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More sects in politics
Published on 8 Mar. 2009 1:13 AM IST
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The church and state have assiduously been kept apart in India, but a similar firewall between religion and politics has been repeatedly breached to the point where using the religion card is now accepted as part of the desi system of vote garnering. Gurus, mahants and maulvis existed around the periphery of power structures during the Nehru era. But the growth of Congress’s perceived minorityism under Indira Gandhi, when the term ‘vote-block’ (read Muslim votes) first gained currency, probably triggered the mushrooming of similar mechanisms across religious platforms. Hindu religious organisations got a fillip with the dilution of the Supreme Court’s secular judgement in 1985 on Shah Bano when Parliament — under a brute Congress majority — overturned the SC verdict by passing the Muslim Women’s Bill that made it legally tenable for Muslim men to skip paying alimony to their divorced wives. Today, whether it’s Gujarat with its dominant Hindu sects, or Punjab, home to hundreds of ‘Deras’ of localised gurus, or UP with its mahants and madrassas, or even Jharkhand, Orissa and Northeast with their Christian evangelists, nearly every state in the country has religious organisations and sects exhorting their flock to go out and vote. At times, they tell them who to vote for and, at others, make the choice implicit. In Kerala, the Muslim League, which is a critical ally of the Congress-led LDF, has at its helm Syed Mohammedali Shihab Thangal, a spiritual leader with a following of his own. ‘Thangal’ is an honorific title that traces its lineage to the Prophet no less. Kerala Muslims flock to his meetings. Through the 1980s and 1990s, with Uttar Pradesh seeing a spurt in madrassas which has taken Muslims away from modern education towards fundamentalism, Hindu ‘sansthan’ and ‘dharma raksha manch’ sprouted. Gorakhpur, which has Azamgarh in its neighbourhood, became a militant Hindu hub. The mahants and acharyas led by Yogi Adityanath, who calls for strident Hindutva, regularly clash with Muslim activists who they accuse of being ISI agents and worse. In 2005, riots broke out in Mau between supporters of Yogi and SP’s Mukhtar Ansari. But Hindu sects at times cut both ways: Just before the 2002 assembly elections in Gujarat in the aftermath of the riots, a high priest from Puri, Swami Adhoksjanand, camped with Congress’s CM candidate Shankersinh Vaghela and ran a surrogate anti-Narendra Modi campaign by telling religious gatherings to defeat the forces of Hindutva. Mufti Shabbir Alam of Ahmedabad’s Jama Masjid issued a fatwa on the day of the Assembly elections in 2002, urging Muslims to come out and vote. Congress leaders believe the fatwa helped BJP because Hindu organisations decided to counter it. Mufti’s subsequent denials about never having issued the fatwa were of no use. In Punjab, the Dera followers, who number more than a crore, are an important consideration for non-Akali politicians. In the last assembly election, the Dera Sacha Sauda of Gurmeet Singh Ram Raheem, who faces multiple criminal charges (trumped up by Akalis, according to his followers), helped Congress get 25 out of 65 seats in Malwa, a traditional Akali stronghold. In Jharkhand, Orissa and Northeast, Christian missions play a significant role in mobilising voters. But while in Mizoram the Christian missions involve the people in the democratic process — former CEC J M Lyngdoh once described Mizoram as a model state for elections — the ones in Jharkhand are known to harbour political preferences towards which they egg their supporters on. Christian missions in Orissa are unlikely to remain impervious to taking a pro-Congress and anti-BJP/BJD stand. In Goa, Joaquim Loiola, secretary to Archbishop, said, “The Archbishop will be signing and publicising the message of Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India on the elections.” While it’s unlikely to be a direct endorsement of any political party, the circular will tell its flock “how to vote”. Though it’s anybody’s guess which way the religious heads will ask their flocks to vote. (With inputs from Leena Misra in Ahmedabad, Yudhvir Rana in Chandigarh, Oinam Sunil in Guwahati, Rajaram Satpathy in Bhubaneswar, Sonali Das in Ranchi)

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