Can Religion be Separated from Politics?

In India, secularism is used as a tool to gain political mileage.

Leaders of the opposition argue that a return to power for Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)–led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) would destroy national unity. At the same time, political commentators caution that a re-elected BJP would be detrimental to India’s liberal traditions and secular character. Modi has been called the “divider in chief” for using religious nationalism to gain votes, and BJP cabinet members have also spoken in favour of amending the Constitution.  

While Modi and the BJP have been criticised for wanting to make India “non–secular,” the definition of secularism in India has been, at best, ambiguous. Certain articles written into the Constitution prohibit religious instruction in public-funded educational institutes, but also allow religious sects to set up their own institutions. Political practice is skewed: the BJP commended the outlawing of triple talaq under Muslim personal law as a victory for gender equality, but has protested against allowing women into the Sabarimala temple.

This reading list looks at how religion has complemented politics in India, how secular India was imagined after independence, and how Indian politicians have interpreted the idea of a secular nation. 

1) What Is the Goal of a Secular State?

Rajeev Bhargava writes that the primary goal of a secular state is to ensure trust between religious communities. He argues that the idea of a secular state, as conceived by Nehru, varied substantially with the kind of Nehruvian secularism practised after his death. A secular state is expected to protect minorities from majority domination, and possesses a respect for all religions.

Nehru says that “the word secular conveys something much more to him, although that might not be its dictionary meaning—the idea of social and political equality.” A state that encourages or tolerates such deeply inegalitarian, casteist practices is not secular. He found casteism to be as dangerous as communalism, because both are effective barriers to democracy and equality … Secularism is pitted against religiously grounded casteism. Second, although he does not use the term religiously grounded “patriarchy,” secularism is also pitted against this form of intra-religious domination.  

Nehru’s secularism also goes beyond protecting minority rights. Bhargava writes that both Hindus and Muslims have to be protected from the religious elite in their own communities, who wish to further social oppression.

A secular state must also inhibit and regulate the continuing attempt by the high priests of religion to impose their views and norms on ordinary men and women …  The strength of Indian secularism—its defence of minority rights—is easily made to appear as its weakness and the burden of its defence, rather than be shared by all citizens, falls on the minorities and “pro-minority” secularists.     

2) How Does the State Interact with Religion?
Henrik Belgrund argues that the politicisation of religion largely depends on how the state interacts with religious communities. If communities’ cultures matter, then the state upholds their rights, gives them some form of religious autonomy, and provides freedom from discrimination. Otherwise, a cultural nationalist ideology can be adopted, forming a mono–communitarian state.

All citizens would be seen as members of the same community and nation, and they would be expected to respect the common values, traditions and symbols of this nation. Whether this solution is democratic or not depends largely on how this common culture is defined and how it is perceived by the minorities. If the minorities reject their inclusion in the nation and instead demand either a liberal or a multi-communitarian state and if this resistance is met with oppression, the mono-communitarian solution must be regarded as non-democratic.

Belgrund further writes that the BJP sees people as members of a community first, and as individuals second; and this is how the party forms their political theory.

Hindu nationalism is based on the idea that the community is the creator and bearer of this meaning, as it transcends the boundaries between individuals, but also time. The nation is eternal, and carries within it the history and traditions of the community, including religious faith. In their analysis of present day politics, the BJP refer to previous periods of Muslim oppression. The Babri masjid-Ramjanmabhoomi controversy is presented as a continuation of centuries of Muslim aggression and the members of the Muslim community of today as the heirs of oppressors 

3) Is Secularism  Unachievable?
The dominant discourse in Indian politics is that there is only one path to being “Indian,” and that is decided by the ruling party of the day. While the idea of a secular Indian state may be desirable, D Miller says that given Indian society’s heterogeneity, it is impossible to separate state from society.  A state’s actions are inherently political, and will have political consequences. This means that an even–handed approach to different communities is often unachievable; and even if it were possible, such an approach would impact each community differently. 

The state, whatever its intentions and desires, is indubitably a political machine. It creates divisions, conflicts, interests, alliances, expectations, frustrations and heightened consciousness just as much as society does. No legislation, or lack of, can constitute neutrality, uniformity, evenhandedness … The secular state mystique ultimately lets the state off the hook, as it encourages it to blame the (unfortunate) affairs of things entirely on society and not to take responsibility for its own deeds and non-deeds.   

4) Is Being ‘Indian’ Equal to Being Hindu?
The British viewed Indians in terms of their religion, and exploited this to create an entrenched sense of communal identity to “artificially” divide Indian communities. The creation of separate electorates was one such strategy that forcibly pitted Hindus and Muslims against each other, and increased social tension. Moin Shakir writes that after the violence that accompanied partition, the Indian political elite attempted to create a “secular” India that provided equal status to all religions. However, Shakir argues that given the composition of this elite, Hinduism was given preference in the field of politics. 

The renaming of India as “Bharat” in tune with old Hindu tradition, the urge to promote Hindi (of a Sanskritised kind) as the “all-India” language, an emphasis on the adoption of such symbols like Dharma Chakra, popularisation of superstition-ridden festivals as Ramlila, broadcasting of Bhajans and devotional songs in the early morning programme of All India Radio, extension of the governmental patronage to the Sadhu Samaj,etc, betray a strong Hindu bias in the approach of the new rulers.  

This also forced the Muslim community to use religion as a political tool, despite a desire by the Muslim elite to separate the two. 

In a competitive democratic polity, the principle of religious grouping as an instrument of pressure pays dividends; in the case of Muslims, it ultimately leads to Islamisation and political communalism. Engineered by the religious groups and exploited by the political elite, Islamisation separates “Muslims from the cultural ties existing with Hinduism and increases identity consciousness and political mobilisation of the community.”

Read More:

  1. Secularism and Toleration | Partha Chatterjee, 1994
  2. Secularism and Secularisation: A Bibliographical Essay | Mohita Bhatia, 2013
  3. Whither Secularism: Is It a Problem of Definition? | Ratna Naidu, 2013

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