Religion and Left Politics: Why celebrating festivals by Leftists is alright

The criticism of the CPI(M) for celebrating Janmashtami raises an interesting question. In a country like India; is it feasible, and more importantly possible, to follow the classical Marxist dictum of complete separation of religion from politics?

The biggest mass leader of modern India, Gandhi, said that “Those who argue for separation of religion from politics do not understand what religion is.” And his most powerful progressive critic, Babasaheb Ambedkar who viciously fought the Hindu social order and its dehumanising and oppressive practices finally converted from Hinduism to a reinterpreted Buddhism – a religion – as a means of emancipation.

In annihilation of caste, he said, he wanted a religion based on the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity. But he did want a “religion”. Why is it that he did not call upon Dalits to embrace Atheism?

In my opinion, it is because he believed that humans are moral beings and need a moral anchor and community to lead meaningful lives which atheism would not provide for the majority of the people. It cannot be imposed on the majority of the people anyway. History teaches us this much. The great humanist revolution of 1917 in USSR led to the official proclamation of atheism and closing down of churches. Today almost a century later, the Orthodox Church is flourishing and the Communist Party is gone. This huge leap towards embracing godlessness as a normal human condition cannot be state imposed.

In fact, Black Churches in the segregated south of USA have played an important role in their struggle towards humanism by overturning segregation and apartheid. Similarly, in Latin America “liberation theology” played a very big role in providing the “ethical basis” for the movement for “human dignity” – the final goal of the socialist project – which engulfed the continent. Hugo Chavez, the biggest leader of the Left in recent times was a practising Christian and even staunchly socialist Cuba has opted for secularism over atheism.

While it is beyond doubt that organised religion is the source of obscurantism, misogyny, bigotry and domination; it continues to play an immensely important role in ordinary people’s lives and state imposed atheism hasn’t borne any results in erstwhile socialist countries like USSR where, for example, conservatism and homophobia are commonsense today. Moreover, in countries where religion has not been swept under the carpet, there exists a progressive critique of religion; which have provided moral resources for progressive movements like USA and India.

The Peculiarity of the Indian Case:

The Indian case is much more difficult in this regard. In India, the Hindu social order has arranged society in unequal power relations between castes; which under the modern, democratic state have become competing communities, albeit still unequally powerful. In fact, over the last 150 years, Hinduism has been subjected to intense public political critique under the gradual process of modern state formation; as a result two things have happened: Hinduism has become a highly contested category and secondly, a nebulous Hinduism has become much more semitized. It can be said that it was only in the post – colonial India that religion and politics were sought to be detached; while in the pre-independence period it was one of the constant poles of public critique and therefore, reform.

One of the accepted critiques of the Left has been its inability to address the oppression faced by Dalits under Hinduism. This in effect, is a criticism of the position of separating religion from politics; of foregrounding exploitation of labour at the base and religion as a superstructural manifestation. In India, in the past century, there have been profound political changes from communitarian contestation within the Hindu social order as much as from the contradiction between capital and labour.

However, being a religion of graded inequality, choosing which rituals to observe and which to critique become difficult choices. In JNU, for example, where publicly acknowledging Hindu affiliation is very rare for Left activists, the entire Left celebrates the Hindu festival of Holi without being judged. So would celebrating Buddhist rituals be alright for a Communist, given that it is in line with the Dalit vision? Is it that only festivals popular among the upper castes would be objected to? While Dalit ideologues call upon people for complete rejection of the Hindu order, a significant number of Dalits continue being Hindus. So while it is a contested category it is not a discarded category, at least in the consciousness of the people. There has, in fact, been a trend of increasing Hinduization in the northern and western belts of the country where the erstwhile individuals from oppressed castes and tribes are reclaiming the Hindu identity.

This popularization of the Hindu identity has been the result of half a century of revivalist politics of the Hindu Right. Hinduism has been left uncontested; by the Congress, for preserving the status quo and by the Left because apparently good communists have to strictly separate politics from religion. So they shall only raise redistributive demands and not recongnitional demands. This understanding meant that they tailed Dalit and Bahujan Parties and lost out on mobilizing the biggest part of the organic proletariat in the post independence period. As a result of Hinduism remaining uncontested – except by the Dalit Movement – for the last half a century; the Brahminical forces have had an open field for shaping this order and consolidating power.

The issue becomes more complicated when under the onslaught of Hindutva on the minorities, the Left forces rightly uphold secularism, but in effect, end up arguing for upholding their religious rights and thereby its inherent anti-humanist orthodoxies. When in state power, this is perceived by adherents of Hinduism, as a selective assault on their ways of worship and religion. This is justified by the argument that reform cannot be imposed from the outside but must proceed from a critique from within. In the absence of such an internal critique, the case becomes, and is portrayed anyway by the Hindu Right, as one of the secular parties using the State to target and tinker with the Hindu social order while leaving the minority religions and their orthodoxies untouched. For example, Article 14 of the constitution makes untouchability a crime; similarly there are SC/ST atrocity acts. These are cases of the State intervening and outlawing a religious tenet or using socio-religious categories to frame laws. However, certain practices like Triple Talaaq among Muslims remain untouched owing to the lack of internal critique.

Of course, it is no one’s case that there should be no intervention in to religious orthodoxy. However, this imbalance becomes fodder for Hindu Right to play victim. Moreover, it is because Hinduism has essentially been a politically contested category; shaped by the political discourse and in effect shaping the political discourse, that this position of separation of religion from politics is untenable in India. On the contrary, by this abstention from acknowledging Political Hinduism and negotiating with it, the Left has ceded historically one of the most important fields of politics in India.

However, the tricky question is what position should the Communist Party take on Hinduism and religion, in general in a profoundly religious country? A democratic, progressive position would entail, firstly, that this position of separating religion from politics is untenable and counterproductive. Sweeping religions under the carpet does not serve the purpose of advancing the humanist cause. Religion needs to be acknowledged and negotiated and critiqued in the public sphere. Hinduism has had a history of being publicly critiqued which forced it to reform. Secondly, religious and social categories cannot be wished away. But they gain or lose their content through constant political critique; they wither away, if you will. For example, being a Brahmin man in an urban space is not the same as it was, in the 17th century. This is how the meaning and power of social categories changes over time. The Left must fight for establishing the legitimacy of the individual’s ruthless critique of religion rather than imposing atheism on the people or their members.

If Communist Politics is conceived as a fight for hegemony; a process rather than a moment in the march towards a humane society, the political category of Hinduism needs to be made a site of contestation, deliberation and public critique again; to mould it towards principles of liberty, equality and fraternity, which might mean renunciation of Hinduism and embrace of Buddhism as well.

The Left must fight for agnosticism rather than atheism. A Communist Party mass organization or members can celebrate festivals as long as they remain engaged in a process of collective critique and deliberation of their religion. Religion will remain an existentially important part of the lives of even Communist activists and masses at large. These calls for the strict separation of religion and politics and outright condemnation of Left members who undertake religious rituals are superficial and counterproductive.

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PhD. Candidate, Political Science, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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