On 20 August 2020, in the ‘Readers Write’ section of this newspaper, Shahrukh Khan, a writer from Araria, Bihar, raised very interesting but pressing questions on religion. The very fact that he’s concerned about the Bihari society and the ill impact of ‘organized religion’ on it makes him a worthy son of Bihar and we must admire his efforts at inviting everyone for a discussion around the topic of faith, religion and politics.
So, let me address directly to him:
I assume you are a young professional originally from Araria, Bihar and you are concerned about people having such a scarce knowledge of religion owing to their illiteracy and ignorance. Exactly for this reason, they allow themselves to be exploited by politicians who speak to them in the name of religion.
Well, if you think of religion and its origin in a positive way, it would seem at one time it was a welcome construct because it helped enormously in organizing and civilizing the society. ‘Spirituality’ was and is still an ingrained element in every religion -- an agnostic or an atheist will also acknowledge. Meditation and prayers help even the ‘non-practicing religion’ people.
Then, as human civilization progressed, religion became a means of control, suppression, domination, abuse and exploitation. And the missionary followers of religions went to wars, killings and mayhem to establish superiority of their religion over that of others. In fact, it was not strictly for the religion but for their power and the right to dominate. They extended their power and authority under the cloak of religion.
That's the reason, for centuries, the institutions of religion had complete control over the instruments of governance, that is the 'State'.
Subsequently, people like you and me went on for centuries of struggle, bloodbath and sacrifice to demand separation of religion (actually, the institutions that controlled it) from the state and they got it.
That's how the Pope's Church got separated from the Roman empire or that's the way the authority of the Caliph in the Ottoman empire was abolished following a long struggle by Mustafa Kemal Attaturk in Turkey. There is a history of immeasurable sacrifice of lives, blood and sweat before we, the human beings, got the clutches of religious institutions removed from the civilian government or the state. In many parts of the world that struggle is still going on.
Then came 'democracy' as a system of governance. This was a revolutionary change, in a sense, simply because it gave power to every adult, regardless of his/her social or economic status, in the selection of the government.
However, the operation of democracy became increasingly dependent on which side had the larger number of votes. The original idea of democracy conceived in Athens or Sparta around 500 B.C. proposed a thorough deliberation among the members of the 'nobility' at a common place in the presence of the 'common people' to come to a definite conclusion for the benefit of all. But, in modern democracy, since success depended upon having the majority on your side, the hunt for votes became very intense. This quest of amassing a larger number of votes lured competitors to commit all sorts of nefarious activities.
Voters also got organized based on identities of caste, vocation or religion. That was the best way to secure all kinds of concessions from the political system.
The seekers of power through votes then set upon social engineering: They began to exacerbate the cleavages our society had for centuries. In a democratic system their duty was to heal up those cleavages and take the society to a new level of progress. On the contrary, they profited from the differences people had.
In that context, the religious or theological differences that people had historically were exploited to the full by the modern democratic rulers who happened to be politicians.
In the case of India, the cruelty of the Muslim invaders in the past from Mongolia to Persia, as also the proselytizing activities of the Christian missionaries during the British colonial period had already prepared the ground for the aggravation of the social cleavages on account of religion.
With that background, in a democratic India, the competition for votes transformed into a vigorous and sometimes violent competition between different social and religious groups. You must have realized by now; political parties or politicians try to keep one religious community in fear against the other so that they could retain their sway over their constituencies. This rivalry has often led to violent clashes where each community had to fall back upon the support from their ‘own people.’
The citizens of India (and Bihar) like you have to get united to work towards social harmony and progress. For that, we will have to discard our baggage of social malpractices and backwardness that have sometimes religious sanctions. We must discuss our history, our socio-political or even theological differences and still make every effort to have the society run smoothly with least conflict.
India is luckily one of those few countries in the world where the citizens have the liberty to do just that.
Dr. Binoy Shanker Prasad hails from Darbhanga and currently resides with his family in Dundas, Ontario (Canada). A former UGC teacher fellow (at JNU) in India and Fulbright scholar in the USA, he has taught politics and authored conference papers, articles and chapters on Bihar in previously published books in the United States, India, and Canada.
Dr. Prasad administers a Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/OverseasBihari and has sponsored “Aware Citizenship Campaign” at a micro-level in his home-town.