Chapter 2: Religious Fundamentalism And Indian Secularism – the Present Crisis

The Church’s Mission and Post-Modern Humanism
by M. M. Thomas

Chapter 2: Religious Fundamentalism And Indian Secularism – the Present Crisis

A Talk given at the Seminar on the Future of inter-religious Dialogue at Dharmaram on 17 August 1993.

In this Seminar on the future of the inter-religious dialogue, it is proper that we start with the specific context of the present crisis of Indian Secularism and its relation to religious fundamentalism.

Indian Secularism emerged as a basic political ideology in the course of the Indian national struggle for independence. It emerged as the concept of Secular Nationalism in opposition to the nationalism based on the interests of one or other of the religious communities, therefore also called communalism. The Hindu nationalism with its goal of Hindu Rashtra of Akhanda Hindustan drawing its strength from Hindu revivalism appeared with militancy in the latter half of the first decade of the century in the Congress in opposition to the Liberal Nationalism of the earlier period which was too weak to fight for national independence. With its weakening in the Congress, it found organized expression in the Hindu Mahasabha and later in the Rashtriya Swayamseva Sangh. The two-nation-theory that India consists of the Hindu and the Islamic nations which are to be separated at independence found organized expression in the Muslim League. The idea of Secular Nationalism became dominant under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. It provided an ideological framework within which the many religious communities of India as well as the plurality of linguistic caste and ethnic cultures (in the formation of which one or other religions had played a dominant role) could participate together with the adherents of secular ideologies like Liberalism and Socialism (which emerged in India in the framework of the impact of modern humanism of the West mediated through western power and English education). Therefore dialogue between Religion and Secular Humanism as well as between Religions began to take place within the national context on the meaning, values and goals of modern Indian nationhood.

Gandhi represented the long history of Renascent Hinduism from Raja Rammohan Roy through Swami Vivekandnada to Gandhi himself, in which Hindu religion and culture were being renewed in interaction with Western Christianity and modern secular culture; and Nehru represented the dynamic of European Enlightenment and Liberal Democratic and Marxian social ideologies which emerged in the ethos. Thus India’s Secular Nationalism was a dialogic integration between renascent religion and secular ideologies. The middle class who give leadership to the national movement was the bearer of this idea of Secular Nationalism for pluralistic India.

When India became independent it was this middle class committed to secularism that drew up the Constitution of the Indian Nation-State. They imposed the idea of secular nationalism on the Indian peoples because they were convinced that it was the best basis for unity of pluralistic India and the best path towards building a new society based on the values of liberty, equality and justice. They also hoped to build indigenous roots for them in the various religions and cultures of India by reforming them from within and also by legal intervention and developing a composite culture supportive of a State which is common to all peoples living in India equally and a modernized society with dignity and justice for all.

Ram Jethmalani specifies the clauses in the Constitution defining Indian Secularism in his article in the Indian Express (Feb. 14, ‘93) on “Clearing Confusion”. “The most important component of secularism of the Indian variety is to be found in Articles 14, 15(2) and 16(2). These Articles compel equality of all citizens before the law and entitle them to equal protection of the laws. They outlaw the discrimination against any citizen on the ground only of his religion, whether it be in the matter of public employment or access to public places and even charity. Another facet of it was in Article 19(1)a  which granted freedom of speech and expression and Article 25 which preserved the total freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion. Of course this right was subject to reasonable restrictions in the interests of public order, morality and health and the power of the State to legislate for social welfare

The partition of India and the establishment of Pakistan as an Islamic State and the Hindu-Muslim riots which happened in the wake of independence did strengthen the idea of Hindu State in India. But the assassination of Gandhi by the advocates of Hindu Rashtra boomeranged and Gandhi’s martyrdom and Nehru’s leadership exposing the Fascist nature of Hindutva reestablished Indian Secularism as the basis of Indian polity and nationhood. Nehru’s characterization of the Hindutva of the RSS assumes that Hindu Nationalism is one way of relating itself to the modern western religion cum secular impact on India. For Fascism too is a western ideology. In fact Hindutva is a reaction in self-defence of the traditional religious and social structure utilizing the technocratic and political power-means imported from the modern West. Savarkar asked for “Hinduisation of Indian politics and militarisation of Hinduism” to establish and defend Akhanda Hindustan.

Now how do we account for the emergence of RSS-VHP-BJP parivar and their Hindu ideology to new strength after four decades of the working of Indian Secularism to the extent of threatening the secular pluralistic basis of Indian polity? Their new strength is clear in their electoral successes and the appeal of their agitation and their new confidence about coming to power as rulers of India. It is their new vitality and popular support in the country of Gandhi and Nehru that needs interpretation.

There are no doubt many reasons for a complex phenomenon like this. Here I mention a few, actually three, which may be specially relevant to the theme of our Seminar.

1. Firstly, the spiritual vacuum created by Closed Secularism. Recently Rustom Bharucha’s The Question of Faith (published as no:3 of the Tracts for the Times by Oriental Longman 1993) raises the question of the relation of Indian Secularism to religion as Faith. The Editor in the Preface says that the Tract “polemises against a form of narrow sectarian Secularism which refuses to be sensitive to tradition and faith” and argues that Secularism needs to be rethought taking religious faith seriously, that “only then can Secularism reclaim the ideological space which Fundamentalists are threatening to take over, only then can Secularists capture the minds of the people”( And the author Bharucha explains, “If by Secularism we mean a total avoidance of religious matters, the secular weapons may not be enough” to fight Fundamentalism. The point is that “if we do not intervene in the debates concerning the interpretation of religion, we are simply playing into the hand of Fundamentalists. Merely non-antireligious terms will only strengthen the deadlock” (p.4). The author discusses melas and lilas, Ananthamoorthy’s novels, Lohia and Gandhi, to show that there is religion as faith which is distinct from religion as ideology, and that it is an ally of political secularism. His conclusion is that “a reductive Secularism that has tended to equate almost anything religious with a fundamentalist purpose” is not the best way to resist the onslaught of fundamentalism. Therefore he asks for discrimination between terms like Religious, Communal and Fundamentalist (p.88). He adds that encountering fundamentalism on rigidly political lines is not enough; “alternatives have to be explored within the larger secular drives of neo-religious forms and philosophies” (p.92). In this connection he speaks of the significance of the Liberation Theology movements in all religions and notes the significance of the radical religious movements. The tradition of Neo-Hindu movements represented by Gandhi has been a force behind Indian secularism. Nehru could recodify Hindu personal law only because the Neo-Hindu movements had prepared the Hindu religious mind for it. Nehru saw no such neo-Muslim movement in Islam to touch the Muslim personal law. The Neo-Hinduism of Sri.Narayana Guru challenging the caste structure religiously was the basis of a good deal of the radical secular politics of social justice in Kerala. But Indian Secularism in recent years has been too closed to take any real interest in religious movements of renewal and denied religious spirituality or spiritually based morality any role in “public’s life. Alternately, it has made secularism to mean keeping as vote-banks a federation of fundamentalist/conservative religious communities each resisting any social change towards equality in its traditionally sanctioned social structure and showing indifference to the reforming liberal elements working in these communities. One may point to the politics of the Congress or the Left to illustrate it.

Actually Indian Secularists in the recent past did not care to put down roots in the indigenous soil of the religious or vernacular linguistic cultures of the country. As a result, when electoral politics enlarged the political community of India by bringing the groups other than the middle class into it, it produced popular leaders more inclined to the unrenewed traditions. That is to say, the dialogue between Religion and Secularism came to a stop leaving the field to closed secularism on the one hand and the revived communally oriented fundamentalist religion and culture on the other.

2. Secondly, Religious Fundamentalism. Whether all religious fundamentalisms emerge out of reaction to closed secularism or not is debatable. It may also arise from the insecurity of faith when its religious expressions are faced with the necessity to change. Whatever its origin, religious fundamentalism which rejects change in religion or its social structure ends up by isolating itself from the influence of other religions or the values of secular humanism, and in the long run tends to make religious community centred on its self-righteousness and eventually its self-interest. In the many quotes from Bharucha, religious fundamentalism almost becomes the basic enemy of Indian secularism. Therefore we must define Religious Fundamentalism a little more clearly.

The word Fundamentalism came into vogue in 1920 in relation to the Christian group who earlier published a set of twelve booklets under the title, Fundamentals. These booklets opposed the application of modern critical historical approach to the Bible and the traditional dogmas of Christianity, because in their opinion, it would destroy their supra-national and supernatural elements which belong to their very essence. Thus Fundamentalism and Modernism, Faith and Reason, were separated into two water-tight compartments. In contrast, some other believers maintained that the interaction between them was essential to discriminate the truly supernatural elements necessary to religious faith from irrational superstitions which distort faith; that it was also necessary to make faith reasonable and to express it intelligently to the moderns so as to offer them a faith that liberates reason from becoming idolatrous and inhuman.

This debate was crucial in distinguishing and relating scientifically objective history and the mythical interpretations of it expressing the divine and subjective meaning of the same for the community of faith. This was crucial, especially in relation to the Genesis account of Creation, the story of the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus in the Gospels and the New Testament accounts in which the hope of the consummation of the Kingdom of God in the future was expressed. The debate included also the distinction and relation between the history of the church as part of the general religious history of humankind and as God’ select community to be the universal sign of Divine salvation for all. In the 80s when the Fundamentalists emerged in USA with control of the electronic media and formed the electronic church, they also formed the Moral Majority movement with a conservative ideology backing Reagan’s policies of laissez fare economics and dismantling social welfare entitlements and of opposition to equal rights for all irrespective of colour or sex. At this point. Religious Fundamentalism became a political ideological religion.

I have related this history of Christian fundamentalism to clarify what fundamentalism means and to show that it is justifiable to characterize as fundamentalist similar movements in any religion which through communal isolation from critical reason, secular humanism or through search for political power, buttresses traditional beliefs and social order from reform and seeks to destroy democratic freedoms.

In India the use of the word Fundamentalism has developed certain special nuances which are worth noting. V.M. Tarkunde, himself a Radical Humanist, in his JPMemorial Lecture on “Communalism and Human Rights” (PUCL Bulletin June 93), clearly distinguishes Fundamentalism from Communalism. He says, “Fundamentalism consists of uncritical adherence to ancient beliefs and practices. Communalism on the other hand consists of animosity of persons belonging to one religion toward persons of another religion. A fundamentalist need not be communalist at all...On the other hand a communalist need not be a fundamentalist at all...Fundamentalism requires to be opposed by all Humanists and Democrats, but that opposition should not be mixed up with an opposition to communalism. In fact many members of Muslim fundamentalist bodies may be helpful to us in promoting communal amity in the country”. Tarkunde is right in distinguishing between them, but he underestimates the inability of fundamentalism to embrace people of other religions or secular humanists within their theological or community circle predisposing them to theocratic politics in the interests of “true religion and virtue”; and I would add that he underestimates the role of fundamentalism in India.

Fundamentalist Hindu opposition to change of the traditional Hindu social order had played a large part in the creation and strengthening of the RSS ideology of opposition to other religions and to movements of Hindu reformation. This is clear from what Golwalker says in his writings on Hidutva and Lohia’s essay on Hinduism which he wrote soon after the assassination of Gandhi. Golwalker says, that Hindutva is hostile to Islam because “Islam was the first religion to interfere with our social organization of chaturvarna...Islam in India challenged our scheme of class-caste organization. All post-Islamic sects sought to counter Islam by seeking to take the wind out of Islamic sails by themselves making the same challenge. That is why these sects have now become a source of national division and weakness”. Here the RSS chiefs opposition to Islam, the sufi and bhakti sects and Gandhism and by extension to Christianity, liberalism and socialism, are all one piece. This led Golwalker to characterise those “who advocated Hindu-Muslim unity as necessary to fight for swaraj” as the perpetrators of the “greatest treason in our society” (Yogendra Sikand “Religion and Religious Nationalism” in The Frontier 9.5.92). Lohia writing on the motivation behind Gandhi’s assassination coupled Hindutva hostility to Islam and to the democratic transformation of Hindu society. He wrote, “No Hindu can be generally tolerant to Muslims unless he acts at the same time actively against caste and property and for women”. To Lohia, the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi was not an episode of Hindu-Muslim fight as of the war between the Liberal and the Fanatical in Hinduism(“Hinduism” in Fragments of a World Mind). That is, Hindutva’s Communalism is closely related to its Fundamentalism.

 M.N. Srinivas makes a distinction between Orthodoxy and Fundamentalism. He sees that substantial numbers of Hindus have moved into the middle class who have been most affected by the process of secularization. This process has been strengthened, not necessarily by the philosophy of secularism but by the “recent great developments in communication, transport, urbanization and education”. As a result, “ideas of purity and impurity” which were so pervasive in the lives of Hindus have become much weaker, and in the life-style of the middle class they are “becoming confined to rites of passage, pilgrimages and a few festivals”. Middle class from other religions are also affected, but purity-impurity ideas were “weaker among them initially”. Unemployment has added economic security to the religious uprooting. This provides the “ideal soil for sowing fundamentalist seeds”. But he adds, Fundamentalism has to be distinguished from Orthodoxy; for while the latter involves strict adherence to tradition, the former interprets tradition for political purposes” (“Towards a New Philosophy” in The Times of India 9.7.93). But in the light of the history of Christian fundamentalism, Srinivas’s Orthodoxy is Fundamentalism and his Fundamentalism is the ideology of Communalism. Purity-impurity ideas were the religious foundation of caste and it is the return to it by the middle class for spiritual and economic stability that makes for their shift from Secularism to Hindutva. The middle class of other religions may also be showing a new passion for the securities of their religious tradition. In their case the sense of being part of a minority community may add to their insecurity.

It is necessary however to state that scholars like Ashish Nandy see no genuinely religious motivation in Communalism, and therefore avoids relating it to Fundamentalism which has a basic religious concern in its motivation. Hindutva like Closed Secularism itself “assumes the world to be a desacralised place, where only the laws of the market, history, judiciary and empirical science work”. It is “blatantly non-Indian and recognizably an illegitimate child of colonialism”, which introduced the idea of priority of State over Religion against the Indian concept of building the State on the basis of a “secondary allegiance” as in the case of Asoka and Akbar and, in modern India, Mahatma Gandhi. It is the Semitization of Hinduism in the 19th century that now “reaches its form in political Hinduism, Brahminic, steam-rolling...The ultimate product of this process was Nathuram Vinayak Godse...”. In Nandy’s opinion, serious believers cannot use their faith instrumentally as ideology. “Hinduism is a Faith; Hindutva an Ideology”. It is “Secularism’s double, the poor man s Statism”(Indian Express Feb. ‘90). Therefore the tradition of Hindu tolerance practiced within a world assumed to be the realm of the sacred, has no relevance for Hindutva as for Secularism. Here we are back to the necessity of religious faith and of dialogue with both Secularism and Hindutva to convert them to a genuine basis of what Nandy calls “the plural patriotism on which the most important strand of the freedom movement was based, and is now culturally orphan”. I suppose he means a return to Gandhism.

3. Thirdly, the tension between religions on Conversion. I should mention briefly a third factor contributing to the crisis of Indian Secularism, namely the tension between Hinduism and the missionary religions on the question of conversion which continue unresolved’. Not only the Hindutva of the RSS but also the Neo-Hinduism of the Gandhian line consider the mission of conversion of people from one religion to another as religious imperialism and destructive of inter-religious harmony.

Recently H.V.Seshadri, the General Secretary of the RSS issued a commentary on the RSS’s call to the minorities. In it he makes the point that Hindutva being by nature “all embracing and looks upon every sincere religious and spiritual pursuit with equal respect, is the opposite of Fundamentalism” which is intolerant of plurality. Fundamentalism, he said, “represents a mind-set confined within one Prophet, one Book, a single way of worship” which by nature led to the “concept of believers going to heaven and nonbelievers going to hell, with a religious duty cast upon its followers to convert the rest by any means whatsoever” (Indian Express? 1993).

The more liberal Krishna Kanth, the Governor of Andhra Pradesh, in his address to the Assembly of the National Council of Churches in 1991 and following it in a press interview with Neerge Choudhury (Indian Express 21 Oct. 1991) “called for an end to religious conversion in the country, not by law but by a voluntary consensus of religious leaders”, because in his opinion, communal strife is closely linked to conversion. His main argument is as follows: “The word Hindu which had essentially geographic and cultural meaning began to acquire religious connotations” and communal overtones when missionary religious began converting the untouchables and lower castes of Hindu society with promise of their liberation from caste indignities. It produced in Hindus the feeling that “in an age of competitive politics” in which power-sharing is “determined by numbers”, conversion would reduce them to insignificance. In any case, says Kanth, conversion did not bring liberation to the converted people from caste, because caste is not just a Hindu phenomenon but an Indian reality and is practiced by all religions in India. So, the “social logic” of conversion is no more there. But it is with conversion that the “false concept of majority and minority emerged making Hinduism a religion and caste a Hindu phenomenon”. Only a stopping of conversion will be “a starting point for harmony in society and for lessening mental insecurity, fanaticism and prevalent climate of confrontation”.

The fundamental law of religious freedom in the Constitution of India includes the freedom to “propagate” religion. But the debate on it was endless. It was the announcement by Mukherji and D’ Sousa that the Christian Community had decided to forgo special communal representation in the legislature and other communal safeguards so that there would not be political exploitation of increase of numbers through conversion that there was a spontaneous decision in the Constituent Assembly to include propagation of religion as a fundamental human right of the citizen. Though the Court has ruled that the right to propagate does not include the right to convert, that right is the right of the one who hears the propagated religion. But even afterwards there were attempts to restrict this freedom by law in Parliament. It was Nehru’s opposition to them that defeated them. The O.P. Tyagi Bill got the support of then Prime Minister Morarji Desai and it was the fall of the Desai ministry that prevented it from getting passed. But the question has continued to agitate Hindu minds. It raises many very sensitive theological as well as social issues on which Hinduism with its mystic orientation and Christianity and Islam with their prophetic historical orientation differ in a fundamental sense. But the ecumenical inter-religious dialogues in recent years have been exploring new paths to break the deadlock. The Indian situation certainly calls for mutual understanding at depth and consensus about permitted parameters of religious practices, for which inter-faith dialogues among religions and secular ideologies at various levels may be necessary, specifically within the Indian context. Since freedom of propagation and conversion involves not only matters of religion, but also of culture and political ideas, any restriction at this point will affect the fundamental rights of the human person in general. I suppose that must be the reason for Governor Kanth proposing a consensus of religious leaders on this matter outside the law.

In fact the difference in the character of mystic and prophetic, Indian and Semitic spiritualities needs to be discussed at depth. Nehru used to say that he preferred the cultural attitude related to the spirit of Paganism which allowed many gods including an unknown god to coexist; it reinforces democratic tradition. He also thought that the totalitarianism of Communism and Fascism was a secularization of the Semitic religious outlook. Lohia saw the same difference but thought if the attitude of coexistence of gods is allowed to go to extreme in matters of society and politics, it would cut active dialogue between different points of view and bring about stagnation. He realized that the other approach brought about strife. So he asked for a synthesis of the two, failing which he would prefer strife rather than stagnation. This discussion shows that there are clear political and cultural implications for all religious attitudes. So inter-faith dialogue must include these implications also.