September 18, 2015

India: The pseudo-religiosity of the BJP (Shiv Visvanathan)

The Hindu - September 16, 2015

The pseudo-religiosity of the BJP

Shiv Visvanathan

The idea of the ban, the aggressive attitudes, ultimatums and closures do not resonate either with the spirit of ahimsa or with our Constitution. It is ironic that Jainism, which professes a philosophy of tolerance is invoked today for a politics of intolerance

Newspaper reports often appear like fragments that the reader has to put together. The reports on the ban on sale of meat during the Jain festival of Paryushan made me worry more about the way we read narratives than the act itself. Commentators seem to deal with the activities of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with kid gloves; one almost senses a majoritarian inevitability, a feeling that the BJP can get away with its political sorties against minorities. I think it is time to take the bull by the horns and accuse the BJP of “pseudo-religiosity.” Years ago, Lal Krishna Advani unleashed the idea of “pseudo-secularism” with deadly effect. Today one has to confront the religiosity of the BJP and its clones.

There is a conflation of time in the invocation of bans which is intriguing. The BJP and its cohorts often make decisions invoking or citing Aurangazeb, Shivaji, Rana Pratap, the colonial regime, etc. This makes one wonder which historical period the BJP operates in, whether it is responding to Mughal misrule or rectifying a current injustice. The Constitution appears like an alien document in its diktats.

Ignoring belief

The pity is that the BJP does not take the content of faith and the logic of belief seriously. Like marketing agencies, it aims to control behaviour rather than examine the content of belief. Jainism is one of the great texts of non-violence. From Santhara to fasting to covering one’s mouth with a muslin cloth, the Jain seeks to minimise damage to the other. Jain pinjra pols are vital institutions which care for old animals or even cattle when their owners cannot, even during natural disasters . Non-violence thus is not an epidermal or cosmetic ritual but something intrinsic to Jainism.

Yet the paradox is that the BJP’s ban creates a climate of violence and controversy. As a political move, it seems to be an electoral gimmick to be revived annually to stoke certain issues, to invoke identity and difference rather than respect the authenticity of belief.

The Jain practice of non-violence is thoughtful. Apart from fasting and meditation, it seeks equanimity within the self. The festival, Paryushan, is marked by rituals of forgiveness, not just from fellow humans but from all sentient beings. Such a perspective, which takes on the view point of the other, could hardly seek to ban or harass the practices of the other. This way of life would be sensitive not only to the living but also to the livelihoods of the other.

The BJP ban seems to be a way of politicizing difference, of catering to Jain egos, when Jains themselves would be upset by “meat ban politics.” The idea of the ban, the aggressive attitudes, ultimatums and closures do not resonate with the spirit of ahimsa. A philosophy of tolerance is caught in a politics of intolerance and this is ironic.

The ambiguities could not have escaped genuine believers. It is difficult to believe that one needs to do violence to another community to fulfill the conditions of spirituality. The BJP’s enthusiasm for the ban seems a piece of gimmicry creating controversy by pitting one minority against the other, creating what a critic has called the pseudo-religiosity of current majoritarian politics.

The ban, as anthropologists have noted, is literally food for thought. Food politics is not only a classificatory mode of thought but a hierarchy of politics. Beef to the vegetarian is most repugnant followed by other red meat; chicken and fish occupy lesser levels of the hierarchy. In fact, observers have noted that fish is excluded from the current ban because there was no wish to alienate the Koli community of Mumbai, which is powerful electorally. The conversation about food in a diverse society cannot be only state-meditated. What one needs is a reciprocity of ideas and gestures. The idea of the ban as a unilateral diktat adds to policing powers of a majoritarian state.

Legal confusion

Oddly, the courts, by focusing too literally on procedures, have added their quota of confusion. The court’s orders seem to suggest that justice operates on a sliding scale, that short term bans are not problematic. The first could be seen as a ritual deference to community belief and practices while long term bans could threaten livelihoods. The number of days a short term ban can be enforced becomes a political game of its own, creating a competitive politics of who can enforce longer bans. Yet it also suggests that livelihood as a right can be nibbled away, that time tables can create a periodic abrogation of rights. There is something slippery about the Supreme Court judgement where former justice Markandeya Katju had argued that the ban in Gujarat was not for a considerable period and that “non-vegetarians can surely remain vegetarians for nine days a year out of respect for Jain community.” It is as if rights belong to the community, but time seems the exclusive privilege of the Court.

It is not just the pseudo-religiosity of the BJP that affects people; such an attitude also makes the Constitution vulnerable. Rights have to be integral. To think of rights as something you can titrate from a pipette damages the sanctity of rights without really adding any notion of the sacred. One has to realise that both the Constitution and religious texts share what one might call the sense of the sacred and the BJP’s attempt to tamper with rights as if it were a damaged piece of plumbing does not bode well for the future.

Nature of cities

Beyond rights and religiosity, one has to think of the culture of cities. The city is a cosmopolitan place, the very structure of which allows for a plurality of food practices and a complementarity of livelihoods. ‘Ban politics’ does not just threaten livelihoods, it threatens the cosmopolitanism of a city where the secular, not just as a constitutional idea but as a civic ideal, allows differences to be sustained. Ban politics as a part of a politics of electoralism can create parochial tyrannies closing down parts of the city. Thus if the BJP were to argue in a municipality that since Jains are a majority in a constituency, a meat ban should be imposed, there is an asymmetry here that is worrying because individual rights cannot be hypothecated even to a well wishing corporator. The court seems a bit negligent on the idea of rights. This is not for the Maharashtra Navanirman Sena (MNS) and BJP to decide upon. They are subsumed under the Constitution, not electorally transcendent over it.

Further as the ban logic catches on and states cascade into each other to accommodate a particular community, one senses a touch of a farce, an official piety which verges on bully boy attitudes. Reducing bans by a day or two does not reveal either sensitivity or liberalism. In fact, food as a symbolic marker, has often become the site of a battle for identities and spaces between savarna (caste Hindus) and avarna (Dalit and tribal groups). The ethics of non-violence as a part of brahminism becomes a vehicle of a deeper violence of enforcing caste hegemonies on Dalit groups.

Finally such a debate while it emphasises the centrality of food to religion, needs to bring out the salience of food to the Constitution. The foods of the future might have to go beyond classic taboos not only for nutritional reasons but also for reasons of ecology and scarcity. The state might need to prepare for such contingencies rather than practicing embargos and bans.

The recent debates do reveal that the BJP as a party in regime loves the ban as a weapon, be it food, books, film, or body behaviour. Deep down, one senses a threat whereby food bans applied thoughtlessly, threaten religion, the Constitution, democracy and in fact culture as a way of life. Official piety and righteousness of the BJP can create the violence of pseudo-religiosity which might be more threatening than the pseudo-secularism of the now effete Congress.

(Shiv Visvanathan is a professor at Jindal School of Government and Public Policy.)