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Mainstream, VOL LIII, No 15, April 4, 2015

What is Fundamentalism?

Sunday 5 April 2015, by Nikhil Chakravartty

From N.C.’s Writings

Fundamentalism has become a much-used term today—in politics and in the academia. And there are in vogue various types of the so-called fundamentalists—political, religious and cultural.

But before cataloguing these various tribes of fundamentalists, it is important to clarify what precisely is meant by fundamentalism. The Oxford English Dictionary says the term, fundamental, pertains to “the basis or groundwork, going to the root of the matter”. But the word “fundamentalism” has a particularly Christian connotation which, according to the dictionary, is:

The strict maintenance of traditional orthodox religious beliefs or doctrines especially belief in the inerrancy of Scripture and literal acceptance of the creeds as fundamentals of Protestant Christianity.

The BBC English Dictionary is more to the point:

Fundamentalism is belief in the original form of a religion, without accepting any later ideas.

The context in which the term has been coined is, therefore, specially Christian. Following this interpretation, an orthodox group in any religion is today dubbed as funda-mentalist—the conservative no-changers, the orthodox as opposed to the liberal within any religion—which amounts to promoting intolerance and bigotry. Within Christianity, however, the fundamentalists suffered the first setback when Martin Luther raised his voice of dissent in the fifteenth century—out of which was born the Protestant sect within the Catholic Church. Since then many other dissident streams flowed within Christianity, while orthodoxy was reinforced by Jesuit militancy.

Projecting the same format, the orthodox extremists in Islam are branded as funda-mentalists—those who have asked for Salman Rushdie’s head and are now clamouring for Taslima Nasreen’s. Bigotry is their acknowledged badge, the mentality that would brook no liberal trend nor any special reforms within the Muslim society. Obviously, such Islamic fundamentalists never favoured Sufism which had blossomed in Kashmir—a conflict which manifests itself even today within the militants’ camp in Kashmir between the Pakistan-backed Hizbul fundamentalist group and the JKLF which stands for the independence of Kashmir, carrying the banner of Sufism. In the rest of Muslim India, there is some stirrings for social reforms—witness the latest stand of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, acknowled-gedly an authoritative body, which in its recent meeting has called upon the Muslim community for a campaign against alcoholism, gambling and dowry—the last item, if seriously carried out, is bound to impinge on the Muslim marriage customs as they prevail at present.

Modernist trends within Islam are noticed in many countries of the Muslim world stretching from Iran to Indonesia. There was at one time an intellectual trend, mainly on the Mediter-ranean coast, which sought to equal Islam with Marxism. However, a peculiar feature in the Indian subcontinent has been that the liberal elements among the Muslims have bothered little to raise the consciousness of the Muslim community as a whole. They seem to have preferred a liberal island of their own leaving the community as a whole to the dead-hand grip of the orthodox elements. Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen certainly deserve the support of all those who stand for basic human rights; at the same time it would not be incorrect to say that by their downright stand, they have emerged individually as emancipated souls, while leaving the field clear for the mullahs to malign them as anti-Islam. A reform movement has to start from the level of consciousness of the people for whom it is meant; otherwise there is the danger of isolating oneself from the target segment of the community and thereby reinforce the reactionary wing itself. It is this alienation of the forward-looking elements like Rushdie and Nasreen which strengthens bigotry instead of effectively fighting it.

This has proved true in the case of the Hindu community as well. The early reform move-ments like the Brahmo Samaj and the Arya Samaj combated some of the pernicious features of the Hindu society, particularly the iniquitous caste system, the dowry and women’s deprived status. However, these trends have practically expended themselves as their programmes have by and large been absorbed by the community as a whole at least at the formal level. In the present-day conditions, they look ineffective in raising another reform movement within the community. As in the Muslim community, here also the orthodox bigotry has been practically left untouched, despite the fact that many movements of social emancipation from Narayan Guru to the Dalits have appeared, claiming considerable following.

It is precisely because of this fact of the conservative orthodox core having escaped the onslaught of modern liberal trend in both the Hindu and Muslim societies that it appears as the real boss of both the communities, and thereby attract the attention of the political elements who look upon them as guarantors for vote-banks at the election time. This writer recalls the life-style of Shyamaprasad Mukherji, the founder of the Jana Sangh. He was certainly a devout Hindu, but was no adherent of all the rituals that the Hindu orthodoxy have stood for. He was certainly no brown sahib but by conscious preference a desi leader who could hardly be demarcated from a Congress leader of corresponding standing. Those of us who have personally known Shyamaprasad Babu from our university days can vouch for his liberal outlook on many issues, social and cultural. He was at home with Congress leaders like B.C. Roy, Sarat Bose and Kiran Shankar Roy. As for his criticism of Gandhiji, this was mainly over the question of separate electorate for the Muslim community (which Gandhiji had also disapproved in principle but could do nothing to change it as he did in the case of the Scheduled Castes). There were critics of Gandhiji on this score within the Congress as well such as Madanmohan Malviya and Ramananda Chatto-padhyay and even Meher Chand Khanna, apart from Dr Moonje and Jagat Narain Lal. This is perhaps equally true of the present generation of BJP leaders like Advani and Vajpayee—not to speak of the late-comers and new-comers like Jaswant Singh, T.N. Chaturvedi or for that matter, General Candeth, whose father incidentally was a distinguished figure in the Brahmo Samaj.

The point to note is that the political leaders of the Jana Sangh and the BJP chose to take within the camp the more aggressive militant elements—the bigoted fringe like the VHP or the individual stars like Sadhavi Rithambara and Uma Bharati—for the purpose of mobilising votes. It is this alliance which has posed a problem for the BJP today, and the more astute leadership of the party would have to decide whether it should let the militants wreck the prospects of the party in the arena of parliamentary politics, or delink itself from them. This was the quandary of the Akali leadership ten years ago, and by evading to face it, mature leaders like Prakash Singh Badal found themselves in political wilderness. In contrast, the CPI-M leadership made short-shrift of their militant fundamentalists symbolised by Naxalism, and threw them out of the party and even took police action against the extremists when they first raised their head in the sixties. From all this one has to draw the conclusion that a political party to make any headway along the road of parliamentary politics, has to abjure and combat funda-mentalism. Somehow fundamentalism is a total misfit in the parlour of parliamentary politics.

There are of course other variants of fundamentalism—some of these rather bizarre. A recent example is Namboodiripad’s sudden outburst against Gandhiji as having been a fundamentalist. Knowing as one does Namboodiripad’s past views on Gandhiji—he even wrote a mild-mannered critique of Gandhiji’s politics and philosophy—it came as a surprise that he should brand him as a fundamentalist. This was no doubt embarrassing for the CPI-M leadership which has promptly disowned the views of this reverend elder brother. What may be said by way of explanation—not attenuation—of Namboodiri-pad’s latest views on Gandhiji, is that he is mixing up fundamentalism with devout attachment to any religious belief on the individual plane. Within the Communist hierarchy, Namboodiripad, as the present writer has long known, could be regarded as a moderate in contrast to a rigid doctrinaire Marxist like B.T. Ranadive. One recalls Ranadive’s personal view that nobody could be eligible for membership of the Communist Party unless and until one became an atheist. Lenin, on the other hand, had said in one of his writings that even a practising priest could apply for Party membership if he had supported a workers’ strike struggle.

(Mainstream, August 20, 1994)