Indian polity has been witnessing inter-religious hostility since before the country’s independence. This hostility has sometimes caused immense damage, including bloodshed, arson, rape and other brutalities to the Indian society. Time to time some saner elements had been coming forward to ensure religious harmony but they were challenged by those religious groups who were interested in maintaining their own identities. Such groups, instead of listening to those saner elements, organized militant movements to preserve their separate identity. Thus, the country was being driven in two directions - one towards secularism of politics and integration of communities and the other towards sectarianism and separatism. As far as the nature of modern Indian society is concerned, its multi-religious character is not confined to only man and God relations but is intimately connected with the exercise of powers. Multiplicity leads to inter-religious strife but combined with the issue of political power, inter-religious confrontation in India creates explosive social and political situations.
India is a pluralist country and hence all major religions of the world- Christianity, Islam and Judaism found a place here even though Hinduism remained the dominant belief system. All religions have a value system and separate religious texts, which serve as a guide to what is right and wrong.
While the basic tenet of Hinduism is peaceful co-existence, the belief system of Islam and Christianity is intricately linked to political power and hence history is witness to their indulgence in wars and the use of sword for the spread of their religion in different geographical areas. Thus, for Islam and Christianity, religion and political power have either worked as a great combination or a workable compromise.
In India, the two major religious communities - Hindus and Muslims have little in common in terms of religious beliefs. In the twentieth century, the problems in Hindu-Muslim relationship had to be resolved so as to put up a united fight against the foreign ruler. While Gandhi and Nehru, in their own ways were spearheading and attempting to bring Hindus and Muslims together in the mainstream of the struggle for independence, the Muslim elite was divided in its approach to the problems of inter-religious relationships. While one section of the Muslim elite jumped into the national movement under the leadership of Gandhi and Nehru, the majority of the Muslim community in India came under the influence of separatist leaders who thought that the interests of Muslims could not be safeguarded in a united India which in reality would be a Hindu-majority India. Hence, during the freedom struggle this section of Muslim leadership pressurized the British to recognize the separate identity of the Indian Muslims and safeguard it by partitioning the country into two parts. The partition of India and emergence of Pakistan added a new dimension to the problem of secularism in the Indian sub-continent. In the pre-independence period, India saw three models of secularism provided by Gandhi, Nehru and Jinnah.
Gandhi believed in the essential unity of religions and emphasised that the points which divided the major religions were peripheral while unity was the basic and important point. In a multi-religious society, with history of inter-religious competition and confrontation, perhaps this confederal character of religion seemed a proper approach to Gandhi. But this approach to religion-politics relationship was inadequate because by emphasizing the essential unity of religions, new consciousness among the mass of illiterate people, particularly whose religious faith was dependent on political power, could not be created. Also Gandhian approach could not make any abiding impact on the masses whose beliefs were based on the principle that their own religion was different and superior to others.
Secondly, the issue was not about religions and their beliefs but about the place of religion in politics and society. Gandhi tried to tackle the problem without relating them to the history of religion-state power alliance in India. Hence in spite of honest and sincere efforts, Gandhi could not improve inter-religious relationship in India. For Gandhi, secularism would be ensured if all religions are respected.
Nehru’s approach to the problem of religion and politics in India was fundamentally different from that of Gandhi. Unlike Gandhi, Nehru rejected religion in his personal life. Nehru was influenced by science and his rational and materialist outlook impelled him to reject all organized religions. Nehru wanted a society where religious beliefs had no place, and if people believed in some religions it should be their private affair. But the question at stake was not the question of religion but power politics in which religion played an important role. According to Nehru, the remedial measures for the situation were economic development and industrialization of the country. Nehru believed that the processes of change generated by economic development and science and technology would generate a new consciousness of citizenship and the existing religious loyalties may then be replaced by secular and modern outlook.
In pre-independent India, while Gandhi and Nehru were spearheading the nationalist movement in their own ways and were attempting to bring Hindus and Muslims together in the mainstream of struggle of freedom, the Muslim elite was divided in its approach to the problem of inter-religious relationship. Though a section of Muslim elite jumped into the national movement under the leadership of Gandhi and Nehru, the Muslim community in general, in absence of any effective integrationist leader, felt that the interest of Muslims would not be secure in a united India, which would be Hindu dominant. The Muslims found a separatist leader in Mohammad Ali Jinnah who articulated the idea of a separate Muslim state under the banner of Muslim League. The ultimate result was the partition of India into two parts.
After independence, the views of Nehru prevailed and the Constitution of India separated religion from politics in the fundamental law of the land. But the separation of religion from politics in the Constitution itself could not ensure practice of secularism in the country because the public functionaries in the pyramid of power continued to be influenced by religious consideration in the performance of public responsibilities. Most importantly, practice of secularism added a new dimension when some of the political parties started to use the term secularism to form vote banks. Since by now it has become an effective tool to create and strengthen vote banks, the political parties are leaving no stone unturned to appease the minorities in the name of secularism, even at the cost of the majority’s interest which has resulted into the widening of gap between the majority and minority. Such political parties have brought the term secular and communal in common use and all those who believe in the welfare of all are branded as communal. The so called secular parties’ appeasement have moved a step further wherein they try to impress upon the minorities that they (secular parties) are their only saviour as they face danger from the majority community. Thus, secular-communal debate is taking the country back to pre-independence days. In fact, the vote bank politics has reached a stage where the pseudo-secularists are playing with fire forgetting the nation’s past history.
Being the oldest and biggest political party in India, it was the responsibility of the Congress party not to enter into the arena of vote bank politics and thereby set an example for other political parties. But it failed to do so with the result that other political groups also adopted the same means to compete with it. Congress from Nehru’s days till now had been trying to inculcate a sense of insecurity in the minds of minorities and appease them with a view to project itself as their only well-wisher. Even for the next Lok Sabha polls to be held in 2014, Congress leaders including its Vice President Rahul Gandhi have made it a point to repeat the slogan of secularism explicitly to instill a sense of insecurity in the minds of minorities particularly Muslims. The desperate attempt to create and strengthen vote bank in the name of secularism is a dangerous divisive trend. Thus, the concept of nationalism with which secularism is intrinsically connected is facing a serious challenge from vote bank politics and if this trend is not curbed, it is perhaps going to be a long battle for all those for whom the concept of ‘India First’ is the prime slogan.