The way we were

A critique of communalism in the context of India is often mistaken for a critique of religion. It therefore needs to be emphasized that communalism is a phenomenon of recent times, when communities are identified by religion and this identification is brought into play as a substantial political articulation. This is distinctly different from the past when community identities ranged over many perspectives apart from religion, such as caste, region, language and occupation. Religious communities were also labelled differently with labels such as brahmana and shramana (referring to the heterodox sects of Buddhist, Jainas, etc;). The indication here was that the teaching and the propagation through monks differentiated the two. The terms continued to be used for many centuries. Al-Biruni visiting India in the early eleventh century speaks of the brahmanas prevailing in India, and the shamaniyya who had propounded a religion hostile to that of the brahmanas in previous centuries and in Iran and Central Asia. This was obviously Buddhism.

The secular critique of communalism is not an opposition to religion but to the abuse of religion. As the emotional and psychological need of an individual to worship and belief, religion is not objected to. But when religious expression demands the setting aside of other values that a society requires, then it has to be criticized. Religion has its place in society but should not be given pre-eminence since it is, in social terms, only one among the other requirements that go to make a worthwhile society. Social justice, for instance, among the other requirements has priority. Where religion overrides social justice, there it has to be put back in its place.

Religion can be used as a mechanism of controlling society through the institutions that it establishes, particularly educational institutions. These can be propagating a philosophy that deliberately opposes the secular and the rational, and therefore can be questioned. When groups associated with religious organizations or with political parties that draw on religious identities, start demanding that certain books, films, plays, lectures, social behavior are either hurtful to the sentiments of a particular religion or are violating what are referred to as ‘Indian values and tradition’ and therefore should be censored and banned, there religion has gone beyond its boundaries and turned communal. Those who make these claims are generally associated with political organizations, observing an extremist agenda using religion, or are self-appointed ‘spokesmen’ of religion-based organizations. What makes such groups unacceptable is that they are violent to the extent of assassinating those that do not accede to their demands. Both the threats and the violence have been increasing over the years. Communal ideology defines groups as religious communities and it maintains that this identity wipes out all others. Communalism is the political exploitation of a religious ideology. Therefore a critique of communalism is not an attack on religion per se, but on the political use of religion or the abuse of religion. Communal politicians however always use the easy ploy and accuse those who critique communalism of being anti-religious.

Religion can be the legitimate belief of an individual in a deity and in what the individual hopes that the worship of that deity may bring. This aspect of religion is often not the concern of the historian although it could be in some instances. What historians are interested in is seeing the way in which religious organizations establish institutions in order to control the functioning of society, as a parallel system attempting to influence governance. These range from some institutions pertaining to civic and social welfare, but generally many more that cater to political ambitions and interface with political groups and ideologies. In the past these were institutions financed by royal grants. They could act as a catchment area of support for the ruler or could alternatively develop into a focus of opposition. The negotiations between religious institutions and political authority, going back to past times, make for a fascinating history.

In a modern society, governance and social control are not the functions of religion but of civil administration acting in accordance with secular laws for the benefit of society. Some may argue that it does not matter if a religious organization sets up schools, colleges, universities, hospitals, workshops as charitable institutions, since these are needed. But there is always a need for caution since no religion is altruistic and is interested in ideological control, ultimately extending over a large part of society.

The communal ideology insists that the separation of communities identified by religion, also has its roots in the past. This further implies the denial that social systems cut across religious identities. History is brought in as an attempt to provide a justification from the past as was first done by colonial scholars. (James) Mill’s periodization made a deep imprint on modern Indian thinking, in diverting it from the more significant issues of the connections between the past and the present.

Excerpted from The Past Is Present: Forging Contemporary Identities Through History ( 595), with permission from Aleph Book Company. The book is available in online and retail stores.