Group Feelings of Ethnicity, Race, Religion and Gender on the Rise

Light of truth

Rev. Dr. Pius Malekandathil, JNU, Delhi

As a historian how do you understand the fundamentalist turn in many parts of the world to some sort of religious fundamentalism, which is happening in India, Arabia even in the West?
Fundamentalism is a cancerous cultural sickness that is made to exist in religious spaces by power-mongers as a dangerous parasite, which they conveniently developed as a manoeuvrable weapon for appropriation of power and for domination over others and in this process its viruses were made to get mutated and to take new forms when they travel from one culture to another. The word fundamentalists appeared for the first time to denote those who took part in the conservative theological movements that appeared among the Protestant sects in America in the 19th and early 20th centuries to combat against social and political liberalism and the modern liberal ideologies that favoured scientific naturalism and Biblical criticism. These fundamentalists battled only for certain doctrines of faith, which they valued to be fundamental and cardinal. It is now no more a mere conflict between conservatism and liberalism, although such layers of conflicts could also be seen in many cases. Over years many other religionists in India, Burma, Arabia and also in the West also began to feel that their revered religious values and ideologies are not respected by the world around. In fact it is within the set of their religious values, practices and ideologies that many people define their specific identity and the fear of losing their identity radicalizes such people, prompting them to resort to a “war” of words with piercing vocabularies or weapons with instant destruction against the ‘enemies’ they construct out of such fear. In this process these fundamentalists heavily bank upon and use religion, its tenets, texts and practices for legitimately justifying the animosity with which they attacked the constructed “enemies” and also for mobilizing support from their co-religionists for their endeavours of assertion and domination over others. The severest turn that fundamentalism takes in many of these places is in polarization of the society whereby a sense of the ‘other’ is created, the ‘other’ who is an enemy, who is to be erased. Though all the religions speak of the need of accommodating the other, respecting the ‘other’, the fundamentalists create a narrative out of religious scriptures with justifiable reasons to exterminate the other. Thus pluralism is made to disappear and intolerance becomes a ‘virtue’ in the imagined religious world of the fundamentalists. Accommodativeness of the ‘other’ and giving space to religious/linguistic/ethnic minority is viewed by themas an administrative weakness and accommodativeness of diverging views is considered as a religious sin. Cultural homogenization goes hand in hand with present-day form of fundamentalism.

Why it spreads so fast. The reasons are to be sought in the socio-economic and political contexts within which a conducive atmosphere for the appearance of this cultural malaise happens. The socio-economic and political developments create certain shocks and cultural trauma among the most affected communities who fear that their identities and revered values would soon be devastated. There is a phase of total confusion and frustration, out of which some would emerge with explanations and solutions borrowed from religious space, and their heavy use of religious rhetoric and vocabularies enable them to create an atmosphere for their domination over others in this transitional phase of confusion. The problems created by globalization-related issues in India, trauma emerging from oil crisis in West Asia, economic crisis in the West (mistakenly connected with migration) led to the emergence of fundamentalist populist leaders in these places. Most of the fundamentalist movements are intolerant of dissent, and hence are prone to be violent. Very often the fundamentalists use an ‘imagined past’ and create a dominant narrative out of it and disseminate it through popular media and most sophisticated technologies for getting larger receptivity.

Do you think science and technology has uprooted humans with a terrible feeling of nostalgia?
True that science and technology entered almost every domain of human life. Scientific and technological developments have facilitated human endeavours and reduced the burden of human labour. At times they have encroached upon the moments of familial interactions, socialization and entertainment. They have eaten up and reduced the roles of story-telling grandparents, joke-cutting parents, foot-ball playing friends. Those who used to narrate the feats of the predecessors and the saga of family history every evening are replaced by TV programmes, which condition the way how we should express our emotions and to what extent. But that does not mean that they have uprooted humans. A vast majority of people in India or in the entire world still laugh, cry and fight on the basis of emotions flowing from their heart while interacting with others, indicating the fact that machines could not enter the core areas and facets of human relations and do away with emotionality totally, though they have reduced considerably the frequency, the degree and value of emotions.

Francis Fukhuyama has said, “ideology is out and identity is in,” is it true?
Francis Fukhuyama holds the view that the nature of global politics is shifting to an identity axis and is moving away from the economic left-right axis of the twentieth century that was defined largely by ideology. If we look around and watch the recent developments, at times I too feel that there is some element of truth in it. Many of the ideologies are blurred with different layers of interpretations and with different shades of meanings, which are incapable of addressing the issues and complexities of the evolving world. Hence people are often resorting to identity questions by linking themselves with those characteristics that give them group feelings like ethnicity, race, religion and gender. Whether it is a good practice or not, the tilt is towards being a part of a particular ethnicity, race, gender and religion, which they consider as the identity marker for the persons in crisis. Probably because of the sense of cohesiveness and belongingness that they provide, they are often viewed as frames of reference for the new type of politics that take shape in the evolving world

The Hindutva slogan “Ghar Vapsi” tells of return to a home in the past. Is religious fundamentalism a return to history?
True that Ghar Vapsi refers to return to a home in the past. But the past is not mono-layered. There are multiple layers of past. Which layer of past that you have to go back? Why a particular layer of past is better than the rest? India’s past had a variety of religious traditions, many of which were mutually contradicting. There were at times conflicts, but often convergences, compromises and selective adaptations within all streams of religious traditions of India, enriching each stream .What we see as religiosity in a particular stream is not something that appeared in its past; but the result of a long process of evolution. Fundamentalists skip and ignore the processes and stages of evolution through which the religious institutions, ideologies, icons, God-concepts took their present shape. They project their religion as a static entity which existed a millennium back in the way they appear now, which is a false presumption. A large part of India accepted the religious institutions, practices ideologies, icons, God-concepts that we see today through the bhakti movements of Vaishnavism and Saivism that spread to different parts of India between 13th and 18th centuries.

As a priest and a history teacher how is man finding his home?
It is the type of meanings which a person creates for a space that would make it a home. As a priest and a history teacher I used to relate myself with India as my home. The ethos of the land, the academic culture and intellectual environment of its educational institutions, the system of values that it always upheld, the role-models given by the shapers of its destiny, its economic structure that subsidized my studies, the spiritual legacy that this land is famous for, the political system that democratized every process of decision-taking at the governmental level facilitating talented people to come up etc., collectively contributed to the shaping of what I am now. That is why I find India to be my home, even if a small fraction ever make a counter-argument at any point of time. The ever-changing administrators and rulers are only facilitators for me to take whatever I need out of what is available at my home. Even if somebody is not facilitating it, India never ceases to be my home. My idea of India as my home gives/should give me enough space for my growth and branching out, as much as it should give to every other individual of this country despite the difference in language, religion and culture.

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