“Ram Was A Bad Husband.” So?

Religion and politics don’t mix in India. But try telling that to the media.

WrittenBy:Indrajit Hazra
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As far as epiphanies go, the startling revelation I was privy to on Diwali night while standing on the balcony of my house doesn’t count as much. But even as it was fuelled by non-Communion wine, the realisation that India was a secular country was a big one.

Yes, I know what you’re thinking. You’ve stopped sipping your tea or its variant and are now waiting for me to excitedly tell you that the world is not flat but round, that the sun rises in the East and sets in the West, and other similar obvious things. But hear me out.

India is secular not only because people want it to be secular. It’s secular because everyone is inherently secular. Even the froth-in-the-mouth folks who love playing victim as they conjure up the image of their co-religionists in this country being on the brink of being driven into the sea by people of a hostile or rival denomination are, without knowing, secular.

Indian secularism is defined as one that allows, and indeed encourages, many faiths to be practised without hindrance. Everyone is not of the same fabric, which makes the daily, banal tolerance even more laudable in many eyes. This formulation of “Indian secularism” is usually trotted out to differentiate it from “western secularism” that works according to the fundamental French principle of “laïcité”, the iron-clad separation of matters pertaining to religion and those pertaining to the State.

“Indian secularism”, according to the standard model, has a porous, permeable cloth spread between the State and the many religions practised in the country. In western democracies, no religion is allowed to poke its nose in State affairs. In India, every religion is allowed to walk in and out of the offices of state-running and politics.

But does it really?

The fact is religion hardly, if ever, makes an appearance in statecraft or even political affairs. If you take other liberal democracies, you will find politicians making public statements that deal squarely with religion. This is primarily done by leaders speaking about their own faith.

“My family, frankly, they weren’t folks who went to church every week. My mother was one of the most spiritual people I knew but she didn’t raise me in the church, so I came to my Christian faith later in life and it was because the precepts of Jesus Christ spoke to me in terms of the kind of life that I would want to lead”, American president Barack Obama stated in 2010 in a public conversation with fellow Americans.

A few months after he stepped down as British prime minister, Tony Blair admitted that his faith was “hugely important” in influencing his decisions during his stint in No.10 Downing Street, including that of sending British troops to war in Iraq. He even complained how “it’s difficult if you talk about religious faith in our political system… If you are in the American political system or others, then you can talk about religious faith and people say ‘Yes, that’s fair enough’ and it is something they respond to quite naturally”.

It is almost unimaginable for any of our political leaders to talk about their faith or about religion in general in the lines quoted above. At the most, they visit temples and mosques and gurdwaras. But even these seem to be visits to a constituency, doubling as a personal pilgrimage rather than a full-blown display of religious feelings that will have an effect in political image-building.

Even LK Advani, whose Ramjanmabhoomi movement in the late Eighties led to the Babri Masjid debacle and the BJP coming to power at the Centre, was always more voluble in his heyday while speaking on the “misfortunes” ailing India’s Hindu community, the “appeasement of minorities” and “pseudo-secularism” rather than on Hinduism per se, let alone his own relationship with his faith. Even in his blogs these days, Advani sticks to commenting on the cultural aspects of religion – such as a piece in October on C Rajagopalachari’s English translations of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata which was as “religious-minded” as an English Literature student’s tutorial on the 1611 King James Bible – or on his old residence where he had celebrated many a Holi.

For all that we hear about Islamic political parties going on and on about Islam, what they rant about is really their demands for the Muslim community. This is as different from Islam as “speaking out for” the Dalit community is from, say, Buddhism or anti-Hinduism. The same holds true for the likes of Narendra Modi, who despite all his reputation as a Hindu poster boy/mass-Muslim murderer is really a political animal who has hitched his pony to upholding what he sees as the rights of people from the Hindu community. A Jain leader extolling the virtues of vegetarianism – or the horrors of meat-eating – is not really talking about Jainism.

Even sharp troublemakers like Bal Thackeray and his successors are not really peddlers of a religion-politics pre-mix Breezer. They identify the religious (or regional) groupings that they want to be defenders of, and then natter forth with their cadres-cum-thugs playing out the “religious” motifs. Identifying young men from urban sprawls living in hardship who take to crime as Muslims – and most of them, matching their socio-economic situation, are indeed of the Muslim faith – is far easier than to identify them as a more bland “class-based criminal”.

Perhaps one reason why no leader in India cares to really mix religion (as opposed to communities along religious lines) with politics is because even classic vote-bank politics is not about extolling the virtues of a particular god or faith. Instead, it’s really about taking up cudgels on behalf of a group of people, which in India can still be neatly demarcated along religious lines. This kind of politics is more about dealing with demographics than about religion – something that isn’t necessarily the case even in so-called “godless” institutions such as the Government of the United States of America (whose official motto since 1956, incidentally, has been “In God We Trust”, while ours is the secular “Satyameva Jayate” or “Let Truth Prevail”).

Religion permeates India’s psyche and lives. Indians pray when the national cricket team is on the brink of defeat. Which doesn’t mean cricket and religion mix in India. Every aspect of life – professional or personal – is punctuated by gestures of faith. But to consider that the religious ceremony undertaken after buying a new car will affect the quality of driving it is being silly.

It is perhaps because we take our religions seriously and yet at the same time matter-of-factly that we don’t bother mixing our faiths with something as transitory as politics. We can’t. At best, we sometimes get to hear the proverbial villagers with pitchforks rant about the depiction of Mohammad in some place, rave about the consumption of beef in some other place, and the pseudo-religious matters such as marriage laws. But with Indian governments traditionally giving in to the slightest demands of every religious community, religion, paradoxically, stays away from the real playpen of State-running.

So when Ram Jethmalani makes an innocuous (and perfectly valid) statement in a public gathering about Ram (of the Ramayana, not of the Jethmalani clan) being a “bad husband” for sending his wife to exile after reacting to “some fisherman saying something”, the only people to react – the BJP and the Congress merely being forced to react – was the media. For whom India is either not really secular in the “true sense”, or is forever on the brink of losing its secularism (with the media being, of course, the valiant guards at the door).

I’ll bet my bottom atheism that if a Muslim leader had publicly stated that Mohammad was a bad husband, it would have been the more-prudish-than-the-village-prude media that would have gasped and pounced on him, demanding a nationwide response to their headlines. And not the overwhelming majority of the second largest religious community in India who, frankly, doesn’t care what politicians have to say about Islam and its tenets as long as the politicians keep their community happy.

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