When Independent India came to being, it was the wish of its first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru for religion to be relegated to the private sphere as India becomes more modernized. However, as scholars, politicians and activists have since pointed out the naivety of this thought, we once again are experiencing religion coming to the forefront of affairs in Indian politics.
Creating New Religions
Last week, the Chief Minister’s cabinet of Karnataka, a large state in South India which will have its elections in a few months, approved minority
status for Lingayats ( and Veershavas) in the state. Lingayats, a reformist movement in Hinduism who draw their allegiance to the 12th century philosopher and reformer Basavanna are currently considered a caste within Hinduism. Basavanna’s views were often separate and sometimes
contradictory to Hinduism. As a minority, they will enjoy the same benefits as other minority religions including Christians, Muslims and Sikhs, provided in the Indian constitution. These benefits include the freedom to practice, profess and propagate their religion, as well as run their own minority education institutes, among others.
The move is being viewed as a political manoeuvre before the upcoming state elections by the ruling Congress party. The timing of the move is suspect as Lingayat demands for becoming a minority religion have dated back to the 1940s. This recent political decision based on the recommendations of a hastily assembled seven-member expert committee.
Politically speaking, the move is said to greatly benefit the Congress in its tight and bitter battle with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a party with an allegiance to the Hindu nationalist agenda, for the state of Karnataka. The Lingayat community makes up between 12 and 17 per ent of Karnataka’s population. It is estimated that this move will benefit the Congress in 100 out of 224 seats. However, at this stage, most analysts are hesitant to predict an outcome in this battleground state.
The move also puts the BJP on the back foot. BJP leader BS Yeddyurappa is a Lingayat but also believes in a hardline Hindu nationalist identity. He will now have to tread the difficult path of preventing to his Lingayat voters (who traditionally side with the BJP) from favouring the Congress party, while at the same time appealing to his hardline base and national BJP leadership.
While the BJP has accused the Congress of manipulating religion for their benefit in Karnataka, the BJP has been equally guilty of exploiting religion in other parts of the country; especially for Christians. These efforts are especially suspect since the Hindu nationalist belief sees Christianity as a foreign religion which is trying to ruin the integrity of the nation through its missionary activities. For example, in the three Christian majority northeast states which went to the polls this year – Nagaland, Tripura and Meghalaya, the BJP dropped its national and core demand of banning the slaughter and sale of beef, as the majority Christian population were also beef eating. It also heavily fielded and blatantly paraded their Christian candidates in an effort to being more sensitive to the Christian population there.
Additionally, in one of those states – Nagaland, the BJP said that if it won, it would offer all Christians in the state a trip to Jerusalem as a pilgrimage. This is ironic, as the national government recently removed the Haj subsidy offered to Muslims to go on an annual pilgrimage to Mecca. While this happens in the Christian-dominated North-Eastern states, Christians in other parts of the country under BJP rule face physical violence, intimation and legislation which curbs their freedom of religion.
These events are just the most recent reminder that Nehru’s hope of religion dissipating to the background of the public sphere would not happen in a religious society such as India. Religion continues to be a tool which is effectively exploited for political gain by the two biggest parties at the national level.
Image Credit: CC by Elections India/ Flickr