By Swami Agnivesh*
The predicament of minorities in every society has to be understood sensitively and wisely, especially by themselves. On the whole, this is not the case. Religious minorities tend to live ghettoized, in a parasitical sort of relationship with the putative mainstream.
It needs to be reckoned here in passing that ‘mainstream’ itself is as problematic category, often artificially constructed through a political process, more pronounced in democracy than in any other type of government.
Put factually, the situation of religious minorities may be likened to that of a foreign body in a living organism. Differences get emphasized, aggravating a sense of alienation as a result of which a sense of fellow feeling and universal kinship, which is the essential spiritual element in all of us, is suppressed in the name of religion.
That way, religion comes to be a force counter to that of spirituality, which denotes a pathological state, like the skin becoming toxic to the body it covers.
The second problem in being religious minorities is that religious minorities relate to the state and function in the political domain in term of religion, and that too in a defensive outlook. They overlook, to their own peril, that this communalises the state, which is a terrible thing to happen especially for the minorities.
So it is in the interest of religious minorities to rise above the narrow sectarian parochial interests and considerations. Unfortunately very few religious minorities are mindful of it.
The most significant achievement of the human species in public life over the last several centuries has been the emancipation of the state from religion. The modern state would not have come into existence but for this. The state became capable of respecting human rights and affording values like equality, justice and human freedom only when it got emancipated from religion.
The very idea of citizenship in a modern state presupposes the supersession of religion in governance and political culture. Whenever the state was mixed up with religion — or religion conducted like the state as in Papacy — it perpetrated unthinkable atrocities. This important lesson in history is overlooked by religious minorities.
It should not be. So, the paradox in being a religious minority is that it tries to derive special benefits and privileges in the name of religion; and in doing so, it tends to communalise the state, the outcome of which can only be oppressive majoritarian communalism, which narrows, if not wholly abolishes, the political space for minorities and imperils their religious freedom. So, it is important that minorities, religious minorities in particular, learn to respect the discipline of living in a secular, constitutional democracy.
Admittedly this is a sphere of endemic hypocrisy. The secular worldview – with reason and scientific bent of mind as its hallmarks – is widely deemed to be antithetical to the religious view of life. Yet, it is with the secular state that religious minorities have to negotiate, secure its rights or maximize its advantages.
Religious minorities tend to do this mostly by forming themselves into vote-banks, which corrupts its spiritual conscience. The gains from such dubious political, vote-bank transactions benefit mostly the religious elite in each by community and rarely trickle down to the communities themselves.
In a secular democracy the public space has to be thoroughly secularised. That is to say, none of religious concerns, priorities or agendas can be brought into the public space and justified entirely on grounds peculiar to religions.
If religious claims and rights are to be justified in the public domain, it has to be done on the basis of reason and constitutional provisions. That is to say, in the public sphere all have to, equally, function as citizens. We have to completely forget the fact that we are Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, etc. and function as citizens of India, citizens of Pakistan, citizens of America, etc.
All our rights accrue from citizenship. Every human being is born primarily as a citizen. Religious label is acquired thereafter. The primary identity should not become any less important than acquired identities.
Yet another issue religious minorities need to address upfront is the fact that no religious community respects religious freedom. Which religious community allows its members freedom to choose their religions freely? In fact every religion, especially those that aggressively convert others, try to brainwash its members into thinking that all other religions are domains of darkness and error.
Therefore, it is their duty to rescue people who are languishing in this kind of dangerous state. This is completely unacceptable. Every religion teaches that we should treat others as we wish to be treated. This should apply to our attitude to other religions. We should convert others to our faith only if we grant freedom of choice in respect of religion for our own communities.
The fundamental spiritual tenet of a religious community is being violated in the name of religious conversion. It is an open secret that religious conversions are not undertaken for religious purposes but for political gains. When through conversions the numerical strength of a community increases it is assumed that the political clout of that community increases. Leaders of those communities tend to exercise greater political influence.
Whenever state mixed up with religion it perpetrated unthinkable atrocities. This important lesson in history is overlooked by minorities. They begin to dictate terms to politicians. And politicians succumb to their electoral huckstering.
The foremost concern for religious minorities everywhere in the world is the ascendancy of irrationality, superstition, communalism and greed in their midst. God is Supreme Reason. Nothing incompatible to reason should be admissible into religion. Faith is the highest form of reason. If so, what is advanced as matters of faith should be explicable and defendable rationally.
The time has come for all of us to insist that reason must be the guiding light of religion. Unfortunately agents of obscurantism and fundamentalism create a conflict between faith and religion and make people believe that if they are rational they cannot be pious. The truth is just the opposite; you cannot be godly if you are not rational.
If you are not rational you become blind. To be blind is to be unable to admit light into you. God is light. If God as light does not dwell in you, you can be lead here and there by unscrupulous people in the garb of religion. This is not religion this is exploitation.
Therefore, members of minority communities must liberate themselves from the clutches of such leaders. Secondly, they need to be better educated on citizenship responsibilities. Thirdly, they must refuse to live in religious ghettos. They must claim their freedom of movement about and discover their oneness with humankind as a whole.
A spiritually awakened person is necessarily a global citizen. He puts his temporal faith in the constitution, reaches out to his neighbours, transcending all labels and walls created in the name of religion by vested interests.
Ultimately, there is only one God. We are the children of same God. No force in the world should divide us and play one against the other to make us fools to serve their vested interests. I think the greatest need of the hour is liberating people from divisive religion.
It is lamentable that our region – South Asia in general – suffers from too much religiosity. But the religiosity we have, helps us hate each other, not love one another. Such communally poisoned religiosity is an enemy to human welfare and personal dignity. Nations of the world – especially in the western hemisphere – progressed by maintaining a reasonable balance between religion and science, faith and reason.
No religiosity that hinders the development of critical thinking, scientific temper and openness to reform should be acceptable to anyone who believes in the sanity and dignity of being human. To that end, I advocate our emancipation from obscurantist, retrograde religiosity so that we can begin to be spiritual and godly.
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