FULL CIRCLE: THE OPPRESSED APPEAL TO RELIGION

Unnoticed until quite recently have been other voices who have also resorted to a religious idiom to press their appeals for justice. These groups were sub- ordinate to, and victims of, that petty bourgeoisie which had succeeded in making religious communalism their ideology, just as the professional bour- geoisie made secularism theirs. In an era when there no longer exist whole and viable communities to extol or preserve, religion continues to provide a language for claims even when these are but the wistful and in the end inef- fectual pleas of the oppressed who hope their oppressors can be blackmailed by tradition, shamed by old values into honourable conduct. Nevertheless, the effort on the part of dalits (oppressed) to use religious argumentation to advance their justice claims deserves brief notice at least.

Why should the very sections of Indian society whose ascriptive pollution has always barred them from ordinary religious participation now cast their appeals in religious terms? Historically, claims to social and religious justice were heard by kings and by agents of the gods, the priests and sect leaders   who pronounced on behalf of the gods in their temples. The establishment       of colonial authority during the  late  eighteenth  century  expunged  most  of the royal authority in the subcontinent  in  all  but  the  princely  states.  In  place of royal adjudication, Company  courts  were  instituted  whose  remit  was to administer a version of ‘traditional’ law according to British under- standings of the ancient moral texts (dharmashastra). But courts could not  fill the void left by the previous norms of consensual decision-making according to community usage and custom. Thus religion alone remained

as the basis of social adjudication, and Company policy was quite willing to leave to panchayats and mahants the settlement of disputes in which the colonial authority had no interest, such matters as who might or might not worship and have respectable status. It was to such bodies and in such  terms that the most direct victims of petty bourgeois religious oppression were forced to appeal.

Communalist politics in India, like fundamentalist politics in the Middle East and the United States, reflect the interests and the fears of the large segment of national populations of the lower-middle class whose economic and social security is ever at hazard and is so perceived. From one quarter come the dangers of a modern capitalism which readily sunder forms of pro- tection and petty privilege long enjoyed by small property holders and by members of humble professions. And from another quarter come the demands for social justice for the poorest in all societies, including India. During the twentieth century the poor were encouraged to want and expect better oppor- tunities and resources by the promises of politicians. In India, with its robust democratic and electoral participation, these expectations were kept alive through frequent electoral campaigns. But the masses stand to gain, if they gain at all, from those only slightly better-off; the wealth of the very rich is never at risk. The lower-middle classes in India, as everywhere else it seems, wrapped the vulnerability of their economic position in religion symbols – saffron here, black there. In India, in Iran and in Texas, these symbols signify conventional righteousness and the preservation of things as they are. The very rich and powerful, associated in India with secularism, remind them of the better state to which they aspire, but also teach them how unlikely they are to achieve it. The very poor threaten a frightening alternative. Religion provides a surrogate discourse for the maintenance of the barely adequate in the face of dangerous kinds of change.

Leave a Comment