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Published in the 16-30 Sep 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Religion, power and violence

By Ram Puniyani

The world scene has seen immense and horrific violence in recent times. Two planes ram into the World Trade Centre, nearly three thousand people perish into oblivion, an 'Islamic terrorist' Osama bin Laden, thanks Allah for this act. US President George W. Bush launches an attack on Afghanistan to catch hold of Osama bin Laden and call this attack as crusade.

Separated by thousands of kilometres, in another part of the World, Gujarat, India, a train coach is burned. Instant investigation by the chief minister of that state gives him the insight that this was an act of Islamic terrorists in collaboration with local Muslims. His associates give the call that Hindus are in danger and he signals that revenge process will not be disturbed. He instructs his staff to sit back. His administration goes a step further and assists the rampaging marauders out to kill Muslims. Two thousand people lose their lives. The plight of women and children is beyond description. What these victims share in common is the religion called Islam. Just a few years ago people in Bosnia and Rwanda died in thousands for belonging to the 'wrong' religion.

Last three decades have seen the violence world over under the flag of religions. Is this violence done to save some religion or its followers? Is it done to protect the moral values, deen, ethics, and dharma of the particular religions? Is this violence done to save the traditions and communitarian ethos of the followers of those religions? How are religions related to the massive violence, which goes on in their name?

One recalls that even in medieval times the phenomenon of crusades, jihads and dharmayudhs, which, kings undertook on the pretext of religion. Were these meant to expand religion or were they meant to expand their empires. One recalls that the identity of religions is associated more with the clergy and less with the moral values of the religions. It does not require too much of knowledge to realise that in pre-industrial society the clergy, the most visible part of religions was associated with the landlords and the kings in different forms. Somewhere in direct collaboration from top to bottom, somewhere in fragmented form. Also there was another set of people associated with religions, the saints, who were away from the power centres. These were the saints, the bhakti saints in Hindu tradition, the Sufi saints in Islamic tradition and mystiques and later liberation theologians in Christian tradition, were away from the centres of power and were close to the poor, exploited and oppressed sections of society.

The rulers did not tolerate the saints. The clergy, the official upholders of the religion, were hostile to bhakti saints, who were killed in various ways. The two facets of religion were always counter-posed to each other. Since the traditions close to power are more dominant, the Church, Ulema and Brahmins are presented as the vehicles of religion. The parallel traditions of saints remain on the margins, snubbed by the social and political powers.

A sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya refused to receive the emperor in his dargah, Tukaram was done to death, Chokhamela reprimanded God himself for the plight of the poor. These traditions emphasied on the message of love and amity in contrast to the clergy, which gives importance to rituals and the written word. In India the saints, mostly came from lower castes and did proclaim that they have no capacity to learn the heavy tomes of their religion written in Devbhasha (language of Gods, upper castes) Sanskrit, which was denied to them anyway, because of their low caste status.

During the process of secularisation the role of clergy declined from the social and political space. The structural hierarchies of caste and gender, which this clergy legitimised in the name of religion started getting challenged, got abolished in countries where industrialisation took place in the early period. These societies strove for the values of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. In colonies the nexus between colonial powers and the landlords, kings blocked the secularisation process. And in countries like India these declining classes, Landlord-Clergy, threw up the politics in the name of religion, known as communal politics. For example in India it came up as Muslim League and Hindu Mahasabha-RSS, but these were marginal streams. At the world level the politics was dominated by the colonial powers. Later US emerged as the major world power and national liberation struggles in the colonies took the inspiration from Russian and Chinese revolutions, at many places under the flag of socialism. During this era the global violence was presented as the struggle between the free world and communism.

After the cold war era, the decline of socialist economies, the hegemony of US started becoming indisputable. Its machinations in the oil zone where Islam was the dominant religion, the new offensive of Imperialism took the garb of religious language and the 'backward Islam' started being targeted by the US and its cohorts. It is to support this imperialist ambition that the theory of Clash of Civilizations (Samuel Huntington) came up as a cover for US policies. This theory very cleverly counter poses the advanced western Civilisation against backward Islamic civilisation. Here the western civilisation is not Christian, and the Middle East Muslims and others are clubbed to be having the backward Islamic civilization. The wars launched by US against the people of Afghanistan and Iraq are presented as a logical extension of this thesis, to set right the wrongs of backward Muslims.

Around this time in India the rise of Hindutva politics has goals similar to that of the US as far as targeting Muslims and Islam are concerned. This Hindutva ideology is a politics based on Brahminical stream of Hinduism and had base earlier in the declining classes of landlords and clergy (Jamindar, Brahmin, Bania) and now it flourishes amongst the new middle class thrown up by the so called development process. This middle class, affluent and the core of Shining India? has gained immensely from the process of industrialisation and also from the mindless globalisation from eighties onwards. It is this middle class, which sustains a new breed of religious people, in saffron or any other colour. This new set of gurus and acharyas, Sri Sri Ravishankar, Asaram Bapu, Pandurang Shastri Athwale, Sudhanshu Mahraj, Aniruddh Bapu and the like, are the nerve soothers for the existential tensions of the middle class. These gurus are pushing the Manusmsirit and the feudal values of caste and gender hierarchies in a new language, the language laced with modernity, so to say.

Globally and locally various phenomena are overlapping. Now as the offensive of power seekers at world level is masked in the language of religion, particularly anti-Islam, those aspiring for control on social and political power at home are also using this Hindutva, religion based politics.

The language of religion is deceptive. It gives it a type of moral sanctity, it creates a sort of mass hysteria, and it offers a sort of platform for the retrograde ideology. The goals of power are creating violence, condoned by those who should have different types of social power. Violence is the superficial layer of this politics of power in the name of religion. It is more than a coincidence that while, religion targeted by US at the world level and the one targeted in India by Hindutva are the same. The camaraderie of those using religion for their political goals cannot be missed.

Religion has diverse functions in society. The way it is being used (or abused) by Hindutva and US and its cohorts, is its most dominant face. The clergy at many times plays diverse roles as well. At times it has played the role of projecting the religion, which is the opiate of the masses, it has also been the sigh of the oppressed in this heartless world. The Sufis and saints had particularly played the latter role. While the opiate role has been played by a section of clergy tied to the apron strings of those in political and social power, acting as legitimisers of their exploitative and oppressive role. One sees the Church of old times associating with kings, and the one currently, which is opposing the US offensives as the same institution playing diverse role with change of time. One can see in Indian context the fleet of gurus with immense wealth under their control serving as the base for creating the opinion and opium for Hindutva politics. One also sees the saffron clad sadhus of Vishwa Hindu Parishad asking for revenge against Muslims.

Religion, if one regards moral values as its core, should not be associated with power. Different types of people associated with religion have at times played as handmaiden to the power centres, legitimising their violence in turn. The triad of religion power and violence gets connected once we see the ambitions of those using religion for their narrow goals. If the people of religion cannot be associated with the plight of poor and oppressed they are handmaidens of the powerful. And in turn then they are legitimisers of violence. The examples of these abound.

It is time that the people associated with religion realise the abuse to which religion has been put. Some streams of religion are for this goal in a blatant fashion. Then there are other streams of religion which play a soothing role for the exploited sections of society. This section of religious people, true to the moral values of religions, can live their religion only by associating themselves with the plight of the poor, oppressed and the underdogs. Association of religion with power is the crux of its negative role in society. A severance of this will surely put religion more as the vehicle of sigh of the oppressed and this can only be achieved by firm advocacy of the causes of this section, this can be achieved by associating with their struggles for the justice, gender, economic, social and political.

(Excerpts from the talk delivered at 6th W. A. Vissert Hooft Memorial Consultation, Ecumenical Institute Bossey, June 2004)

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