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Book Review

The view from below


K R RANJITH | New Delhi, November 22, 2011 16:30
Tags : Book Review | a Religious Faith | Ideology | Citizenship- the View from Below |

It is a baffling mix of ideas pulling in every direction before dropping you at the crossroad to nowhere. Academicians always enjoy a good spin on the very tricky question, how religion, faith, caste, and secularism work in the Indian context of real complexities. The book, 'Religious faith, Ideology, citizenship – the view from below', seeks to make a way through the maze, prods into some sensitive constructs, trawls into the historic documents to draw parallels and, of course, dares to take sides. But, the attempt, though, lays bare the confusion within and gropes in the dark for a way out of the labyrinth of ideas the authors let themselves in.

The book, which is a collection of essays co-authored by V Geetha and Nalini Rajan, places their ideas with a critique of secular state as it is evolving across the world. The bumpy path of its evolution as a political idea of states across the world is fairly described at the beginning itself. Here, readers are treated with details from Renaissance France to Indira Gandhi's Secular Republic of India; where, the book argues that it is often mistaken for “religious tolerance.” It offers a very interesting narrative of the inclusion of secularism in Indian constitution and the noises it caused in the Constituent Assembly. While KT Shah, a member of the Assembly stood for 'secularism' in the preamble, HV Kamat sought an invocation to God.

India remained 'non-committal', on the issue, till finally, when Indira Gandhi bulldozed civil rights and thrust 'secularism' into Indian Constitution during emergency. Nevertheless, secularism in India remains an ever evolving idea of contradictions and confusions. It grows trickier when one move from the question of nationhood to identity.

The ideological disconnect between the Tamil Self Respect Movement and the Indian National Congress, Madras wing, over its ideological leniency towards Brahmanism in the pre-independence era, is told in considerable detail. The book argues that the whole issue was inevitable, and in a way questioned the secularist aura of the National Movement itself. The chapter Reconstructing Social Reform as Secularism, delves deep into the 'Self Respecter's' idea of secularisation as opposed to the Nationalists. 'Self respecters' took the case further into a revolt (one of their mouth piece was also named Revolt) against societal values, hierarchies and religion. They stood for “complete equality between man and man as well as man and woman.” And the movement was touted as “nothing if it does not stand for complete secularisation of life.” Complete secularisation for 'Self Respecters' naturally meant a re-making of family as well, unlike the nationalist construction of nation as a 'harmoniously linked, reformed families, presided over by benign mothers...'

In Dalit-Bahujan Rationality and the Persistence of Blood Sacrifice, Nalini Rajan, examines ban on mass sacrifice in Tamil Nadu by Jayalalithaa, the then chief minister, in 2003.  Dalit rationality, she says, has a different way of looking at it. These 'scary' practices may also have some positive effects on the social psyche. These sacrifices, even glue together the fraternity, subdue the animal within the society and give vent to human violence and anger. She elaborately quotes Rine Girard who thought on the 'endless cycle of violence' in human society. Rajan goes on to say that blood sacrifice might work as a kind of social safety valve to violence in society. “...sacrifice de-individuates,” she argues, “by annihilating the mediating object, and restoring a spirit of fraternity in the group.” Later on, she mellows down with a hope that 'our collective sacrifice will be now confined to preserve our planet.'

From Dalit Rationality, the book moves on the issue of Purdah (the Islamic veil for women) and takes a fairly long look at Islamic Feminism as an idea and as a movement within the community. Islamic Feminism, as an idea, is probed to see if the very term itself is an oxymoron. But confront the question with a view that 'there are various modes of being a woman within the Islamic world.' Ban on veil in some 'secular' states and controversies surrounding it is concluded with a final statement that “it would seem that the banning of burqa is guided by prejudice rather than logic.” But the very logic of wearing burqa and the politics of burqa - fad among Islamists and Islamic communities across the world - gets a less critical review. This soft and view-from-below sympathy is in every chapter of the book that goes on to question the functioning of state as a religious-neutral entity.

Generally, the book takes a post modern point of view with an emphasis on the politics of shards, pluralism and identity. But at the same time, they would recommend inculcating 'tolerance' in schools - a modernist (or is it pre-modern?) solution to social maladies.

However, the basic argument is that if the triangular relationship between state, religion and the group/individual is intact, the authors 'believe', secularism and freedom of faith would be intact. And the triangular relation can be in any shape or dimension. Sometimes, the weight should be given to uphold freedom of religion even though it spells doom to state neutrality or equality of citizenship. And the emphasis is on “principled distance between state and religion rather than religious freedom.” And it is in this context that various rationalities prop-up demanding equal or more space within a complex society thereby questioning the dominant narratives.

Book:  Religious Faith, Ideology, Citizenship- the View from Below; Publisher: Routledge; Authors: V Geetha/ Nalini Rajan; Edition: Hard bound; ISBN: 978- 0- 415-67785-1; Pages: 205; Price: 695

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017