Is Religion Nonsense?
ago the official journal of our Planning Commission, Yojana brought
out a special number with the theme ‘Stop this Nonsense Now’.
were our distinguished intellectuals mostly from the academic community
and also people like P. N. Haskar and M. G. K. Menon. The articles were
sensible, though debatable, about combating communalism, and generally
pointed out the negative role of religious fanaticism in spreading the
communal views. But the theme and the editorial had a more simple approach.
The argument seemed to go like this: Religion is nonsense; stop this
nonsense now; ban religion from public life and confine it to the private
domain and everything will be all right.
matters are not that simple. The privatization of religion cannot solve
the problems of inter-religious conflict and communal riots. Technically,
we privatized religion when we opted for a "secular state" as distinct
from a Hindu or Islamic state such as our neighbour and twin brother,
Pakistan, chose. But, in fact, we could not privatize religion.
We recognized, in
framing our constitution soon after independence, that justice demand
special state support for those communities which were socially and
economically under-developed-– the scheduled castes and scheduled
tribes, as well as religious minorities. This was based on the principle
that in a democracy, minority groups needed some protection against
the will of the majority which can be imposed upon the minorities
by sheer majority vote.
Where we failed
to privatize religion was in grouping these minority communities by
religious labels or religious adherences. It was possible to get special
protection for minority institutions only if these institutions had
minority label. One gets certain fee concessions only if one is a Hindu
Harijan, not if one is a Christian Harijan or a Muslim Harijan. One
gets reservations for jobs and electoral representation only if one has a
religious label. Now, this clearly means that we have not privatized
religion, nor have we separated religion and the state. Constitutionally
we are not, strictly speaking, a secular state, though the preamble
to the Constitution says so.
Let me make it clear
that I am not arguing either for full privatisation of religion or
a fuller seperation of state and religion. Those who believe in a secular
state (I do not), if they are consistent, will have to amend the Constitution
substantially in order to make backwardness measured by socio-economic
rather than religious criteria. There are many in both Harijan and
Girijan communities who are socially or economically backward. There
are many others in both Harijan and Girijan communities who are socially
and economically way ahead of the masses of India.
I do not want
to enter into the controversy about reservations since this can have,
as we have seen, rather unpleasant consequences. It is a fact that special
concessions to certain groups are often at the expense of other groups.
A competent Brahmin today finds himself or herself handicapped because
of the community to which he/she belongs was regarded once as over-represented
in the echelons of power. Is there not an injustice here? Is it not
also true that to withdraw special privileges from scheduled castes,
scheduled tribes and minority religious communities would also be unjust,
since the vast majority of the members of these groups are underprivileged
and unable to compete as equal partners in the struggle for scarce
It is a solution
to this problem that is urgently needed -- to deal with our problem
of communal conflict. We probably made a mistake in framing our Constitution.
It is the principle of justice (as distinct from equality) that the
weak and the underprivileged should get special consideration and have
some special privileges until they overcome their inherited weakness. But
they are not underprivileged because they belong to a particular religion.
In fact, we know that the late Babu Jagjivan Ram was exceptionally
powerful at one time, in part at least, precisely because he was a
Harijan and partly because of his own capacities, endowment and good
does not make a person underprivileged. There is no justification, at
least in a secular state, to measure backwardness by religious adherence.
Recognized backwardness, as a basis for special privileges, should not
be determined by religious adherence, but by socio - cultural
and economic parameters.
I know some of the
practical difficulties in implementing this principle. Nevertheless
it will be good to recognize the principle and prepare the nation to
work out a just solution when people are ready to face the issue rationally
and not emotionally.
Secular vs. Pluralistic
I said earlier
that I am not for the idea of a secular state, though the Preamble lays
it down as a qualifying adjective for our state in India. I should explain
First of all,
I do not believe that secularism is scientific. Neither do I believe
that a religious view of life is scientific. I believe that it is beyond
the purview of science to decide whether a secular view of reality is
more true than a religious view of reality. I believe that religious
views of reality can be questioned by rational arguments. It is quite
legitimate to do so, since reason is a noble instrument at the
disposal of human beings by which they can relate to reality and relate
to other human beings. But the argument between a secular view of reality
and a religious view of reality cannot be settled on the plane of formal
logic. It is the same when it comes to a debate between the various
religions. Ultimately there is no rational ground for choosing the
Christian scriptures as more authoritative than Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist,
or other scriptures.
We should recognize
the freedom of human beings to adhere to one religion or another or
to none and be a secularist. But neither religion nor secularism should
claim scientific sanctions. A government has no right to promote secularism
as an ideology. The separation of state and religion must apply also
to secularism, since it functions as a religion and is not based on
any consensus in the scientific community.
of this point is that the state has no right to demand from me a commitment
to a so-called 'secular' state. Whether one holds a secular view or
a religious view of reality is not for the state to decide.
In place of
the so-called Secular State, I prefer to speak of a Pluralistic State,
if we want to avoid the idea of a Hindu State, Islamic State, etc. A
Pluralistic State is one in which people of religions and of no religion
(secularists) can be commonly committed to a single nation and its
national goals and purposes, as adumbrated in the Constitution and
in democratic parliamentary decisions and enactments.
respect for other religions or no religion and the willingness of all
regional, linguistic or communal groups to subordinate their interests
to the larger just interests of the nation, would form part of the
commitment of every citizen in a Pluralistic State.
Common Personal Law
I would also
like to see a common personal law for all citizens, irrespective of
caste or religion or sex or race. This entails two principles:
a) It is
not the responsibility of the state to control or implement religious
law. They can lay only broad guidelines for national law, within which
each religious group will have its own machinery to enforce its discipline,
so long as it does not infringe upon the personal liberty of the citizen
except by his consent.
b) The personal
laws of the state should be so flexible as to cause as little conflict
as possible with the known and approved laws of the eight religions
of India. This means, for example, that if Catholic Christians want
to enforce a more strict divorce law or monogamous law and Muslims wish
to enforce a more flexible divorce and marriage law, the state should
adopt a more flexible personal law. This would mean that if Christians
or Hindus want to enforce stricter divorce and marriage laws, they
cannot depend on the state to enforce it for them. They will have to
find their own ecclesiastical disciplinary measures. But in formulating
such flexible personal laws, the state will also have to make sure,
for example, that women's rights to life and economic security are
preserved, and that justice is not denied to human beings.
These are, of course,
long-term perspectives within which the problems of communal disharmony
are to be tackled. We should begin work on this now.
Role For Religion
The second part
of my reflection on this subject relates to the positive role religious
elements can play in promoting communal harmony. I am convinced that
communal harmony will not come by fighting religion and calling it nonsense.
Without the cooperation of the religious leadership of the eight recognized
Indian religions (Hinduism, Islam, Christianity and Sikhism as major
religions and Jainism, Buddhism, and Zoroastrianism as minor religions),
we cannot really advance towards communal harmony and national integration.
The first thing
to note is that every religion has an exclusivist-polemic dimension
and an inclusivist-humanitarian dimension. Religious fundamentalism
is usually exclusivistic and polemic in its temper. It believes that
God is specially interested only in the adherents of that particular
religion, or religious school, and would exclude others from the inner
circle of the privileged. This means that religious fundamentalism is
politically and economically conservative or reactionary, anti-progress,
anti-rational, anti-socialist. This is so in Christian, Islamic or Hindu
fundamentalism. This fundamentalism then gets monetary and moral support
from the privileged classes within that religion, but is opposed by
the fundamentalists of other religions. Communal conflict is thus a
strange amalgam of the conflict of fundamentalisms, and the conflict
of vested interests within each religion.
Even this aspect
of religion will not go away by calling it nonsense. The religious instinct
becomes the buttress for economic interest. The religious instinct
in human beings is just as powerful as, or sometimes even more powerful
than, the instincts of sex or self-preservation. We cannot deal lightly
with these instincts. The politicians also know the great power of
this religious instinct and seek to recruit it in their own personal
or group interests.
But there is
another side to religion. This more compassionate, humanitarian aspect
is expressed more by lay persons than by religious leaders. Only outstanding
religious leaders, like the founders of religions and the great gurus
in each religion (Mahatma Gandhi, Tagore etc.) manifest this openness
and compassion to humanity as a whole and champion the cause of the
poor and the weak, of the oppressed and the exploited.
It is this aspect
in each religion, present in a limited number of religious leaders and
in a large number of cultured believers that we need to promote, organize
and mobilize in the service of communal harmony, as well as of national
integration and international justice. Secular-minded people can join
forces with such people, instead of condemning all religious forces
as reactionary. Let our marches, demonstrations, seminars, Public
meetings, etc. for communal harmony have a visible religious leadership
component, and a large background support by lay people from all
That would be
a positive role for religion. It may even convert some of the fundamentalists.