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Why Leftists And Liberals Need To Engage With Religion Instead Of Dismissing It

Their intellectual conceit comes with a cost.

17/05/2017 9:07 AM IST | Updated 17/05/2017 9:07 AM IST
Mukesh Gupta / Reuters

Some time ago I was sitting with a senior member of the Communist Party of India who insisted on telling the gathering that 1400- and 2500-year-old books had no relevance in today's world. The books they were referring to were the Gita and the Quran. I countered that although a mere toddler in comparison, The Communist Manifesto amongst Baba Marx's other writings, was also a product of a particular socio-economic and political era in European history. Despite this, I added, they and many others of their "biraadari" (community) continue to proselytise and spread the Communist gospel. Now you can imagine the reaction of the venerable comrade when the words, "biraadari," "proselytisation" and "gospel" were used to describe the movement that they were a part of. The outrage, of course, was natural because just like any ideological system, communism and various forms of socialism also presume that their worldview is the most advanced, scientifically correct and therefore the most rational. In a different sense this is also the conceit of liberalism.

[Leftists' and liberals'] philosophical worldview is largely deracinated and, therefore, bereft of any meaningful connections to the lived experiences and ground realities of a place like India.

Quite apart from the fact that liberalism developed at a time in European history when imperial conquest and later colonialism were expanding, one important feature of classic liberal thought was that it assumed itself to be the natural outcome of the triumph of reason in post-enlightenment Europe. Liberals thinkers like Mill and Hume found ways to dismiss those who were perceived to be have not progressed or who were deemed scientifically backward by labelling them as childish or uncivilised. This discourse about perceived backwardness and supposed scientific advancement being the ultimate measure of progress travelled with the empire to various parts of the world. In doing so it imparted and implanted a belief amongst people who were colonised that their inherently weak and irrational systems were responsible for their defeat.

Muhammad Hamed / Reuters

Religion and religious thought were perceived to be necessarily backward and regressive and therefore any identity that predicated itself on religion was naturally deemed to be not worthy of consideration. Of course, as long as the empire and the social elites that were generated by it survived, liberal thought defined post-colonial politics in Indian and in many other parts of the world. Amongst other thing, this led to deep-seated insecurities amongst religious groups and therefore they sought to reorient and reconfigure themselves according to the critiques preferred by colonising elites. Indeed, this is how religious reform movements amongst both Hindus and Muslims in the 19th century are so inextricably linked to the rise of today's religious politics in India, and indeed across the world, with all its attendant anxieties. In fact this anxiety or insecurity about not being "modern enough" has led to some of the most violent religious reform movements across the colonised world: from Salafism in parts of the Muslim world to Hindu nationalism in India.

The poverty... of both liberal and leftist discourse has been that they have both failed to take into account that people's religious identities might very well be the primary identity through which they participate in politics.

The defining feature of liberal as well as of various strands of leftist thought was that religious identity was something that should be restricted, if need be, to the private sphere and should be emphatically kept away from the public sphere. The reason for this was that both these ideological systems saw themselves as normative lodestars. In other words, both these schools of thought saw themselves as "natural" culminations of human thought that therefore represented the most progressive, scientific and rational way of ordering society. Of course, the small matter that both these ideological systems emerged from centuries of internal change and conflict within Europe was completely overlooked when transplanting them to other parts of the world. The reform of the Church, the rise of a public sphere and therefore the emergence of various "publics" in addition to the "scientific revolution" were all processes that took centuries in Europe.

It was inevitable that both liberalism and various forms of communism and socialism would inevitably be elite discourses in post-colonial countries and in societies that had not organically incubated change. In post-independence India, for the vast majority of the people who had hitherto been at the service of landed elites, the only identity they could embrace fully was their religious identity. In other words, these ideological systems sought to impose their worldview on populations that had not gone through the structural changes that were required to truly benefit from them. The poverty and indeed the undoing, to a certain extent, of both liberal and leftist discourse has been that they have both failed to take into account that people's religious identities might very well be the primary identity through which they participate in politics.

The debates around free speech... would perhaps become more constructive if the liberals and the left were able to move beyond the assumption that they occupy some kind of higher moral ground.

In a country like India, this has meant that the language and vocabulary deployed by liberals and leftists has deliberately not engaged with religious ideas and symbols in a society, which by all accounts is increasingly religious. Thus, in matters of ghar wapsi, love jihad and anti-Romeo squads, the volume of temple or mosque loudspeakers, meat bans and cow slaughter, graveyard walls and solar lights in mosques, the position of the liberal or leftist has been one of an arbitrator and not as someone who engages with and speaks the same vocabulary. Why cannot these groups redefine Hindutva rather than simply rejecting it? Perhaps because to a large extent their philosophical worldview is largely deracinated and, therefore, bereft of any meaningful connections to the lived experiences and ground realities of a place like India.

Abhishek Chinnappa / Reuters

This willful neglect has led to the fact that religion, religious discourse and therefore religious identity has become the preserve of those who seek to use this crucial aspect of people's identity to assert their own power. By the arrogant assumption that religion has no place in political life, liberals and the left have created an almost unbridgeable gulf not only between themselves and a substantial part of the population but also between those political parties that have understood the primary importance of religion in people's lives.

Of course, religion and nationalism also make good bedfellows. This is yet another crucial aspect that has not been sufficiently taken into account when trying to understand societies that view their relationship with the state through the lens of religion and various identities derived from religion, such as caste. If one's primary identity is a religious identity then how is nationalism recast to fit this? In India it is this potent mix of nationalism, religion and development brewed on the fires of deep-seated insecurities that has lead to a situation in which leading politicians can openly call for the killing of Muslims.

By not engaging with religious thought, the liberals and the left have ceded ground to those who are then able to co-opt religious identity to suit their goals.

For a person whose universe is defined by their social and religious community, the liberal idea of universal and inalienable rights will be much more unfamiliar than the person who invokes and speaks to their communitarian religious identity. Similarly, the leftist who speaks of social justice and equality will be unable to make headway in a society where hierarchies have not only survived for millennia but which have not gone through the necessary structural, social and economic changes that would enable people to understand their message. The point is not that liberalism and leftist thought do not have meaningful and indeed very valid ideas for the creation of a fairer and more just society but rather it is that these traditions need to be located within and derived from religious traditions in order to make them salient for populations whose worldview is predominantly formed by their religious identity.

The debates around free speech in the various campuses of Delhi would perhaps become a bit more constructive if the liberals and the left were able to move beyond the assumption that they occupy some kind of higher moral ground and start engaging with the ground realities of the societies they seem to engage with. Similarly, the opposition, or whatever remains of it today, needs to introspect about what their broader ideology is beyond the empty concepts of secularism, caste-based politics and development. By not engaging with religious thought, the liberals and the left have ceded ground to those who are then able to co-opt religious identity to suit their goals. It is precisely the lack of a clear, inclusive and binding ideology that has led to their decimation.

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