Relevance Of Religion In Defining The Nation In The Process Of Nation Building

Benedict Anderson in “The Nation as Imagined Community” defines nation as “an imagined political community” ,“imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.” In modern terminology, nation acts as a collective organization of numerous heterogeneous groups that are brought together through certain binding homogeneity. A certain regional territory, in the process of nation building creates boundaries in the global space, in order to obtain individuality, an identity that is based on various aspects such as region, religion, culture, language, politics etc. The idea of an individual territory administered by its own system of governance known as nation in present day, emerged as a western construct in the nineteenth century in response to tyranny and repression of the monarchs and the aristocratic society. Upsurge of nationalism grew out of an intellectual reaction to the Enlightenment that gave emphasis to national identity and developed a romantic view of cultural self-expression through nationhood. The western construct of nation, focuses on forming a unifying element in the heterogeneity, in order to use it as a means of governance and a defining agent for the nation, and this idea of nation is not based on plurality of the masses but on the conceived notion of certain factions.

The paper attempts to examine the relevance of religion as a single crucial component in defining a nation, through a study of U.R. Ananthamurthy’s “Hindutva or Hind swaraj”, aiming to understand the motives and repercussions of establishing a national identity on the basis of religion of the majority of population vis a vis the contemporary aim of creating a 'Hindu Rashtra'.

It is widely believed that it were British, who for the first time brought together the belligerent and scattered kingdoms of the Indian subcontinent by conquering it thoroughly and establishing it as British colony. Mahatma Gandhi in Hind Swaraj rejects the colonial notion of India becoming a nation in post-colonial set up by arguing that “The English have taught us that we were not one nation before and that it will require centuries before we become one nation. This is without foundation. We were one nation before they came to India. One thought inspired us. Our mode of life was the same. It was because we were one nation that they were able to establish one kingdom.” Gandhi observes pre-colonial India, not as separate entities divided by kingdoms or religions, but one nation unified in its culture, way of life, treatment of nature and mutual co-existence of multiple religions with a “faculty for assimilation”. Though the precolonial India was divided into numerous kingdoms and dynasties, its spirit of oneness can be seen in the use of word, “Chakravarti” and Gandhi’s suggestion of our ‘far-seeing ancestors who established pilgrimages in various parts of India seeing it as an “undivided land made so by nature”. This vision of India as a nation, prior to colonial rule was not based on the uniformity of religion but an all-inclusive entity deemed as “Bharat-Khand” which despite the differences, provided the scope for unification in a peaceful manner, and offered space to multiple belief systems.

During the Indian Partition of 1947, when India was on the path of becoming a modern nation, it chose religion to be a defining agent and a guide in the process of nation building. Savarkarites questioned the Gandhian idea of religious tolerance and an all-inclusive nation, by aiming to create a “Hindu Rashtra” based on the ideology of Savarkar, the de facto leader of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangha and Bhartiya Janta Party . Savarkar in “Hindutva” says that it is only ‘Hindus that make Hindustan’, and anyone could be a Hindu. He establishes that a Hindu is “a person who regards this land of Bharatvarsha, from the Indus to the seas as his Father-land and Holy-land that is the cradle land of his religion”. In doing so, he claims that Muslims can never be ‘Hindus’ and belong to ‘Hindustan’ because this is not their ‘punyabhumi’ and positions them strategically as outsiders and strangers. Savarkar’s vision of nation lied on the basis of ‘unity of Hindus’, and saw diversity as a ‘result of misconception’. Gandhi counters this idea of one religion nation by saying “India cannot cease to be one nation because people belonging to different religions live in it. The introduction of foreigners does not necessarily destroy the nation; they merge in it. A country is one nation only when such a condition obtains in it. That country must have a faculty for assimilation. India has ever been such a country. In reality there are as many religions as there are individuals; but those who are conscious of the spirit of nationality do not interfere with one another's religion.”

The Hindutva ideology and it’s aim of establishing India as a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ that lay dormant for a while, has come to forefront through the ruling government. Religion based nationalism in contrast to constitutional egalitarianism in the contemporary regime has turned into a crypto fascist movement that rests on ‘cultural hegemony, oppressive conservatism, religious absolutism and fanaticism’, which has not only enlarged the binary between Hindus and Muslims but also lead to violent uprisings. In order to establish a Hindu Rashtra, a flawless past is created through distortion of history, which according to Ananthamurthy is the first step in ‘establishment of nationhood’, and in doing so attempts are being made to nullify Islamic history in India. An instance of this can be witnessed in Rajasthan state government’s attempt at revising a historical account, under the pretext of unwillingness to teach “distorted history”, claiming that it was not Maharana Pratap, but Mughal emperor Akbar who was defeated in the Haldighai battle of 1576. The Israeli political scientist, Sammy Smooha in “The Model of Ethnic Democracy: Israel as a Jewish and Democratic State,” defined ethnic democracy… as the product of ethnic nationalism, a majoritarian ideology that implies a strong sense of belonging and often one of superiority. This identity is also premised on the rejection of minorities, generally perceived as threats to the survival and integrity of the ethnic nation.’ Similarly the conception of ‘Hindu Rashtra’ not only marginalises and dehumanizes the minority religions by side-lining them as unimportant and secondary, they are also being constantly subjected to ‘Hindu nationalist cultural policing’ by the vigilante militias. And the major victim of this Hindu Nazism are Muslims, who are seen as ‘internal threats’ and targeted as anti-national and terrorists.

Benedict Anderson in “Nation as imagined community” argues that ‘religion has now become subsumed within national thinking’. Religion creates the ‘identity for fundamentalist religious factions’ and, ‘religion and religious conflicts are being used with nationalist claims’. A nation defined by religion, absolves any possibility of liberal and secular existence of multiple religious faiths, by attempting to create its own superiority that ultimately challenges the democratic ideals of “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity”. The ruling party not only proselytizes its own religion but distorts and manipulates it, using it as a political propaganda. Hinduism seen as a ‘way of life’, in its essence, preaches ‘dharma’ – that is the duty of a man and gives place to enormously diverse beliefs serving as capacious and accepting faith. However, the fundamentalist religious factions have manipulated it into a religion that is ‘bigoted, exclusivist, absolutist and a political manifestation’. This has led to the “otherization” of minority religious groups, and resulted in unjustified violence as witnessed throughout post-colonial period starting from the partition of India, followed by the Gujrat massacre and leading to the present day violence of Hindu nationalist militia on Muslims, Christians and Dalits, through multiple deaths, abduction and sexual violation of women on the basis of religion, as well as widespread looting and destruction of property. The struggle between the religions, induced by the violently enforced religious nationalism, results in not only in personal and public loss but also thwarts the national growth.

Similar consequences can be witnessed in the struggle of Nigeria, which in the process of nation building is simultaneously suffering from religion induced violence between Christians and Muslims. Religious violence in Africa can be traced back to 1953, where both Muslims and Christians have attempted to form their respective religion based national dominance which resulted in Igbo massacre in 1966. Today, religious violence in Nigeria is dominated by the Boko Haram insurgency, which aims to impose Sharia on the entire nation, much like the contemporary dominant ideology in India of establishing a ‘Hindu Rashtra’. Islamic radicalism in Nigeria, too shows the similar attributes of Hindu fascism, in saying that “Islamic law recognizes Christians, Jew, Sabaeans and Zoroastrians as “ people of the book” that is, people who had received a previous revelation from the god and were so entitled to the tolerance and protection of Muslim state. The Islamic ideal was to fashion a world in which under Muslim rule, all peoples of the book could live in a society guided and protected by Muslim power.”, though in reality, it is attempting to eradicate the Christianity. ‘Violence in the name of religion in Nigeria is in effect of religious insensitivity, extremism, intolerance and abuse. Their social consequence is the denial of human value and the sanctity of human life’. The religious animosity in Nigeria thwarts any attempt at national integration and the presence of ISIL( Islamic state of Iraq and Levant) with their religious radicalism threatens the stability of Nigeria as a nation.

Not alone India or Nigeria, but several other nations such as Iran and Pakistan too, use their dominant religion as a defining agent for their nation, and the resulting violence, religious unrest and undemocratic setup is common to all of them. A counter narrative to the contemporary religious fascism worldwide could be found in the liberal ideologies of Gandhi and Earnest Renan. Renan in “What is a nation” rests his idea of nationhood, on the choice of people. He believes that people who show willingness to live together in the present in harmony are a nation. He states, “To have common glories in the past and to have common will in the present; to have performed great deeds together, to wish to perform still more-these are the essential conditions for being a people.” He sees nation as an aggregate of people unified by “past endeavours, sacrifice and devotion.” Similarly, Gandhi focuses on the significance of ‘praja’, the members of the nation and ‘soul force’ in his “Passive Resistance” through which he insinuates the idea of religious tolerance and belief in one true God, that goes beyond institutionalized religion as opposed to the bigoted, exclusivist God of the religious faction.

The shift of India from an all-inclusive nation to a religious fundamentalist regime, manipulates the dynamics of religion at national level and uses it as mere ideological state apparatus for achieving political agenda of establishing a “Hindu Rashtra” through strategic invalidation of other religions, ultimately misguiding the masses from actual problems of unemployment, poverty, environmental crisis and more. The larger concern at the centre of this paper is, whether a religion based nation, built on the foundation of violence and abhorrence, would be able to suffice, and offer peace and glory that it claims, given the caste hierarchies and aversion towards the same in its own religion.

16 December 2021
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