiterated; you could be a Hindu even if you were an atheist or had never stepped into a temple; you could absorb the stories of Hindu mythology without believing in them literally. This definition of Hinduism arose from an awareness in modern Hindus of the aspects privileged by other world religions, in response to which they seemed to have decided to make a case for Hinduism’s anomalousness, to turn the fact that it wasn’t a “proper” religion into a kind of legitimacy… But it made for an oddly Indian interpretation of religion, in which it served as a sort of figurative language, a non-assertive truth, and there was a strange, occasional overlap, for the Indian, between everyday living and religious experience.

Anyone who was once exposed to even a residue of that ethos will feel alienated by the BJP’s project of salvaging Hinduism from its provisionality and making it a “proper” religion. It’s doing this through minatory edicts and actions, and by eliminating grey areas. “Intolerance” is the Indian press’s term for the regime of threats and violence toward beef-eaters, writers, “foreigners”, “foreign” organisations (like Greenpeace) and minorities; though, as Arundhati Roy pointed out recently, “intolerance” is “the wrong word to use for the lynching, shooting, burning and mass murder of fellow human beings”. The BJP insists on a form of Hinduism that is wholly new: it accords a deep respect to science and the verifiable and is tone deaf to figurative language…

(The BJP has been shaped by) the Renaissance and Enlightenment… (but) in a weirdly distorted form… (and) its secretive cultural-militant wing, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

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Hindu Mandir, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

The BJP’s violence toward Islam emanates from ignorance, but so does its violence toward Hinduism. It has ignored or glossed over Hinduism’s, and India’s, many anti-Brahminical, anti-absolutist spiritual traditions, such as Buddhism and the bhakti movement…

A central part of the (Bhagavad) Gita is its wariness of mere scriptural observance, as it lays out its scepticism of its precursor text, the Vedas… Perhaps the Gita should be made compulsory reading – not for the nation but for the BJP and its fringe groups…

(During his 2015 visit to the UK, Prime Minister and BJP leader Narendra Modi) made one direct reference to Islam: “Had Islam embraced Sufism, it would not have had to resort to the gun.” (In one of the chilling coincidences that now seem to make up our world, Muslim gunmen in Paris were shooting down people out for the night at around the same time Modi said these words.) It was a stunning statement: the BJP has been busily suppressing Hindu pluralism – the legacy of the bhakti movement – just as Wahhabi Islam has suppressed heterodox forms such as Sufism. You could call the BJP’s project a kind of Wahhabi Hinduism: it is intent on defining a single power centre, where before there was none, and one interpretation, where before there were many. It took a few decades of funding and support from Saudi Arabia for Wahhabi Islam to become the minatory force it is today, and something similar could plausibly be achieved with Hinduism. At the Kashi Vishwanath Temple in Varanasi, women were recently denied entry unless they were wearing that “ancient” Hindu apparel, the sari – a sign that the BJP’s influence might turn a secular form of dress into a religious one, like the hijab. The party has already appropriated the colour of renunciation, saffron, as a ubiquitous political signifier.

On 30th August (2015), the literary scholar M. M. Kalburgi was shot by two young men pretending to be students, after he had allegedly made offensive remarks about idol worship. Men like his killers are now in abundant supply in India. They manufacture abuse on social media against anyone faintly critical of Modi; they instruct those who disagree with them to migrate to Pakistan; they issue death threats; they kill.

Modi is a man who makes careful use of silence… Though he is identified with speechmaking, he’s silent on key issues. His silence is interpreted as a green light by those who commit violence in his name. When the soft-spoken, mumbling Prime Minister Manomohan Singh kept resolutely quite about his Congress government’s rampant corruption, Modi’s deputy, Amit Shah, mocked him for being a mauni baba – a holy man who’s taken a vow of silence. Yet Modi has been practising being a mauni baba in a much more invidious way.

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Shrine, Hindu-run business, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

(In the 19th century, intellectuals in India were working toward a position in which) Hindu iconography and mythology… would be the creative property of all – Hindus, Muslims, non-believers, atheists… and not just of (Hindu) devotees. It is the BJP’s intent that all this be removed from the secular domain…

I believe that the intimidation Indians face almost daily now, to do with free speech, can only be addressed in the long run by clarity about our constitutional guarantees. Perhaps the Indian constitution, unlike the American one, puts certain limits on free speech, but I can’t believe those limits necessitated the pulping last year of all the copies in India of Wendy Doniger’s “The Hindus: an alternative history” and yet protect the hate speech of various BJP ministers or far right parties like the Shiv Sena and the Mahanirman Sena…

The erosion of free speech in India began long ago, under the Congress, with the banning of “The Satanic Verses” in 1988, an action, extraordinarily, still unchallenged in court. That the BJP won’t lift this ban, despite the fact that it never loses a chance to undermine Muslims, is a sign of its own investment in the culture and ethos of prohibition. The erosion I’m talking about isn’t only to do with religion and literature: its primary aim is the suppression of political dissent…

You see this in West Bengal… which boasts… an exemplary tolerance of minorities, though it’s fiercely punitive toward any form of free speech that is considers oppositional… In 2007, the… government expelled the Bangladeshi writer, exile and critic of Islam Taslima Nasreen from Calcutta, where she lived, after she came under attack from orthodox Muslims.

Are state and central authorities in India actually constitutionally empowered to do what they are doing? If we don’t know the answer now, when will we?

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Will there soon be a conference addressing the question, “Is religion divisive?”

I ask, because the more such conferences there are, the better. And they are urgently needed.

Someone actively involved in interfaith work in Newcastle-upon-Tyne (the United Kingdom) advised me recently that the Newcastle Church of England diocese (which arranges/co-ordinates all the most worthwhile interfaith activity in the city and further afield) plans to hold a conference or seminar to discuss the question, “Is religion divisive?”

I hope the event is nothing less than a seminar because, if it is less than a seminar, it will be of little or no merit. In truth, a conference of at least a day’s duration is necessary to do justice to the question.

Of course, based on evidence in this blog as well as evidence from numerous other sources, it is impossible to deny that religion IS divisive, but, as the question is subjected to scrutiny, it would be helpful if the conference or seminar also addressed some or all of the questions that follow:

How is religion divisive?

Why is religion divisive?

Is religion more or less divisive than in the past (e.g. twenty, a hundred or a thousand years ago)?

What needs to change to make religion less divisive?

To enhance matters of universal concern such as community cohesion, inclusion, equality and justice for all, must some rights currently enjoyed by religious people be restricted (because religion IS divisive, and because religion often IS detrimental to community cohesion, inclusion, equality and justice for all)?

To enhance matters of universal concern such as community cohesion, inclusion, equality and justice for all, must some religious beliefs and practices be outlawed (because religion IS divisive, and because religion often IS detrimental to community cohesion, inclusion, equality and justice for all)?

Are all religions, most religions, some religions or no religions fully in accord with the so-called “British” values of democracy, individual liberty, the rule of (secular) law, mutual respect and tolerance for people who subscribe to different religions and beliefs?

Are all religions, most religions, some religions or no religions fully in accord with the golden rule, that is, treat others as you would expect others to treat you?

Act of Remembrance for the seventeen people murdered in Paris in January 2015, St. Nicholas CE Cathedral, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK

Act of Remembrance for the seventeen people murdered in Paris in January 2015, St. Nicholas CE Cathedral, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK

Not so long ago I took part in a conference that addressed precisely the same question – Is religion divisive? – and the structure of the day helped ensure that something meaningful emerged from the event (the structure also ensured that the supplementary questions just listed were addressed, albeit not always in the detail their importance required). Here is a summary of the day which I provided for my contact in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the hope he can ensure the idea for a potentially very worthwhile event fulfils expectations:

I once took part in an excellent whole day conference (for university under- and post-graduate students and members of the general public) on the motion, “Is religion divisive?” Someone spoke for the motion (it is divisive) and someone spoke against the motion (it is not divisive), then people in the audience (the audience included people with and without religious convictions) had the chance to ask questions of the people who had just spoken. There was also a panel of “experts” drawn from different religion and belief backgrounds (e.g. a Buddhist, a Muslim, a Sikh, a Humanist) and scholarly disciplines (e.g. a biologist, a psychologist, a historian, a philosopher), all of whom provided additional information for or against the motion (people in the audience had the chance to also question the “experts”). Everyone then broke into smaller groups to discuss the motion in more detail with a facilitator (the facilitators were the “experts” just identified), then a plenary was held in which the facilitators summarised deliberations in each group. The people who originally supported and opposed the motion were given a last chance to state their case, then a vote was taken on the motion (a vote on the motion started the day. It was interesting to see that about 30% of the audience changed their opinion about the motion).

It was an outstanding event, benefiting in particular from the two people who spoke for and against the motion at the beginning and the end of the day. Both people avoided meaningless platitudes because they provided concrete/reliable/irrefutable evidence in support of their case. It was this grounded, evidence-based nature of the introductory and concluding inputs which ensured the event was worthwhile, rather than a platform for people to allege things about religion and religious traditions that defy all knowledge and understanding (indeed, that defy common sense itself).

Religious people frequently prefer to burn, burn rather than build, build

Religious people frequently prefer to burn, burn rather than build, build

I was particularly impressed with how one speaker explored the critically important idea that religions can be divisive by not only dividing/separating/splitting people along distinct religious lines (e.g. many religious people insist that their faith is the only source of “truth”; many religious people live in de facto segregation because they want to preserve their identity without “corruption” from outside; many religious people demand separate schools for their children so they secure an Anglican, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, etc. education), but also by dividing/separating/splitting people within the faith group itself (e.g. along sectarian lines, an obvious and undeniable fault-line; but also in terms of, say, males and females dressing in gender stereotypical ways; males and females worshipping apart; males but not females ascending to positions of religious power/responsibility; males and females undertaking different rites of passage; women being ritually impure at times during their monthly cycle; people with disabilities/special needs not being included to the same degree as the so-called able-bodied/able-minded; gays, lesbians and bisexuals suffering disadvantage and discrimination, or worse). This I thought an important but sometimes neglected insight: divisiveness operates within as well as between religious traditions. Not unnaturally, much was made of concepts such as community cohesion, inclusion, equality, justice for all, the golden rule and democratic decision-making, and how some (many?) expressions of religion struggle with these core values underpinning universal declarations of human rights. 

Above all, the conference was memorable because people had to critically evaluate their standpoints with evidence and argument rather than platitudes and wishful thinking. But events of this nature are very rare, partly because conventional approaches to interfaith dialogue ENCOURAGE platitudes and wishful thinking rather than analysis of the evidence and critical evaluation.

Molenbeek, Brussels, Belgium

Molenbeek, Brussels, Belgium