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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 1 New Delhi December 22, 2018 [Annual Number]

Religious Fundamentalism-Nationalism in South Asia

Sunday 23 December 2018

by Ram Puniyani

Politics in the name of religion has been playing a major role in the post-colonial states, particularly those of South Asia. Pakistan became an Islamic Republic in 1956, and this term resurfaced time and over again. Subsequently it was turned into the Republic of Pakistan under a new Constitution. Then again, as the newspaper Dawn reported on February 4, 1963, “A constitutional amendment renaming the State of Pakistan as the ‘Islamic Republic of Pakistan’, is expected to be introduced by the Government in the National Assembly during its next session opening in Dacca on March 8,” it was authoritatively learnt today (February 3). Under the new Constitution, the State is named ‘The Republic of Pakistan’. The addition of the word ‘Islamic’ will restore the nomenclature of the Constitution of 1956.”1 Later Zia-Ul-Haq gave a boost to the presence of Islam in the political arena; in his first address to the nation, he declared that Islamic laws would be enforced and that earnest attention would be devoted towards establishing the Islamic society for which Pakistan had been created. General Zia wanted to bring the legal, social, economic and political institutions of the country in conformity with the Islamic principles, values and traditions in the light of Quran and Sunnah, to enable the people of Pakistan to lead their lives in accordance with Islam.2

Bangladesh after its separation from Pakistan went on to resist total Islamisation; still both its major parties succumbed to Islam in the political field. Worse, radical Islamism has also gained a stronghold in the country. As the gap between poor and rich in the country widened, the idea of Islam being an integral part of politics became more popular. Eightyseven per cent of respondents to a 2013 Pew Research survey said that it is a bad thing that Bangladesh does not fully apply the Sharia law.3 There is more to Myanmar politics than just hatred for the Muslims, Rohingyas. Its major political party, the most prominent nationalist organisation, is the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion (commonly referred to by its Burmese-language acronym, MaBaTha), made up of monks, nuns and laypeople...Far from being an organization narrowly focused on political or anti-Muslim goals, it sees itself—and is viewed by many of its supporters—as a broad-based social and religious movement dedicated, above all else, to the protection and promotion of Buddhism at a time of unparalleled change and uncertainty in a country and society where historically Buddhism and the state have been inseparable.4

Since the decade of the 1980s Indian politics is dominated by the supra-political, Hindu nationalist organisation, the RSS. The RSS has given birth to a large number of organisations at various levels. These organisations have the agenda of a Hindu nation, in contrast to the principle of Indian nationalism as outlined in the Indian Constitution. Through the Ram temple campaign and consequent rise of violence the RSS’ political progeny, the BJP, came to power for the first time in 1996, then in 1998 and now in 2014.5 Most of these organisations and others of their ilk do the political mobilisation by using the identity of religion. They harp on the identity and emotive issues like the Ram temple, holy cow, glorious Hindu past, among others.

These organisations have been variously labelled as communal, and fundamentalist. Streaks of fascism are evident in many of them. Communalism is the politics which in opposition to secular democracy believes that people having one religion have similar secular interests. For them the material issues of bread, butter, shelter, employment and rights are of no consequence.6 The term fundamentalism is more commonly used, as many features of funda-mentalist politics are inherent in these political formations. They give the impression of going to the fundamentals of religion, while their goal is political, to establish the hegemony of domi-nant sections, elements with feudal ideology in the society. These are all inherently based on birth-based hierarchy and patriarchy.7 While there are many similarities in these political movements across the spectrum, their intensity and manifestation are very diverse in different countries. Some of these like the RSS-BJP have some streaks of fascism in-built into their characteristics. These are: nationalism invoking religion-race, targeting the minorities as the central enemy, ultra-nationalism, glorification of the past, deeper alliance with big corporate sector and projection of a single charismatic leader, among others.

The roots of most of the South Asian outfits lie in the social-economic and political changes during the colonial period. With the introduction of modern industries, education and communication, the new social classes rise with the aspiration of secular democracy. The previous hegemonic classes of landlords and kings were the classes who in the light of the democratisation-secularisation of society wanted to stick to the feudal values of hierarchy and patriarchy in the new political situation.8

Colonial Period: Social and Political Changes: Indian Subcontinent

During the colonial period due to the changes in area of transport, communication, industriali-sation and modern education the society started transforming, and newer social classes, indus-trialists, industrial workers and educated classes began to come up. These groups gradually could see that the British policies were aimed at enriching England at the cost of this land; they also could see that adequate facilities which could enhance the potential of this land were not being promoted.

This was to lead to the foundation of a national movement, which was based on the aspirations of the rising classes, while the declining sections of landlords and ‘Rajas-Nawabs’ (kings, Hindu or Muslim) reacted to this by laying the roots of communal organisations in times to come. Lord Hume’s formation of the Indian National Congress was the best option for Indian nationalists to express their political ambitions. In the process, we see people of all religions, castes and regions overwhelmingly associating with this organisation.9

Rather than an organisation bereft of principles, the national movement and the Congress were firmly grounded in Indian nationalism, secularism and democracy. It is true that Hindu and Muslim communalists were allowed in the party till 1934; after that the Congress did take a decision to keep them out. It is also true that some mild communal elements continued to be in the Congress, but its promi-nent ideology was Indian nationalism.10 The national movement focused on the arousal of national feelings. This was in contrast to the sectarian-communal organisations, who wanted a nation in the name of religion, a Muslim or a Hindu nation.

Roots of Fundamentalism: Communal Streams: Indian Subcontinent

In response to the coming together of rising classes and their representative organisations, Sir Syed and Raja Sheo Prasad of Kashi formed ‘United India Patriotic Association’ in August 1888. Some of the aims of the Association were: to convey to the British that all communities and aristocracies were not with the Congress; to convey the views of Hindu and Muslim communal organisations to the British Parliament; to strengthen the rule of the British in India and to wean away people from the Congress.11 Many people connected with this Association later became part of the Muslim League and Hindu Mahasabha.

The changes, where people from different walks of life started coming together, taking place on the political firmament were described by Surendranath Bannerjee as ‘India is a nation in the making’meaning thereby that it is a representation of common interests of the Indian people vis-a-vis the colonial power.12 This also meant the emergence of a modern state in contrast to the era of kingdoms. At this time reformers like Rammohan Roy were asking for abolition of abominable practices like the sati. Phule was calling for taking to modern education and Savitribai Phule and Pandita Ramabai took up the cause of women’s education. Phule also laid the foundation of a non-Brahmin movement against the social power of the Zamindar-Brahmin nexus. Later Babasaheb Ambedkar was to take this further ahead and struggle for the rights of the untouchables. These are major components of the Indian nation.

The Rising Classes
Due to these changes the society begen transforming quickly, and newer social classes, industrialists, industrial workers and educated classes started becoming central to the social life of the nation. The national movement was based on the aspirations of the rising classes, while the roots of the communal organisations lay in the declining sections of landlords and ‘Rajas-Nawabs’ (kings, Hindu or Muslim). So rather than just being the fantasy of the British officer as many think, Hume’s initiative was the best option for Indian nationalists to express their political ambitions. In the process, we see people of all religions, castes and regions overwhelmingly associating with this organisation.

Communal Streams

The concept of India in the making showed that the concept was that of the coming into being of a modern state in contrast to the era of kingdoms. From communal streams there arose the Muslm League in 1906, Punjab Hindu Sabha in 1909 and Hindu Mahasabha in 1915. The Muslim League in due course said that Muslims were a separate nation and they should have a separate country. The Hindu Mahasabha’s Vinayak Damodar Savarkar stated that there were two nations in the country—the Hindu nation and Muslim nation, and since the country belongs to Hindus, the Muslim nation will have to be subordinated to the Hindu nation. With the goal of the Hind nation the RSS came into being in 1925. The social roots of these organisations were in the ideology of landlord/kings and associated clergy. Nationalism in the name of religion is a mask for the hierarchical values of caste, class and gender.13

Understanding RSS’ Hindu Fundamentalism: A Case Study


There are diverse interpretations of the nature of RSS politics: apart from being communal is it fundamentalist or fascist? Academics and political scientists have tried to unravel the real politics behind its activities. The RSS is not just a political organisation, it is the father of multiple communal organisations, and its political wing, the BJP, is a most well-known but small component of its total activities which are manifested through myriads of its organisations.14

Hundreds of RSS-affiliated organisations are active in different sections of society. While not talking of the manipulative role of these organisations, let’s see what some of these have not been doing which is needed and is relevant for social groups. The RSS, for example, has been regarding the Indian Constitution as being based on Western values, and wanting to bring about a Constitution which is based on Indian holy scriptures. Similarly the ‘Muslim Brotherhood’ is also opposed to Western values. Such organisations in a way try to present Western as being loose in morality, while what they really oppose is the concept of Equality in democracy.15 The project of both the RSS and many other fundamentalist organisations like the Muslim Brother-hood aims to bring in social systems which are opposed to the democratic ethos of equality for all. In a way these organisations are the vehicles of values of pre-modern hegemonic classes of feudal lords and kings. In those systems the core value is that of inequality of class, caste and gender.

The RSS also claims to be involved in numerous charity works; it claims that the RSS volunteers are the first to reach the site of calamity. Interestingly the Muslim Brotherhood and organisations of this category are also prompt and active in the area of charity work. But in both the cases, the RSS and Muslim Brotherhood are clones; charity is the superficial point; the core agenda is to impose a particular type of social relations, those of inequality, on the society.

Surely these fundamentalist organisations are not exact mirror images; still there are some features of their central agenda which are common as their political goals are similar. Despite all this big paraphernalia of the RSS its agenda remains Hindu nationalism. It regards the values of the Indian Constitution as being Western and is aiming to push the society back to the values given in the holy scriptures. Let’s see what the Islamic brotherhood wants? On parallel lines it has stood in opposing the democratic values of equality, calling the very democratic institutions as Western and so the need to promote Islamic values, which, as interpreted by them, stand for inequality of gender and social groups.16

These fundamentalist organisations are exclusively male organisations, harping on the past golden era, harping on opposition to modern (called Western by them) values. This should be the defining point in comparing any organisation. It is also true that while the RSS has trained pracharaks who in turn float different organisations rooted in the RSS agenda, which have different formal structures, the Muslim Brotherhood and many other fundamentalist organisations probably encompass most of the activities under their own umbrella. Here one can add that Christian fundamentalism, which came up in the US in the decades of the 1920s, had many similar features. In post-colonial societies in particular, organisations deriving their legitimacy in the name of religion, to begin with, have come up in opposition to the rising values of equality. In India when the Indian National Congress was set up in 1885, it aimed at an inclusive nationhood cutting across all the religious communities. It also aimed at equality for all.

In contrast the Muslim League and Hindu Mahasabha-RSS began from the feudal, landlord sections, joined in by the elite and middle class sections, harping on the ancient golden era, the holy scriptures and grand rule of kings belonging to their religion. The RSS, in a more clever way, floated myriad organisations to ensure a smooth division of labour and indoctrination, cooption of different sections of society for its agenda of Hindu Rashtra and also for opposing the inherent values of the Indian Constitution.

They have the common goal of opposition to the democratic ethos; they use a particular religion’s identity to enhance their agenda. Their forms of organisation and expression, of course, do differ.

Understanding Fundamentalism

In the whole of South Asia and in many West Asian countries fundamentalism has been on the rise. At places it is in power, while in some countries it may not be the ruling outfit but controls or influences the direction of the political agenda. In India the RSS has been increasing its dominance for the last few decades and currently its political child, the BJP, is ruling the country. As seen from above, any religion can be made the base of this phenomenon. The RSS combine exhibits features of both fundamentalism and fascism. Fundamentalism is many times used as the idea of going back to the fundamentals of religions. As a social phenomenon it does not convey the full meaning of the term.

In a broad sense the term denotes those religious movements, which claim their doctrines to be immutable and demand from the believers a literal acceptance of the tenets of the religion contained in the sacred books as interpreted by them. Fundamentalism rejects attempts at rational interpretation and prefers blind faith to the arguments based on reason. It demands a blind, strict observance of all traditional religious prescriptions. There are three basic trends in this phenomenon. “First, fundamentalisms are inevitably political. Secondly, fundamentalist movements are also genuinely religious: ‘we will fail to understand these movements if we neglect their irreducible religious dimension’. Thirdly, religious fundamentalisms are hegemonic, anti-pluralist movements that are constrained in their impact by the conflicting demands made upon them by their dual identity as inherently religious and inherently political entities.”17

In a way fundamentalism is a strategy of vested, feudal interests of society who stand to oppose social transformation towards equality. This is done in the form of revival of a set of doctrines from scriptures or religious traditions, which they project to be opposed to the changes the society is witnessing. They oppose the changes in the name of defending the faith of supposedly belaboured religious community, whose identity is threatened as per them. In order to preserve this identity the social norms of the era gone-by are reasserted. The retrieval of doctrines is very selective. These ‘fundamentals’ are redefined as per their social contingency. Essentially this exercise aims to fend off the new set of social values, the values which are democratic and which threaten the status quo of social hierarchies. And all this is done in a religious language for better effect. It does not intend at artificial imposition of old practices and life-styles nor does it aim at a simple return to a sacred past, a golden era. Instead religious identity, thus renewed, becomes an exclusive and absolute basis for a recreated political and social order that is oriented to the future rather than the past. By selecting elements of tradition and modernity, fundamentalists seek to remake the world in the service of dual commitment to the unfolding eschatological drama (by returning all things in submission to the divine) and to self-preservation (by neutralising the threatening other).18 Fundamentalists are involved with political life even when they attempt to preserve their separateness from the secular society. They do participate in matters related to modernisation, development, political structure etc!

Brief History

Thus it can be inferred that it is a social movement targeting against the liberal values of society against the society’s potential march towards non-hierarchical relationships, a relationship of equality. It is an imposition of retrograde conservative values, of the pre-industrial era, selectively culled out from religious books or practices in the name of the religion’s identity. It suppresses the fact that there is no homogeneity within religions, and constructs the version of religion suitable for vested interest. Despite the superficial opposition between different fundamentalisms they share these basic creeds, each claims that there is only one true creed based on the divine law. All fundamentalisms feel threatened by pluralism.

This phenomenon increases the intensity of its appeal; it creates hysteria against an internal imaginary or real enemy. In Saudi Arabia it is targeted against women; in India against Muslims and Christians; in Iran the previous ruler, Raza Shah, was used as a whipping boy. Its projection of the past is a ruse while what is being demanded is a pattern of modern practice. The term was first used to denote the orthodox trend in modern Protestantism, which emerged in North America just before the First World War as a response to the spread of theological modernism and liberalism in Christianity. After 1910 this trend came to be known as Fundamentalism. Its proponents demanded stronger faith in traditional Christian dogma and particularly in the unquestioned infallibility of the Bible. These beliefs and practices were widely shared in the US throughout the nineteenth century.19 The followers of this phenomenon took on the battle through their own institutions and through the nation’s schools. They organised campaigns against religious liberalism in the churches and the teachings of evolution in the schools. But they did lose out in the battle and modern voices of rationalism prevailed. Irrespective of their defeat they did build up a massive institutional infrastructure for the spread of their ideas.

In Islamic countries it came to the forefront since the coming in of Ayatollah Khoemini, who could come to power due to the misrule of American puppet, Raza Shah Pahlavi. Currently some countries are fully in the grip of such a movement, while some others are having state sponsored Islamic revivalism and a political and social system through partial implementation of the Sharia. In Pakistan it has been coming to the fore off and on and the Hudood ordinance has been one of the reflections of this trend.20 This ordinance sanctions flogging for adultery and rape, removing the distinction between the two. It has brought a law of evidence whereby the weightage of the evidence of a woman was reduced to half of that of a man. Hindu fundamentalism is becoming more assertive from the 1980s.

Summing up

Fundamentalism is a grave challenge to democracy in many countries. Most of these countries are those which were either colonies or were under authoritarian rule. This is politics wearing the clothes of religion. It labels the democratic values, the values of secularism and equality as being Western. Its aim is either to perpetuate or promote the values of birth-based hierarchy in the modern language. Irrespective of the religion in whose name it asserts, it is monolithic and homogenising in its politics, picks up a particular interpretation of religion and imposes it as the interpretation of that religion. It targets the people of other religions or those from within the religion whom it labels as not following the religion in a correct way. It mostly harps on emotions and the material development of the society is not on its agenda. It does try to impose authoritarian rule or restricts the democratic freedoms. The need to distinguish morality of religion from its harping on identity issues becomes imperative. Democracy as a value must be resurrected from this type of politics, parading itself in the guise of religion.








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17. Kanungao P., RSS’ Tryst With Politics, Manohar, Delhi, 2002, p.15

18. Marty M.E. and Appleby R.S., Accounting for Fundamentltalisms, Chicago Press, 1994



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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