Photo courtesy London Cosmopolitan

Text of speech delivered on the 7th of January at the BMICH. 

Let me that I have to thank my friends and colleagues who discussed and challenged me throughout the process of preparing this presentation. They may not be satisfied with the final result but I must sincerely thank them for challenging my assumptions.

There are four propositions I would like to make during this presentation

  1. The question of religion and politics is related to the greater issue of pluralism and the way a state and society deal with diversity. Though religion has some unique factors handling the issues is also a reflection of a society’s approach to difference.
  2. The nature of religion is not static whether at the local or national level. It evolves over time. The Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity we practice today is not what was practiced in medieval times. In addition the modern world and cosmopolitan culture have thrown up new forms of spirituality. Any institutional arrangement for religion in the realm of politics today should not entrench present forms of religion and pre-empt the possibility of change in the nature and expression of spirituality in the future
  3. Religion should far as possible remain in the private sphere and all recent suggestions to have it play a greater role in the public sphere should be treated with caution- especially when it comes to the rights of women
  4. The only institutional structure in the public sphere that should be accepted is a procedural mechanism for conflict resolution, or inter- faith dialogue and consultation for reconciliation. The long term strategy to deal with hatred, prejudice and violence should be to “uninherit” aspects of our past that deal with intolerance and this should be done through education, the media and social networks. In this the role of the state and political leadership is key. Religious teachings and traditions that encourage tolerance can play an important part.


The dilemma posed by religion’s role in contemporary politics can be generally brought under the rubric of the problem of pluralism in the modern world. Pluralism- or the respect for diversity- along with caste, class and gender remains a major fault line of South Asia- the politics of which threatens to tear apart South Asian societies

Pluralism is often coupled with the general need for tolerance. In this call for tolerance, respect for diversity is often in tension with the goals of the developmental state in South Asian societies. This developmental state relies heavily on the concept of national sovereignty and forces the centralization of power that results in controlled governance and economic planning along the lines dictated by those who have assumed or grabbed office. To consolidate its political base, governments often use the developmental state to entrench the perception that the State should bear the homogenous marks of the majority community while the social reality on the ground presents a more plural, multi cultural and multiracial mosaic.

In this context I must make clear that given my background in human rights, I have no hesitation in fighting this homogenizing impulse of the modern developmental state, preferring to advocate for the rights of minorities, their recognition in society and the creation of structures and laws that allow for the full celebration of a plural, multi religious, multicultural society where everyone has a stake in the nation state and where everyone feels equal ownership. As Director of the International Centre for Ethnic Studies for some time, I must admit that this was one of our goals.

However we must also in true honesty recognize that pluralism also poses its own dilemmas, which we cannot shy away from.  There is increasingly an internal dynamism within minorities and social groups which is extremely problematic and which in turn poses issues of internal democracy and internal human rights- often related to women’s rights and the rights of minorities within the group. The decision by many women’s groups to postpone the struggle for a Uniform Civil Code in India, which had the aspiration of giving equality to all women regardless of community, points to the fact that we may not be able to fully resolve the latter ie internal democracy and human rights within minority groups until we resolve the former, the creation and acceptance of the structures of pluralism at the national level and within society at large. We notice, as the Indian feminists found in India, that the struggle for internal human rights within minority groups is often hijacked by the forces of majoritarianism that are opposed to the creation of a State that acknowledges the multicultural and plural nature of society.  Extreme Hindu nationalists took up the call of the Uniform Civil Code not because of any sympathy for women but to bludgeon Muslim identity. This then poses one of the most serious strategic dilemmas to the achievement of pluralism in South Asia- how to recognize minority rights while also fighting for women’s rights and individual and group rights within religious communities.

 Religion: A Perspective

Before I go onto describe one aspect of pluralism- that is religion and- its link to politics, let me say a few words about religion and spirituality. Though they are not one and the same there is a strong linkage between the two, especially in the modern world.

Most of us in my generation came of age during independence or in the decade or two just after. We were greatly influenced by thinkers such as Marx and Weber who believed that religion will fade away with modernity and rationality. Religion was seen as primitive man’s attempt to deal with the contingency of life. Max Weber in his influential book Religion in India, talks about “religious needs (that are necessary) as emergency aid in external and internal distress” that would disappear when rationality helps us understand our mortality. Religious politics was seen in purely material terms, a quest for economic, social and political power by different groups using religion to advance their interest.

Recent polls of the so-called youngest generation, called “the Millenials”, (refer to BBC, CNN, PEW Polls) that grew up after the Reagan Thatcher years and who spend a lot of time on the Internet, seems to indicate that the pull of religion in its orthodox and fundamentalist form appears to have fallen sharply.  Traditional churches are having trouble recruiting priests and congregations in western churches have declined.  This may make some think that Weber and Marx were right and the hold of religion is beginning to fade. However though the millenial do not go to church, those who consider themselves religious, or call themselves religious or spiritual remains relatively high.  As Charles Taylor writes in “A Secular Age”, alternative churches and new forms of spirituality are replacing orthodox churches. This has made many conclude that Weber’s and Marx’s prediction that religion will fade away may not be true and that many modern men and women, like their forefathers and mothers, still seem to have a core need for spirituality and spiritual expression separate from the institutions and structures of religious institutions. One could argue that we have the making of what may be termed cosmopolitan spirituality.

First, cosmopolitan spirituality often celebrates the heterodox traditions within established religions and opposes the rigidity of orthodox structures. Mahatma Gandhi’s Hinduism brought to the fore by Ashis Nandy, Gananath Obeyesekere’s Buddhism and the Sufi tradition within Islam are the examples celebrated by many modern thinkers and laymen.  More and more you see greater identification with these traditions by those who do not want to completely move away from their religion but who want to distance themselves from the exclusivity and narrow mindedness of established religious institutions and practices which they find profoundly embarrassing in the modern world.  They in fact argue that the modern version of established Asian religions is more imitative of colonial values than the values of the indigenous people. These heterodox traditions are of course the humanistic pathway for believers to confront the legalistic and formalistic interpretations of established religion and give wide room for spiritual expression and inclusivity.

Secondly, cosmopolitan spirituality in multi religious societies results in people acquiring multiple identities and religious rituals and mixing and matching faiths on an indivdual basis. People identify with many faiths, will be at ease at a Buddhist temple, a church, a Hindu temple or a mosque. Cynics may call it “hedging their bets” but people continue to do pujas, novinas or visit the shrines of holy saints regardless of religion and all at the same time. Ironically Jock Stirrat in his book “Popular Religiosity” on Sri Lanka points out how at the local level and among the poor this has been the norm for centuries. It is now taking root in cosmopolitan centres and among the cosmopolitan elite. More and more there is an attempt among theorists also to mix and match and synthesise categories.. For example the writings of Dr. Mark Epstein tries to combine his Buddhist beliefs with his training as a psychoanalyst giving profound value to his insights. The writings of intellectuals from this type of spirituality borrow from all the religions and see beauty in the ideas and expressions contained in all those faiths. One is as fascinated by the beauty of the Buddha with the Sapphire eyes in Dehiwela, as one is by the structure and inside of the Trinity College Chapel in Kandy, the calligraphy of some of the Holy Korans in Sri Lanka and by the Chola bronzes now in the Colombo museum.

Elaine Scarry in her book “On Beauty and Being Just” shows the clear linkage between some ideas of beauty, justice, truth and spirituality. A person pondering the beauty of the Dambulla cave paintings is often experiencing the same sensation as someone overcome by Verdi’s La Traviata. Some may say this has nothing to do with religion but that may be because we have limited the category of religiosity and spirituality. Charles Taylor in the last part of his book.  A Secular Age argues that for many modern cosmopolitans, spirituality has taken the form of artistic expression- music, literature, painting, and theater.  Appearing secular in form these art experiences often carry the deep meaning and moral force associated with religion. These art forms are sometimes individualistic sometimes communal but in some sense are the new cathedrals.

If we go further and analyse these modern forms of spiritual expression as well as the hybridity of the popular religiosity described by Jock Stirrat we can call upon theorists like Judith Butler. What we could say is that what we have in the modern world is a sort of a “free floating spirituality” unattached to any particular mainstream religion that sometimes finds expression in but also yearns to be free from orthodox structures of religion; This “free floating spirituality”, is not anchored in the structures of orthodoxy but is constantly searching for what Scarry describes as beauty, truth and justice.  In a beautiful paragraph she describes this state of mind …”it is porous, open to the air and light, swings forward while swaying back, scatters its stripes in all directions, and delights to find itself beached besides something invented only that morning or standing beside an altar from three millennia ago”.

You may ask why have I gone on this strange journey to explore the depths of spirituality.  You may think that after she joined the United Nations she has lost her mind. I am exploring these issues because my international experience only reinforces the point that religion and spirituality cannot be fixed, they are constantly changing in theory and practice, and in modern times new and innovative interpretations abound every day. This freedom that is also a key to the creativity of any society must not be crushed by any political arrangement that seeks to entrench any particular version of religion or any particular style of spirituality.

The emergence of this type of modern spirituality, the rebellion within established churches by heterodox factions along with the atheism of people like Christopher Hitchens- who have many counterparts in Sri Lanka who believe the world can be only be understood through rationality and science- I do not know if any of you remember Mervyn Casie Chetty and the Rationalist Association which was quite powerful in its heydey- these modern developments have led to a profound reaction by established religions and faiths. Atheism, heterodox worship and modern day spirituality has forced mainstream and orthodox religious institutions and groups at the apex level as the Americans would say- “ to circle their wagons”, to become more exclusive and fundamental, drawing clear boundaries to keep their doctrines in tact and their practices pure. Some breakaway groups have taken this to extremes of exclusivity. The election of Pope Francis to the Catholic hierarchy may be a sign that we are moving beyond this age of rigid doctrine at least with regard to some religions.

 Religious Majoritarianism

In discussing religion and politics I think it is important to see the crucial difference between a religion that is a majority religion with some form of state patronage or a minority religion within a country. Religious majoritarianism as we have seen in South Asia if backed by state power can be a terrifying phenomenon. The violence of the 1980’s and 1990’s are all examples of what can happen in these situations. These were not the spontaneous riots of early eras but what Asis Nandy calls “manufactured riots” or “assembly line violence”.  Even today all over South Asia we see militant religious organizations of the majority community walking around with legal impunity with shadow links to the state. This combination of majority intimidation and coercive state power leaves minority individuals powerless and vulnerable. Next to terrorism it is the worst form of excess in South Asia.

The one good side of religious majoritariansim is that if the leadership of the State wants to progressively reform religion, and it is a popular government, it has the confidence and the political backing to do so.  Again leadership is key. Under Nehru’s guidance, and even in states like Tamil Nadu after the influence of thinkers like Periyar, the Indian state brought in ordinances to abolish untouchability and caste discrimination, to strengthen anti Sati laws, to force temple entry to the Dalit community, to change the personal law system of the Hindus to allow for, among other things, women to be treated equally, as well as the abolition of animal and bird sacrifices. Meanwhile in Sri Lanka the State is hesitant to intervene to change the personal laws of the Tamil community to give women equal rights or to stop the animal sacrifices in places like Munneswaram. I do not want to be identified with the views of the Hon. Member of Parliament for Kelaniya but his support for the cause actually points to the dilemma we actually face. If the state does intervene, given the present politics and the heightened sensitivity, even some progressive members of the Tamil community may see it as a sign of double standards, persecution and outside interference.

Religion and Politics: How we got here

Now let me come to the relationship of religion to politics and some ideas for the future.  Thomas Jefferson once said that the way to silence religious disputes is not to take any notice of them.  Religion in politics was a messy business and he wanted no part of it. Secularism was in some sense an answer to remove government from this messiness- to keep it operating in a rational form neutral and equidistant. Unfortunately that is not a possibility in South Asia where religions and religious institutions wield enormous power. At independence, Sri Lanka and India in a broad sense accepted what is now called the Nehruvian compromise. Laws, structures and values influenced by liberal or socialist worldviews, would govern public life. The economy would be governed by a combination of capitalism and socialism.  The state would not carry the imprimatur of any religion and would strive to be neutral as possible. Science and rationality will be paramount. 

While public life would imitate the west so that we would develop the skills that led to our defeat at the hand of colonial masters, religion would be relegated to the private sphere. In addition as Partha Chaterjee writes women would become the custodians of all culture including religion, their dress wearing the imprimatur of their identity and the rituals and customs kept alive by them to be passed onto the next generation. Many feminist writers have pointed out that Christmas, Pongal or Vesak are not holidays for women- they have to toil from day to night to keep a large amount of people fed and happy. This public private distinction – western ways in public life with a neutral secular state and religion and custom relegated to the private sphere- was the key to this Nehruvian compromise.

Many theorists have argued, especially those foregrounding secularism, that this notion of a neutral state with regard to religion that Nehru espoused may have been valid in theory but in practice was never the case. The discourse even of people like Gandhi was full of the religious language and symbolism of the majority community. After independence, the symbols and the accompanying theatre of government from the lighting of lamps to the granting of blessing was always drawn from the rituals and symbols of the majority community. Nevertheless we could argue that Nehru’s aspiration and the aspiration of people like Ambedkar who drafted India’s constitution was to make the state neutral as possible and to encourage symmetry in dealing with religion.

In Sri Lanka, Buddhism received a prominent place in the 1972 Constitution, even though it fell short of being the official religion. Critics have argued that this makes Sri Lanka a theocracy.  But it was clear that this prominence would really be operative with regard to the symbols and theater of government as well as state patronage of Buddhist institutions. Otherwise the Nehruvian compromise was maintained. It was understood that religion would not be a part of everyday political or economic decision-making. In addition the different personal law systems drawn from other religions and communities that governed the lives of individuals within families remained completely intact.

While in the west the notion of the private is often associated with the family or the individual, in South Asia, Nehru’s concept of private also included the amorphous word “community”, particularly the religious community. This community directly or indirectly regulates family life. These communities are often very powerful, with religious institutions owning large amount of real estate and investment. They also have influential charitable institutions and NGOs working for them.

As I said earlier, the most difficult part of these religious communities is the fact that they lack internal democracy and often violate the rights of their own members, especially their women and those born to a lesser status.  The State too is afraid to intervene because of the political cost and also because a minority community is especially vulnerable. This forces many individuals especially women to adjust to these violations because the emotional and financial cost of leaving is too great and in some fashion they sometimes begin to celebrate their loss of rights usually in the language of identity or resistance against imperialism. Others often flee to become, as many women have written, modern fugitives from their own community.

Religion and Politics: The Future

Let me now come to the present and see what pathways may follow in the future. The 1990s saw an extraordinary amount of religious revivalism in South Asia that continues even today. This led to the interrogation of many of the fundamentals of our received history with regard to the relationship between religion and politics. Leading the assault were Asis Nandy and T.N. Madan  who strongly challenged the Nehruvian compromise.  Emphasing Gandhi who said that those who thought religion and politics could be separate understood neither religion nor politics, they attacked Nehru who saw religion primarily in terms of being an obstruction. They saw him as being complicit in imposing foreign ideas on the role of religion in India, ideas that would never take root. Seeing South Asian people as being deeply religious, they distinguished faith- the everyday practices of the average village person from ideology- the language of religious fundamentalists and crusaders. To fight the latter whom they hated, as well as imperialists, real or imagined, they wanted to bring religion back into the public sphere and let the public sphere be guided by the unsaid “internal principles” of tolerance that have governed inter ethnic relations and co-existence at the local level for generations. Though interesting in theory, I have not located in any of their writing what these internal principles of tolerance that have governed us for thousands of years actually are. 

In this Nandy and Madan have strong support from some of South Asia’s leading Post Modernist intellectuals who along with Nandy and Madan launch a major attack on the public private divide and the notion of a liberal/socialist secular space governed by science and reason. Spivak, Chatterjee have all argued that we give up global discourses tainted by imperialism and go to the local and the local in South Asia has a strong religious dimension. Most of them keep their argument at the level of cririque but Partha Chatterjee goes further and wants to institutionalise the relationship between religion and politics and suggests that each religion should have its own parliament. This parliament would have elected members which is able to decide its own rules and this parliament would have a direct role in national decision making. I wonder whether those who are atheists or have a free floating spirituality would have their own parliament- probably not. To have parliaments of today’s religions is to entrench religion as it, is not recognizing the possibility of a fluid and heterodox spirituality in the fast changing world of the future that I described early on. Luckily for us we have leading Indian thinkers on our side as well including Amartya Sen.

Seemingly at odds with the intellectuals mentioned earlier or included in their footnotes is the women’s movement of South Asia whose effort of the past four decades was to break the public private distinction, not to support religion but the exact opposite- to bring the liberal and socialist values contained in the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women ( which all our governments have signed) into the private world, to fight for a uniform civil code to replace the personal law systems that so profoundly discriminate against women, and to prohibit and condemn religious and cultural practices that are violent towards women.

While the women’s movement wants to bring the western enlightenment ideas of liberalism and socialism into the private sphere, much to the horror of feminist activism, there is increasingly a counter movement which is trying to have religion break out of the private sphere into the public sphere. Many of them are appalled by the new deference given to religion and religious ideas in our publc life. We now increasingly have suggestions for regulating women’s modesty, we have suggestions on the restriction of freedom of movement, freedom of expression and all sorts of bizarre suggestions that treat women as children or as “she devils” wanting to entice men. We also have religious personalities entering politics and we hear calls for all sorts of new institutional arrangements that will give religion and I quote “its rightful place”.

I must say though I sympathise with some of these sentiments to find innovative solutions to the relationship between religion and politics, I remain deeply skeptical of giving religion any prominent role in our public life. I have spent too much of my career fighting religious and cultural practices, all over the world including the west, that oppress and brutalise women, to allow the genie out of the box. Institutionalizing religion within the politics of the country beyond a symbolic form will have profoundly negative consequences. Even suggestions for the State to foster and give maximum space to all religions in a type of symmetry- the type of secularism advocated by Prof Bhargava- is to me deeply problematic.  Even if we embrace religion in a new way, despite all their good efforts I can predict that the heterodox aspects of the religions so loved by Nandi and Madan will not prevail at the national level. These heterdox practices by their nature do not have the power or the influence to do so. What will prevail are the orthodox, mainstream religious structures which are often patriarchal, opaque and non democratic.

One of Sri Lanka’s scholars Ananda Abeyesekere writing about ethnic and religious conflicts in South Asia suggests that we should think of the term “Aporias”- situations that have no clear resolution in the near future because of a situation of what is called “permanent provocation”. Though we do not really want to accept it perhaps our differences do exist and do run deep. Alberuni writing at the time of the first Muslim incursion into India honestly describes the strong prejudices of the people even at that time.  Prejudice that is sometimes waiting to be exploited by unscrupulous political leaders. Madan and Nandy may be right that there was and perhaps is peaceful everyday life co-existence and tolerance among religions and communities. All of us know that in our multi ethnic neighbourhoods in Sri Lanka this co-existence prevails and sometimes thrives. But we have also seen on many occasions how any direct appeal to prejudices and fear can completely disrupt that every day tolerance and lead to devastating consequences.  I think we have to accept the fact that our differences do exist that in recent times they have acquired the dimension of a “permanent provocations” because of politics.  These provocations are below the surface in many parts of Sri Lanka even though they co-exist with everyday tolerance and even everyday friendship. The balance between co-existence and provocation can easily be disrupted, resulting in violence and brutality. We will be fooling ourselves to believe that the inherent good sense of the villager or citizen will always prevail. We know from history that it often does not.

If we accept Abeyesekere’s notion of “permanent provocation” co-existing with a culture of tolerance, then what are the politics and institutional arrangements that must emerge to deal with these antagonisms. Well it has long been said by scholars that ethnic and religious conflicts cannot be solved, they can only be managed. What we then need is a mechanism for conflict resolution and inter faith dialogue among religious groups especially at the community level. This is absolutely essential not only as part of post war reconciliation but to prevent violence breaking out at every provocation. Such conflict resolution mechanisms and dialogues could be written into the law and the State may be proactive in facilitating the process. In Sri Lanka where there is now religious tension in the South this may be a way forward. A procedural device for conflict resolution is all that we need. Beyond that I would not suggest any other institution or law that would bring religion into public life or politics.

Management of conflict in terms of conflict resolution is a technical stop gap- if we want to make the so-called “permanent provocation” less permanent all communities have to be move in the direction of what Abeyesekere calls “uninheriting” some aspects of their past, including their religious past.- especially those aspects that deal with intolerance, exclusivity and hatred. This can be done through such things as inter marriage or with the tools that Benedict Anderson has often talked about, the tools of education, media and social networks. We have to use these tools effectively and systematically to bring about reconciiation.  Of course this is a long process that may take decades and may have to be accompanied by necessary changes in the political economy. This task of “uninheriting” should be lead by the State but even if it does not take up the role, the task falls to all of us in academia, civil society as well as politicians and the ordinary citizen to do what is needed. All of us must accept that responsibility.