Identity politics in South Asia and the importance of secularism


Security personnel stand guard at a damaged shop after a mob attack in Minuwangoda, Sri Lanka. LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI / AFP

The current religion-based violence in Sri Lanka is throwing-up in some important local and international quarters the thorny question of identity politics and their consequences and it is hoped that informed and enlightened discussion would ensue from this development. Such discussion should be seen as integral to restoring normalcy in this country.

There has been a tendency among influential opinion in Sri Lanka to shy away from deliberations of this nature since the gaining of ‘political independence’ and this is not accruing to the benefit of the country. Ideally, the relevant issues should be faced squarely, discussed and appropriate policy decisions taken.

It is a positive development that the relevance or otherwise of a ‘Catholic Party’ for Sri Lanka has come up for discussion among some opinion-moulding sections. Right away, we need thank Heaven that such a party is being seen as totally unnecessary for this country by no less a person than the head of the local Roman Catholic Church. It goes without saying that such a religion-based party would compound this country’s problems.

This country is reeking with identity politics and this brand of politics has proved divisive and disruptive from 1948. We could certainly do without another religion-based party and such parties are also part of identity politics. Some other dimensions of identity politics are ethnicity and language.

Needless to say, South Asia has been a veritable nursery and home for politics of this kind. Politics of this variety were a factor in the violent break-up of the Indian subcontinent in 1947/48.

However, a discussion on the disruptive impact of identity politics should be taken to its logical conclusion. If identity politics are thriving in our country, seen by some as a ‘five star democracy’, it is because this country has failed to establish a democracy in the true sense of the word. Put very simply, there could be no space or provision in a robust democracy for a mixing of politics and religion.

In the most vibrant democracies of the West, for example, there is a clear separation between politics and religion and the latter does not figure in the relevant Constitutions for whatever reason, leave alone being discussed and debated in political campaigns and public opinion mobilization efforts. This is secularism pure and simple and, pray, it should not be understood by the clergy of any religion that secularism is synonymous with the banning of religion by the state. This is not the case. Religion flourishes in some of the most democratic of states today.

However, in Sri Lankan political ‘discourse’ religion usually plays a predominant role and this by no means is a pointer to this country’s democratic maturity. On the contrary, it is indicative of the highly undeveloped nature of Sri Lankan democracy.

Religion is a private matter and should be always seen as such. A person’s or group’s religious and cultural markers are seen as totally irrelevant in thriving democracies and this is how it ought to be. On the other hand, democratic politics should always have to do with public issues and it ought to be clear that religion could play no part in processes of this kind.

However, Sri Lanka has failed to conform to these parameters and murderous religious violence is a consequence of this glaring drawback. On the other hand, in democracies worthy of the title, humans are valued irrespective of the religions they practise and the cultural markers to which they lay claim. Inequalities of any kind cannot flourish in democracies and Sri Lanka needs to question whether it has adhered to these benchmarks over the decades. The time is Now for such a discussion.

The separation of religion from politics should be enshrined in all Constitutions claiming democratic status and seen from this perspective Sri Lanka ‘is neither fish, flesh nor fowl’, given the fact that its Constitution contains strong theocratic tendencies. This feature is grist to the mill of religious demagogues and dividers of all kinds who pit one religious group against the other particularly at election time, hate speech being one of their preferred tools. Small wonder that religious violence is becoming a habit with Sri Lanka.

India, by far, is the most democratic of states in South Asia, although it too is burdened by religious violence every now and then. But India has the distinctive advantage of being a secular democracy. In India the state maintains an equi-distance from all religions; carefully refraining from preferring one or some religions over the others. This enables the citizenry to obtain redress from the state in case of being victims of religious and other forms of identity-linked violence since the probability is great of the state and its organs being impartial dispensers of justice. It is the above equi-distance that primarily defines Indian secularism.

At the time of this writing China has convened an international forum termed the ‘Conference on Dialogue of Asian Civilizations’ and from South Asia’s viewpoint the timing of this ‘Dialogue’ could not have been more apt. Hopefully, the issue of the equal dignity of humans would figure prominently in these deliberations since civilizational advancement is inconceivable without the provision of such equality in any culture. South Asian societies need to leave behind all forms of feudalism and the latter could only be eliminated through the provision of equality and re-distributive justice.

The issue of equality which is at the heart of democracy needs to be focused on sharply because countries and cultures need to provide strongly for this condition in their Constitutions if they are to advance in the direction of humanity. It is only the latter condition that could prevent ordinary citizens from being savaged in the name of religion and other identity markers that compartmentalize humans and keep them divided.

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