Sacralism is the merger of Church and State wherein one is called upon to change the other. It is not the opposite of secularism, as such. It is the confluence of the secular and the sacred, to produce a hybrid ideology and authority.
India has an overwhelming Hindu majority. So why did a large portion of this majority vote for a Hindu nationalist party (the BJP) that sacralises the idea of Indian nationalism? As opposed to Indian nationalism, Hindu nationalism understands Hinduism as a culture shared by a majority of Indians. To the Hindu nationalists, this culture is, or should be, navigated by a ‘Hindu Rashtra.’ Or at least a cultural and political dominion dominated by Hindus, but where ‘other’ cultures existing outside the majority culture need to be suppressed in order for a ‘Hindu state’ to emerge.
This has often triggered oppression, discrimination and outright violence against minority communities that are seen as living inside India but outside the paradigm of the region’s majority culture. These usually include Muslims and Christians whose faiths, according to Hindu nationalists, were born outside India, or were not ‘offshoots of Hinduism’ such as Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism.
What is happening in India today is yet another example of a majority oppressing and brutalising a minority (or minorities) after accusing them of monopolising vital state, government, social and cultural institutions as a way to exploit the majority and erase its culture. There is nothing new about a majority repressing a minority. History is ripe with examples. Yet, modernity with its many rationalist outcomes such as secularism, capitalism, socialism, meritocracy, democracy, etc., was supposed to oust the ‘tyranny of the (religious) majority.’ But, paradoxically, inherent in modernity is a recognition of the strength of a majority (democracy). Nationalism too was a product of modernity which defines a nation of shared histories in contrast to ‘others’ who do not.
In Pakistan and India, there is now increasing pressure on the people to continuously exhibit their Muslimness or Hinduness. In both the cases, state and government institutions encourage this through legislative measures and by even co-opting the more militant expressions of the majority faith
All nations are modern constructs, built on certain myths and exaggerated histories derived from imaginary or distorted readings of historical episodes that are conjured to form a nation of people with ‘shared’ roots in these episodes. There was nothing called Hindu nationalism till the late 19th century. But Hindu nationalists insist that the idea of a Hindu state and nation is rooted in a Hindu state that existed thousands of years ago!
Nationalism is a Western idea that was gradually adopted by various non-Western cultures, especially from the 19th century onwards. In fact, the idea of the state as we know it, too, is a Western idea. The state in pre-modern times was drastically different than what it became from the 19th century. It was impersonal and limited. It left the people to their own devices, as long as they paid their taxes and did not rebel. The pre-modern state did not overtly regulate societies. It didn’t have the resources to. It was only interested in accumulating wealth through taxes and conquest – and in maintaining large standing armies.
The Indian nationalism of India’s founding party, the Congress, was not entirely secular. It was secular only in the sense that it rejected the idea of a nationalism which was exclusive to a single, majority faith. But the founders of modern India did sacralise Indian nationalism when Mahatma Gandhi began to use Hindu symbolism to explain his idea of a post-colonial India as a ‘Ram Raj.’ By this, he did not mean a Hindu theocracy, but a spiritual land of peace and harmony like the one supposedly headed by the deity Ram thousands of years ago.
Like all modern nationalisms, Muslim nationalism is a modern construct as well. It, too, was built on the exaggerated readings of an ancient Islamic past that was believed to be ‘pristine.’ But since, unlike Indian nationalism, Muslim nationalism was exclusive to a ‘nation’ of a single faith, it needed to be sacralised. As mentioned, sacralism is not the opposite of secularism. Whereas the latter looks to separate the church and the state, the former looks to entwine the secular and the sacred to create a hybrid. Muslim nationalism sacralised modern secular ideas by positing that these were already embedded in Islam’s holy scriptures and ancient history.
But whereas sacralisation provides space for an exclusive nationalism to continue adopting pluralistic ideas and keep functioning within the more secular civic-nationalist paradigm, history suggests that entwining the state and the church — as a way to avoid totalitarian theocracy, or for that matter, absolute secularism — often sees the church eventually overwhelm the state. One can take India and Pakistan as examples, even though there is no church in Islam and Hinduism is not exactly a religion.
A ‘church’ in a Muslim-majority country often emerges in the shape of a state that begins to ‘Islamise’ itself. The ‘church’ in Hinduism emerged from an ideology that describes as a Hindu nation all the various cults and segments that are clubbed under the umbrella of Hinduism. The more theocratic-nationalist forces within this constructed nation begin to play the role of a consolidated Hindu ‘church.’ For Hindu nationalists, this move is important if one were to describe Hindus as a homogenous ‘nation.’
Hindu nationalist organisations did not wield any significant political influence at the time. But by then, the Congress had sacralised its ‘secularism’ so much that it began to be seen as a party looking after the interests of the country’s Hindu majority
Indeed, Indian nationalism was positioned as a secular nationalist undertaking, but many of its leaders applied Hindu symbology to express it as a movement towards the creation of a nation that had roots in Hinduism’s ancient traditions of tolerance. In his 2007 book on Hindu nationalism, the French political scientist C. Jaffrelot wrote that Gandhi believed and proposed equality of all religions in the future Indian state and encouraged a syncretic brand of Hinduism. But he established and lived in ashrams, practiced yoga, dressed as a Hindu yogi, spoke as a Hindu monk and articulated his views in a thoroughly Hindu style. Therefore, Hindu nationalism is not exactly the opposite of Indian nationalism. It is its alter-ego.
After the 1947 Partition, as the pressure mounted to intensify the level of populism with every passing election, Congress began to create space within the party for men who were to more-than-allude a favourable disposition towards Hindu nationalism in certain constituencies where Hindu nationalist sentiments were strong. Compared to the Congress, Hindu nationalist outfits were tiny. Some like RSS were social movements, cut off from mainstream politics. Yet, continuous sacralisation by the Congress as a way to co-opt Hindu nationalist sentiments ended up strengthening Hindu nationalist organisations because, in this context, their message seemed to be more authentic and less diluted.
When the secular Indian PM Indira Gandhi was assassinated by a Sikh in 1984, large mobs of Hindus fell upon the Sikhs, slaughtering hundreds. Why would Hindus react in this manner for a secular leader? This is because Indira Gandhi, too, had been sacralised by the party. She had become the human embodiment of ‘Bharat Mata.’
Hindu nationalist organisations did not wield any significant political influence at the time. But by then, the Congress had sacralised its ‘secularism’ so much that it began to be seen as a party looking after the interests of the country’s Hindu majority. And yet, it still hung on to Mahatma Gandhi’s idea of Hinduism as an accommodating and tolerant faith: enough to keep the country’s non-Hindu minorities on its side. Then, another sacralising project was launched in 1987, when the Congress government greenlighted a TV serial Ramayan on the state-owned television channel Doordarshan. The serial was based on characters from Hindu mythology.
The serial drew record viewership. Indian political scientist Rahul Verma wrote that the TV serial was “a catalyst in sparking a Hindu awakening across India, and bringing Hindu nationalism to the forefront of public and political spheres.” Active Hindu nationalists were a minority within the Indian nationalist paradigm. But by the late 1980s, they had begun their rapid climb towards mainstream power. By the time Narendra Modi (a former RSS member) was elected as prime minister in 2014, Hindu nationalist outfits had already constructed a Hindu church of sorts which today works in concert with Modi’s government. Ironically, the roots of all this lay in the manner with which the Congress had begun to sacralise the secular. The secular that had been sacralised then mutated and became theologised.
The sacralisation ploy was continued during the transformation of Muslim nationalism into Pakistani nationalism. This saw a modernist Muslim-majority state engage with Islamist ideologues to create a hybrid ideology in which theology and secularism could co-exist and feed off each other
Muslim nationalism in India emerged in the late 19th and early 20th century as a largely secular idea that understood the Muslims as an ethnic entity but with a shared (religious) story of origin. Muslim nationalism used the idea of a shared faith as a political identity marker in the public sphere, but kept the theological aspects of the faith in the private sphere. However, running parallel to this nationalism were also forces that wanted to place the faith’s theological markers in the public realm. Therefore, various components of Muslim nationalism began to sacralise this nationalism as a way to neutralise the theocrats, and to monopolise the faith’s theological aspects so that they could control them the manner in which they deemed fit.
These aspects were put in the larger context of Muslim nationalism, diluted and utilised to attract followers of traditionalist Islam as well as of Islamists. This required the co-option of traditionalists and Islamists so that they could aid Muslim nationalism to engage with those segments of the polity who were not altered by, or had rejected modernity. During the 1946 provincial election in British India, the All India Muslim League (AIML) did just that.
Whereas the League’s message in Sindh and East Bengal remained tied to the secular/ethnic dimensions of Muslim nationalism, it needed to be heavily sacralised in Punjab because Hindu nationalists, Islamists and traditionalists enjoyed much influence in the province. In many areas of Punjab, the co-opted Islamists and traditionalists in the League pitched the creation of Pakistan as a ‘new Madinah’ and ‘bastion of Islam.’
Once Pakistan was achieved as a separate Muslim-majority country, the sacralisation ploy was continued during the transformation of Muslim nationalism into Pakistani nationalism. This saw a modernist Muslim-majority state engage with Islamist ideologues to create a hybrid ideology in which theology and secularism could co-exist and feed off each other. In 1953, when Islamists led a violent anti-Ahmadiyya movement, the state cut off its engagement with the Islamists and began replacing them with the more moderate and liberal scholars of Islam. This became more prevalent during the Ayub Khan dictatorship in the 1960s. The sacralisation project continued, but with the aid of different players.
For example, the liberal Islamic scholar Dr. Fazalur Rehman Malik, who was handpicked by Ayub, produced a body of work that looked to root Ayub’s entirely secular economic and social policies in the grounds of Islamic theology as interpreted by Malik. This way Ayub was able to keep the Islamists out of the mainstream, and monopolise the process of how Islam was to be defined.
The Ayub regime fell in March 1969, mainly because its economic policies could not fully accommodate the demands of a growing population. It also failed to provide any genuine democratic outlets for the people through which they too could become stakeholders in nation and state building processes. The ploy to sacralise the secular remained more or less the same though, until the so-called ‘1971 East Pakistan debacle.’ During the 1970 elections, the Islamist parties had managed to win just 18 seats out of a total 300. But after East Pakistan broke away in December 1971 (on the basis of ethnicity), the need to make Islam a more integral part of state and society gained urgency.
Secular parties were already sacralising their message in a bid to neutralise the criticism from Islamist parties. For example, the left-liberal PPP quickly added the prefix ‘Islamic’ with Socialism, claiming that governments headed by the ‘rightly guided caliphs’ in the 7th century were, in essence, ‘socialist.’ On the other hand, opponents of secularism and socialism claimed that the rightly guided caliphs had created an ‘Islamic state,’ and that secularism and socialism were ‘anti-Islam.’ After 1973, as the modernist models of economic and social development began to recede, and a revival of Islamic sentiments began to emerge in the Muslim world, the state, government and non-Islamist parties in Pakistan began to increasingly adopt the rhetoric of Islamist groups.
This was a more active act of sacralisation, one which also began to directly impact policy and legislation. The 1974 constitutional ouster of the Ahmadiyya from the fold of Islam; the hosting of a Seerat Conference in 1976; the 1977 closing down of bars, clubs and liquor stores; banning gambling at horse races; and replacing Sunday with Friday as the weekly holiday, were all products of a desperate state and government rushing to sacralise themselves and monopolise the Islamist narrative.
The PPP sacralised its ‘socialism’ to negate the criticism from Islamists.
One of the first major examples of sacralism is of Roman Emperors (in the 4th century AD) outlawing pagan religions and adopting Christianity as the religion of the empire. This was done during the increasing influence of Christianity. Yet, not all Christians were happy about this. They accused the empire of usurping their independence and authority.
The more the Pakistani state sacralised, the more pushback it got, not only from secularists, but also from some Islamists. The state tried to co-opt the dissenting Islamists by appeasing them through various political and economic means. The enactment of the controversial Hudood Ordinances of 1979, and the addition of the death penalty in the country’s blasphemy laws in 1986, are examples in which the state and government went to great lengths to co-opt the radical dictates of Islamists who were still operating outside the Islamic paradigm constructed by the state. It was now being navigated by the military dictator Zia-ul-Haq. As a result, the Islamic political equivalent of the church as an institution of religious and political authority was finally established in Pakistan. The increasing enjoinment of state and faith turned the state into a church.
During the Middle Ages, when the church in Europe exercised and wielded immense political power and influence, citizens had to constantly prove their faith (as defined by the church). They did this to avoid being punished through torturous inquisitions, and in the process lose their livelihoods and even lives. This fear often resulted in citizens denouncing minority groups that refused to, or did not fit in the paradigm of Christianity built by the church. The denounced often included Jewish people, Muslims, Christian sects that were considered to be heretical, ‘witches,’ etc. All these, though minorities, were seen as a threat to the purity and existence of the faith modelled by the church: a model constructed to retain political power.
In Pakistan and India, there is now increasing pressure on the people to continuously exhibit their Muslimness or Hinduness. In one country, this requires the constant demonisation of the Ahmadiyya community, and in the other country, the demonisation of Muslims in general. In both the cases, state and government institutions encourage this through legislative measures and by even co-opting the more militant expressions of the majority faith. This has increasingly radicalised state and government institutions and consequently, the society as well.
So, for example, when the state and government in both the countries ‘take action’ against incidents of violence and lynchings by religious mobs, the intention of the action is against the violence, not against what inspired or provoked it. How can they, when continuous sacralisation of law and politics has signalled such violence as a moral duty and an act of piety?