Saturday, March 2, 2024

An Indian perspective

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Religion & violence

By Dr D.K. Giri

There are verses in the Bible (Ecclesiastes 3:7-8) which prescribe war. The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quoted the Bible while justifying the ongoing war Israel has unleashed on Hamas following the savage terrorist attack by Hamas on 7 October. It is in order that we read those verses, “There is a time to tear apart and a time to sew together. There is a time to be silent and a time to speak. There is a time to love and a time to hate. There is a time for war and a time for peace.”
Similar tenets can be found in other world religions that can be interpreted to legitimise war or any kind of violence. In Hinduism, the great epic Mahabharata is primarily the description and justification of war between righteous and the evil what is called ‘Dharmayudha’. In Islam, it is jihad which means a holy war waged as a religious duty against the infidels.
In popular terms, many Islamic fundamentalists resort to violence against the so-called enemies of Islam. Hamas, Islamic jihadists in Gaza are precisely following this doctrine. Hamas Covenant comprising 36 articles all of which promote the basic Hamas goal of destroying the state of Israel through jihad, the Preamble of the Covenant states that, “Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it.”
In India, bombs exploded on 29 October in a religious convention of Jehova Witness (JWs). Over 2000 people had gathered in a small town in Kerala to pray and listen to sermons. Quite unbeknown to them, the bombs suddenly went off killing two worshippers and injuring over 40 of them. A former Witness who disagreed with the strictly orthodox interpretation of the Bible which makes them boycott elections, forsake any activity driven by nationalist symbols or spirit, refuse blood donation etc., triggered the serial blasts. The person triggering the bombs thought the Witnesses were a threat to and a burden on the country. Hence, he wanted to eliminate them. A section of the press was attributing the explosion to Hamas. It is not worth speculating. Investigations are underway. The lesson to draw from the above instances is the challenge of placing religion in public life and international relations. The next step is to establish India’s perspective on religion in governance and internationalism so that we could conduct our diplomacy and articulate reactions to religious violence in our country and across the world.
Under Marxism, the dominant belief was to push religion completely into the backburner of governance. Karl Marx had famously said that “religion is the opium of the people”. In European democracies, religion played a predominant role as churches controlled the state until they were separated organically from each other. In India, it was called secularism which meant for the state, equal respect to and equal distance from all religions. Whether that strategy is practicable is a matter of debate. I have written consistently that it was not. Secularism in India came to be understood as anti-religion which would not appeal to the public. People simply could not give up their religious practices or utterances.
Martin Luther King was at ease with the rhythms of the pulpit and he used Biblical language to supreme effect. As a clergyman and the son of a Baptist pastor, he was entitled to do so. But it does not always sit comfortably with others. The UK Prime Minister Tony Blair was embarrassingly messianic. President Obama’s religious assertions were not so vapid, they reflected a mission. Perhaps the most infamous use of a word with religious subtext in recent years was when President George W Bush deployed crusade after the attack of 9/11 to describe the war on terrorism. Indian political leaders use religious metaphors in most of their speeches. The trend has become more evident in recent times.
The question that arises is whether politics is a secular business or a sacred trust. In fact, it could be both. Mahatma Gandhi displayed the combination of the two in his lifetime. The only departure or rider to Gandhian approach to religion could be identifying the mediating principles when religion and politics collide. Mahatma Gandhi was essentially a pluralist. While affirming his abiding faith in Hinduism, he respected, accommodated, and even embraced the practices of other religions.
Remember, the multi-faith prayers in his meetings. And the famous words that define his multi-religious approach, “I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the culture of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.”
Let us elaborate the critical need of mediating principles in resolving the conflict between religions and politics, which is causing sporadic violence across the world. We need not take the Marxist approach of derecognising religion. That is not practical. We also could not embrace the theocratic approach which is based on faith and multiple interpretations. Someone critically defined faith as ‘the ability to believe in something you know is not the case’. So, without verifiable evidence one could not formulate plans on the basis of faith.
Look at the interpretations and divisions of perspectives in all religions. In India, Christians constituting 2.5 per cent of population have over 200 denominations; Muslims are bitterly divided mainly between Shias and Sunnis, there are Bohras, Ahmedias and so on. Hindus again do not have a single text and have multiple Gods, several castes. So, no religion has a single perspective. In such a context of religions, how can it ever become the base for nation building? We have seen Pakistan splitting away from India on account of religious difference; Muslims creating their own state. Why did then Pakistan split and Bangladesh emerge as a separate country? The war between Israel and Hamas has to be seen from a religious angle and countries react accordingly. It is clear from the statements made by both parties and objectives scanned from their manifestoes, that the fight is a religious one not about territory. That is dangerous and should be called out.
Then we accept the premise that religion should not be the basis of governance or statehood, but it is an inalienable part of human life. There is a provision of human right enshrined in the United Nations Declarations which is called ‘Freedom of Religion and Belief’ (Article 18 of UDHR).So, we must defend it. But whenever a religious or any belief conflicts with politics defined by the Constitution of the country, the latter should prevail. That is the mediating principle. The Constitution of a country that reflects the acceptance and aspirations of each individual citizen, each faith group, non-believers should be supreme. The political leaders and citizens must be wary of this mediating principle while conducting and managing religions. —INFA
(The writer is Secretary General, Assn for Democratic Socialism)

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