People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 41

October 10, 2010


Lurking Threat to Secularism


R Arun Kumar


TWENTY years back, on these same days, the BJP with its topmost leader, L K Advani took out a rath yatra that spilt blood along its trails. Recently, Advani along with Uma Bharati was back in Somnath, the place from where the yatra was started, to celebrate its twentieth anniversary. Incidentally, Ayodhya Ram temple, the issue that the BJP used for undertaking the rath yatra then, is in the news again, with the court deciding on the ownership title deed. Once again, the religious fundamentalists are back to do what they do best, rattling communal rabble. The defeat of BJP in the last two successive general elections in our country, thus, should not deceive us. In spite of their defeat, they continue to occupy substantial socio-political space in our country and vouch for the interests of the ruling classes.


Religious fundamentalism is once again on the ascendancy, threatening the secular, cultural and moral fabric of many countries in the world. Terrorism, exploiting religious sentiments, is also on the rise. The socio-economic conditions of the current period are contributing to the growth of religious fundamentalism and conservatism across the world. Religious fundamentalism, tries to exploit the existing religious feelings among the people to further its sectarian ends.


Karl Marx states, “Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress”. In these times of global economic crisis and increasing burdens on the common people, it is natural for them to search for means to 'de-stress'. In this quest, they find religion as “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation”. It is in this conjuncture that Marx had stated that “it (religion) is the opium of the people”, as it provides them a temporary 'escape' from life's real, mundane existence.


Some of the research studies published in the Science magazine examine the link between economic status, psychological conditions and religion. A research paper published in February tries to link socio-economic factors to the psychological state of a person and observes, “Women with medium to high levels of financial hardship reported an increase in their feelings of anxiety and depression during the study period, while women with no financial hardship reported a decrease in their feelings of anxiety and depression over time”. Though this study is done on women, the findings might be equally true for men too. Another research published in July concludes, “Anxiety and uncertainty can cause us to become more idealistic and more radical in our religious beliefs”.


This in fact, is the experience of contemporary Russia. As the Soviet Union crumbled two decades ago, mysticism and pseudo-science began to thrive. The Russian Orthodox Church too gained in prominence and popularity. All these were linked to the dismay and confusion of the population. In Soviet Union, everyone was looked after and the state had given them a place to live for free, but after its collapse, there were a huge number of people who were abandoned and left completely helpless. They had no work, no means for existence. There exists a mood of total abandonment among many people and in such a situation, fraudsters who promise to bring the dead back to life, offer spiritual healing lessons are looked as 'soothing balm for the soul'. There are clear indications that the State has connections with these pseudo-scientists and is promoting them.




Even in our country, we witness a growth of religiosity among the people in the past few years. According to the State of the Nation Survey conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) in 2007, the amount of religiosity among Indians has gone up in the last five years. Religiosity, it seems, has increased among people belonging to all the religious communities and to a larger extent, particularly, among the rich, upper caste and well educated citizens. To cater to the busy urban souls, innovative religious sites exist in the virtual world that offer e-darshan and e-pujas, apart from providing religious/spiritual guidance.


Another study, based on the 2001 census states that India has 2.5 million (25 lakhs) places of worship, many of which are built on public land. (Incidentally, we have only 1.5 million (15 lakhs) schools and 75,000 hospitals!) The Supreme Court recently castigated the state governments for failing to act against thousands of these illegally built places of worship. The governments usually turn a blind eye in many instances, where small structures are slowly converted into full scale complexes by further encroachment of public land.


Apart from these, the number of babas, gurus or god men professing various supernatural, healing powers also is on the rise. Many state functionaries and 'celebrities' often visit them to pay obeisance, further increasing their popularity. There are also separate television channels and programmes to exclusively telecast religious discourses. The print media too runs advisory columns on religious and spiritual matters. So, what we have today in India, as some commentators have stated, is a giant supermarket of religions, religious personalities and discourses where one can shop for custom made products.


The market research division of the tourism ministry in a recent report states that Andhra Pradesh emerged as the top tourist destination in the country, thanks to the temple town, Tirumala. A comparative study of the patterns of tourism in our country shows that half of the package tours are religious tours. The State which fails to contain construction of places of worship on public places, plays a pro-active role in promoting religious tourism. It even undertakes the development of religious shrines, providing and upgrading infrastructural facilities – better connectivity, resorts and other facilities – to those places. Kanipakam temple in Andhra Pradesh and the Golden Temple in Vellore – both of them within 100 kilometre radius from Tirumala are a good example.


The involvement of the State in religious affairs, which is a violation of our stated secular position, is justified in the name of promoting culture. Religion is made synonymous with culture and in our country this assumes majoritarian contours. This can be best understood when we look at the recent films – safeguarding 'our culture, traditions' observing 'our festivals' always mean Hindu culture and festivals. It is this increasing interest in religion and failure to differentiate Indian culture from Hindu religious culture that the fundamentalists are trying to exploit.




The current global economic crisis is a severe jolt on the aspirations and lives of millions of people. The ruling classes want to come out of the economic crisis, an off-shoot of the neo-liberal policies, by further intensifying the attacks on the livelihoods of common people. The absence of job-security is as much true for a contract worker in factory, as it is for an IT professional. Middle-classes are encouraged to invest in speculative activities. In this situation, it is natural for the people to become more and more concerned about their future and worry about what happens to them and their children. This anxiety is driving them towards religion, which is being exploited by both the so-called god men and religious fundamentalists.


People are also seething with discontent against the growing income inequalities. Culture and religion, which were used to mobilise people against economic exploitation of the colonialists, are used today to divide people and deflate their anger. The limited strength and reach of Left and progressive forces in many countries, is being exploited by the right-wing conservatives and fundamentalists. The victory of right-wing political parties in many European countries, the growth of the Tea party groups in the US, moves to ban wearing veils and the expulsion of Romas in France, show us how these conservative, fundamentalist forces are using the economic crisis.


In our country, it is an established fact that fundamentalist forces use religion and religious symbols to promote their political cause. Ayodhya is only one such expression, while even as recent as during the 2009 general elections, Hindu fundamentalists used yagnas for mobilisation. Meera Nanda in her recent book, The God Market: How Globalisation is Making India More Hindu gives many more examples of the growing religiosity in our country and how religion is used for reaping political benefits.




Along with the usual players – the RSS, VHP, Bajrang Dal, Jammat-e-Ulema, etc – we see the emergence of some new fundamentalist groups during this period. One among them is the group that brings out regular publications in the name of Voice of India. Calling themselves as bhaudik kshatriyas, they are spreading rabid anti-Islam and anti-Christian feelings through their writings. They are further right to the RSS, and criticise RSS for not openly renouncing the sarva dharma samabhava philosophy (for them Islam and Christianity are not dharmic but asuric creeds). They maintain good relations with the neo-conservatives of the US, share the same anti-Islam, free market philosophy and regularly publish their writings.


Meera Nanda also writes in her book about attempts to revive the Swatantra Party and pursue its ideology. Two famous IT tycoons, Infosys Narayana Murthy and Jaithirath Rao, founder CEO of Mphasis are the chief moving force behind this idea. They are basically wedded to the neo-liberal ideology of 'minimum interference of the State for maximum freedom to the individuals' and were ready to pump enormous sums of money to start a political party. Realising that getting elected on this platform is a difficult proposition now, they have instead started various NGO's and think-tanks, to propagate their ideas and influence policy decisions in favour of free markets. In this quest, they have allied with the BJP too, until the riots in Gujarat distanced them. Despite their opposition to communalism, they are not openly taking a position against the illiberal world view. Just as the erstwhile Swatantra Party allied itself with the then Jan Sangh, they too are displaying similar indications.


These two groups, along with the Sangh Parivar, share a common view – supremacy of free markets and Hindu religion. They are different only in their intensity of pursuing right-wing politics. They commonly feed on the discontent of the people, a result of the economic policies dear to them and exploit peoples' religiosity.


Globalisation does not only mean economic exploitation, but also includes cultural homogenisation. Right-wing fanatics who do not have any problem with the economic agenda of globalisation, try to whip up peoples' opposition against its cultural attacks, using religion. This serves the purposes of ruling classes as their core – economic policy – is not attacked. Ruling classes, facing a severe challenge to their hegemony because of the economic crisis, are willing to allow the growth of right-wing fundamentalist forces rather than lose their hegemony. Fascism and Hitler are examples too hard to forget. In order to retain their hegemony, they openly promote religiosity among the people, thus feeding the right-wing fundamentalists, even though they publicly express their concern at the growth of right-wing.


Some Western sociologists have suggested that religiosity and religion would end with the growth of modern industries and true secularism would prevail – 'religion ends at the factory gate'. India is a classic example where, temples exist even 'within factory gates'. We even have the phenomenon where big industrialists either build huge temple complexes or donate liberally to renowned temples (most of them would be unwilling to increase the wages of their workers!) Some other sociologists have suggested that the increasing number of religions and their contrasting claims would make people realise their fallaciousness and disenchant them. This too proved wrong. Moreover, many eminent intellectuals and scientists openly profess their belief not only on god but also on babas!




This dichotomy depicts the lacuna in our education system. The presence of fundamentalist forces in our education system and their using it as a means to promote their ideology is one-half of the story. The other half, once again, is the complacency of the State in providing scientific, democratic and secular education to all. The stress in our education system is to produce human resources to further develop the forces of production and reap super profits. All other aspects are subsumed to educate people to confirm them to the ruling class ideas. Critical enquiry is discouraged as far as possible because that leads to an understanding of the productive relations, which may ultimately pose a challenge to the existing relations and ruling class hegemony. But as Marxism teaches, after a certain extent, for any further growth of productive forces, the productive relations have to change. Culture, which includes education and religion becomes an important arena of struggle to hasten this process.


Lenin had stated, “It would be stupid to think that, in a society based on the endless oppression and coarsening of the worker masses, religious prejudices could be dispelled by purely propaganda methods. It would be bourgeois narrow-mindedness to forget that the yoke of religion that weighs upon mankind is merely a product and reflection of the economic yoke within society”.


Posing the question why religion is able to retain its hold on people, he answers, “Because of the ignorance of the people, replies the bourgeois progressist, the radical or the bourgeois materialist. And so: 'Down with religion and long live atheism; the dissemination of atheist views is our chief task!' The Marxist says that this is not true, that it is a superficial view, the view of narrow bourgeois uplifters. It does not explain the roots of religion profoundly enough; it explains them, not in a materialist but in an idealist way. In modern capitalist countries, these roots are mainly social. The deepest root of religion today is the socially downtrodden condition of the working masses and their apparently complete helplessness in face of the blind forces of capitalism, which every day and every hour inflicts upon ordinary working people the most horrible suffering and the most savage torment, a thousand times more severe than those inflicted by extra-ordinary events, such as wars, earthquakes, etc. 'Fear made the gods'. Fear of the blind force of capital – blind because it cannot be foreseen by the masses of the people – a force which at every step in the life of the proletarian and small proprietor threatens to inflict, and does inflict 'sudden', 'unexpected', 'accidental' ruin, destruction, pauperism, prostitution, death from starvation – such is the root of modern religion which the materialist must bear in mind first and foremost, if he does not want to remain an infant-school materialist. No educational book can eradicate religion from the minds of masses who are crushed by capitalist hard labour, and who are at the mercy of the blind destructive forces of capitalism, until those masses themselves learn to fight this root of religion, fight the rule of capital in all its forms, in a united, organised, planned and conscious way”.


Our fight against the growth of right-wing fundamentalism should thus be a fight against that blind force of the capital, its economic policies, culture and ideology and to change the existing relations of production.