Full Text: Religion & Politics in India (Vishal Arora)

Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life
Washington DC, July 28 to August 1, 2008

By Vishal Arora


The sub-continent of India has 28 states and six Union Territories. Each state is unique in its demography, the culture and the nature of politics. However, the paper covers mainly the national politics and three key players: the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA), led by the Indian National Congress (commonly known as the Congress); the opposition National Democratic Alliance (NDA), led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP); and the Left Front, led by the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M). Besides, the paper primarily deals with three major religious communities: Hindu, Muslim and Christian, with a special focus on Hindu nationalism, promoted by the BJP, which has close ties with the most influential Hindu nationalist organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Although the paper is not entirely detached and dispassionate, it does not intend to draw a comparison between the parties mentioned in it.

1. Introduction

The BJP and the Indian National Congress (the country’s oldest party, commonly known as the Congress) represent two dominant political ideologies. The Congress projects itself as a “secular” party. Secularism in India broadly means equal treatment of all religious denominations and provision for special protection to and welfare schemes for religious minorities. The BJP, on the other hand, promotes Hindu nationalism, which sees India as a Hindu nation – not a theocracy, but a nation-state in the European sense of the word.

However, the Indian politics has seen some changes in recent years, as a result of which most parties are beginning to move towards the political centre. From a two-party system, the country has moved to an era of coalitions – although the two main parties, the Congress and the BJP, continue to lead the two major coalitions, the UPA and the NDA respectively.

The coalition politics has mainly affected the BJP vis-à-vis its Hindu nationalist agenda. The party finds itself in a Catch-22 situation. While its parent organisation, the RSS, wants it to remain committed to Hindu nationalism, its allies threaten to pull out of the NDA when it tries to apply its core ideology. Sandwiched between the allies and the ideological mentor, the BJP has changed its traditional, aggressive approach to Hindu nationalism. This change, however, is merely characterised by moderation in the use of terminology. Hindu nationalism has now become “cultural nationalism”, a pro-Hindu stand is now referred to as “true secularism”, and anti-Muslim stand is now camouflaged as “emphasis on internal security”.

However, at state levels, the BJP continues to function explicitly as a hardliner. The extent of the BJP’s persistent implementation of Hindu nationalism can be gauged from the fact that it rules – directly or through a coalition – 12 states. The party has a stand-alone rule in six states: Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka. In addition, the party is the head of the ruling coalition in Uttarakhand state, while it is a partner of the ruling governments in the states of Bihar, Orissa, Punjab, Nagaland and Meghalaya.

1.1 Votebanks Based on Religion and Caste

The voters in India can broadly be classified into religious and caste communities.

Generally speaking, the Christian and Muslim communities support the Congress while sections of the Hindus vote for the BJP – a considerable number of Hindus believe in secularism.

More than 80 percent of the country’s more than 1 billion people are Hindu, while Muslims and Christians account for 13.4 and 2.3 percent of the population respectively.

‘Dalits’ are generally pro-Congress, given the party’s policy on affirmative action in government jobs and educational institutions. However, the votes of Dalits are divided in some states, as there are numerous caste-based parties, such as the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in Uttar Pradesh state and the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) in Bihar state. The BJP, on the other hand, is seen as an upper-caste party.

Dalits were formerly known as ‘untouchables’ because they were considered to be outside the confines of caste by so-called high-caste Hindu Brahmins, the priestly class. Dalits, who are classified in the Indian Constitution as ‘Scheduled Castes’, account for 16.2 percent of the total population.

Another cluster of communities recognised as the “Other Backward Classes” or OBCs communities, which are believed to be socially and educationally backward. Almost all parties, including the Congress, the BJP, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, Janata Dal-United, Janata Dal-Secular, the LJP, the BSP, and the Samajwadi Party (SP), try to woo different communities within the OBCs. According to some estimates, the OBCs account for more than 50 percent of the country’s population.

India also has religion-based registered and recognised (by the Election Commission of India) parties, such as the Muslim League in Kerala state, the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen in Andhra Pradesh states, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD, a Sikh party) and its breakaway SAD-S (led by Simranjit Singh Mann) in Punjab state. However, barring the SAD, which is a ruling party in Punjab state, the other religion-based parties have a negligible number of representatives in the parliament or state assemblies.

1.2 Roots of Religion-Politics Concoction

The use of religion in Indian politics can be linked to the country’s pre-independence era. It is believed that the British, who ruled India for more than 100 years around the 19th century, pitched one community against the other to weaken the freedom struggle. They especially succeeded in infusing a feeling of anxiety among sections of the Muslim community concerning their wellbeing in a country that had a majority Hindu population and emerging Hindu nationalist voices. As a result, the Muslims demanded reserved seats in the legislature and a separate electorate. The British acceded to their demands through legislation, known as the Act of 1909.

In 1915, Hindu nationalists formed the Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha (All India Hindu Assembly) to counter the Indian Muslim League (a political party) and the secular Indian National Congress, a forum founded in 1885 that subsequently became a political party. In 1923, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (popularly known as Veer Savarkar), the Hindu Mahasabha founder, coined the word ‘Hindutva’ (Hindu-ness) to define who is a Hindu. (Numerous Hindu nationalist groups today promote the Hindutva ideology.) In 1925, KB Hegdewar, the Hindu Mahasabha vice president, founded the RSS.

The tensions between sections of the Hindu and Muslim communities resulted in the Indian Muslim League demanding a separate nation for Muslims. When the British were to formally leave the country in 1947, the British India was divided into the ‘Hindu-majority’ India and the ‘Muslim-majority’ Pakistan. The Partition resulted in a mass migration of 14.5 million people from India to Pakistan and vice versa, and the killing of around 1 million people – Hindu, Sikh and Muslim – in the violent clashes that followed.

In 1951, the RSS started a political party, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh or BJS, under its leadership and control. In 1980, the BJS was succeeded by the BJP.

The BJP, which was struggling to become a national party and an alternative to India’s one and only major party at the time, the Congress, adopted a resolution in June 1989 to build a temple of Rama in Ayodhya (Uttar Pradesh state), which the party claimed as the Ram Janmabhoomi (the birthplace of god Rama). The BJP and Hindu nationalists allege that Muslim ruler Babur had demolished a temple of Rama to build the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya in the 16th century. In September 1990, BJP leader Lal Krishna Advani undertook a Rath Yatra (procession on a chariot) to promise the construction of a temple of Rama.

The Ayodhya issue began reaping political dividends. In July 1992, Advani, the leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha (House of the People), reportedly told the House, “You must recognise the fact that from two seats in parliament in 1985, we have come to 117 seats in 1991. This has happened primarily because we took up this issue (Ayodhya).”

In December 1992, alleged activists of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), a sister organisation of the RSS and the BJP, demolished the Babri Mosque. This not only incited communal violence in several parts of the country, in which numerous people died, but also polarised people along religious lines. As a result, the BJP emerged as a mainstream party.

Gradually, the BJP came to power at the national level for the first time in May 1996, but the government lasted for only 15 days. It again gained power in March 1998 as the leader of the NDA and ruled the country till March 2004.

In 1998, the BJP began targeting Christians after Sonia Gandhi, an Italy-born Catholic and wife of late former prime minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi, became the president of the Congress.

Till today, the BJP seeks to divide the Hindu majority community and the religious minorities as a political strategy.

1.3 Genesis of Caste-Based Politics

Caste politics became prominent in India in the early 1990s after the National Front government under then Prime Minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh, commonly known as VP Singh, decided to implement the recommendations of the Mandal Commission, a government panel established in 1979 that called for a fixed quota (reservation) of jobs for the OBCs in the public sector.

The National Front government’s move to reserve an additional 27 percent of seats for the OBCs led to a deadly clash between pro and anti-reservation supporters, and the government fell. For, there existed 15 percent of quota in the government jobs and the educational institutions for the Scheduled Castes (Dalit) people, and an additional 7.5 percent for Scheduled Tribes or tribal (aborigine) people.

More than one and a half decades later, in April 2006, the ruling UPA government announced the OBC quota, and once again there was a virulent opposition by sections of the non-reserved category people. The government’s decision was challenged in the court of law. In May 2008, the Supreme Court of India gave a green signal to the quota, and its implementation is underway. However, there are far less protests as compared to 1990 which indicates that in the last 18 years, almost all parties have built their caste-based votebanks. This is also reflected in the fact that many OBC leaders have emerged as prominent politicians, such as Mulayam Singh Yadav from the SP, Lalu Prasad Yadav from the RJD, and Nitish Kumar from the JD-U.

1.4 Role of Religious Leaders

Religious leaders have enormous followings and acceptability in India. Not only the people, but also the politicians seek their “blessings”. There are many Hindu gurus who are known for their overt support to the BJP’s Hindu nationalist agenda. These gurus include Sadhvi Ritambhara, Morari Bapu, Asaram Bapu, Vasudevanand Saraswati, and Swami Satyamitranand Giri.

In July 2008, high-profile spiritual gurus, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Swami Ramdev, were the special guests at the launch of the Hindi version of BJP leader Advani’s autobiography, ‘My Country My Life’, in Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh state. The gurus reportedly praised Advani in their address.

2. Where Religion and Politics Intersect

Religion and politics are so closely tied together that the very idea of India and its premise for pride revolve around religion-related issues.

2.1 The Idea of India

As mentioned above, a Hindu nationalistic ideology evolved around the 20th century when India’s independence was foreseeable. A section of the Hindu community believed that freedom from the British alone would not mean real independence; it should result in the formation of a nation where the majority community would have the dominance.

The pamphlet entitled ‘Hindutva: Who is a Hindu?’ brought out by Veer Savarkar in 1923 gives a glimpse of Hindu nationalist aspirations. The Hindutva saw India as the homeland of the Hindus, who consider the country as their fatherland as well as their holy land. It sought to highlight historical ‘oppression’ of Hindus by ‘invading forces’ like the Muslims and the Christians, calling for ‘reversing’ of the influence resulting from these ‘intrusions’. It also called for establishment of a ‘Hindu nation’ to ‘protect Hindus and revive the Hindu culture’, and where religious conversions and cow slaughter would be banned. (Most Hindus consider the cow sacred.)

Hindu nationalists believe in and promote Hindutva even today. They do not necessarily object to the fact that India is a secular state as per its Constitution, which was written in 1949, but they offer a different definition of secularism. (The word ‘secular’ was woven into the Preamble to the Constitution in 1976, although it had secular provisions prior to the amendment.)

What the BJP means by secularism can be ascertained by a BJP president Rajnath Singh’s recent argument over the translation of the word ‘secular’ in Hindi language. The word, Singh said, actually means ‘panthnirpeksh’, meaning neutrality to different religious sects, but it was ‘publicised’ as ‘dharmanirpeksh’, which means neutrality to religion per se. Panth or sect symbolises devotion towards any specific belief, specific way of prayer and specific form of God, but Dharma symbolises absolute and eternal values, which can never change like laws of nature, he maintained. Most importantly, he opposed the idea of separation of religion and State while linking India’s past to its Hindu traditions and Hindu religiosity. Besides, while talking about different religious sects in India, he made no mention of Christians and Muslims.

2.2 Communalism

The BJP raises Hindutva-related issues not merely because it is a ‘fundamentalist’ party, but also to make an appeal to Hindus to vote along religious lines. The Indian media uses the word ‘communalism’ for this practice, which involves casting the religious minorities of Muslims and Christians in the role of the enemies of the nation.

As part of its ‘communal’ agenda, the BJP allegedly organises and incites communal violence, and raises divisive issues, such as ‘Islamic terrorism’, uniform civil code, and Christian conversions.

2.2.a Communal Violence

At least 200 incidents of anti-Christian attacks, including four murders, had been recorded before an unprecedented spate of violence erupted in Orissa state’s Kandhamal district during the Christmas week in 2007. The Orissa violence killed at least four Christians and burnt 730 houses and 95 churches. In 2007, the number of attacks on Christians crossed 1,000 for the first time since India’s Independence in 1947.

The Orissa attacks show the extent of suffering caused by politically motivated communal violence in the country.

The worst hit area in Orissa’s Kandhamal district was Barakhama village, where 415 of the 450 houses belonging to tribal Christians were burnt down, and six of the seven churches were vandalised. Given below are a few specific incidents reported by Compass Direct News Agency.

A 50-year-old Christian man, Bhogra Naik of Barakhama, was cut into three pieces after his house was destroyed.

At least four Christian women gave premature births in abject conditions in jungles and without medical attention in the December cold.

A 23-year-old woman who was eight months pregnant, Jhunuta Digal, was in her father’s house in Barakhama village on Christmas day when the violence broke out. Her parents were not home, and she and her husband ran to save their lives. Due to the chaos, she was separated from her husband. Alone in the Penukupudi jungle, she developed labour pains. The baby was born prematurely that night.

Likewise, 26-year-old Muktimeri Parichha from Ulipadar village, then eight months pregnant as well, also gave birth to a boy before her due date. Early on Christmas day, Christians in Ulipadar ran to the Panagadu hills to escape the attacks. The Christians remained there till December 28 without food and water. During the period, Parichha delivered a baby boy. Though she had family members close at hand, there were no medical facilities or even a knife to cut the umbilical cord. The family had to use sharp stones to cut the cord. After the birth, they wrapped the baby with leaves, as it was cold and there was no clean cloth available.

Another Christian woman from Ulipadar village, 26-year-old Kumudini Nayak, developed labour pains in a jungle in Turanipani village in neighbouring Gajapati district, 6.2 miles from Ulipadar, where she had fled with her family. A local villager gave them shelter, but she delivered a premature baby without any medical assistance.

Similarly, 27-year-old Manimala Pradhan from Bamunigam village delivered her baby before the due date. As she reached a nearby jungle with her family, she fainted from exhaustion. As there was nothing to keep her warm, the family members lit a fire with dry leaves. She gave birth and remained without food or medical help for hours.

A government panel, the Justice Basudev Panigrahi Enquiry Commission, is enquiring into the Orissa attacks.

It is widely believed that the VHP had pre-planned the attacks that were carried under the pretext of avenging an alleged assault on a Hindu sage, Laxmananda Saraswati, who is known for persecuting Christians. While some political analysts believe it was a strategy of the BJP to polarise voters, as state assembly elections were approaching, others say the VHP activists were emboldened by the BJP’s victory in Gujarat state for three consecutive elections with the latest being in December 2007 despite, or due to, an alleged state-sponsored anti-minorities pogrom in 2002. (In March 2002, members of the VHP and its youth wing Bajrang Dal led the killing of more than 2,000 Muslims — according to unofficial counts given by rights groups — in Gujarat, after a few VHP workers were killed in a train fire in Godhra district, which the VHP claimed was an act of terrorism by Muslims. The violence helped the BJP to come back to power in the lections that followed in 2002 and then in 2007.)

Although religion-related violence has been a part of India’s history, its incidence with focus on religious minorities — mainly Muslims and Christians — suddenly rose to new heights after the BJP came into power at the national level in 1998.

According to the figures of India’s home or internal ministry vis-à-vis anti-Christian attacks, between 1950 and 1998 there were only 50 recorded cases. However, the number shot to 100 in the year 2000 and from 2001 to 2005 at least 200 incidents of anti-Christian attacks were reported every year.

2.2.b ‘Islamic’ Terrorism

India has the world’s third-largest Muslim population, after Indonesia and Pakistan, and the community has made commendable contributions in the nation building. However, the BJP and other Hindu nationalist groups stereotype common Muslims into ‘supporters’ of terrorism.

Recently, a terrorist group, Harkat ul-Jihad-e-Islami, launched eight bomb attacks killing dozens of people and injuring hundreds in Rajasthan’s capital Jaipur on May 13, 2008. Reacting to the attacks, the BJP called for an anti-terror law such as the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) of 2002, which was revoked as a draconian law by the UPA in 2004. When in force, the law was misused to target Muslims. The BJP government in Gujarat state registered 287 cases, mostly against Muslims, under the POTA in 2003 – a year after more than 2,000 Muslims were killed in an incident of large-scale violence in the state.

Another recent example of the anti-Muslim rhetoric is that a politician from Maharashtra state, Bal Thackeray, who subscribes to Hindutva, said in July 2008 that Hindus needed to form a ‘suicide squad’ to fight ‘Islamic terrorism’. Thackeray, the chief of Shiv Sena party (Army of Shivaji, the founder of the Maratha Empire in western India in the 17th century) made the statement in response to the arrest of two extremists from Hindu nationalist groups in June 2008 for allegedly exploding a bomb in a theatre in Maharashtra’s Thane district. Thackeray showed his anti-Muslim stand at a rime when the state assembly elections were approaching.

2.2.c Uniform Civil Code

India has personal laws, for Hindus, Muslims and Christians, dealing with civil matters, such as marriage, divorce, and succession — though subjection to these laws is optional in certain matters, as there are also special civil laws meant for the people of all communities. However, Article 44 in Part IV of the Indian Constitution, which is not binding, says that India should endeavour to adopt a uniform civil code throughout the country. The objective of adopting a uniform code is national integration, according to the Supreme Court of India.

Many rights groups are in favor of a uniform code, as they believe Muslim personal laws in particular are oppressive for women. The BJP too advocates for it, but with a different objective. It is believed that the party is for a common code because it can make life difficult especially for conservative Muslims and the clergy. However, the Congress and other secular parties are of the opinion that adoption of a uniform code must be preceded by a national consensus, especially among the Muslim community.

Issues arising out of the uniform civil code are: what will be the content of the common code, in what areas of life will it apply and whether religious customs will be exempted from the code. There is a fear among minority communities, mainly Muslims, that a common code will be misused to impose Hindu ethos on the minorities in the name of uniformity.

2.2.d Christian Conversions

Hindutva sees Christianity as a Western religion, brought to India mainly under the British colonial rule in the 19th century. Under this policy, the anti-British sentiments held by many Hindus are extended towards the whole Christian community.

The RSS and the BJP claim that missionaries are part of an international conspiracy to convert and overtake India, alleging that Western missionaries use material bribes or force to convert poor and illiterate people.

Hindu nationalists are also opposed to voluntary conversions. They argue that conversion to other religions, mainly Christianity, is destructive to the Indian culture. In their view, Indian culture is so rooted in Hinduism that one cannot exist without the other. Swami Dayanand Saraswati, an eminent Hindu philosopher and the founder of the Arsha Vidya Hindu study centres in the U.S., has said that every conversion is an ‘act of violence.’ In an open letter to Pope John Paul II in 1999, Saraswati said conversion would ultimately lead to the destruction of the entire Indian culture. “Religion and culture are not often separable,” he wrote. “This is especially true of the Hindu religious tradition. [For instance,] the greeting word, namaste, is an expression of culture as well as religion.”

He also referred to the bindi, a mark worn by women. “Even though a . . . mark on the forehead is purely religious, it is looked upon as an integral part of Hindu culture.” He said culture often disintegrated after conversion, “leaving only dead monuments.” In other words, some Christian converts still followed cultural traditions but abandoned the religious meaning behind these traditions.

2.2.e.(i) Anti-Conversion Laws

Although the Indian Constitution provides for religious freedom, seven states have special laws banning conversions. The Freedom of Religion Acts, known as ‘anti-conversion laws,’ are supposed to curb religious conversions made by ‘force,’ ‘fraud’ or ‘allurement.’ But Christians and rights groups say that in reality the laws obstruct conversion generally. Besides, Hindu nationalists invoke the law to harass Christian workers with spurious arrests and incarcerations. These laws have been implemented in five states — Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat — while they remain on paper in Arunachal Pradesh and Rajasthan.

Christians also allege that these laws define ‘force,’ ‘fraud’ and ‘inducement’ vaguely, which can restrict Christian work and allow Hindu nationalists to levy false charges on Christian workers. They also object that these laws require that all conversions be reported to the government, failing which both the priest and convert can be imprisoned or fined like criminals.

To defend the various anti-conversion laws, the BJP cites a Supreme Court’s 1977 judgment upholding the Madhya Pradesh Dharma Swatantrata Adhiniyam (Freedom of Religion Act) 1969 in the Reverend Stanislaus vs. State of Madhya Pradesh case in the Supreme Court. According to the verdict, the right to propagate does not include the right to convert another person to the former’s faith on the premise that the latter is equally entitled to the freedom of conscience. However, not all in the legal fraternity agree with the judgment. Besides, the 1977 judgment dealt with only one argument, i.e. what entails Christians’ right to ‘propagate’, while there are several other arguments against the legislation that have been looked into by the courts.

It is widely believed that the numerous anti-conversion laws are redundant, and have been enacted for mere political reasons. Although the law has been in force in some states for close to four decades, not even a single person has been convicted of wrongful conversion by any court thus far.

The former All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) party government in the southern state of Tamil Nadu had introduced an anti-conversion ordinance in October 2002 to woo the BJP, which was expected to resume power in the following elections in 2004. After the NDA lost and the AIADMK party fared poorly in the 2004 general elections, the state government repealed the law, admitting that it was an ‘anti-people legislation’.

Similarly, the Congress government in Himachal Pradesh state passed an anti-conversion bill in 2006 without giving details of cases concerning ‘forced’ conversions, and for apparent political reasons. The opposition BJP in Himachal Pradesh had been preparing to use the ‘conversion’ issue as a poll plank in the assembly elections due the following year. The VHP and the Bajrang Dal groups made numerous allegations of ‘forced’ conversions against Christians to build a case for an anti-conversion law. In September 2006, BJP leader Prem Kumar Dhumal promised to ban conversions if his party won the elections. The Congress Party, however, undercut the BJP by introducing the bill.

2.3 Positive Discrimination

The Indian Constitution provides for affirmative action for the uplift of the communities that have been discriminated against and marginalised in the India society. This exercise of positive discrimination has been highly politicised, as explained above.

A hot topic of debate in this area has been if the Dalits who have converted to Christianity should continue to enjoy the privileges at par with the Hindu Dalits. As of now, Dalits are de-listed from the Scheduled Castes category after their conversion to Christianity or Islam.

There are more than 16 million ‘Dalit Christians’ in India who have been fighting for the restoration of their rights for decades.

As per a clause in the Indian Constitution, known as the Presidential Order of 1950, only Dalits from Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism are entitled for ‘reservations’ in public sector jobs, federal and state services and educational institutions run or aided by the government. The clause is based on the theory that non-Hindu religions do not have a caste hierarchy, and therefore they do not need special privileges or protection. Dalits from the Sikh and Buddhist faiths can enjoy the privileges because the 1950 order was amended twice (in 1956 and 1990) to include the two communities.

A majority of Christians in India believe that Dalit Christians should be given rights at par with Dalits from other faiths. There are also those who say the Indian church needs to look after their adherents well before asking the State to do its duty by positive discrimination.

Even today, many Dalits are subjected to manual scavenging, atrocities and ostracism by ‘higher caste’ Hindus. To protest their place in the Hindu society, thousands of Dalits have converted en mass out of Hinduism to Buddhism and Christianity in the past. It is estimated that more than 65 percent of the Indian Christians are from Dalit backgrounds. However, sections of Christians from ‘higher’ caste backgrounds also discriminate against Dalit Christians, who are believed to be among the poorest of the poor in the country.

In 2005, an eminent attorney, Prashant Bhushan, filed a petition on behalf of a non-profit organisation, Centre for Public Interest Litigation, in the apex court, asking the government to restore the rights of Dalit Christians. When the court asked the ruling UPA to take a stand on the issue, the government referred the matter to the Justice Ranganath Mishra Commission, which approved the demands of Dalit Christians in its report in May 2007. However, instead of acting on the report, the government sought more time to take the opinion of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (Dalit communities listed in the Constitution) and Scheduled Tribes (tribal or aboriginal communities listed in the Constitution) followed by the National Commission for Minorities (NCM) – both panels spoke in favour of Dalit Christians. But, the government now wants the NCM to take into account apprehensions of some government departments.

Reservation is also a socially contentious issue. Fifteen percent of the seats in government jobs and educational institutions are reserved for Scheduled Castes. Similarly, 7.5 percent of the seats are reserved for Scheduled Tribes. In addition to the reservation of 22.5 percent seats (for Dalit and tribal communities together), the UPA has recently implemented a 27 percent quota for another cluster of communities, recognised as ‘Other Backward Classes’ or OBCs. As a result, there is resentment among those belonging to the ‘general category’. Many anti-quota groups are protesting against the policy.

What makes the issue more complex is that according to an order of the apex court, the total quota cannot exceed 50 percent. And the reservation already amounts to 49.5 percent (Dalit, tribal and OBC quota put together). Therefore, if Dalit Christians are allowed to be part of the affirmative action, the Scheduled Caste communities will have to share their 15 percent quota with Dalit Christians. Such a proposition is bound to face opposition from Scheduled Caste communities, which constitute around 16 percent of the population.

Besides, it is widely believed that there are many Dalits who have adopted Christianity but they do not come out in open as ‘Christians’, to retain their entitlement to reservations. Therefore, once Dalit Christians have the right to affirmative action, the percentage of Christians, which as per the latest government census stands at 2.3 percent, can increase a little. If this happens, the BJP, which has long been ‘warning’, as part of its hate campaign against religious minorities, that Christians and Muslims may soon outnumber Hindus, would make it a major political issue.

The sensitivity of the quota issue can also be gauged from a recent incident concerning the Gujjar community, which is presently classified under the OBC list. Gujjars in Rajasthan state recently organised shutdowns to demand that they be included in the Scheduled Tribes list. (Although OBCs have 27 percent reservation, the number of OBCs is very high. Therefore, a member of a tribal community has better chances of being benefited than an OBC member.) During the demonstrations held by the Gujjars, the Rajasthan police allegedly killed at least 39 people belonging to the community. This led the Gujjars to further intensify their protests. The state government finally had to bow down to the demands of the Gujjars by giving them reservation as a special category.

2.4 Contemporary Issues

Besides the issues mentioned above, which have been in the political debates for many years, the following are some issues that have surfaced in the media in the recent past.

2.4.a Communist Onslaught on Religion

In the southern state of Kerala, nicknamed God’s Own Country, the communist government has launched a massive crackdown on ‘fake’ spiritual gurus. The Left Front, led by the CPI-M, rules Kerala, one of the most literate states of the country.

The state minister in charge of the administration of temples, G. Sudhakaran, reportedly believes that 90 percent of the gurus “are all thieves and they are all fit to go to jails”. In addition, Kerala’s home minister, Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, has vowed to “book them all”.

The crackdown began with the arrest of Santosh Madhavan alias Amrita Chaitanya, a temple priest and astrologer, on charges of molesting minor girls and fraud on May 13, 2008. Madhavan, who was wanted by Interpol for cheating a Dubai-based Indian woman with more than 4 million rupees (approximately $24,000) in 2002, has a palatial ashram in Kerala’s Kochi city. Top politicians, police officials and film stars frequented the ashram. (It is widely believed that godmen and women flourish with the support of politicians.) On conducting a raid in Madhavan’s house, police found pornographic CDs, documents detailing wealth and properties running into millions, narcotic drugs and a leopard skin.

Close on the heels of Madhavan’s arrest came the arrest of another godman, Himaval Maheswarananda Bhadrananda, who was using a car with beacon lights meant only for ministers and high government officials. When Bhadrananda was taken to police station, he fired two rounds from his pistol and threatened to kill himself.

The news of the two arrests led many people in the state to file complaints against godmen and godwomen. Among the groups and individuals facing the ire of the communist administration are the Heavenly Feast Evangelists Group, which is being investigated by the income tax department; Matha Prasanna, who was arrested on charges of cheating and visa fraud; Ma Vishnumaya, whose husband was arrested on complaint of cheating; Sam Kuzhikala, against whom a non-bailable warrant was issued for fake cheques; Siddhan Kattachira, who was arrested on charges of cheating; Swami Sunil Das, whose wealth is being investigated; Pita Jyothirmayananda, who was arrested for issuing fake cheques; and Sheikh Yusuf Sultan, who is facing charges of cheating.

The communist government, which has been at loggerheads with Christians over the issue of autonomy of educational institutions run by Christian groups, is also investigating K.P. Yohannan, head of the Believers Church in India and the leader of U.S.-based evangelical organisation Gospel for Asia.

Religious groups allege that the atheist government is also targeting genuine religious and spiritual leaders under the pretext of the fake godman controversy. There are also reports of the RSS exploiting the tensions for political gains by targeting Christian and Muslim organisations.

The Catholic Christians in Kerala state are up in arms against the communist government also for introducing a new social studies textbook for Class VII, which allegedly promotes atheism and denigrates Christian institutions.

The Catholics accuse the LDF government of tarnishing the image of the Church and its institutions. Among the ‘objectionable’ portions of the textbook is a chapter that says the education, economic, food supply and agriculture systems were ‘abominable’ before the first communist government came to power in Kerala in 1957.

Besides, the state education board had in February 2008 recommended banning of religious worship and use of religious graffiti on the walls in private schools that receive assistance from the state. The numerous Christian schools in Kerala conduct regular prayers, including the mass, and their walls abound with verses from the Bible. School buildings are also used for religious conventions. Other recommendations included giving of religious instructions only to those students who have permission from their parents, substituting religious teachings with moral science classes and appointing teachers only from a list prepared by a free agency with statutory powers.

Article 30 of the Indian Constitution grants the right to religious and linguistic minorities to establish and administer educational institutions. However, Christians in Kerala allege that the government is “interfering” in the administration of their institutions.

According to tradition, Christianity came to India with the arrival of Apostle Thomas in the port of Cranganore near Cochin in Kerala in 52 AD. It is believed that Thomas established at least seven churches in Kerala before he moved on to neighbouring Tamil Nadu state, where he was killed for preaching Christianity.

2.4.b Hindu Shrine Land Row in Kashmir

On June 23, 2008, the state government of Jammu and Kashmir announced allotment of 100 acres of forestland to the Amarnath Shrine Board. Thousands of Hindus visit the Amarnath shrine, situated in Muslim majority Anantnag district, every year in July and August to catch a glimpse of a stalagmite structure that is considered an icon of Hindu god Shiva. Separatist groups accused the government of trying to change the demographic character of the region by building houses for Hindus. These groups launched demonstrations which led to clashes with security personnel, in which at least three people died and numerous were injured. The government claimed the shrine board was planning to build only a makeshift structure for the pilgrims.

The People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which was part of the ruling coalition with the Congress, withdrew support to protest against the land allotment. After the PDP pulled out, coalition leader Congress was reduced to minority. This compelled the government to revoke the land allotment, after which Hindu nationalists led by the VHP, the BJP and the Shiv Sena held fierce demonstrations in the Hindu-dominated region of Jammu. Again, several people were injured in the clashes.

As a result of the tensions, the state government fell and the state came under the President’s Rule on July 11. The elections are likely to be held in November.

2.4.c India-US Civilian Nuke Deal and Indian Muslims

A deal between India and the US that allows Washington to sell civilian nuclear technology to New Delhi is being operationalised, and Indian Muslims stand divided over the question if the pact has anything to do with religion or their community.

While Muslim clerics from the well-known Islamic seminary Darul Uloom in the Deoband town in Uttar Pradesh state and the Jamiat Ulema e Hind organisation reportedly believe the deal is only about India’s energy needs, sections of Muslim intellectuals and leaders of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) are of the opinion that the country’s partnership with the US would be unfavourable for the Muslim community given the US role in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The debate on the nuclear deal began after Uttar Pradesh state chief minister Mayawati said it would hurt the sentiments of Muslims. Sections of the Muslim clergy and community leaders approved Mayawati’s statement, but others said it was wrong to give the deal a religious colour.

Besides sections of the Muslim community, the Left parties that lent external support to the UPA government also opposed the deal. The communist parties finally withdrew support to the government, which managed to survive in the vote of confidence in the Parliament on July 22, 2008.

3. How the Indian Media Cover Religion and Politics

3.1 Religion Not a Beat in Media

Although stories on religion and its use in politics occupy a substantial part of the media coverage, religion is not a separate beat yet. As a result, reporters are generally ignorant about basic religious issues.

A story on the website of The Hoot, a private media watchdog, gives one such example:

“Sometimes all that is needed is a word to index a problem. What is then necessary is to excavate its nature, its whys and wherefores. The Telegraph reporting on an incident in Jodhpur where a temple of Shiva and Navagraha was shut down following protests from VHP supporters against an idol showing Ravana “offering prayers and water to Shiva, believed to be his favourite deity, in an unusual glimpse of the demon king’s religious side”. The word that merits our attention is ‘unusual’.

“The idea that this idol provides an unusual glimpse to Ravana’s religious side begs the question: to whom does this side offer an ‘unusual’ glimpse. To the thousands, nay thousands of thousands of believers who are conversant with one version or the other of Ramayana? To the writer of this story who is reporting from Jodhpur? To the sub who has inserted it into the text? The answer to the first has to be an emphatic ‘no’ because all the popular narratives of Ram’s story inevitably lay great emphasis on Ravana’s religious and heroic nature.”

In a symposium on ‘Reporting Religious Controversies’, organised by the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life and the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India’s Commission for Social Communications on September 8, 2007 in New Delhi, Obeid Siddiqui, a senior journalist and a lecturer in Jamia Milia University, said ignorance and prejudices were the main obstacles in fair reporting of religious controversies. He pointed out that many journalists who report about fatwa did not know that everybody cannot issue it, and nor is it a ruling; that it is just an opinion, and not binding on everyone.

He also pointed out that while the print media allowed a multi-layer reporting, in the electronic media, the time was always limited, which was a major handicap for a comprehensive reporting.

3.2 Mislabelling of Religion-Related Violence

Religion-related violence is reported by the media in such a way that it actually helps in the production and reproduction of violence that is perpetrated mainly on religious minorities by Hindu nationalist forces.

The media, which seek to classify and label communal incidents, often become part of the diversionary tactics of the organisers of violence to displace blame from themselves to others, says Paul R. Brass, Professor (Emeritus) of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Washington, Seattle, in his book, ‘Forms of Collective Violence: Riots, Pogroms, and Genocide in Modern India’.

Brass exposes a lacuna in the study of collective violence saying that journalists and social scientists study the phenomena of violence “to display their theoretical skills” rather than expose the dynamic processes that produce those phenomena.

The violence that is often misnamed as a ‘riot’ is produced in three phases: preparation or rehearsal, activation or enactment and explanation or interpretation, says Brass. In the sites where rioting is endemic, producers of violence continuously work to create an atmosphere of religious animosity as part of their preparation and rehearsal process, he says. The activation or enactment of a large-scale riot takes place under particular circumstances, often in a context of intense political mobilisation or electoral competition in which riots are precipitated as a device to consolidate the support of ethnic, religious, or other culturally marked groups, by emphasising the need for solidarity in face of the rival communal group. It is criminals and the poorest elements in society who are recruited and rewarded for enacting the violence.

The third phase – of explanation and interpretation – follows the violence in a broader struggle to control the explanation or interpretation of the causes of the violence. In this phase, even journalists, politicians, social scientists, and public opinion generally also become involved. For, it is marked by a process of blame displacement, in which social scientists and journalists themselves become implicated, a process that fails to isolate effectively those most responsible for the production of violence, and instead diffuses blame widely, blurring responsibility, and thereby contributing to the perpetuation of violent productions in future, as well as the order that sustains them.

The principal beneficiaries of this process of blame displacement are the government and its political leaders, under whose watch such violence occurs. Brass says politicians and the vernacular media, during the violence, and in its aftermath, draw attention away from the perpetrators of the violence by attributing it to the actions of an inflamed mass public.

Ignorant of the diversionary tactics, researchers think they must know what they are studying or label an incident of violence before they can make the necessary generalisations. But, “the producers of violence are themselves engaged in the same process and they continually outpace and outwit us, producing new and varied forms of collective violence that lead us into the game itself rather than providing us a site for a distant gaze,” Brass observes.

The producers of pogroms “insist that the violence that has just occurred is nothing more than a riot”. They label genocide-like acts “as merely spontaneous revenge and retaliation by justly and excusably outraged members of a group, acting spontaneously against an ‘other’ group whose members have misbehaved.”

Brass says there exist ‘institutionalised riot systems’ in several parts of the country.

Brass concludes that the main job of researchers should not be to classify and label precisely such violence, as “no hard and fast distinction can be made between these supposedly distinct forms of violence, since pogroms masquerade as riots and many, if not most, large-scale riots display features supposedly special to pogroms”. There are other forms of genocide than the likes of the Holocaust and which are “particularly of the mutual and retributive type (which seem like riots between two communities), a form of violence that develops in stages that constitute clear danger signals”.

The researchers, he suggests, should rather ‘observe’ the assignment of blame as part of the process of production of violence and seek “to expose to view the dynamics of violence and the ways in which each new large event of collective violence is, in fact, different from all others that have preceded it because of the very fact that its producers know very well what it is that they do, what has happened before, how to displace blame from themselves to others.”

Brass’ theory proves to be right if one studies the reporting of the large-scale anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat in 2002, referred to as the ‘Post-Godhra Riots’ in the media. A Google search of ‘Post-Godhra Riots’ gives close to 12,000 links, a large number of which are media reports. The word ‘Post-Godhra Pogrom’, on the other hand, gives only 171 results.

3.3 Focus on Politicians’ Concerns

It is a general trend in the reporting of political affairs that journalists focus the most on politicians’ concerns. What should concern politicians and political parties often seem to be the main concern of the reporter. There are numerous reports in newspapers, agencies, and magazines that deal primarily with how certain policies and moves by a political party are likely to affect the party itself – rather than how those developments will affect the people or democracy.

The same trend is apparent in the reporting of religion and politics. For example, the Tehelka weekly featured a cover story on the Kashmir shrine land row issue in its July 12 (2008) edition. The cover line read: “Kashmir, A Losing Hand: Will the Bungling of the Amarnath Issue Fan Communal Fires and Separatism and Prove Costly for the Congress in an Election Year?” Instead of laying the emphasis on how the government could have handled the conflict or exposing the misuse of religion in politics, the story focused on how it would affect the Congress in an election year.

3.4 Focus on Muslims

Muslims get the maximum attention of almost all major political parties. This is because the Muslims are India’s largest minority community, and also the main target of the Hindu nationalists.

There is no dearth of coverage of issues related to Muslims, which is mainly negative in nature. There is little coverage of progress in the community. The Hindustan Times newspaper recently ran a series titled, ‘The New Muslim’ – who is capable of looking after herself/himself, does not need any grant from the government, and does not see herself/himself merely as a victim. This was the media’s first known attempt to feature progressive Muslims.

Besides, sections of the Hindus complain that problems related to their community are not adequately featured in the media, mainly the English language publications. One such problem they bring to the fore is the abject condition of Kashmiri Hindu pandits, who had to flee Kashmir due to a threat from Kashmiri and foreign militants in 1990. Till today, thousands of displaced Kashmiri pandits live in refugee camps – the only internally displaced group within India to remain in refugee camps.

4. Church Involvement in Religion and Politics

There are at least six major Christian groups actively involved in the area of religious freedom.

The All India Christian Council is a coalition of Indian denominations, organisations, and lay leaders. It was started in 1998 to protect and serve the Christian community, other minorities, and the oppressed castes, mainly the Dalits.

The All India Catholic Union is an 85-year-old body representing the nearly 16 million Catholic laity through 120 diocese and district units.

The Global Council of India Christians is a registered non-profit organisation headquartered in Bangalore, Karnataka state’s capital, and involved in advocacy for religious freedom.

The Evangelical Fellowship of India, a charter member of World Evangelical Alliance, an accredited NGO with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations.

The Christian Legal Association is a national network of Christian legal professionals dedicated to the use of the legal system on behalf of the poor, the marginalised and the persecuted.

The Open Doors India is an organisation that ministers to the persecuted church in India.

5. Conclusion

Intersection of religion and politics in itself should not be a matter of concern. After all, Mahatma Gandhi, known as the Father of the Nation, led India to win independence from the British rule through a struggle that was founded on religious beliefs. Gandhi said his mission was to win ‘Swaraj’ (self-rule), a just and humane government and society, which, according to him, was realising God on earth. Winning independence politically was only a small part of it. Religion, he said, in its broadest sense governs all departments of life, including politics.

Unfortunately, it is the misuse of religion that we see in politics today, and not the use of virtues found in it. What is more unfortunate is that almost all political parties are, in one way or the other, guilty of using religion-related issues for narrow political gains, and even the hands of religious leaders are not clean. This is perhaps because religion is a source of identity and a bonding factor in the lives of people, mainly in developing societies like India. And politics in a democracy that is still maturing is inevitably coercive and amoral.

What does the future hold? There is a hope given the developments after the process of economic liberalisation that began in 1991 under then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao – when Dr. Manmohan Singh, the incumbent prime minister, was the finance minister. In the last 17 years, India has seen many changes that can be linked to the liberalisation. The middle class has expanded, the economy is booming, the IT industry has made a mark globally, and a cosmopolitan culture is emerging in most metropolises. As a result, the people are increasingly becoming more concerned about development rather than respond to identity-based issues. Social scientists anticipate that the Hindu nationalist movement will die a natural death in the future.



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