In an ideal world, religion and politics would operate as
separate spheres, each contributing to the public good in their own way.
However, the conflation of the two realms has been alarmingly visible, and
nowhere is this more evident than in recent events in Indian politics. This
toxic blend not only undermines democratic values but also has a severe impact
The Manipur Crisis: A dangerous mixture of Ethnic Rivalry, Religion, and Politics
The recent crisis in Manipur, a state in northeastern India, brings to light the devastating impact of mixing religion and politics, which is compounded by complex ethnic rivalries dating back to pre-independence times. The roots of the conflict go deeper than what meets the eye, revealing a disturbing entanglement of social, religious, and political issues that threatens the very ethos of democracy and humanity.
It all began with a court ruling in March that conferred the majority Meitei community “scheduled tribal status,” putting them on the same plane as the minority Kuki tribe. This entitled the Meiteis to various economic benefits and quotas, but it also permitted them to buy land in Kuki-dominated areas. This ruling, however, lit a fuse, heightening already simmering tensions and fuelling fears among the Kukis that their livelihoods and ancestral lands were at risk.
In the immediate aftermath of the ruling, violence broke out, taking a heavy toll on both communities but disproportionately affecting the Kukis. Villages were burnt, and reports suggest that over 250 churches in the Kuki community were destroyed. A disturbing trend of targeted violence against Kuki women emerged, spurred by fake news and misinformation. Over 140 lives have been lost, and approximately 60,000 people have been displaced.
The state and central governments, both led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have been heavily criticised for their lacklustre response to the crisis. Accusations that the Meitei-dominated state government has been complicit in the violence against the Kuki minority have further muddied the waters.
In a damning episode, a viral video depicting the sexual assault of two Kuki women finally pushed the crisis into the national consciousness. The authorities acted only then, arresting four Meitei men more than 70 days after the incident occurred. Even the Supreme Court weighed in, chiding the government for its inability to control the situation.
The Religion Factor: The whole world alleges that the Hindu nationalist government’s reluctance to step in stems from religious biases, as the Kukis are predominantly Christian while the Meiteis are Hindu. This blend of ethnic rivalry, politics, and religion has escalated the situation to near-civil-war levels.
The Manipur crisis serves as a dark illustration of what happens when religion gets entangled with politics against the backdrop of ethnic complexities. The impact is not just limited to undermining democracy, but it also has devastating human costs. As Manipur teeters on the brink of civil war, the dire need to separate religion from statecraft becomes increasingly apparent, not just in India but globally. If the government doesn’t step up its efforts to resolve this crisis, it risks becoming a cautionary tale for democracies everywhere.
The Ongoing Crisis in Kashmir
The ongoing crisis in Kashmir serves as another compelling example of how the intersection of religion and politics can have destabilising effects. Kashmir has been a contested region since the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, with both countries laying claim to the territory. The situation is complicated by the diverse religious demographics, as the region is predominantly Muslim but governed by Hindu-majority India.
In August 2019, the central government of India, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), revoked Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which granted special autonomous status to the region of Jammu and Kashmir. The government's decision led to widespread protests, not only within Kashmir but also internationally. Alongside the revocation, the government deployed tens of thousands of additional troops to the region, imposed curfews, and shut down the internet, affecting communication and the day-to-day lives of ordinary people. According to Human Rights Watch, hundreds were detained without charges by the end of 2019.
Many critics argue that the BJP government's actions were motivated by its Hindu nationalist ideology, as revoking the special status was a long-standing goal for the party. The move has increased tensions between India and Pakistan, both nuclear-armed nations, and further alienated the Muslim population in Kashmir.
According to the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, a local human rights organisation, at least 229 killings were reported in various incidents of violence in the region in the first half of 2020 alone. The Reporters Without Borders' 2021 World Press Freedom Index has also cited the situation in Kashmir as a significant concern, with journalists facing harassment and intimidation.
This volatile mix of religious identity and political manoeuvring has led to an escalation in hostilities, putting lives at risk and undermining democratic principles. Like Manipur, the Kashmir situation reflects the dire consequences of blending religious considerations into the political arena, contributing to instability and conflict while eroding the values of democracy.
The Citizenship Amendment Act
The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) passed by the Indian government in December 2019, represents another flashpoint where the intertwining of religion and politics has triggered social unrest and questioned the democratic values of the nation. The Act aims to fast-track citizenship for Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, and Christian immigrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan who entered India before December 31, 2014. However, it conspicuously leaves out Muslims, raising concerns about religious discrimination.
The immediate aftermath of the Act's passage saw protests erupt in various parts of India, including major cities like Delhi, Mumbai, and Bangalore. Amnesty International reported that at least 25 people died during protests against the CAA by the end of December 2019, largely due to excessive police force. Universities became hotspots for demonstrations, with students leading the charge against what they perceived to be a discriminatory law.
The international community also weighed in, with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) calling the Act "fundamentally discriminatory in nature." Furthermore, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) expressed concerns and contemplated sanctions against key Indian officials involved in the enactment of the CAA. Human Rights Watch, in their 2020 report, cited the CAA as a prime example where religion has been used to establish exclusionary policies. They state that the Act violates India's international obligations to prevent deprivation of citizenship based on racial or ethnic grounds.
In terms of economic impact, the widespread protests disrupted businesses and led to an estimated loss of $1.3 billion in December 2019 alone, as reported by Bloomberg Economics.
The passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act not only raised questions about India's commitment to secularism but also triggered social and economic disruptions. The facts and figures indicate a widespread sentiment against mixing religious criteria with citizenship laws, echoing concerns about the erosion of democratic principles.
Freedom of Speech in India
The ramifications of mixing religion with politics in India have resulted in alarming statistics that question the nation's democratic health. According to the Freedom House report from 2022, India's status was downgraded from 'Free' to 'Partly Free,' signaling a concerning decline in political liberties and civil rights. This downgrade is attributed, in part, to increasing religious nationalism which has influenced state policies and led to sectarian tensions.
The report specifically highlights instances of harassment and violence against minorities, limitations on free speech, and a crackdown on political dissent. For example, the number of hate crimes against minorities, especially Muslims and lower-caste Hindus, has seen a significant uptick, as reported by the international non-profit Human Rights Watch. According to data by the Quint, in 2021 alone, there were over 200 instances of hate crimes in India, a sharp increase from previous years.
In terms of free speech, Reporters Without Borders has also noted a decline in press freedom in India. Their 2021 World Press Freedom Index placed India at 142 out of 180 countries, citing increasing pressure on journalists to toe the Hindu nationalist government's line as one of the reasons for the decline.
The data only adds weight to the concern that the melding of religion and politics is eroding India’s democratic principles. By international metrics, it's clear that the country is experiencing a regression in the areas of civil liberties, political freedoms, and the rights of minorities, all red flags that underline the risks of blending religious doctrine with political governance.
The Toll on Humanity
The human toll exacted by the intersection of religion and politics in India is deeply unsettling and stretches across various regions and communities. In the troubled state of Kashmir, for instance, the fusion of religious nationalism and political decisions has had devastating effects. The situation in Kashmir has been particularly tense since August 5, 2019, when the Indian government revoked Article 370 of the Constitution, stripping the region of its special autonomous status. This move has been seen as a reflection of the current central government's Hindu nationalist ideology, as it essentially integrates a predominantly Muslim region more closely into India. Protests erupted, and the region was put under a communication blackout with thousands of additional troops deployed.
According to a report by the Forum for Human Rights in Jammu and Kashmir, the year following the revocation saw an increase in human rights abuses, including detention of local politicians, restrictions on movement, and curtailed access to healthcare and education. From August 2019 to July 2020, 32 civilians were reportedly killed and over 300 buildings destroyed in counter-insurgency operations, per the same report. The most recent information from human rights organisations as of 2023 provides an alarming update on the situation. According to their report, three years after the revocation of Jammu and Kashmir's constitutional autonomy, the violence has not abated. As of October, there have been 229 reported deaths in the region. This includes 28 civilians, 29 security force personnel, and 172 suspected militants. Moreover, local Kashmiris have raised concerns that some individuals classified as 'militants' killed in conflicts may, in fact, be civilians. Despite these serious allegations, no independent investigation has been made public. This data amplifies the urgency of the situation and highlights the long-term implications of integrating religious ideology into politics. The escalating violence and the government's inaction in conducting transparent investigations show an enduring instability and erosion of trust among the Kashmiri people.
The government's actions in Kashmir have been widely criticised for exacerbating tensions in a region already plagued by conflict. The deployment of troops and the restrictions on communication have not only alienated the local population but have also drawn international concern. Critics argue that such strong-arm tactics are in line with the government's broader pattern of sidelining minority rights in favour of a Hindu nationalist agenda.
The ongoing situation in Kashmir is a sobering example of how the blend of religion and politics can have dire consequences, contributing to a climate of instability and injustice. This grim figure illuminates the ongoing unrest and suggests that policies stemming from religious ideologies exacerbate regional instability.
The 2002 Gujarat riots serve as another stark example. According to official figures, the violence resulted in the deaths of 1,044 people, and damaged over 20,000 homes and businesses. The crisis was fuelled, in part, by religious nationalism and had a long-lasting impact on communal relations in the state. Human Rights Watch reported that the state government, then led by current Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was complicit in the anti-Muslim violence.
These tragedies are not mere numbers; they represent thousands of shattered lives and disrupted communities. They underline the fact that when religious dogma shapes political policy, it often does so at the expense of human dignity and life. The data from these cases shows how sectarian conflicts and violence can mushroom under the umbrella of religion-based politics, causing irreversible damage to the fabric of society.
The Way Forward
In a functioning democracy, it's essential to keep religion and state as distant neighbours rather than housemates. Why? Because mixing religion with politics can lead us down a slippery slope that often ends in division, discrimination, and even violence. Just take a look at the recent turmoil in places like Manipur and Kashmir.
Governance should be rooted in what can be proven, measured and agreed upon, offering equal opportunities and protections for all citizens, irrespective of their faith or lack thereof. The aim should be collective well-being, guided by empirical evidence and common human decency, not theological doctrines. Religion, while providing moral and spiritual guidance for many, is subjective; its tenets can be open to interpretation and are often not universally accepted.
By entangling religious beliefs with political policy, we risk creating an environment where laws and governance are influenced by subjective interpretations rather than objective reality. This undermines the core democratic principle of equality before the law and jeopardises the unity of diverse societies.
So, what's the alternative? Keep politics focused on universally relevant issues—economic stability, social equality, justice, and environmental sustainability. By doing so, we can work towards creating a society that values human dignity and equality above all else, rather than one fractured by religious dogma and political manoeuvring. Keeping faith out of policymaking isn't just good governance; it's a safeguard for our democracy and for the essence of human society.