Hyderbad, 10 April 2015 (Alochonaa): Exploring the interface of religion and politics, I have come upon the plurality of their interactive intersections. I believe that religious conflict and politics interacts in a cyclical manner, each impacting the other in a way that deeply affects society. Especially with reference to a pluralistic society like India, this interface has great ramifications for society at large.
Conflict, especially in reference to religion, is usually conceived of as violent conflict. I, however, wish to conceptualize religious conflict as a representation of divisiveness in the society based on the perception of religious identity which may be overt or covert, with or without violent tendencies. In my opinion, it is important to imbibe this broad understanding in order to understand the far-reaching impact of covert conflict which may, in fact, manifest itself as overt conflict under optimum circumstances.
Even without this broad categorization, we have a world where religious conflict is plenty, whether it be direct or indirect. On the one hand there is conflict where the de facto stakeholders are religious groups and communities and then there is conflict where the religious actors are only de jure stakeholders driven by other forces at play. The question that remains in both scenarios is why religion becomes an easy basis for conflict to occur? Why is religion susceptible to conflict?
In my opinion, the answer lies in the fact that while other ethnic-social boundaries of language and class tend to be fluid, religion has a sense of exclusivity. People can very easily speak two, three or, in the case of a rather special friend of mine, eleven languages, people can move up and down the social class hierarchy, but religion is most often a fixed identity, and an integral part of one’s identity at that. It is this rigidity of this social category as well as the doctrinal way of its influence that results in religion being latently susceptible to social conflict.
In establishing the existence of conflict, it is interesting to draw upon one of the factors that greatly shape the way religious conflict occurs, especially in a pluralistic society such as India. This factor is politics. Within politics, political agenda-setting in particular plays a particularly important role in the way it impacts conflict.. The potential of political forces to affect religious conflict is greatly determined by the value ascribed to religion in a society. An indispensable marker to assess this ascribed value is the perception of secularism.
Secularism is of two kinds; Western secularism is conceptualized as a devaluation of religion in the public sphere and complete separation from politics. A second type, followed in India, is a highly ethnocentrized version where respect and tolerance is secularism. This requirement of tolerance itself becomes problematic because it recognizes religion as an operative aspect in one’s public life. It creates the concept of the other, thereby creating divisions in the societal framework. This requirement of exhibiting tolerance was probably deemed necessary keeping in mind India’s violent communal past at the time of its Partition with Pakistan. However, the situation that has arisen as a consequence is such that the separation of politics and religion has become impossible; both are intrinsically linked in the way political power has come to be exercised. Issues such as those of the Babri Mosque demolition had little or no communal significance until popular political involvement elevated it to the hype that was finally witnessed and led up to the nation-wide riots.
However, political agenda-setting giving rise to conflict is just one dimension. Another is the intrinsic politicization of religion itself. When religion becomes a rallying point for political parties, so much so that religious causes are part of their official manifestoes in a country that claims to be secular, the common man’s stance on issues changes drastically. Popular stances which are made in the name of religion become normative stances rather than personal opinions. Political preferences and religious choices become intermingled, making it easy to mobilize and divide people in the name of religion. Such divisive politics has been exhibited and has gained ground by way of hate speech incidents, and blatant identification of political parties with religious organizations. As a consequence of this, political and religious opinions become greatly rigid, their volatility creating potential basis for violent conflict.
Such entrenchment of religion into public order leads to greater potential for mistrust and fear and must be addressed by an overall devaluation of religion from state mechanisms and public functioning. The practical implementation of such devaluation is a greater policy question that needs to be addressed on punitive or social transformation terms.
*Eman Ali is a third year B.A. LL.B student at NALSAR University of Law, India. She is a G20 Interfaith Young Scholar with a keen interest in Private International Law and International Arbitration.
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