Religion & Communalism In the Present Context
Sitaram Yechury
(Speech At The Xavier Institute of Social Service On the Occassion of the Platinum Jubilee of the R.C. Church Diocese, Ranchi, November 2002)
I feel both honoured and privileged to be invited as the chief guest on the occasion of the platinum jubilee of the  R.C. Church Diocese, Ranchi at Xavier Institute of Social Service.  The topic assigned to me to speak is "Religion and Communalism in the present context". 
The present context  is, indeed, ominous with the gathering of  dark clouds of communal fascism all over us.  A serious threat is being posed to the very foundation of modern India.  The secular democratic republican character of India is sought to be converted into a rabidly intolerant communal fascist society.  The recent State-sponsored communal carnage in Gujarat has, in the most chilling manner, displayed the gruesome face  of the communal monster.   The earlier attacks against the Christians in Gujarat, Orissa and elsewhere, the  torching to death of Graham Staines has revealed the true face of  fascistic intolerance.  There is today before us,  all Indian patriots, a very serious challenge to safeguard and protect India as we know of it.
In order to rise this occasion, it is however necessary to understand certain aspects of why such a dangerous  qualitative change has come about in contemporary Indian political  and socio-economic life. 
Certain causes for the current communal offensive
Communalism, consequent conflicts and hostility have been part of the Indian social and political fabric for over a century. What are the reasons that promoted this constant source of tension in our society to assume such a qualitatively new offensive today?
To investigate this it is necessary to recapitulate, briefly, certain aspects of the experience of the class rule in independent India. The Indian bourgeoisie and its leadership, Indian monopoly capital, due to the compulsions of its narrow social base had to align with the landlord sections in order to maintain its class rule in independent India. This in itself set in motion new set of contradictions that continue to determine the content and direction of India’s socio-political and economic development. Such an alliance meant the inability of the ruling classes, on the one hand, to break decisively from the economic stranglehold of imperialism and, on the other, eliminate the vestiges of feudalism and its grip over Indian people and its economy. This latter aspect found expression in the continued narrowness of the domestic market despite the recent burgeoning of the middle class. Historically, nowhere had capitalism developed, or could develop, without decisively eliminating feudal relations of production. Such a compromise with imperialism on the one hand, and landlordism on the other, in independent India could not lay the complete basis for the flourishing of the capitalist path of development as required by the Indian bourgeoisie. All efforts at super-imposing capitalism on feudal structures did not and could not yield the desired result of eliminating the vestiges of feudalism. The consequent narrowness of the domestic market, as reflected in the low levels of purchasing power in the hands of crores of people, as a result of the inability of the ruling classes to effect a thorough going agrarian revolution through radical land reforms, forced the bourgeoisie to look for external markets in pursuit of its capitalist path of development. This in itself paved the way for greater dependence of Indian economy on imperialist capital and technology in order to enable the Indian capitalist class to compete in the external markets. The consequences of this has been the new economic policy with all its disastrous implications for the Indian people.
Thus, the compromise with landlordism in the sphere of economy had led to a situation where the Indian bourgeoisie is attempting to overcome the contradiction arising out of such a compromise by, on the one hand, perilously increasing the country’s dependence on imperialism and, on the other, transferring the burdens of the resultant crisis on to the shoulders of the common people.
While this has been one manifestation of this contradiction, there is another,  an equally important one. The inability to eliminate the vestiges of feudalism meant, at the level of the super-structure, the existence and perpetuation of the social consciousness associated with feudalism. The impact of communalism and casteism continued to dominate the social order. The efforts at super-imposing capitalism only created a situation where the backwardness of consciousness associated with feudalism was combined with the degenerative competitive aspect of capitalist consciousness.
The process of class formation as a consequence of capitalist development was, thus, taking place within the parameters of the existing caste divided society.  It was taking place not by overhauling the pre-capitalist social relations but in compromise with it.  It is precisely this aspect that explains the complexity of issues that effect and dominate Indian society today.  The advancing class struggle, has therefore, to encompass the already existing and surviving caste oppression.  This lies precisely in the overlapping commonality between the exploited classes and oppressed castes in contemporary India.
Thus, at the level of the superstructure, feudal decadence was combined with capitalist degeneration to produce a situation where growing criminalisation of the society,  coexists and grows in the company of caste and communal feelings, which are exploited by the ruling classes for their political-electoral purposes.
This particular manifestation of the contradictions set in motion after independence, lays the objective basis on which the present  concerted offensive by the communal forces has been mounted. The discontent amongst the Indian people, as a result of the crisis of the system,  accumulated over the years, is growing. Discontent is affecting also the expanded and vocal middle class,  drawn more from the former exploiting classes rather than from the upward mobility of the exploited classes.  The domination of the consciousness of the exploiter classes combined with discontent provides fertile soil for the growth of communal ideology.   Exploiting this discontent and on the basis of the perpetuation of backward consciousness, the communal forces are able today to divert this discontent into communal channels in pursuit of their political objective.
In the pursuit of this objective, the communal forces have adopted a two pronged strategy. On the one hand, they seek to generate a sort of a monolithic unity amongst the vast diversity within the community of Indians embracing Hindu religion, and, on the other, they generate  hate against enemies outside of the Hindu faith, i.e. the Muslims and the Christians. The entire propaganda mechanism based on fascist  techniques unleashed by them is to achieve this dual strategy.
In fact, the ideological foundations for a Hindu Rashtra, were laid in the 20s by V.D. Savarkar. It was later adopted and an organisational structure provided for this by the RSS after its foundation in 1925 and particularly, in the period of the late thirties when the British inspired communal divide was exploited to the full.
This objective was articulated by none less than the former long serving RSS supremo M.S. Golwalkar way back in 1939 in a book titled, "We or our nationhood defined". His chilling fascist articulation of the RSS agenda continues to be the inspiration for the saffron brigade today. After making an unsubstantiated sweeping declaration that the Hindus alone constitute the national race in India, he says: "There are only two courses open to the foreign elements, either to merge themselves in the national race and adopt its culture, or to live at its mercy so long as the national race may allow them to do so and to quit the country at the sweet will of the national race….From this standpoint, sanctioned by the experience of shrewd old nations, the foreign races in Hindusthan must either adopt the Hindu culture and language, must learn to respect and hold in reverence Hindu religion, must entertain no idea but those of the glorification of the Hindu race and culture, i.e., of the Hindu nation and must lose their separate existence to merge in the Hindu race, or may stay in the country, wholly subordinated to the Hindu Nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment — not even citizen’s rights. There is, at least should be, no other course for them to adopt. We are an old nation; let us deal, as old nations ought to and do deal, with the foreign races, who have chosen to live in our country."
And how should `old  nations’ deal? "To keep up the purity of the Race and its culture, Germany shocked the world by her purging the country of the Semitic Races — the Jews. Race pride at its highest has been manifested here. Germany has also shown how wellnigh impossible it is for Races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one united whole, a good lesson for us in Hindusthan to learn and profit by."
It is the same Golwalkar who, while making many bucketful compromises   seeking the removal of the ban on the RSS following Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, had assured the then Home Minister Sardar Patel that the RSS will confine itself as a "cultural organisation". In search for a political outfit, Golwalkar had sent some pracharaks to assist Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, who fell out with Nehru and resigned from the union cabinet, to found a political party in 1951. Amongst those sent were the present Prime Minister and the Home Minister to found the Jana Sangh, the earlier incarnate of the present BJP. One would be living in a fool’s paradise if one were to consider the BJP as anything else but the political arm of the RSS.
Further, in a later work,  "A bunch of thoughts", Golwalkar described in a separate chapter the three internal enemies that were preventing  the destruction of the secular democratic character of India and the RSS march towards a fascistic "Hindu Rashtra".  These three, according to the RSS, are the Muslims, the Christians and the Communists.  We are, therefore, to borrow the words of Paul Robeson,  on the same boat, brother!
Our subsequent experience underlines that fact that both the Hindu communalist offensive and the Muslim or (for that matter, all other religion based) fundamentalist response today constitute a frontal assault on the very independence and sovereignty based on a secular democratic polity that defines modern India. These forces, in fact, feed each other. Their similarity in attacking the modern concepts of secularism, democracy and nationalism are indeed glaring. While castigating these concepts as alien to their respective religious cultures they however, have no compunction in borrowing the modern 20th century concept of fascism. They base themselves on a distorted definition of nationality, central to which is religion. Rejecting the historical experience till date of how religion has never been and can never be a cementing factor for any national formation, (e.g., Pakistan and Bangladesh) they openly advocate the predominance of religion, both in politics as well as in the ordering of the society. Thus, they reject, both the historical experience of the nation states and negate the scientific basis of nationality.
Communalism and its fundamentalist ideology is not the championing, far less the protection of religiosity. It is the utilisation of the religious divide between the people consciously engineered and perpetuated for a political purpose. It is an ideology based on a religious conflict for a specific political purpose. The British had used this for perpetuating their colonial rule and in the process elevated it to such an extent that they could succeed in partitioning our country and leave behind a scourge that continues to claim countless lives. Communalism hence, is far removed from religion.  It generates and perpetuates hatred amongst religious communities as the basis for its existence and growth.
Marxism and Religion
In such a context, a  great deal of controversy has always existed regarding the Marxist understanding of religion. The popular perception is the normally out of context quotation that "religion is the opium of the people". In fact, deliberately, the passage in which this statement finds place is never quoted in the full. Marx had stated :"Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of the heartless world, just as it is the spirit of the spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people."(Introduction to the critique of Hegel’s philosophy of Right, 1844).
Religion, is the opium in the sense that it is as potent as opium is in creating an illusory world. For a human being who is oppressed, religion provides the escape for  relief, it provides  a "heart in a heartless world, a spirit in a spiritless situation." For this precise reason, it is the opium that the people require, to lull themselves into inaction  so long as they continue to remain in conditions which appear outside of both their comprehension and control.
The Marxist understanding of religion is essentially integrated with its entire philosophic foundations. In pursuit of the simple question of what constitutes the real freedom of a human being and his consequent liberation, Marx proceeded to reject the Hegelian idea of the revolution of the mind as represented by Feuerbach, during his time, to come to a conclusion of seminal importance.  That was: consciousness of a human being is determined by the social conditions and not vice a versa. "It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but on the contrary their social being that determines their consciousness"(Introduction to the critique of Political economy).
It is on the basis of such a fundamentally important conclusion that Marx says :"the basis of irreligious criticism is : Man makes religion, religion does not make man". In other words, like every other manifestation of human consciousness in terms of thinking and the consequent intellectual practice, religion also is the product of human social existence and not the reason or the cause for the same.
Such an understanding at once places religion, not as a thing in itself, not as something that exists by itself independent of the driving force of society in history. In fact, precisely for this reason, Marxism does not lay blame e.g. the persecution of Copernicus or that of Ekalavya on religion itself. It regards all these things as the natural manifestation of social forces and movements expressing themselves in religious terms because religion has been the dominant form of ideology throughout all recorded history. Progressive and reactionary ideas, the vested interests of the ruling class or the demands of an exploited class equally present themselves in the form of religion in men’s mind so long as religion is a dominant form of ideology. Hence Marxism is able to take cognisance of the positive and progressive content of religious reform movements e.g Sufi, Bhakti movements but at the same time point out their limitations that they would not be able to effect the desired change in society by remaining only within the limits of the religious fold. Unless they are able to change the social conditions that find expression for domination in a specific religious form, that particular form and associated oppression cannot be removed. Thus, while recognising the positive content as well as the limitations of religious reform movements, Marxism is able to place the history of religion also within the realm of the evolution of human civilisation and the corresponding human consciousness.
Hence, Marxism, when it imparts a scientific treatment to history is able to see the complex role religion played in great social struggles. The origins of Christianity can be seen in the role of mass revolts that marked the decay of the Roman empire. In the rise of Islam, Marx and Engels both drew attention to the internal struggles between the Bedouins and the towns people, the awakening of Arabian national consciousness for the liberation of the Arabian peninsula from the Abysanians and to recapture the long dormant trade routes. Similarly, the Protestant reformation was seen as a reflection of the complex class struggle taking place between the decaying feudal order and that of the rising bourgeoisie. "The ineradicability of the Protestant heresy corresponds to the invincibility of the rising bourgeoisie". (Engels, Feuerbach)
Religion, therefore, for Marx and Marxists is a product of the social conditions in which man existed and continues to exist. The history of religion, in one sense, is also a reflection of the history of human evolution. Hence, religion is a reflection of the real world. In so far as human beings are unable to comprehend the forces of nature or of society that appear to determine their day to day existence and guide their destinies, the need for creating a extraterrestrial supernatural force remains. Religion therefore, provides for the human being a sense of comfort, beauty and solace that he cannot find in the real life. At the same time, religion, also being the dominant form of ideology, is an expression of ruling class domination at any point of time.
For this precise reason, Marx and Marxism alone, having understood the genesis, origin and the continued domination of religion on the human mind in a scientific manner, states with authority that the role of religion is contained and determined by the states of social organisation. And, for that precise reason, Marxism does not attack religion per se. Its attack is on the conditions that give rise to religion and the conditions that perpetuate the hold of religion on the people. Marxism seeks to radically alter the conditions that provide the basis and perpetuate religion as an instrument of class oppression.
Marxists are materialists. And as materialists they understand and comprehend the complex role that religion plays in a class divided society. And also how religion as a form of the superstructure continues and will continue to exist for a long period even after the establishment of a classless society. Its attack is not on religion per se but on the social conditions that give rise to religion and hence this determines its direction of activity.
This then is the Marxist materialist understanding and appreciation of religion.  Its humanist content and at the same time its utilisation as a instrument of class rule have to be understood in its totality. A communist works to change the conditions that continues to give rise to the hold of religion and not attack religion per se.
Struggle against Communalism
Thus, exposing the self-bestowed monopoly of upholding religion by the communal and fundamentalist forces is also an integral part of the struggle against existing social conditions whose transformation is what Marxists and the CPI(M) seek in India. Communalism in pre-independence India was generated and utilised by the British as a constant instrument of state power in their notorious divide and rule policy for maintaining the colonial order. It is in fact following the 1857 first war of independence when the Hindu-Muslim unity was demonstrated at its highest form that the British consciously engineered  a policy of communal politics. The consequent separation of electorates on the basis of Hindu-Muslim divide, the partition of Bengal and the patronage given to the Muslim League etc. were part of the political agenda for continuing the colonial rule.
In post-independent India, the crisis of the system that we discussed above leading to growing popular discontent was also sought to be overcome by the ruling classes by utilising the deep communal divide. Instead of consciously working for the eradication of the communal poison, that continued to be perpetuated following partition, the communal divide was often utilised through vacillation and compromise for narrow political benefits.
India today is undergoing, what an imminent intellectual has called, a  pre-fascist upheaval.  This is all too visible in every sphere of our public life —   Rabid communal polarisation; fascist intolerance against everything  and everybody that challenges the RSS variety of "Hindu Rashtra"; large-scale penetration of all institutions of democratic society by RSS people; contempt for the republican Constitution; unscrupulous maneouvres, manipulations and sordid bargaining  sans all principles and norms; heaping unprecedented economic burdens on the people; and rampant unmitigated corruption. 
Its years in office have clearly established that this government’s policies are both pro-imperialist and in the interests of the most  reactionary sections of  Indian monopoly capital. In fact, this Vajpayee government has been the most pro-US government that independent India has ever had.  Its economic policies have, on the one hand, mortgaged our country’s economic sovereignty and, on the other, impoverished the vast mass of the Indian people.   In the foreign policy sphere, India has been reduced virtually as an appendage  to US strategic  interests in the region.
Further, these years have also shown the single-minded assault being mounted on India’s education system.  The RSS’s objective of seeking to impose a uniformity on  the  rich diversity amongst the people belonging  to the Hindu faith into a monolithic  "Hindu" by venomously spreading deeper the communal hatred against the minorities, particularly the Muslims and the Christians, can be  seen in the changes that they are bringing  about in the syllabus for our school students.    The education system is, thus, being restructured to strengthen communal prejudices which the Saffron Brigade hopes  will ease its journey towards achieving its fascist objective.
Likewise, these years have seen the relentless pursuit of rewriting Indian history.   Distorting facts and historical evidence is absolutely necessary for the Saffron Brigade in order to establish their so-called claim to be the  irrefutable masters of this land called India. For such a "Hindu Rashtra", it is necessary to establish that Hindus, and  Hindus alone, were the  original inhabitants of India.  This, in turn, requires proof that Hindus did not come here from anywhere else.   For, if they had, then their claim on this land would be no different from all others belonging to different religious affiliations who came to settle in this land.
For Golwalkar then and the RSS today, the term Hindu is synonymous with Aryan.    The high priests of Hindu society are still called the Aryawarta.
Rejecting with fascist contempt, all historical evidence to the contrary, the recent efforts to rewrite Indian history are singularly  motivated to prove that India and India alone is the land of origin of the Aryans.  They would have us believe that it is from here that the Aryans travelled around the world.  The Saffron Brigade would have us believe that Hitler, who imposed fascism in Germany in the name of the  superiority of the Aryan race, was actually a migrant from India!
The recent years have shown that there is no  stone that the RSS would leave unturned  in its pursuit of its fascist objective.  The mainstay of its activities, however, remains the whipping up of communal  passions and the consequent riots that are engineered.  Every single judicial commission of enquiry  that was instituted to probe communal riots in India since independence has singled out the RSS as the main perpetrator.  Since assuming power, its activities on this score have grown sharply.
The State-sponsored communal  carnage in Gujarat remains, however, the worst inhuman and savage act that they have  committed so far.  What has happened in Gujarat recently is tantamount to ethnic cleansing.  The RSS and its affiliates are so brazen that leave alone showing remorse, they actually hail the incendiary killings in Gujarat  as the "glory of the Hindus".
The RSS variety of nationalistic jingoism is sought to replace true Indian nationalism that unites people of all faiths, religious, castes and languages.
The unity and integrity of a country of such vast diversity — not only religious but linguistic, traditions, customs etc — can only be maintained by strengthening the bonds of  commonality  amongst this diversity. Any attempt at  imposing a  uniformity upon this diversity will shatter the unity and integrity of India.  This is precisely what the communal fascist forces seek.
The spread of communal poison and the sharp polarisation taking place, creates the dangers, not only for the dismemberment of the country and lays foundations for virtual civil war conditions, but also consciously and effectively disrupts the unity of the very toiling sections on whose unity rests the advance towards people’s democracy. The rise of communalism, today, therefore, represents simultaneously the weakening of the unity of the basic classes on whose strength the struggle against the present class rule can be mounted. The struggle against the communal forces today is, at the same time, the struggle for maintaining the unity of these classes and to that extent, is an integral par of the struggle to defend and advance India.
The miserable conditions and the wretched existence of these toiling sections and their struggles for human dignity and liberty has found reflection in the Roman Catholic Church with the emergence of the Theology of Liberation,  in the late sixties and seventies of the 20th century. The Latin American Bishops conference CELAM at its second conference held at Medellin, Columbia, in 1968 gave a concrete expression to such a theology. The Peruvian priest, Gustavo Gutierrez gave the world the central text, “Theology of Liberation” in 1971. Filled with righteous anger at the human and social hell in which the vast majority of people live, Liberation theology, from what I can understand, suggests an energetic protest against such situations which mean:
  • on the social level: collective oppression, exclusion, and marginalization;
  • on the individual level: injustice and denial of human rights;
  • on the religious level: social sinfulness, "contrary to the plan of the Creator and to the honor that is due to him" (Puebla, §28).
The Vatican Instruction of August 6, 1984, “Some Aspects of Liberation Theology” has succinctly put: "It is not possible for a single instant to forget the situations of dramatic poverty from which the challenge set to theologians springs — the challenge to work out a genuine theology of liberation."
Without going into greater detail, it must be  considered in the present Indian context that the struggles of the toiling sections who want to improve their livelihood and move towards genuine liberty and dignity are today disrupted and diverted into channels of communal strife and tensions. Unless these struggles are strengthened and the communal menace defeated, the advance towards human liberation itself gets thwarted.
In this context, it is the duty of all of us to actively intervene in order to ensure that the perpetuation of misery is not compounded by the tragedy of incendiary communal hostilities. No one with a clear conscience  can remain aloof in this struggle. The words of wisdom that have filtered down through centuries tell us, “for the evil to succeed, the good only need to be silent”.
India has to be saved in order to change it for the better. The assault by the communal forces today, is to reverse whatever little that has been achieved through  political independence in 1947 and since.  The task of all Indian patriots is to preserve whatever has been achieved in order to advance for the future.