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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 10 New Delhi February 24, 2018

Temples, Politics and Leaders: From Jawaharlal Nehru to Rahul Gandhi

Friday 23 February 2018

by Ram Puniyani

What should be the attitude of the leaders’ visits to places of worship? The matter is very complex in a society like that of India where the hold of religion on the society has been strong and is becoming stronger. In many Western countries where Christianity is the religion of the majority, the visits to churches by most of the people have been declining and one does not hear much about this being a political issue at all. The matter has come to the fore once again as Rahul Gandhi (RG), the President of the Congress party, has been visiting temples with great frequency be it in Gujarat or now in UP. In Gujarat, where the Congress put up a remarkable show despite failing to win the majority, many factors must have played a role for its ascendance, the major being the inclusive approach of the Congress where the issues of the marginalised communities, economically or caste-wise, were taken up in a forthright manner, as exhibited by allying with leaders like Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mewani. In addition RG sort of went on a spree of visiting temples. This time around the secular writers and intellectuals were not much disturbed by these visits; the people who got disturbed and criticised these visits were primarily from the RSS combine, like UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, who called it a “hypocrisy and sham”.

A couple of controversies was associated with his Somanth temple visit; here someone advertised via a photograph that RG signed in a register for non-Hindus while visiting the temple. Later it turned out that there is only one visitors’ register which he had signed. His party’s spokespersons made it clear that he is a Shiv Bhakt, a janeudhari Hindu (sacred thread- wearing Hindu). Our Prime Minster, disturbed by his visit to Somnath, spoke a blatant lie:

“Today some people are remembering Somnath. I have to ask them: have you forgotten your history? Your family members, our first Prime Minister, were not happy with the idea of a temple being built there,” he stated at a rally. The truth is that Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru both had opposed the renovation of the temple at the state’s expense and not the temple renovation as such. While RG’s visits are coming to the focus now, most of the leaders of the BJP are very explicit about their visits to holy places and make a great din about it.

When we begin from Nehru, he was an agnostic and very critical of blind faith, a great promoter of scientific temper, a value which finds place in our Constitution as well. The major visits to temples by top leaders as such began with Indira Gandhi in the late seventies and early eighties. She probably was shaken by Ayatollah Khomeini, a cleric coming to power in Iran and the rising influence of the RSS here in India. She must have seen that the impact of religion over social life was increasing, and so she took to such visits. During the decades of the eighties as such religion did not remain a private matter as envisaged by our Constitution, by people like Gandhi and Nehru; and a blatant use of religion in political arena began with the BJP, dumping its original agenda of Gandhian socialism and picking up the Ram temple as its central political plank. This paid the BJP rich electoral dividends in times to come.

The centrality of places of worship in our political space got intensified and the Rightward shift of Indian politics, ascendance of the religious Right in the form of the BJP-RSS started going up. The attitude of different political formations was diverse. Apart from temple visits, the social aspect of Ramadan, the Iftar was organised by many politicians. Now competitive religiosity took over the political parties, led by the BJP, for whose leaders carrying religion on their sleeves was most important. Some religio-social programmes like Karva Chauth were overtly celebrated by the likes of Sushma Swaraj, while Laloo Yadav ardently organised the Chhat puja. Now these rituals are dime a dozen to be recounted here. In the era where religion is being overtly used for the political agenda, the visits to temples is a subject of actions being resorted to by even those who do not primarily indulge in politics in the name of religion. The BJP-ruled State governments have gone further with the likes of Yeddyyurappa making huge donations to temples when he was the CM and the MP Government printing and publishing Hanuman Chalisa through its Publications Department.

The need is to distinguish between social aspects of religion and ‘religion as a cover of political agenda’. The change from the times of Nehru where the practice of secularism by the state was regarded as ‘not secular enough’, we have come to a time where the word secularism is being called the biggest lie of India by BJP leaders like Yogi Adityanath. In the campaign, which is picking up in Karnataka as a prelude to the Assembly elections, the BJP leadership is presenting the Congress as an anti-Hindu party. Most of the election campaigns are being carried out on the terrain of religion as witnessed in Gujarat, where the famed Vikas gave way to Mughalia Sultan, Allauddin Khilji and the like. The issues of people related to bread, butter, shelter, education and employment are being aggressively substituted by emotive issues related to religion.

It’s a tragic sign of the times where the political terrain has been mixed up with religion. It’s a terrible time that leaders of a national party like the Congress have to visit temples to wash off the anti-Hindu tag from their foreheads. The temple visits are not soft Hindutva in any way. The populariser of the word Hindutva, Savarkar himself was an atheist, focusing on politics in the name of Hinduism rather than religiosity. Nehru had said that his biggest challenge is to uphold the secular Constitution so as to weaken the grip of religiosity. With religiosity dominating the social space today, what would he have said at present?

The author, a retired Professor at the IIT-Bombay, is currently associated with the Centre for the Study of Secularism and Society, Mumbai.

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