There is a relentlessness about the way caste and religion are taking over India. The traditional notion of lower and upper castes was shattered when Gujarat’s well-to-do Patels unleashed an agitation for reservation. Then it turned out there were Patels and Patels—Leuva Patels and Kalava Patels, happy OBCs, Kachia Patels and Anjana Patels, wannabe OBCs, and Muslim Patels (converted Patidars). Muslims in Gujarat have more “sub-castes” than their counterparts in the rest of India: Dawoodis, Ismailis, Khojas, Memons, Bohras, Lohanas.
Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah’s favourite political philosophy is anchored on the Ahinda theory—a union of minorities, backward castes and Dalits who, according to a controversial caste census, outnumber the mighty Lingayats and Vokkaligas put together. There are of course Hosadevaru Vokkaligas, Gangadikara Vokkaligas, Morasu Vokkaligas, Namadhari Vokkaligas, Kunchitiga Vokkaligas and so on besides 42 types of Lingayats, irresistible votebank ground.
This kind of arithmetic assumed almost vulgar proportions in UP-Bihar. Dalit messiah Kanshi Ram left nothing to the imagination when he coined slogans like “Beat Brahmins, Banyas and Thakurs with shoes” and “vote hamara, raj thumara, nahi chalega”. Mayawati who assumed power with the help of such slogans wrote new chapters in political cynicism. She tied up with the BJP at one point, destroying the Kanshi Ram legacy, then promoted new votebank concepts like Dalit-Muslim formula and later Dalit-Muslim-Brahmin formula.
All this in a country that was singed by a religion-based partition. Pakistan declared itself an Islamic state and became increasingly fundamentalist as the years passed. India’s first generation leaders tried to avoid that path and built a constitutional base for a state where all religions would be equal. That seemed a practical approach in a country left with a large minority of Muslims and a highly splintered majority (Not only were communities like Sikhs and Dalit segments not Hindu; some Lingayat communities campaigned to be considered non-Hindu).
Secularism worked magic in Europe by ending the church’s role in governance. The church was an armed entity that fought battles like the Thirty Year War (1618-1648). It was at the end of that war that the word “secularisation” was first used, meaning the transfer of church properties to governments. It thus came to denote something good and progressive in a country.
India’s has been a different experience, so different that the notable historian T N Madan said pointblank: “In the prevailing circumstances, secularism in South Asia as a generally shared credo of life is impossible, as a basis for state action impracticable, and as a blueprint for the foreseeable future impotent”. This was in mid-1980s, well before the Narendra Modi phenomenon and the rise of the BJP as a political powerhouse. So why was he so certain? Secularism was impossible as a credo, he said, “because the great majority of people in South Asia are in their own eyes active adherents of some religious faith”. State action based on it was impractical because, among other things, it was difficult for the state to maintain religious neutrality “since religious minorities do not share the majority’s view of what this entails for the state”. And it was impotent for future planning because “by its very nature, it is incapable of countering religious fundamentalism and fanaticism”.
When Madan made those prescient observations, he could not have imagined that religious fanaticism would become as strong as they are today. Babri Masjid was still standing and it wasn’t clear that the Congress would decline to the point of leaving the BJP virtually opposition-less in the polling booths.
In a country where a great majority “are in their own eyes active adherents of some religious faith”, the dangers inherent in religious fanaticism are obvious. Early warnings have already been sounded in India with lynchings and bombings and competitive murders by people who feel righteous about their actions. In vain did our early leaders counsel caution. Gandhi declared all religions as true because they gave meaning to the moral life. Nehru became the leading advocate of secularism in his age. Even Jinnah, never a practising Muslim, was secularist. Within days of Pakistan’s birth, he told his people: “Bury the hatchet.”
What we see today is not a pretty picture. Religion may not be influencing statecraft in Europe and countries like China. But it has become the deciding factor in political actions in India. In his learned analysis of the issue, TN Madan asked, “Is everything lost irretrievably?” and replied ominously: “I really have no solutions to suggest”.
We need to ask again: Is everything lost irretrievably?