India | 8 min read

Bits of India 2: The Secularism of the RSS

Lost in the Wilderness
Photographer: Aashish R Gautam | Source: Unsplash

Buyer beware: this essay has a higher than usual ratio of speculation to explanation. I am playing with two central ideas (illustrated in the flowchart below):

  1. What? The modern system - with the state and the market being its standout institutions - destabilizes traditional categories, breaks them apart, swallows the pieces and finally assimilates tradition within its schemes. As I will argue below, that's what's happening with religion in India. The ascent of the Sangh Parivar isn't a sign of a premodern tradition winning over liberalism, but of the modern system assimilating "Hindu ways of life," whatever that might mean.
  2. How? The merger of space and code (geometry and programming) is the best available language to understand the dynamics of the modern system.

One line summary of this essay: an information geometry of secularism. Thankfully, I am burying that pompous phrase here instead of elevating it into a title or subtitle.

The Secular Socialist Democratic Republic

The Idea of India is over. Way back when we used to be a Secular Socialist Democratic Republic. It’s been a while since we have been socialist; the collapse of the Soviet Union and subsequent liberalization ended that dream. With this election, we can conclude that secularism is dead, and it’s only a matter of time before we stop being a democracy and become a theocracy.

That’s what I am reading.

Not a day goes by before some well known academic or writer pens a eulogy for an India that’s no longer to be seen. Here’s one that’s being widely circulated. Here’s another. Then there are the whispers saying we can still revive that Idea if we play our cards right (Rajeev Bhargava’s article in the Hindu, for example). The world hasn’t ended yet. Cheer up!

Is secularism dead? Is it alive? Is it on life support? Is it worth supporting? Some answers to these questions arrive while reading an article by Faisal Devji, which has an important line:

“unlike Islam in Pakistan, there is nothing theological about Hindu nationalism. It is a secular movement (my emphasis) for which religious belief, however genuinely held, possesses political meaning only as the majority’s culture.”

Devji is right. Hindutva is a secular movement and most of the Sangh Parivar, including the RSS consists of secular organizations. But in order to understand that, we need to interrogate secularism first.

What is Secularism?

Secularism is usually understood as one of three things:

  1. The Euro-American version which demands the separation of Church and State. Usually understood to mean that the Church shouldn’t interfere in state affairs.
  2. The Indian version in which the State shouldn’t favor one Church over another. All Churches are equal in the eyes of the state.
  3. I guess for sake of completeness I should include the Communist version: there’s no Church.

Note: I use the term Church in the most generic sense as any organized system of religious practice and/or belief.

There are (at least) two dimensions in which the Church and State intersect with each other:

  • Belief: As in what we think is true or valuable and who gets to regulate those truth and value assertions. Does the sun go around the earth or the earth around the sun? Who gets to decide what’s taught to our children? In a liberal secular society, you’re theoretically allowed to believe whatever you want in private while your public beliefs are supposed to conform to reason and facts. Of course, we know that the reality is much more complex; modern societies have overseen an enormous expansion of beliefs. Some of them are scientific or rational, but most of them are effervescent; beliefs about what’s cool, what’s hot, what’s trending and so on, that are mediated by advertising more than science. In other words, neither is our private sphere free, nor is the public sphere shaped by reason, but it’s a mark of secularism that we pretend that it’s so.
  • Power: Like any other institution, the state wants to maximize its power and doesn’t want the Church around as a competitor. The state has a native advantage - it has a monopoly over violence. As Stalin once said about the Pope “How many divisions does he have?” One of the signs of secularization is that we no longer accept the Pope’s claim to power. To be honest, he can’t compete. The world of nuclear bombs and predator drones is beyond his pay grade. Much better to sit in his ivory tower and tell the world to behave. Gently. If you notice, there’s already a tacit shift in power between the Euro-American and the Indian versions of secularism. While Euro-American secularism treats the Church as a potential rival that needs to be kept out, the Indian version treats religions as supplicants. It’s the state that’s the prize, not the Church. The communist version doesn’t even let the Church supplicate.

Combining these two threads, we arrive at a higher-order understanding of secularism as a process than as a feature: the process of secularization is the steady privileging of this worldly needs and values over absolute or transcendental needs and values. When scholars talk about truth, they are asserting transcendental values. In contrast, when governments direct science funding towards monetizable research and hand out promotions based on impact factors, they are asserting this-worldly values. Secularization in the domain of belief says truth doesn’t have cash value while innovation does.

Note how this concept of secularization in the domain of belief covers a much wider territory than the relation between the Church and the State; it recognizes that beliefs proliferate in modern society and that the real battle is over the regulatory ideals (truth versus success) that govern which beliefs receive state or market support.

Similarly, the secularization of power means that traditional sources of religious authority are destabilized in favor of new political identities. As Devji says “religious belief, however genuinely held, possesses political meaning only as the majority’s culture.” We need to read this statement at two levels:

  1. After the process of secularization, only those beliefs that possess political meaning have a chance of flourishing. I may believe in 330 crore gods. You may believe there’s only one. We might even come to blows on that account if we had an argument about the correct numerical measure of godliness. However, neither of us is going to go viral on Whatsapp. Theological disputes don’t have direct access to political meaning. Of course, as the Shia-Sunni dispute shows, it’s possible to channel theology into politics, but that always requires a this-worldly feature (inheritance and lineage in the case of the Shia-Sunni conflict).
  2. Religion’s usefulness is only restricted to those elements that manifest as cultural identity. What’s left unsaid but is crucial for secularization: identity can be mobilized for political purposes while truth or faith can’t.

So to ask whether some seemingly religious entity is secular, we need to ask: does its politics dictate its theology or the other way around? The answer in the case of the RSS is clear: it’s only theology is a political theology and therefore it’s an archetypal secular organization.

Who does the RSS worship?

Traditionally, RSS shakhas had only one deity: Bharat Mata, a picture of Mother India. None of the other Indian deities had a place in the room; no Krishna or Rama, no Lakshmi or Durga. The only deity was a representation of the nation.

It’s not that there isn’t religious precedence for making the nation sacred. In Hindu societies, every village and locality has its own deity, a local guardian who represents that place. In the divine economy, deities make places as much as the place marks the deities’ influence. The Vaisnava tradition has the 108 Divya Desams, temples that mark pilgrimage spots across Indian subcontinent.

So place and geography have a prior association with divinity, but the Sangh act of turning India itself into a deity is an interesting move, simultaneously investing the nation with sacred values and making it possible for the secular to dominate the sacred.

Why so?

Answer: because the (re)production of space is one of the key acts through which the State supplants the Church. The Church has only symbolic control over a territory while the State has both material and symbolic control. The Church can only mark some spots as Divya Desams but it can’t build the roads that connect the Divya Desams. In contrast, the state can lay the roads and dot the highway with statues of dead politicians.

spatialization favors secularization.

Don’t believe me: consider an analogy to the other major institution of the modern world: the market. Let’s say there’s a village in which people barter goods with each other and no cash is ever exchanged. Then modernity arrives in the form of a market selling widgets from across the world. Unfortunately, the market sellers don't accept offers in kind; you got to pay cash in order to acquire the goods on offer. So the villagers decide to switch.

No more barter. For a while it works well - they continue bartering with each other but use the market for goods that can’t be sourced internally. Makes sense right?

As the villagers get accustomed to the joys of buying and selling, the market goes from a sporadic affair to a permanent presence in the village. One day the market has a new seller. He’s got fertilizer at rock bottom prices, because he can afford to purchase fertilizers at scale from China. Can the local fertilizer supplier - the cowherd - compete with the new entrant? Not a chance. The new space - the market village - systematically favors the cash player over the barterer.

New spaces = new relations. The nation as a space inherently favors the state and makes it possible for the state to swallow religion.

Let’s say you are with me so far, that you agree that space favors the state and those who nationalize religion are state actors in saffron. You might still wonder: what’s the mechanism through which the state surrounds religion and then swallows it?

The answer my friend is coding in the wind. The algorithmic machines of the 21st century are very good at tapping into emotional networks that were once deployed in acts of faith, remapping their connections and redeploying those emotions in the service of political acts.

The computer is key to the commodification of religion.

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