June 16-30, 2003
by Asghar Ali Engineer
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 associated
rituals 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
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 beliefs and 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 hence represents
worldly (or secular?) interests of its members. These worldly interests 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 use these 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 and
both fought communalism with great vigour. Savarkar and Jinnah, on the other
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,
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 to 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 in correct 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
and mobilise 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
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.
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