Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by wise people as false and by the rulers as useful. -- Seneca (4 BC-AD65)
A picture is worth a thousand words.
An outgoing Prime Minister of the ‘world's biggest democracy’ seen meditating under the glare of cameras in a cave specially opened for the occasion and with a dress stitched for the event, conveys many things simultaneously.
First and foremost, it tells us that the present incumbent to the post would at least be remembered for his varied sartorial tastes among the galaxy of PMs who headed the republic earlier. It appears that either all the others lacked the sense to dress for the occasion or found it a mundane job not befitting the post and the responsibilities they held then.
It also reminded one of what the present PM’s one-time mentor, L K Advani, had called him: "..[b]rilliant and efficient events manager".
It also conveyed the distance travelled by the newly carved out ‘new India’ from ‘old India’ where now it does not seem odd that the head of the government -- which still formally calls itself secular, does not have any qualms in publicly displaying his religion -- which basically should remain a private matter -- laced with all the rituals and formalities.
Perhaps in an ambience saturated with religious imageries, where intrusion of religion into affairs of the State are being increasingly normalised, where a saffron robed monk -- head of a big temple -- formally heads the biggest state (Uttar Pradesh) in the country, where government uses its own helicopters to sprinkle rose petals on religious tourists (kanwad yatra) of the majority religion, this is the ‘new normal’.
This ‘meditation’ tour of the PM to Kedarnath, a day before the crucial Varanasi elections, beamed live on TV cameras, reminded one of his very first visit to Nepal after assuming the PM's post which had culminated in his visit to the famous Pashupatinath temple in Kathmandu. According to analysts, it had signalled a 'paradigm shift' that was taking over India where Indianness was being redefined
How much expenditure was incurred by the state exchequer for this personal visit of a PM to a temple?
It was more than Rs 4 crore because the PM, after performing Rudra Abhishek, had presented 2,500 kg sandalwood and 2,400 kg of ghee (worth Rs 9.6 lakh at Rs 390 a kg) to the temple authorities. Barring stray critical voices, nobody raised the valid question that while it is normal for heads of state to exchange expensive gifts to their counterparts, why should Modi's personal visit to the temple be paid through public taxes when ''Lord Shiva is not the head of state of Nepal."
Noted journalist Bharat Bhushan had then compared this behaviour of the head of a secular state to the way Gandhi and Nehru had behaved when the newly independent state -- which had witnessed internecine killings and riots on a massive scale -- was taking initial steps towards normalisation.
The renovation of Somnath Temple was one such big issue. Remember Sardar Patel and K M Munshi went to meet Mahatma Gandhi seeking State support for the project, who said that people should contribute towards any such project and it is not the State's job. Nehru also refused to concede to their demand and even "[r]eprimanded Munshi for writing to the Indian Embassy in Peking asking it to "send waters from the Hoang Ho, the Yangtse and the Pearl rivers, and also some twigs from the Tien Shan mountains" for the reconstruction of Somnath."
What is of key importance is that Nehru even opposed then President Rajendra Prasad's proposed participation in the inauguration of the temple as head of a secular state? It is a different matter that Prasad did go there, not as President but as a private citizen of the country.
History bears witness also to the famous episode involving Maulana Azad and Nehru where the then PM turned down Azad's request to carry a copy of Quran to Turkey as a gift to the Premier there. Nehru said being a representative of a secular country; it can convey a distorted image of our country.
The question is, why does the State today seem to believe that people will react positively to public display of religiosity by the head of government.
Inadvertently or so this leads us to a broad query relating to the journey of secularisation, which effectively means removal/exit of the ‘sacred’ from the functioning of State and society and its reconstitution on secular foundations. It also leads us to introspect the whole idea of secularism and enquire why there is a lack of social foundation for it in this country.
It needs to be mentioned that there is still confusion or lack of consensus within the broader secular movement about what constitutes ‘secularism’. Should we see it as ‘sarv dharm sambhav (equality for all religions)’, as popularised by Gandhi and his band of seculars, or should we look at it as ‘separation of religion and politics? In fact, this confusion exists within the progressive movement, too. The absence of clarity gets reflected in the strange formulation one witnessed after the demolition of the Babri mosque when a section of progressive forces tried to ‘appropriate Rama in its own way’ by dividing Ram into ‘real Ram’ and ‘phoney Ram’.
For various reasons, serious thought could not be given to the whole process of secularisation also (‘a process by which sectors of society and culture are removed from the domination of religious institutions and symbols’ – Peter Berger) in a country like India, and we remained focussed on maintaining or strengthening secularity of the state in a society which was not secular, but was based on exclusions of various kinds – may it be based on caste, gender, ethnicities etc. It is possible that most of us broadly concurred with the prevalent understanding then made much popular by the scholars like Peter Berger (The Sacred Canopy, 1967) which argued that the decline of religion was inevitable in a modern industrialising society. It can be mentioned how this understanding flows out of what academic Meera Nanda calls:
“[e]nlightenment project which believed that as men and women begin to understand the underlying order of nature without involving God, they will learn to outgrow their faith in God”
One knows that the Indian Constitution is based on this classical view of secularisation.
Our confidence in the rationalisation of work process, removing all scope of divine intervention or magical action or the unfolding reality of ‘emancipation of the state from the sway of religious rationales for economic activity, law and politics which is universal characteristics of all modernising states’ (The Sacred Canopy, page 179) led us to a situation where whole world of culture and society was left open to various status quoist, reactionary interventions, – be it from religious formations or from the likes of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or Jamaat-e-Islami, which further helped de-secularisation of the society. It was a manifestation of the situation within the society where one witnesses emphasis of the progressive/transformative movements on political-economic struggles and their neglect of intervention in the social-cultural arena.
Another limitation is that secularism was envisaged broadly in terms of an extension of the anti-communal struggle which left many ‘fraternal’ struggles outside its purview. One could refer to Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor who construes secularism as ‘emptying of religion from autonomous social spaces’. Looking back, one finds that movements whose direct or indirect impact was on similar lines, were never considered as an essential part of the movement.
For example, the anti-caste or Dalit movement, movement against patriarchy and gender-based oppression, people’s science movement, rationalist movement or movement of the exploited and oppressed for dignity and rights, definitely bear the potential of limiting the role of religion in statecraft as well as society. But there was no attempt to broaden the constituency of ‘secular movement’ or integrate them in a larger framework. There could be many such points and the conversation should continue with a hope expressed in the Sanskrit couplet ‘Wade Wade Jayate Tatvabodhah’ (Let us reach a sense of the world by this debate).
The writer is an independent journalist. The views are personal.