Opinion How Not To Mix Religion With Politics


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
By Jyoti Malhotra

Until Saturday night, when one of India’s best-known yoga gurus escaped from a Delhi police crackdown in female clothing — setting off peals of laughter across the country — the ruling Congress-led government looked in danger of being caught in the catatonic thrall of saffron-clad godmen and women.

Instead, we can now credit Baba Ramdev with helping the Congress party rediscover its political spine. His use of unparliamentary language against senior party leaders; his welcoming to the stage of Sadhvi Ritambhara, a Hindu nun whose venomous tirades against Muslims climaxed during the demolition of the Babri mosque in 1992; and his accusation of “treachery” against the government’s interlocutors were more than the Congress party could bear, forcing it to reassert its authority, somewhat brutally, early Sunday morning.

Still, Congress should be asking itself how it managed to get into this mess – spinning 180 degrees in a matter of days between welcoming the swami at New Delhi airport to tracking him down despite his feminine disguise (with bushy beard reportedly covered with cloth.) The answer is that they should have seen it coming, since the party has been willfully mixing religion with politics since even before Independence.

In the aftermath of l’affaire Ramdev, Congress leaders have been seeking to transfer responsibility for last week’s wooing onto the government. Two senior party leaders who spoke on the condition of anonymity told me the Cabinet Committee for Political Affairs had decided that negotiations, not confrontation, was the need of the hour and that none other than Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had requested his second-in-command, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, join three other ministers in welcoming Mr. Ramdev at Delhi airport.

Digvijay Singh, a senior Congress leader, went public with the party’s unhappiness Thursday, telling NDTV that Pranab Mukherjee “staked virtually his entire career going to the airport.” Mr. Mukherjee, the Kolkata ‘Telegraph’ reported, accepted his mistake but claimed he was obeying the PM’s orders. Congress President Sonia Gandhi was so annoyed, she reportedly refused to let Kapil Sibal, one of the four ministers who received Ramdev, retell the sequence of events at a party meeting.

If Congress decides to conduct a post mortem on the episode, it could go all the way back to Mahatma Gandhi to understand how and why religion — and later godmen – got mixed up in politics.

The Mahatma was an unabashed supporter of the power of prayer, as he sought to erase the fault lines of caste oppression, establish Hindu-Muslim amity, and end the age of the Raj in India.

At the other end of the spectrum stood his chosen disciple, Jawaharlal Nehru, who implored the Congress party to find an alternative to using faith as an instrument to score political points. Gandhi would chide Nehru’s limited understanding of the word “secularism,” pointing out that in a country like India which is the home of several religions, it could not mean the absence of worship.

A lesser man would not have been to walk the fine line between politics and religion that Gandhi did. He understood the need to invert the power hierarchy, which is why his fast-unto-death method of protest became a weapon in the hands of the weak against the all-powerful British. But he warned that the fast could easily generate into blackmail and thereby lose its potency. He insisted it only be used as an instrument of last resort. You had to lay your body on the line, the Mahatma said, literally and figuratively.

As the British prepared for the end of their rule in India, they used the Congress party’s usage of religious symbolism to further drive a wedge between Hindus and Muslims. To wit, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, a pork-eating, alcohol-swilling, English-speaking early ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity, broke away from the Congress party to become a card-carrying member of the Muslim League. It, in turn, used Gandhi’s overt religiosity as a button to push in its quest to partition India.

After independence too, Congress leaders sought to inject religion into politics, often with catastrophic results.

Indira Gandhi wooed the Sikh religious leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale in the early 80s, hoping it could use his influence to expand the Congress party’s following in Punjab. The move backfired and in the decade that followed, thousands of people were killed in the ethnic strife that pitted Hindu against Sikh. Mr. Bhindranwale was killed when the Indian army entered the holy Sikh shrine, the Golden Temple, in June 1984. Mrs. Gandhi fell to the bullets of her own Sikh security guards in October that year, and Pakistan’s intelligence agencies used the opportunity to fuel an insurgency within Punjab.

Indira’s son and successor, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, put another wheel in motion. In 1949, in the brutal aftermath of the country’s partition, a magistrate ordered that locks be installed on a small Hindu temple inside the 15th century Babri mosque in eastern Uttar Pradesh.

In 1987, Rajiv Gandhi was persuaded by his advisers in the Congress to allow the locks to the temple inside the mosque to be opened. They told him that this would gain him the blessings of India’s Hindu majority because of the widespread belief that the Hindu god Ram was born on the site. It would also help air the stink that continued to surround the Swedish Bofors gun scandal that tainted his premiership and neutralize the criticism the prime minister had recently earned from India’s liberal classes over the Shah Bano affair.

Ms. Bano was a Muslim woman in her sixties who had sought reparation from the Supreme Court because her husband had thrown her out of the house after quickly divorcing her. Civil rights activists demanded that Shah Bano’s former husband give her a certain monthly maintenance, but orthodox Muslim groups countered the demand by pointing to the primacy of the Muslim personal law under which the husband had no compulsion to do so. Rajiv Gandhi capitulated in favor of the Muslim orthodoxy.

But Mr. Gandhi’s move on the Babri masjid backfired, too, when the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party mounted a campaign to restore the Hindu god Ram to his rightful place, with the support of millions of devout Hindus. The destruction of the Babri mosque by Hindu fundamentalists in 1992 was a logical culmination of the political machinations of the previous decade, and has since become a key flashpoint of Muslim grievance in the world, let alone India.

To put it bluntly, India’s political bloodstream has been contaminated by the injection of religion for decades, right from its birth in 1947 when communal rioting marred the celebration of the new country. So when the Congress party’s senior leadership rolled out the red carpet for Ramdev last week, in an apparent effort to split him from fellow anti-corruption campaigner Anna Hazare, they should have known better. The trauma of 1947 should have guided their hearts, the upheaval of 1992 their heads.

Jyoti Malhotra is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi. She writes for India’s Business Standard daily and for Pakistan’s Express Tribune.