Monday , 18 February 2019

The politics of religion

By Frederick Noronha

In the last week, yet again, the issue came up for discussion over whether religion should have any role to play in politics. In the world of the social media, there was scepticism over the role institutions like the Church, temple mutts or other men of religion should be playing in the world of politics.

At the risk of taking an unpopular and politically incorrect stance, let me ask: why not? Are members of religious communities (and their leaders) not citizens of the country? Is it correct to assume that because these are organised groups they will necessarily have an unfair advantage? Manipulate people’s views? Or that they will distort the political processes only in unfair directions?

In our times, and till very recently (when confessional politics of the Indian kind took centre-stage), secularism was a widely shared value. As youngsters growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, we prided ourselves on being secular, not discriminating against people of other faiths, and wanting to treat all as equals.

Earlier too, some of our patriots and political leaders were either non-religious, irreligious or anti-religious. This could be true of a Nehru, a Tristao Braganca Cunha, Bhagat Singh, Peter Alvares, George Fernandes, and many more. Intellectuals by the very nature often tend to be free-thinkers. In the case of Goa, after the 1910 Republican Revolution, anti-clericalism was a strong trend in both Portugal and Goa. In some ways, this was an understandable reaction to the power and influence (and conservatism) of religion, particularly Catholicism, in those times.

Today, the wheel seems to have turned a full circle. Men of religion seem more human and less arrogant than they were even 20 to 30 years ago. Swami Agnivesh, the former Haryana MLA and Arya Samaj scholar plus social activist, comes across like a breath of fresh air, and his religious difference create no walls when you hear him express his social concerns. Sometimes it’s easier for religious leaders to talk to each other across divides, than for supposedly secular political leaders who manipulate people’s religiosity.

The Church, totally unexpectedly and after two ultra-conservative Popes, is headed by a pontiff who has tonnes of followers because of his actions and his words, not necessarily the religious office he holds.

Sociologist Shiv Visvanathan said of Pope Francis recently: “The Pope… is the only world leader speaking out openly about the plight of Syrians, Yemenese or the Rohingya. [He] is not catering to his Christian flock. He is owning up to humanity, saying he is responsible for suffering all over. He talks of power’s indifference and the stinginess of affluent economies, spelling it all out in the simple parables of religion. He makes Modi, Merkel or Trump look puny.” (Outlook, ‘Is God harmful to human beings?’ Vol LVIII, No 1, Dec 2017-Jan 2018)

Down to the brass tacks, should religion have a say in politics or not? Perhaps the right question to ask would be, why does religion at all feel the need to enter the world of politics? Why are our ‘secular’ politicians not playing their role, echoing the concerns of the people, and working for the betterment of society?

The other question that needs to be raised is why should religion alone be kept out of the world of politics? Would we object if a women’s group played an active role? Or if engineers, business lobbies, trade unions, bodies favouring one or the other language, freedom fighters and the like?

Indian secularism, we are constantly reminded, is different from its counterparts in, say, France, Spain, Mexico or other parts of the Western world. There, secularism was born as a strong reaction against the role of religion, particularly the Church, in dominating society. If that dominant role is hardly an issue here now (except in part of colonial times, and that too not all parts), why should the attitude towards secularism also not be different?

Since the 1960s, and even a little before that, various religious groups in Goa have sought to play social, educational, literary and even political roles. As both ruling and opposition parties have failed the voters, they have tried to step in and fill the vacuum. In some cases, they have taken up environmental issues, or supporting Goa’s identity, and have come to be appreciated for that.

It also needs to be said that such a goal is not without its own attendant risks. Some critical questions need to be answered before we know the impact – positive or otherwise – of religion in politics.

Is a political stand by one religious group only aimed at protecting the interests of its own followers, and against the interests of people of other faiths? Can a religious stand be manipulated by small but powerful lobbies who want to push it in one way or another? How does the stand get implemented at the ground level – can any individual religious figure manipulate it in untended ways? Above all, would such involvement only help politicians to further divide (and rule) our citizenry, and thus prove counterproductive?

What is the role that religion could take in politics? There are different models available. In some cases, religion has fuelled extremism and bigotry – take Ireland or the Punjab and Sri Lanka, though there were socio-political issues involved too. Some have got manipulated by colonialism or global power wars. Elsewhere, religion has fought for human rights, the environment and some forms of equality. Religious leaders have died for such causes.

You could accuse me of fence-sitting here, but it’s hard to take a blanket stand on how helpful the role of priests, swamis, maulvis or others has been in the political world. But the jury is still out on that. In the meantime, it would be better to judge the tree by its fruits. Not by some pre-conceived notions.

Karl Marx, that much feared and much respected philosopher who set out to change the world, is often quoted as calling religion the “opium of the masses (or people)”. What is more often overlooked is his full quote on this topic. He actually said: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people”.

Food for thought.


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