The right to religious liberty is widely regarded as a crowning achievement of secular-liberal democracies that guarantees the peaceful co-existence of religiously diverse populations. While all members of a polity are supposed to be protected by the right to religious liberty, religious minorities are understood to be its greatest beneficiaries in the protection it accords them to practice their beliefs freely without fear of state intervention or social discrimination. Conventional wisdom has it that religious liberty is a universally valid principle, enshrined in national constitutions and international charters and treaties, whose proper implementation continues to be thwarted by intransigent forces in society such as illiberal governments, religious fundamentalists, and traditional norms. Insomuch as in India, followed by other countries in general, are supposed to be afflicted with the ills of fundamentalism and illiberal governments, then the salvific promise of religious liberty looms large. In this brief post I would like to question this way of thinking through a consideration of the career of religious liberty under Modi’s Government in India
As I will show, far from being a universally valid, stable principle, the meaning and practice of religious liberty and how within one year, it has dramatically shifted towards the abyss in India, often in response to the reinstatement of Hindutva’s at helm, bringing local regimes of socio-religious inequality. Rather than treating the history of the sub-continent as simply one of aberration from the norm of Western tolerance, I would highlight how India has engulfed in adverse to its secular normative claims, by rejecting the philosophical framework towards harmonizing religious liberty and being careful in not buying into its presuppositions. For the last 52 years, India has entirely escaped any kind of international scrutiny of what’s been called India’s ‘hidden apartheid’— abuses stemming from the caste system. Now this clearly advocates for an audit towards the self-proclaimed mandate claimed by HIndus to make every Indian a Hindu in a fixed period of time, working through either on collaborations with communal’s involving colossal financial and social resources (including knowledge systems and technological capacities), or using the same unitary, exclusive, and hegemonic paradigm of cultural and religious monopoly advocated by Indian and Hindu nationalism. In terms of conceptual models, there seems to be little difference between wanting to reconvert all Indians into Hindus and seeking to convert all Indians into giving them religious autonomy, has now been proved to be nothing but a simplistic slogan. “India for Hindutva’s by 2100” seems akin to the world-view of Hindutva because it refuses to respect the plurality of religious experiences and expressions.
Of course, the practical difference cannot be ignored: Hindus are an overwhelming majority closely associated with political, economic and social power while Muslims are less than a handsome percentage of the total population without any realistic chance of economic and political influence at a national level. Quite aware of this vulnerability, and fully affirming that the Hindutva agenda must be subverted, what I am calling for is an internal debate within Muslims about the objective and implementation of mission activity within a pluralistic world-view. Monolithic models are always hazardous to the survival of the “other” in its divergent forms, and must be resisted — irrespective of which religion or culture is asserting itself as the “Self”.
Of the myriad facets of this colonial construction, I will stress that the production of the “Indian identity” involved a dual process. On the one hand it construed an homogeneous identity which could “capture” these varied and differentiated peoples; on the other, it posited an essence of this constructed identity which could bind it together. In India this was done by utilizing religion: the first objective was accomplished by construing India as a unitary and homogeneous entity, religiously one; the second goal by uncovering the fact that the essence of this religiousness was Hindu.
Let’s reminisce how colonialism fabricated an “oriental other” in India to legitimate the dominance of the Western self. Orientalism was, so to speak, the philosophy that fuelled the colonial machine. With regard to the production of knowledge it was driven by a twofold agenda: circulating forms of knowledge that “proved” the passive, irrational, traditional, immoral, backward and exotic nature of the Oriental (Eastern) world, and routinized the active, rational, modern, moral, progressive and realistic nature of the Occidental (Western) world. The logic of this body of knowledge implied that it was natural and beneficial that the self (West) overcome the other (East) for the sake of humanity’s progressive evolution. Thus this knowledge is integrally intertwined with power: to colonize, to dominate, to educate, to covert, to guide and control.
Hence the use of such a toxic experiment ended up in resurrecting the menace of Hindutva in India, albeit programmed for the purposes of uniting the nation under the “Indian” banner, it was hijacked under the curse of nationalism that took over the project of construing India as a unitary and homogeneous entity which uncovered the fact that the essence of this religiousness was Hindu. Faced thus with the real and supposed onslaughts on its monopolistic dominance, and haying tried different forms of meeting the challenge, such as reform and revivalism, this anathemic ideology finally settled upon an adequate strategy by reincarnating itself as pan-Indian political-national Hinduism. This group, as the dominant and leading class, reworked and recast Brahminic ideology, from the vantage position of social dominance, to suit the times as an ideology of state power, simultaneous to their claim to appropriate the state itself. . . [Thus] the emergent Hinduism was at once Brahminical as well as national.
Though in committing such an attempt to reconstruct a united India, the framers of Hindutva failed to respect the will of communities who wanted to be part of their nation, but were constrained to its hierarchical Hindu idea of a community under the principle of the varnasrama dharma. One cannot but be struck by the concerted attempts of the nationalists to demonize communities that assert their cultural and religious difference in the face of Hindu nationalistic forces. But the tendency among Hindu Nationalists to tame all heterogeneous and plural forms so that they fit into the unitary construction of a religiously-synthesized India, towards a disciplined pan-Indian identity is simply an opportunistic deployment of a single noble principle. The contradictions and paradoxes internal to the conceptual architecture of this theory is a grave threat to religious liberty itself and its global history.
Here I must, say that one must point to the many instances of violence unleashed on minority communities in India, that resist the pan-Hindu identity; let us take again the Dalits and Muslim minorities as examples. In a methodical and widely-researched monograph, Human Rights Watch documents the increasing violence directed against Dalits: “Between 1994 and 1996, a total of 98,349 cases were registered with the police nation-wide as crimes against scheduled castes. Of these, 38,483 were registered under the Atrocities Act. A further 1660 were for murder, 2814 for rape, and 13,671 for hurt.” It goes on to give a frightening picture of the rise in recent mass murders in Kashmir and the Muslims in general over Beef including the mass graves of some more than 4000 innocent Kashmiri’s.
What vigilant and beneficial response can uphold the human right to be religiously different in India? For something concrete and positive must be done to support the forces resisting the Hindutva phenomenon! The first aspect of a helpful response has to do with what ought not be done. In seeking a solution to this unitary, exclusive and hegemonic ideology one must be careful to repudiate it as a paradigm. The general temptation, after all, is to fight one form of exclusivism with another form of the same, leading to a situation of competing fundamentalist or essentialist paradigms.
Particularly in situations of social conflict and political uncertainty people opt for elementary, facile and unequivocal categories. The need of the hour is to get out of the colonial and national models which sanction the rejection of a plurality of religious expressions. Only then can one embrace an alternate model which empowers all religions to live out their difference, while holding the variety of human communities’ self-expressions within a humane framework. In order to be relevant let me be concrete. What does this rejection of the colonialists’ and nationalists’ paradigm mean for the world-view of Muslims in India?
By way of conclusion let me play with a contextual metaphor which comes from this discussion of multiple religious participation. Consider a model for the pluralistic living of various religious communities along the lines of a large, traditional, rural household in India. Many families from one lineage live in this large ancestral house, each with their own appointed portion. The house is rectangular, with many well-designed portions to accommodate many nuclear families from the same lineage. In their own portion of the house the members of each nuclear family live in autonomy and security. They evolve their own rites, relational patterns, language and social practices. There is much freedom for creative and contextual symbolic expression. These expressions, however, must not contravene the fundamental values and practices of the lineage.
Two common areas bring all members of the household together. First, there is a large, open foyer which leads into a corridor linking each of the portions with the front entrance. This foyer, along with the corridor, is used as a space for social interaction with each other and for entertainment of common visiting friends and relatives. Second, there is an opening at the back of each portion which leads into a common play area. This area, which is secured from the outer world, is where intimate intra-rela-tionships happen between various members of the lineage. Children can play here safely, and various common facilities are shared to meet the needs of the larger family. Some basic rules, worked out among all families, must govern relationships with the aim of guarding the autonomy and security of each family unit, and enhancing the welfare and honour of the lineage as a whole
This metaphor emphasizes that the autonomy and security of each community’s religious experience and expression must be guarded by all members of the extended family, and that the interaction within the common spaces of the house must be governed by mutually agreed codes of conduct allowing for free exchange of ideas and not leading to the theological “annexing” of one unit by another. Succession from the lineage is strongly discouraged; but so are homogenization and hegemonization within the lineage.
I would be wrong to assume that religious liberty in India consists of simply protecting certain Hindutva’s or Hindu extremist individuals from the exercise of state power (that is, advocating for co-existence). The people who are supposed to benefit most from the modern principle of religious liberty—namely, religious minorities, especially Muslims—are at the mercy of Hindu’s willing to transform them by virtue of their subjection to tyranny, the calculus of state and geopolitical power in unique and unpredictable ways. This shift, from a group-based understanding of religious liberty to an individualist one in international legal discourse is more than a conceptual shift; it is direly affecting the substantive meaning and practice of religious liberty as well as the kinds of subjects who can speak in its name in India.
Contemporary India, like today, is at an autonomy towards allowing a systematic attack against various expressions of religious and cultural plurality. The move to project and promote a nation which is unitary by way of its common Hinduness is gaining ground. I have argued here that the ideological model of a monolithic and homogenized India, which fueled the Indian national movement and still fuels contemporary Hindu nationalism, is an extension of Western colonialism. Thus instead of countering the colonial framework, the nationalists appropriated it. This may have been helpful in galvanizing all communities to oppose colonial rule and achieve together Indian independence, but this same unitary and homogenizing ideology has been quite destructive in the hands of present-day Hindu nationalists. Their agenda disciplines both those who stray from the core of the Indian-Hindu value system, and all those others who must be enlightened by “eternal truth” and be reintegrated into the organic — but highly hierarchical — Hindu dharma considered binding on all Indians.
Indeed, if the universal promotion of religious liberty in India has been ridden with colonial and neocolonial agendas, then how does one grapple with the legitimate and important question of providing protections to religious minorities across the country? What other procedural, legal, and social mechanisms do modern polities make possible that can be separated from the exercise of geopolitical domination, interests, and power?
In concluding, let me last point out that these contrastive deployments of restraining religious liberty in India are globally interpreted as the cynical instrumentalization of an otherwise noble principle in the service of realpolitik or corrupt ends. Seen in this way, the principle itself—its logic, its aim, and its substantive meaning—remains unsullied by the impious intentions of the empires, actors, and states that sought to promote or subvert it. Such an argument needs to be complicated for several reasons or else such a separation would be imminent not just conceptually on geography but practically on futile intractability of politics from all human rights struggles of our times