Bourgeois Secularism and the Communal Challenge?

This article, to be presented in 3 instalments because of its length, is a slightly extended version of that which appeared in The Marxist, Volume XIX, No 2 April-June 2003. The question of communalism and religious bigotry is extremely important, for it divides and weakens the working-class movement, therefore a Marxist analysis of the problem is essential to the development of a secular, democratic, anti-imperialist and socialist movement. In our view Comrade Grewal has done an excellent job in analysing the problem. However, the conclusions he reaches at the end do not follow from his premises and analysis. In fact, to be very frank, they contradict it. We are however fully aware of the reasons for the above discordance between Comrade Grewal’s premises and his conclusions. He is a members of the Communist Party of Indian (Marxist) and as such, being a loyal party member, feels obliged to endorse his party’s incorrect pro-Congress political line. No perceptive reader would fail to notice this. We are publishing this article, not withstanding some of its erroneous conclusions, for we believe that it makes an important contribution to the understanding of this question. Comrades of Indian origin, as well as class conscious workers in the centres of imperialism, will benefit greatly from reading this article. [ Editor]

Part One

Secularism is an issue of major concern in the Left and liberal circles today. The grim reality of having a Central Government dominated by the communal BJP, heinous attacks on minorities, exemplified by the Gujarat genocide, the penetration of the civil administration, para-military and armed forces by the RSS and the brazen attempts to communalise education and other spheres of public life, more than justify this concern. For the Left and democratic forces the task of fighting back the communal offensive and reasserting the secular principle in the political, social and cultural spheres is therefore, more important than ever before. However, among those who are correctly partisan towards secularism, there is often a tendency to glorify the secularism practiced by the bourgeoisie before and after independence. The role of the bourgeoisie in putting into place the secular Constitution of India or the role of their secular sections in the fight against communalism today cannot be denied. Recognising this should however, not mean an uncritical approach to the practice of bourgeois secularism and policies of the Indian ruling classes which have contributed to the growth of communalism in the country. Such an outlook would not serve the cause of secularism.

Bourgeois Secularism: A Historical Sketch

The Indian ruling classes never fully accepted the secular bourgeois vision rooted in the slogan of the French Revolution for complete separation of religion from both the State and politics. Their version of secularism -‘sarva dharma sambhav’ or equal respect for all religions embodies in it a relationship between the State and religion, which is quite different from that advanced by the revolutionary French bourgeoisie. The latter vision, while guaranteeing religious freedom for all, does not involve any relationship of the State with religion in general or any religion in particular. The Indian version, while positing respect for all religions as a State policy, in essence, accepts religion as one of the parameters of the State’s activities. This opens the way for State interference in religion and vice versa thereby legitimising the two way interplay between religion and politics.

Lest one’s approval of the secular ideal of early capitalism be misunderstood as idealising bourgeois secularism practiced in advanced capitalism, it is necessary to note that the secular vision of early capitalism did not last for long in its original form even in the countries where it was first propounded. Among the European bourgeoisie, it is the French who initially took the most uncompromising position. Their practice however remained close to their ideal only during the early years of the French Revolution. In a real sense, it was only the Paris Commune, the first attempt to establish a proletarian state that put the principle of separation of religion from state and politics into practice. The English bourgeoisie’s attack on ecclesiastical privilege and intervention of the church in state and politics was never as forthright as that of their French counterparts. This is reflective of the fact that the English revolution was not as thoroughgoing as the French revolution. Thus the banishing of the Roman Catholic Church from England was accompanied by according of official position to the Anglican Church which continues to be recognised by the British state as the ‘Church of England’ till date. Besides, the English bourgeoisie had no problem in sanctioning the persecution of Roman Catholics, Jesuits and followers of other non-Anglican denominations in the 17th and 18th centuries.

In essence, the secular ideal had been dictated by the class requirements of the European bourgeoisie in the course of their historic battles to overthrow feudalism. Once this task was achieved in the main, they had no qualms in taking recourse to the usage of religion and a variety of retrograde feudal values to buttress their own class rule. This tendency became more pronounced with the emergence of the modern proletariat. Writing about the revolutions of 1848, Marx and Engels graphically described how the French and German bourgeoisie compromised with the aristocracy and internalised many of the values and ideas of the latter as a means to ward off the proletarian challenge. An example of how institutions of the ‘ancien regime’ were used by the bourgeoisie in its own interests can be seen in the retention of monarchy, once seen as the hated symbol of the feudal set up, by several European nations. This was useful for propagating the virtues of hierarchy, intrinsic to capitalism as well. Another manifestation of the same trend can be seen in the fact that following 1848, the European bourgeoisie gave up its earlier revolutionary attempts to overthrow feudalism by force and opted for gradualist cooption of the feudalists into capitalism. This is best illustrated by the Junker path of capitalist development in Germany.

The European bourgeoisie sanctioned the religious persecution of the Jews. That even the French bourgeoisie was not above this kind of approach is vividly borne out by the famous Dreyfus affair. The worst example of the betrayal of secularism by the European bourgeoisie on home ground is of course that of the genocide of 6 million Jews under the Third Reich on grounds of religion/race. The German bourgeoisie, ardent believers in Lutheran Protestantism, fully supported the Holocaust. The Jews came handy as the ‘enemy within’ and their extermination was an integral part of the fascist attempt of the German bourgeoisie to stave off the class challenge of the German working class, led by the Communist Party of Germany (KPD).

The record of the European bourgeoisie in the colonies starkly illustrates the two-facedness of the secularism practiced by them. Far from propagating the secular ideal in their colonies, they chose to make ample use of religion as one of the weapons in the process of both colonisation and the maintenance of colonial rule. This normally took two forms. The first was the imposition of Christianity upon the ‘pagan natives’ as in Sub-Saharan Africa. The myriad animist cults and religions of the tribal peoples of this region were suppressed and supplanted by Christianity through the aegis of the sword and missionary activity. This co-option of the oppressed into the religion of the oppressor helped in cementing colonial rule. In South and Latin America the Spanish and Portuguese colonists continued the ‘hallowed’ conquistador tradition of enforcement of Christianity on the indigenous peoples as part and parcel of the process of the ‘pacification of Indian tribes’ well into the 19th century, after the bourgeoisie came to control the levers of state power in both Spain and Portugal.

The second form was used to devastating effect by the British colonists in India as an integral part of their policy of ‘divide and rule’. This in essence meant exacerbating differences between followers of different religions with a view to pit them against each other and thereby thwart the emergence of a united challenge to colonial rule. The role of the British colonial government in promoting communalism in India is well known. Suffice it here to recount a few examples of this policy. The British arranged a command performance by some Muslim leaders to demand separate electorates for Muslims in 1906, accepted their demand with great alacrity and gave legal shape to it in the 1909 Morley-Minto reforms. In addition, special weightage was given to the Muslim electors as compared to their Hindu counterparts. The British, “hoped to secure the support of a privileged minority and turn the anger of the majority against the privileged minority, instead of the Government.” (R.P.Dutt-India Today, pp.460-461) Later in 1935 communal representation was further extended by introduction of separate electorates for the Sikhs, Indian Christians and Anglo-Indians. Such actions went a long way in fostering communal animosities. At different points of time when there was an upsurge of mass participation in the national liberation struggle, as during the Swadeshi Movement and in the period from 1930 to 1934, the British did their utmost to heighten communal tensions as a foil to the national movement. This included deliberate Government inaction as in the Kanpur riots of 1931. The support rendered by the British to the Muslim League right from its inception in 1906 and their conscious attempt to use the League against the national liberation struggle was a major plank of this policy. British officials, in their more candid moments, publicly owned up this divisive policy. Thus, Lord Oliver, onetime Secretary of State for India, in a letter to ‘The Times’ stated that, “No one with a close acquaintance with Indian affairs will be prepared to deny that … predominant bias in the British officialdom in India in favour of the Muslim community, … as a makeweight against Hindu nationalism.” (R.P. Dutt-India Today, p.457)

The U.S. provides another revealing example in this regard. Capitalism was built there without the encumbrance of pre-existing feudal social formations. The tribal societies of the indigenous people were virtually wiped out in the process of colonisation. Yet the U.S. retained till the mid 19th century a system of slavery based on race. Despite the abolition of slavery, different forms of racist discrimination – a phenomenon quite akin to communal discrimination – against the Afro-Americans prevails till now in the U.S. The influence of racism is a potent weapon in the hands of the American bourgeoisie to keep the working people divided. The deep impact of religion in social life, rise of the Christian Right, the persistence of racism in advanced capitalism on both sides of the North Atlantic, support rendered by imperialism to Afghan, Bosnian and Chechen fundamentalists and it’s marked preference for the communal forces which control the levers of state power in India today, show that for the developed bourgeoisie, secularism is not an absolute article of faith. Rather, like all other things, its practice is subservient to and tempered by its class interests.

Critics of the Secular Ideal

Before embarking on an examination of the practice of secularism in India, it is necessary to examine two criticisms which are generally made against the secular ideal. The first criticism is that from rightwing political and intellectual circles, especially of the RSS-BJP variety, questioning the ideal of secularism on grounds of its being alien to India. The vision of human civilization, intrinsic to the above viewpoint, negates the objective fact that human development has been possible through a continuous process of give and take between different civilizations and cultures. The advocates of this view are very selective in adopting or rejecting things and ideas they dub as alien. Thus at least on the face of it they are willing to swear by democracy, the parliamentary system, modern jurisprudence, industrial technology etc., despite their ‘alien’ roots. But when it comes to secularism, they begin to rave and rant against it as being foreign and therefore unsuited and unacceptable to India. The real basis of this vehement opposition lies not in the ‘alien’ origins of secularism but in the fact that it is an obstacle in the way of their communal project.

Proponents of the above view argue that religious identity subsumes all other identities, including that of citizenship. The core of this approach consists in sanctioning a pro-active role by the state in favour of the dominant religion, conveniently passed off as dominant culture or dominant way of life. Thus the BJP-RSS and organisations allied to them see nothing wrong in the interplay between religion and politics. Their ideological framework is inherently communal and discriminatory towards the minorities which are perceived as aliens who should have no rights and be content to live at the mercy of the majority. It is also anti-democratic as it does violence to the right of equality between citizens. The latter feature is not something reserved for believers of religions other than their own. It extends to their co-religionists as well. Little wonder that the BJP-RSS are in essence votaries of an authoritarian state and sanction social discrimination within their own communities on the basis of caste, gender etc. A similar viewpoint is also advocated by minority fundamentalist and communal organisations like the Jamat-e-Islami. This approach is the anti-thesis of all that is progressive and positive in modern day society. It is totally incompatible with the needs of Indian society and as experience shows, can only lead to sectarian strife and erosion of democracy at immense cost to the people. It must therefore be rejected entoto.

The second criticism emanates from within secular opinion. Its proponents believe that the separation of state and religion envisaged by European secularism is not possible in a developing country like India with its vast diversity of religious denominations and rampant retrograde social practices. They maintain that without the intervention of the state in religious matters positive and desirable legislation like the Hindu Marriage Act or the Constitutional provisions banning prohibition of temple entry or banning untouchability would not have been possible. This argument tends to ignore the fact that such interventions of the state have more to do with ensuring equal rights of citizens than with intervening in religious matters. Thus, the Hindu Marriage Act relates to the right to divorce, property etc., of Hindu women and addresses gender concerns rather than religious ones. Similarly, banning discrimination in temple entry or untouchability addresses issues of caste based discrimination and cannot be perceived to be meddling in religious affairs. It can be argued that certain interventions of the state in religious matters may become necessary to ensure that the constitutional provisions regarding freedom of conscience, equality between citizens and safeguarding minority rights are upheld in letter and spirit. Similarly, such intervention may also be required in matters of inter-religion disputes or to ensure that funds of religious institutions are not misused. Here it is not a question of drawing a steel wall between the state and religion which cannot be breached by the state under any circumstances. Rather, the concern underlying advocacy of the separation the state and politics from religion is actuated by the adverse experience of the ‘sarva dharma sambhav’ variant of secularism sanctioned by the Indian state and practiced by the Indian bourgeoisie that has provided ample opportunity for every religion to meddle in politics and for politics of different shades to utilise religion, subtly or blatantly, for their own ends.

Class Limitations of Bourgeois Secularism in India

The peculiar nature of the Indian State has had a direct bearing on the ideology and practice of bourgeois secularism. Indian capitalism was not built by first destroying feudalism. It is in essence a superimposition on existing pre-capitalist social formations. This reflects in the composition and nature of the Indian ruling classes. Thus the bourgeoisie, to whom the British handed over power in 1947, chose to compromise with landlordism (then predominantly feudal) and to include them as junior partners in state power, as a means to stop the people’s upsurge from attaining a revolutionary character as well as to ensure control over a predominantly rural India. The State which emerged is also a strange medley in as much as it is led by the most developed section of the bourgeoisie i.e. the big bourgeoisie, and yet contains in its ruling classes landlords of even the feudal variety.

Given this, instead of destroying feudalism and implementing it’s own pre-independence promise of giving ‘land to the tiller’, the bourgeoisie chose to adopt a policy of pressurising pre-capitalist landlords to take to capitalist farming. The fact that land monopoly remains intact in very large parts of the country, despite different land reform legislations, underlines the impact of this compromise. This material reality has impacted adversely on the social consciousness of the people and helped sustain retrograde social practices and ideas. It has also left a similar imprint on the ideology and practice of the bourgeoisie. It would however, be wrong to view this consciousness of the bourgeoisie as being merely the result of a one way impact of these material conditions. The fact is that Indian capitalism has wilfully co-opted and internalised retrograde ideologies and practices, essentially rooted in pre-capitalist social formations and given them a new lease of life. They provide the Indian bourgeoisie handy weapons to keep the people divided and pre-empt any class challenge to their rule. It is therefore not surprising that the practice of secular bourgeoisie reveals several examples of compromise with the ideology and practice of communalism. In fact this trend dates back to the period of the national liberation struggle.

[to be continued]