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Religion And Communalism

By Asghar Ali Engineer

30 June, 2003

This is an ongoing debate among the scholars whether religion is the main cause of communalism. Often many scholars maintain that main 'culprit' is religion and some even go to the extent of saying that if there is no religion there will be no communalism. Of course it is quite hypothetical formulation. Human beings cannot live without religion or some kind of ideology which gives human life a meaning and direction and whatever the nature of ideology or thought or value system it creates its own 'other'. And some form of struggle starts between followers of one or the other ideology.

First, we would like to define what is religion? Do different
religion clash with each other? Is the clash between religions or between human communities and why? These are important questions, which need to be answered for this debate to be meaningful.

Religion can be defined as a system of beliefs and values with
associatedrituals to give these beliefs and values a concrete form. When these beliefs and values are held in common and rituals are performed in congregation it gives rise to a sense of commonality and a religious community comes into existence. This community is also product of a pre-existing social structure
and this social structure deeply influences the religious community
and its practices. No religious community can totally transcend this pre-existing social structure. A religious community induces a sense of belonging in its members what we call identity in modern political discourse. This identity,for its members, in course of time, becomes more important than the beliefsand values. And it is this sense of identity, which creates problems rather
than religion per se. It is important to keep this in mind in the whole debate.It is equally important to note that a community exists in this world and hencerepresents worldly (or secular?) interests of its members. These worldlyinterests become as important, if not more, as religious beliefs, rituals and values.

One more thing we need to state in this debate. A religion must be understood on different levels ritual, social and cultural and on
level of values. There are often marked differences on ritual and
partially on social and cultural levels between religions but much
commonality on the level of values. When many reformers and
those advocating inter-religious dialogue assert commonality ,
it is on this level of values. Thus all religions teach to be
truthful, compassionate, honest etc. It is this commonality of values, which is often asserted to promote communal harmony. But, as pointed out above, there are marked differences between
religions in terms of rituals and cultural practices. Those who wish to promote their agenda of creating conflict between communities they assert these ritual, social and cultural differences. Over assertion on these differences often lead to social or political confrontation.

Now the main question of this article: Is religion main cause of
communalism has to be seen in the light of above discussion.
Firstly it is important to note that we often refer to communal
conflict, and not to 'religious conflict'. There is obvious
difference between the two. The conflict is between two communities and not between two religions. Then the question arises: Is there difference between the two? Yes there is. The religious conflict would mean conflict between theologies and rituals and conflict between two communities indicate conflict between worldly interests of two communities. However, many people usethese words religious and communal quite loosely as if there is no difference between the two and confusion arises. Strictly speaking they are not interchangeable.

There is problem with our social discourse. In fact today the media uses communalism, religious fanaticism and fundamentalism as if they are one and the same. A rigorous social scientist would always take care to make proper distinction. Of course one can find something in
common between religious fundamentalism, fanaticism and
communalism. The feeling of hostility towards the other is the common link between them. However, hostility can also be passive or active. Passive hostility, though not desirable, does not express itself violently. However, active hostility is often violent. Active hostility needs external push and tis external push often comes from political and not religious motives. In fact there
is no direct relationship between religion and communalism,
if we understand religion in its proper sense and not use it very
loosely. Even a firm believer in religion or an orthodox believer
may not necessarily be communal. And even one who does not
care for his/her religion or might not have ever practised it may
be communal. Many of our orthodox leaders in freedom struggle
were quite supportive of secular democratic India and many otherwise liberal modernistic leaders tended to be communal or separatist. One can cite examples of Mahatma Gandhi and Savarkar on one hand, and, of Maulana Azad and Jinnah, on the other. Whereas Gandhiji and Maulana Azad were orthodox believers in their respective religions yet both were strongly supportive of secular democratic India a nd both fought communalism with great vigour. Savarkar and Jinnah, on theother hand, were quite modern and liberal in matters of religion and yet both believed in Hindus and Muslims being separate nations. It is also interesting to note that the Deobandi Ulama, quite orthodox believers in Islam, opposed two- nation theory and firmly stood by the concept of composite nationalism. These examples clearly show that there is no direct and relationship between religion and communalism or religion and political separatism.

It would thus not be wrong to say that fundamental cause of
communalism is not religion but political. How? And what is then
relationship between religion and communalism, if any? As pointed out above, communalism is something related to religious community,not to religion itself. A religious community or its members have their own worldly interests and politics is based on these worldly interests. Hinduism and Islam had survived in India for thousand years peacefully. There were no serious problems, no inter-religious clashes or no communal riots. But we see that in modern India i. e. From nineteenth century onwards there were serious clashes between the two communities. What went wrong?

While in medieval India there was no political or economic
competition between the two communities, in nineteenth
century there was both political and economic competition
between the elite of two communities. The medieval politics was
feudal and non-competitive.Power was wielded through sword,
not through ballot. In modern society, on the other hand,power
was wielded through ballot. It was this competition for power
between the elite of two communities, which created communal
consciousness among some members of both the communities.
As pointed out above, religion creates a sense of belonging and
sense of identity and it is this sense of identity, which is appealed
o by the politicians for gathering their political support. The
politicians cleverly mix up political discourse with religious
discourse to mobilise support of their fellow religionists.

Thus the question of Ramjanambhoomi temple, basically a
religious issue, was cleverly exploited by the BJP politicians to
gather Hindu votes. Also, recently Narendra Modi, with the
active support of top BJP leaders, provoked communal violence,
mixing religious discourse with political one and won the Gujarat
elections with overwhelming majority. Thus from this it can be
easily seen that it is politics which uses religion than religion
using the politics. Thus we can argue that in a democracy,
politicians exploit religious identity for political power. They, by
clever mix of religious beliefs and worldly interests, win the
hearts and minds of people. Here it is important to note that these
politicians who evolve this clever but highly explosive mix of
religion and political power, do not represent interests of entire
community but only its elite.

The masses who are really religious are left high and dry. Some
liberals and atheists believe that the antidote of communal politics
is anti-religious political discourse. This is incorrect approach.
One can be atheist, if atheism appeals to him/her but the real
antidote of communalism is not anti-religious discourse. It will
only strengthen communalists. One can hardly disregard religious
feelings of millions of people in the society. There are two
alternatives for fighting communal politics. One alternative is to evolve carefully a secular discourse around real developmental issues andmobilise people around these secular issues. The other alternative is to use religious discourse in a creative manner making religion an option for the poor rather than for the powerful elite. Every religion has certain traditions, which can be used for empowering the poor. The vested interests exploit certain problematic traditions for their own interests Why can't then those traditions, which empower people be used for pro-poor and pro-people politics? Of course there is no cut and dried solution but with creativity and imagination either of the alternatives can be used for countering communal and separatist politics. Our social reality is very complex so our response also has to be as complex. Religion is not only part of problem it can also be part of solution, if handled imaginatively. As far as our society is concerned religion has not outlived its utility. Of course I do not maintain that religion is the only response but it could certainly be one of the responses.