Religion and politics in “bewilderingly diverse” India
“Bewildingerly diverse” is the way Asghar Ali Engineer describes his native country, India. This 70-year-old Muslim scholar has written dozens of books about Indian politics and society, Islamic reform and interreligious dialogue. As head of the Centre for the Study of Society and Secularism in Mumbai, he works to promote peace and understanding among religious and ethnic communities through seminars, workshops, youth camps, research and publications. The centre even organises street plays in the slums of Mumbai to teach the poor about the dangers of communalism.
Our long conversation at the Centre in Mumbai’s Santa Cruz neighbourhood of Mumbai during a recent visit to India provided a few key quotes for my earlier analysis and blog post on religion in the Indian election campaign. Since these issues are crucial to the general election taking place in India, I’ve transcribed longer excerpts from his answers and posted them on the second page of this post.
(Photo: Asghar Ali Engineer, 14 April 2009/Tom Heneghan)
What is the role of communalism in Indian elections?
“The BJP bases its whole politics around accusations that Congress uses Muslims as vote banks and does a lot of favours for them. ‘The Muslims vote for Congress and we are against vote bank politics,’ that’s what they claim. But the BJP itself is basing its politics on Hindu vote banks, (especially) certain castes among Hindus, particularly the upper castes. But when they saw that upper class support cannot put them into power in Delhi, they widened their circle and tried to include some OBC (Other Backward Class) Hindus. Many OBC leaders have become militant Hindu leaders. They are more militant than the upper-class leaders. They see this as the only way to carve out their niche in upper-class politics. Dalits are lower than the OBC. Dalits generally vote for secular parties. Most used to vote for Congress, but now many caste parties have come into existence — for example, (the Dalit politician) Mayawati. She’s also widening her political base by including the upper class.
(Photo: Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati, 9 August 2008/Pawan Kumar)
“Left to themselves, there would be no tension (between communities). But politicians have to face so many elections — municipal, panchayat, state assembly, parliament – and during all these elections, identity has become important. Since the late 1980s, the Indian population has been polarised like never before. During all those years Congress was ruling, it was a sort of umbrella organisation trying to carry certain castes and communities with it. But not all castes and communities were getting justice, so other parties came into existence. You see it’s 60 years of our democracy and each election brings more and more political awareness among the people … All politicians make promises to Christians, to Dalits, etc. When the promises are not fulfilled, then some regional parties come into existence.”
Why is communalism so persistent in a secular democracy like India?
“Our educational system injects communalism into the minds of young children. They grow up with those ideas, with hatred of Muslims. Nehru very much desired change in the education system but he never succeeded because it is a state subject, not a national subject, so they could do little to change it. The RSS, which is a major Hindu communal force, kept on training people in communal ideas and putting them in various cadres like teachers, police, army, bureaucrats, journalists … We are a secular democratic country, fine, but in practice, communal ideas and violence have gone very deep into our system. India being such a diverse country, identity becomes more and more important. This is not like a European country. Now in the post-colonial period, multiculturalism became important (in Europe). But those nations were formed long ago. India has deep trouble forming a nation itself. Nation-building is much more challenging, all these identities come into play … “
Here in India, migration is causing problems. Shiv Sena has its ‘sons of the soil’ theory and says all jobs should go to Maharastrians. ‘Why are they settling here? Why are the coming to Mumbai?’ they ask. So people were attacked. Interstate migration in India is like international migration in Europe. And India is so backward. There are so little resources to be shared among so many people.”
Varun Gandhi, an estranged member of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty who is campaigning for the BJP, played the religion card with a speech that reportedly threatened to chop of the hands of any Muslims harming Hindus. This seems to have embarrassed the BJP. Why is he a problem for them?
(Photo: Varun Gandhi arrives at court for hearing on charges of hate speech, 28 March 2009/Adnan Abidi)
“The BJP leadership has to exercise caution. If they’re seen as extremists, they will not be voted into power. But this young boy had no experience and thought he’d become a hero for the Hindu community with these strong words. Even the BJP had to distance itself, but then said he would be their candidate.”
India’s Muslim population, one of the largest in the world, is generally moderate in its politics. How do you explain this? “
Any majority tends to be more aggressive and assertive. As we see, Hindus are more assertive here and Muslims are more assertive in Pakistan. Right-wing Christians in America are more assertive. Muslims are in a minority here, a 15 percent minority. A minority cannot afford to be aggressive. Secondly, there is the impact of Indian culture. It is basically a composite culture. In any multi-religious society, you will find that the different religious traditions create a new tradition that is more moderate and less aggressive. The third important factor is Sufi Islam. In India, the overwhelming majority of Muslims believe in Sufi Islam, which is basically a peaceful Islam. Several things make Pakistani Islam more aggressive. First, it is in the majority. Secondly, Punjabi Muslims want to maintain their hegemony over other Muslims in Pakistan — Sindhis, Baluch, Pathans — so they tend to be more aggressive also in their Islam, in order to maintain their hegemony. Thirdly, the army is mostly Punjabi and it is using Islam with a vengeance to maintain its hegemony in Pakistan and to supplant democratic forces. And now the Taliban are another factor …”
(Picture: Jama Masjid in Delhi, 9 Dec 2008/Vijay Mathur)
“Indian Deobandis and Pakistani Deobandis are quite different. Islam is in the majority over there. The ulema have been politicised, they want and they use Islam. There is a very interesting phenomenon here. The Deobandis here are attacking terrorism and militancy. Deobandis have held largest demonstrations in India against terrorism … They are puritan otherwise and against Sufism, but in the Indian environment, their behaviour is very different.”
So do most Indian Muslims think secularism is best? “
Yes, here the Deobandis and the Jamaat-i-Islami, which is totally against secularism in Pakistan, support secularism in India. In fact, these days (the Indian) Jamaat-i-Islami is in the forefront of the secular democratic movement. In the early days of independence, Jamaat-i-Islami opposed secularism in India and refused to take part in elections. But after the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the riots in Mumbai, they totally changed their policy and formed a secular democratic front that’s spreading secular values today. The Jamaat in Pakistan is like the RSS and BJP here. But here its character is entirely liberal. “
The situation makes you respond. That’s what I argue. Religion was instituted in certain circumstances and believers respond accordingly. If extremism pays, they will resort to extremism. If moderation pays, they will respond to moderation. Religion by itself is neither extremist nor moderate. It is human followers who become extremist or moderate according to their situation. It’s a tool — an instrumental cause, not a fundamental cause. Those who maintain that terrorism originates in Islam have to think, why is there this difference?”
Politicians basically exploit misunderstandings, so we base our dialogue on issues. Take, for example, the issue of violence and religion – what is violence in the Hindu, Muslim and Christian traditions? What is the position of women in religions? Those issues create problems and misunderstanding. Unfortunately, those who condemn religion and hold it responsible for what happens in society neither know their own religion nor the others. But when we explain things to them, they start to understand … “
(Photo: Hindu militant in Kolkata, 26 Sept 2002/Jayanta Shaw)
I conduct a lot of workshops for the police. They have such prejudices against Muslims, all based on ignorance. But they have seen things from one side only. When we hold workshops, prejudices are dispelled. We have more and more requests for these workshops in Maharashtra, Haryana, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh. I’ve been holding these workshops continuously, sometimes invited to conduct workshops for the recruits, 3,000 – 4,000 in number.
“We have identified four groups which are crucial to promoting peace. Teachers, because education is very crucial. Second is police, of course, because they maintain law and order. If they rise above prejudices, they can control better. The prejudices are simply atrocious in communal politics, simply atrocious. There are such raw prejudices against Muslims. Third category is youth. Fourth is journalists. What they write in newspapers … Just now our workshop is going on about peace and conflict resolution in Ayodha, which is the centre of this whole controversy. We hold workshops in all these sensitive areas.”