IMPASSIONED speeches pertaining to subjects that are political and outpourings of religious sentiment originating from events that are apparently affairs of the state are taking many by surprise. Religious zealotry of the undesirable kind is also uncomfortably visible. Religious leaders are venturing to occupy a larger part of the public space while mainstream political parties are trying to woo such elements with a view to garnering popular support in the not-too-distant general election.
Retracing the political history of the sub-continent one would find that religion was never totally detached from politics nor was it ever exclusively confined to private space. The issues that the Indian National Congress discussed and the reforms it recommended to various provincial organisations had strong religious implications. The revivalism of late 19th century and early 20th century was marked by a conceptualisation of a glorious Hindu past, believed to have been degenerated under Muslim rule and threatened by the British. This glorification of Hindu civilisation over Islamic or western often boiled down to attempts to exalt and rationalise Hindu institutions and practices.
Swami Vivekananda's evocation of Hindu glory mixed with patriotism which sought to restore the masculinity of the Indian nation denied to them by their colonial masters, had a tremendous impact on the popular mind. He became the “patron prophet” for a whole generation of extremist leaders and militant revolutionaries, dreaming the resurrection of a glorious Hindu India. Hinduism became a useful rhetoric for organising a more articulate and sometime even militant opposition to foreign rule.
In Bengal, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee portrays the mythical figure Krishna as the modern politician and a nation builder. It was in his novel Anandamath, published in 1882 that he invented an icon for the nation, the Mother Goddess, identified with the motherland. And the song Bande Mataram (hail mother) which he composed in exaltation of this once beautiful mother, became the anthem of nationalist movement in India. The imagination of this icon was clearly taken from the repertoire of Hinduism.
In Maharashtra Bal Gangadhar Tilak in alliance with the Poona revivalists frequently invoked Hindu, Brahman and Maratha glory. The use of orthodox Hindu religious symbols for political mobilisation took a more militant form in north India through the Arya Samaj and the cow-protection movement which led to widespread communal violence in 1893. This movement was later absorbed into the dominant pan-Hindu revivalist framework. Their propaganda was mainly directed against the Muslims and the Christians. The Arya Samaj developed the concept of "Suddhi", which aimed at reconversion from Christianity, Islam and Sikhism.
It was in late 19th century that Hindu community began to define their boundary more closely and began to display more communal aggressiveness. At this time Hindu mobilisation took place around the symbol of cow, which communicated a variety of cosmological constructs relevant to both the Brahmanical and devotional traditions of Hinduism.
The cow-protection movement became an issue of communal rivalry as the debate over the legal ban on cow slaughter arose. Cow slaughter had a political meaning for Muslims as it meant a symbolic assertion of freedom from Hindu supremacy. The cow was being used as a symbol for community mobilisation. There was an increasing necessity for mobilisation along community lines as constitutional questions were now being discussed, new competitive institutions were being created. This was necessary in order to register collective presence in the new public space, and the cow served as a handy symbol.
The cow-protection movement put an unmistakable Hindu stamp on the nationalist agitation. The Indian National Congress though not directly involved, remained silent and even patronising. Prominent cow protectionist leaders attended the Allahabad congress in 1893 and the Congress postures alienated the Muslims from Congress politics. Consequently, Muslim representation in Congress sessions declined drastically after 1893.
The lines drawn by cow protection were further reinforced by skilful manipulation of other available cultural symbols, such as language. In course of cultural campaign, Hindi came to be identified with the Hindus and Urdu with the Muslims. The association of political leaders with the campaign gave it an obvious political colour. The language henceforth became an important component of the cultural project of nationalism in India.
In the wake of cow-protection riots, there were also other more overt attempts to use Hindu religious and historical symbols for the purpose of political mobilisation. What followed in Maharashtra, was "the political recruitment of God Ganapati." Politics was clearly imbued in the Ganapati festival. Celebration of Hindu mythical or historical symbols became an accepted practice in Poona politics. The Hindus who previously participated in Muharram festivals in previous years, now largely flocked to the Ganapati festival. Added to this was the Shivaji festival to commemorate the coronation of Shivaji Maharaj, who was regarded as the champion of Hindu self-respect and was credited with giving particular direction to Hindu religion.
In Bengal leaders like Aurobindo Ghosh believed that the use of Hindu mythology and history was the best means to reach the masses and mobilise them in support of their politics. Religious revivalism was a main feature of new politics of early 20th century and 'Bhagavadgita' became a source of spiritual inspiration for swadeshi volunteers and Hindu religious symbols were frequently used to mobilise the masses. This alienated the Muslims in a very large measure.
Among the Bengal Muslims a distinct Muslim identity had been developing at a mass level from the early 19th century through various Islamic reform movements. These movements started purging the society of practices that were thought to be of un-Islamic origin. This gave the vast majority of Muslim peasants a sense of social mobility. Religious meetings and local associations that initiated the process had certainly helped in political mobilisation and in strengthening the argument about separate Muslim interest leading ultimately to the creation of Pakistan.
Historically speaking, the inspiration of Islam as a mobilising force for emancipation of Muslims in India cannot be ignored. The gradual Islamisation of Muslim politics in India became a necessity, notwithstanding the sufferings and dislocation of vast multitude. Political leaders, therefore, need to be circumspect to ensure that religion does not become a divisive force in the present political discourse, to the prejudice of a pluralist society.
The writer is a columnist for The Daily Star.