How did the salience of religion in public life transform during the transition from the colonial to the postcolonial era in India? What, if anything, is new about religion in the era of market liberalization, media digitalization, and electoral democracy in India?
Public life in India is always dominated by religious traditions, practices, and norms from precolonial to colonial and colonial to postcolonial era. The idea of free will is drowned in the vast sea of religious traditions. In such a country as India religion constructed the sociocultural and political sphere. The Media sphere is also largely influenced and subservient to religious notions. Religion is an excellent apparatus for political gain. Over time the salience of religion transforms public life and became highly politicized. The intervention of media in the twentieth century stimulates the notion of religious “purity and impurity” which corroborated the “Indianness” of Indian media and proved beneficial for the people who wanted to propagate the concept of India as a Hindu nation. After colonial domination, significantly in contemporary times (last 6 to 7 years), religiosity among people took a horrendous form in India. The growing intolerance in society for a hollow ideology like religion is making the country an uncomfortable habitation for minorities.
1.1. Emergence of the idea of “Hindu” in colonial and postcolonial periods:
The emergence of imaginary kinship and the spreading of the idea of “community identity” instigated the political purpose of state authority in the colonial period (Freitag 1996). In eighteenth-century India, the Hindu merchant class started reshaping the idea of Hinduism and the enforcement of Hindu regulations such as vegetarianism on people, brought contestation among religious groups in public (Cherian colloquium). This contestation later helped the British to transform their trade into an empire. The foundation of the country is castebased, and religion always is the determining factor from the ancient period, but with colonial imperialism, communal politics acquired a new wave, which shifted to the postcolonial era in a different form in its expression. The cow protection movement of the 1890s brought the politics of communalism to the forefront, which lately followed by several communal agitations even in the postcolonial era. Ajodhya agitation in the late twentieth century regarding the location of Babri Masjid, which according to some fundamentalists was previously a Hindu temple but was later annihilated to establish a mosque. Historically, Ayodhya was the native land of the Hindu deity Rama.
The cow protection movement in the late nineteenth century occurred mostly in North Indian states along with Uttar Pradesh and Bihar under the surveillance of Dayananda Saraswati who established “Gaorakshini Sabha” in Punjab for the first time (Freitag 1996). The cow is considered a sacred animal and is treated as a mother (Gaomata) in the Hindu religion. The Muslims and lower caste people became the victim of it. The condition of Muslims and the untouchables of India have always been poverty-stricken, and they never had lands for farming. Therefore, they chose butchery as an occupation and also consumed beef because of its low price. This kind of vague religious interruption harshly castigated them because according to Hindu fundamentalists eating and selling beef was a punitive action as it damages the Hindu sentiment. As Freitag mention, “From the printed rules we discover that in some areas sabhas (committees) targeted Muslims, while in others they targeted low-caste, untouchables, or peripatetic groups. In the cities, the target often became Christian converts” (Freitag 1996). Religious values propagated a community identity, which was the reason behind this kind of agitation and profound devoutness.
An institution like Arya Samaj, and Sanatan Dharm Sabha was successful to spread their notion of religion to the future generation.
1.2. Transformation of religious salience from colonial to postcolonial era:
In the colonial period everything was revolving around nationalist movements, the rise of nationalism also spread the story of the deity Ram as the epitome of nationalism and heroism all over the country in the early twentieth century. “Nationalist ideology, class protest, integrative patronage by a kingly figure: the story of Ram easily carried these myriad messages and more in 1911” (Freitag 1991). The tale of Ram or “Ramlila” was easily accessible to the common people, at the same time it stimulated the nationalist ideologies and idea of community identity. The actors were Hindu males, females, untouchables and surprisingly Muslims.
These kinds of nationalist ideologies with the collaboration of religion conveyed the fear of communalism, fundamentalism, and the violation of democracy even after colonial rule. Power met power. The transition towards a non-secular entity is not anticipated.
During the Indian Independence struggle, Mahatma Gandhi very often used the term “Ram Rajya” (Rule of Ram) to describe democratic rule and state. According to Gandhi the term “Ram Rajya”, does not symbolize any religion or any Hindu God whereas Ram is a Hindu deity. Here he tried to portray that Ram means common people irrespective of religion. But the inner implication towards soft Hinduism is very much noteworthy as he had to pick the name of “Ram” (the Hindu deity) to connote common folk. The connotation was not as innocent as he tried to prove. Another three renowned Bengali figures, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay (Bengali writer who wrote “Vande Mataram song”), Rishi Aurobindo (philosopher and nationalist) and most importantly Swami Vivekananda (Hindu monk who was the main propeller of the revival of Hinduism at the colonial time) also promoted Hinduism under the cover of Nationalism either by their writings or by their deeds. The nationalist freedom movement was very much sub-tuned with Hinduism.
On the other hand, Dayananda Saraswati's Arya Samaj, a reformed version of Hinduism considers Ayrans as Hindu Indians which circuitously denotes Muslims as outsiders. In this context, it is very much important to mention that both communities came to India for imperialism from the outside. But the disparity between the British and them is that the British came to colonize and capture the economy by the name of trading and sent the money to England, but Aryans and Muslims stay here forever and did not shift the economy.
In the early twentieth century, the rise of horrific extreme Hinduism became a threat to Muslims. The expression of Hinduism was also frightening for others, “The dominant image of Hinduism emerged to be one of the very large crowds of people, wielding staffs, flags, swords and other arms, marching processions during religious festivals. These festivals imparted an aura of triumphant and aggressive expansionism to Hinduism, which in turn, elicited counterMuslim reactions, and contributed to the aggravation of communal tension and violence” (Gooptu 1997). North Indian states, especially, Uttar Pradesh played a pivotal role in the development of communalism.
The rise of the urban poor in Hinduism in this period was also notable when the upper class or elite Hindus strengthen their power and drove Hinduism towards a more militant form, the urban poor surprisingly joined as the new force of Hinduism for protecting their identity or out of the contest. The revival of Hinduism provided the platform to redefine the identities of various communities (Gooptu 1997). Various folklores described Sudras (lower caste Hindus) as the warrior sect who fought against Muslim invaders. The emergence of Arya Samaj and this type of other organizations used the tales to create a reformist version of Hinduism and at the same time by glorifying Sudras and disseminating Muslim oppression, these organizations tried 5 to propagate their new Hindu idealism. “The Hindu revival was not a case of different strands and tendencies within Hinduism coming together in defense of a common identity” (Gooptu 1997). Mahatma Gandhi's other coinage “Harijan” to denote “lower caste” or “untouchables”, is also sub-tuned with religion because the term carries “Hari” with it, Hari is another name for Hindu god Vishnu. Though he claimed to use it for breaking the class and caste segregation and inequality as the meaning of it is “person of Hari/Vishnu”. By “otherizing” Muslims and other communities, the term proved to be derogatory for secularism and solidarity.
Just after independence, the domination of religion in India was a little less because at that time the country was dealing with hunger and refugee issues. The impoverished economic condition of the country did not let the countrymen practice religious luxury. In the period approximately between 1950 and 1970, the country went through different major problems. From the period of emergency in 1975 to 1977, religion and communal violence took another form when RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) and the party very much influenced by RSS, BJP (Bhartiya Janata Party) came into the forefront. At the time of emergency Indira Gandhi band RSS but after the fall of the congress government, the power of RSS increased gradually resulting in the Ahmedabad riot in 1985. In this period of crisis (time of emergency and after), some small Hindu nationalist parties compiled together and started different agitation which turned into violent riots.
Aggressive Hindu nationalism and communalism detoured into a devastating form in the 1980s. This time the agitation occurred regarding the caste reservation or quota for socially, economically, and educationally backwards marginalized Hindus. But this agitation took the shape of communal riots and brought horrendous scenarios for Muslims. “People armed with stones, acid bulbs, petrol bombs and burning rags clashed as a communal uproar spread throughout the city” (Shani 2005). Parties are divided based on religion. With the intervention of BJP’s (Bhartiya Janata Party) student wing “Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad” (ABVP), the situation turned into a demonic form. The main perpetrator behind these communal riots started mass killing, damaging property, and burning the houses of Muslims. Depending on the patronage from BJP and VHP (Vishwa Hindu Parishad), ABVP became more brutal in this riot (Shani 2005). The problem of upper caste Hindus regarding this caste reservation is the sense of insecurity of losing power over backward castes. Somehow the reservation seemed to be a touchstone for the marginalized and untouchables. The problem lay in here, j ealousy concerning not getting benefits from the policy. The transformation of the agitation to a communal tumult has this context behind it, “In this case of reservation for the backward castes there was no clear or acceptable criterion for defining backwardness at the national level, and it was open to the states to determine their policy. In some cases, backward caste lists ‘included converts from SC (scheduled castes) to non-Hindu religions and several states used this category to provide some concessions to sections of their Muslim population’.” (Shani 2005).
The seed which Vivekananda the Hindu monk was sowing long back in the colonial era with the slogan, “Say proudly that I am a Hindu” and his propaganda at the Parliament of World’s Religion in Chicago in 1893, got rejuvenation long after colonial domination. This extreme Hindu nationalism obtained more power and put a step ahead in the 1990s when BJP leader and the-then president of BJP, L.K. Advani launched a religious rally which lasted from September-October 1990 to corroborate the agitation of VHP regarding the demolition of Babri Masjid. According to the Hindu fundamentalist organization, Ajodhya is a place of the Hindu deity Ram and there was a Hindu temple dedicated to Ram in the place of Babri Masjid. During the Mughal period, the temple was eradicated to establish the Mosque. So VHP and Sangh Parivar in collaboration with Bhartiya Janata Party wanted to regain the place and built the temple. so “L.K. Advani, launched his Rath Yatra religious procession from Somnath to Ajodhya intending to liberate God Ram’s birthplace” (Shani 2005).
Gradually, a larger section of the political sector of India was captured by Hinduism and its hooligans. In the 1990s when Hinduism was flying high in the sky of India another slap on secularism came to the forefront with the issue of the demolition of Babri Masjid. The organizations like VHP, RSS, Bajrang dal, and Shiv Sena started altercations for the liberty of Ram Janam Bhoomi (birthplace of lord Ram). The issue first emerged in 1984 when VHP by using the political voice of BJP claimed the previous site of the temple of Ram in the place of Babri Masjid (Freitag 1996). In 1986 when the district judge with the support of the then Prime Minister of India Rajiv Gandhi and the Indian National Congress, gave his verdict that provided permission to the Hindus to worship over there. It seemed compensation for the Indian National Congress Party to multiply the vote bank purpose and regain the trust of Hindu voters that spoiled over Shah Bano controversy. After all, that effort went into vain when congress failed to come into power in the 1989 general election. V.P. Singh a leader of Janata Dal took the charge of the throne and became the new Prime Minister of India. The shift of power proved to be fruitful for BJP as their members increased from 2 to 88 in the parliament. The communal slogan like “Muslim hatao” (abolish the Muslims) spread contagious in the air of India. The notion of making “Hindu Bharat” became vigorously eminent and intimidating the ‘other’ identities, significantly Muslims. In support of the demolition of the mosque L. K. Advani launched his Rath Yatra towards Ayodhya but before arriving in Ayodhya he was arrested by the then Bihar government. But the members of RSS reached the location and caused major harm, resulting in a collision between government forces and agitators followed by the death of several RSS volunteers known as ‘Kar Sevaks’.
In 1990 the violence in Kashmir also gave reason to the fundamentalist Hindus to portray the suppression of Hindu identity. In the year 1992, on 6th December, an aggressive religious rally consisting of 150,000 volunteers also known as ‘Kar Sevaks’ of VHP, BJP and RSS moved violently towards Babri Masjid for the destruction of it with axes and hammers. Some renowned BJP leaders, such as Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, and Uma Bharati participated in the rally and threw their orations. The mob became restless and converted to a fearsome rally. Police failed to control such a horrific situation and it went out of control. As a result, it caused the ruin of the age-old mosque. In Freitag’s words, “ The Ayodhya agitation climaxed with the overnight destruction of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, and the beginning of construction of a temple in its stead” (Freitag 1996). 68 people were found as the main perpetrators including a few VHP and BJP leaders. In the aftermath of this incident, several fragment communal riots between Hindu and Muslim communities occurred all over India which made India a wasteland with the death of approximately 2000 people.
After the violent agitation, the failure of the BJP in the 1993 election made them aware of the fact that this kind of old-school Hinduism would not be ascertained to be fruitful for grappling with the vote bank. So they bring some changes in their previous issues with Ayodhya and others and tried to present themselves much more modern and open (Freitag 1996). The power and domination remained the same even after colonial domination. The social hierarchy was also like before, the powerful gained more power and in this power machinery religion played the pivotal part. Freitag rightly remarks in this context, “In all these developments, we can see the genealogical connection to the developments previously traced for British India” (Freitag 1996).
In the 1998 “Lok sabha” election, BJP came to the central power with the new school of Hinduism with the disguise of “modern India”. National telecom policy in1999 is one of the steps towards modernism. Along with that, the emergence of the IT (Information Technology) sector at the time of Atal Bihari Vajpayee brought new possibilities for the Indian economy (Talwar, 2018). The binary is notable here. A Hindu fundamentalist Party like BJP was thinking about modern technology and industry. The shrewd politics of hiding extreme Hinduism under the shadow of modernism by introducing technologies to the Indian Economy was the new trick of the communalist party like the BJP to regain the faith of the countrymen.
Freedom of speech and expression has also been threatened vigorously over the past few years as people are getting over-sentimental about religion. Those who brought questions against authority or superior power and religious superstitions went into the lap of death. For instance, we can mention the murder of Maharashtrian Doctor and social activist Narendra Dabholkar on 20th August 2013, he was combating religious superstition for 40 years in Maharashtra and trying to bring the Anti-superstition and Black Magic Ordinance. Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) and Shiv Sena were adverse to it because according to them it would have excruciated the Hindu customs and culture. The murder of M. M. Kalburgi who was an Indian scholar, and a progressive thinker again budged the concept of democratic rights. He was shot dead on 30th August 2015 because of his comment against the superstition of Hinduism. Another assassination of democracy happened when Gauri Lankesh, a Karnataka-based journalist was shot dead outside her home on 5th September 2017. She was always vilified right-wing Hindu extremism. She fought for women's rights and denounced caste-based politics. Her corroboration for Rohingya refugees, her indirect slap for cow-protecting groups and a liberal, sensitive, intellectual mind led her towards termination from life. These back-to-back murders are an indication towards the inhabitants of India should not voice against the authority and militant Hinduism. These incidents are a direct inclination of intimidating humanity.