Tuesday 21 May 2024

Religion & politics, in another century & place

It would be interesting to look at the past, especially the past of a region we know, Goa and its erstwhile ruler Portugal


The relationship between religion and State is a complex one. This week’s events in Ayodhya and nationwide continue to remind us of that. The jury is still out on this one, and we are yet to see what the end results will be.

We need not go into conjecture. Even without this, one can easily say that the times ahead are likely to be complex, vastly different from the past, and in ways we as a nation can only guess.

What the Rajiv Gandhi Government initiated before the 1986 and before the 1989 elections, with the opening of the locks on the Babri Masjid, and allowing the VHP to perform Shilanayas (laying of the foundation stone) near the disputed area, Narendra Modi took to another level with the inauguration of the temple on the site this week.

On a parallel track, it would be interesting to look at the past, especially the past of a region we know, Goa and its erstwhile ruler Portugal.

Contrary to what most of us here think, the relationship between Portugal and religion has not followed a straight line. Its trajectory has not been uncomplicated. It has been filled with zig-zags, backwards-and-forwards, loves and hates, romances and sharp mistrusts.

For centuries, Portugal had a complex relationship with religion. Contrary to how that nation is often viewed in Goa today, as a theocracy and the centre of religious bias alone, Portugal itself had diverse and often conflicting equations with religion.

Catholicism existed locally in that area even before Portugal was formed. Portugal’s first king, Afonso Henriques, ruling between 1139 and 1185, accepted vassal state status from the Pope in return for papal recognition of the nation.

Later, the Church helped Portugal to expel the ‘Moors’ from its southern regions and claimed vast lands as a privilege in exchange.

(Moors is what the Europeans called the Muslim people of North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula during the Middle Ages, roughly the 5th to the 15th century CE. Parts of Iberia, or today’s Spain and Portugal, were controlled by Muslims of African descent between 711 CE and 1492 CE.)

In time, the Church’s position declined in Portuguese society. But this changed with the opening up of its overseas empire, and missionaries again became crucial agents of the State.

Then came the mid-sixteenth century Inquisition. This, contrary to the dominant perception of it in Goa, was not aimed at converting people of other faiths into Catholicism but rather to enforce the ‘purity’ of the Catholic faith itself.

This was to change again.

By the eighteenth century, sentiment against the Church grew once more.  Keeping with this trend, the Marquis de Pombal, who ruled from 1750 to 1777, expelled the powerful Catholic order of the Jesuits in 1759, cut relations with Rome and brought all education under State control.

(Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo 1699-1782 has been called a Portuguese despotic statesman and diplomat, who effectively ruled the Portuguese Empire, between 1750 and 1777.  He was the chief minister to King Joseph I.)

Anti-clericalism dominated Portugal even after the ouster of Pombal. By 1821, the Inquisition was abolished. Religious orders were banned, and the Church lost much of its property.

By the second half of the nineteenth century, Church-State relations improved. But anti-clericalism emerged with the First Republic in 1910. Education was secularised, Church properties were seized. Steps brought about in this period included curbs on the pealing of church bells, disallowing a clerical garb to be worn on the streets, and even bans on some religious festivals.

The Republic was replaced by a Conservative, Right-wing government (Salazar, etc). This dominated Portugal for over four decades of the twentieth century, and till the end of Portuguese rule in Goa in 1961.

In a word, we see the equation as a series of pendulum swings from one side to the other. This has implications for how we see the past history of Goa. It also bears on what we anticipate India’s future to be.

It has been argued that Hinduism is more a “way of life”, and it in any case does not have a centralised “Church” or hierarchy. Hence, it is argued, any comparison between religion in the West and religion here would be odious and misleading.

But even a look at the trends between politics and religion in India itself shows some interesting trends. Just after Independence, the Nehru-led Congress tended to be (mostly) critical of religion, and dismissive of people’s faiths.

Outside of the then ruling Congress, but also within it, there was a trend towards bridging religiosity and politics. Or even mixing the two. This backward-forward trajectory has since continued, and recently intensified.

We now see acute religiosity being injected into politics. In what way will this affect religion itself? Will it make more people religious? Or, push towards greater irreligiosity?

For one, it will (and has) changed the discourse nationwide. There will be a greater focus on religious issues. This is happening at a time when the rest of the world is focused on secular, this-worldly concerns.

We could see politicians and religious heads getting closer...or even drifting further apart, as some recent trends suggest.

It will, naturally and most probably, change the election results. But if the focus on religion does not improve the daily life of hundreds of millions of Indians, there could also be swing in the pendulum.

Together with the fire-crackers and saffron flags (put up officially, and by individual citizens) this week, one can also hear voices stressing the composite heritage of India. The reality that religions can and must live in peace with each other. Or that religious differences aren’t the most complex of all human concerns.

Which way the wind blows is anyone’s guess....

Share this