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Why havent the secular forces created a popular culture that does not rely on religion and communal identities?

29 October 2012

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Editorial, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol - XLVII No. 44, November 03, 2012

Building New Solidarities

Public religious festivals are a ready resource for reactionary politics. Can they be secularised?

Religious festivals are no more merely about religion or spirituality. They are as much, if not much more, about politics, about national and other identities, and about the market. They are also, lest we forget, about celebrating and fraternising. Increasingly though, many festivals are coming under pressure from caste, gender and civic groups for their symbolisms and ideological content. As the country gets into the period of public festivals it may be a good time to take a step back and reflect on these events.

It was only in the late 19th century that religious festivals started coming out of the seclusion of the home and the religious gathering to become public spectacles, involving and inviting a larger public to participate. This tradition of public or, in that particular sense, communal (sarvajanik) religious festivals was a conscious effort by some nationalists to unite the community for the nation. The deliberate effort of Bal Gangadhar Tilak in starting the public Ganesh Pujas in Bombay or of the young Bengali nationalists in starting similar public Durga Pujas in Calcutta was to harness the potential of religious symbols and icons to unite large numbers of people in the new cities of colonial India by unshackling these ceremonies from their traditional family, caste and locality moorings. That this was a successful political intervention is attested to by the history of the 20th century where all mass religious denominations have changed their religious practices to make public religious celebration the centrepiece of their religious imagination and community identity. Thus Ganesh Chaturthi has become a cultural symbol of Maharashtra, like Onam has for Kerala or Durga Puja for Bengal.

Many of them are overflowing their regional and linguistic boundaries, carried over to new geographies on the backs of migrants and new technologies of communication. Such public religious festivals allow the recreation of migrants’ original communities in the new cities of residence. Other festivals like Diwali and Dussehra already have a pan-India presence and many others, like Holi, Raksha Bandhan and Karwa Chauth, are joining their ranks.

The public religious festival has not only served to build a certain form of national (or sub-national) identity, it has also been a convenient vehicle for creating communal divisions as well as, very often, reasserting caste and gender lines. Right from the moment when religious festivals were transformed into public celebrations, they have also sharpened religious divisions and often led to communal violence. In recent times, Onam’s myth of Mahabali, who was pushed into the netherworlds by Vishnu’s Vamanavatar, and Durga’s mythical killing of Mahishasur, have invited sharp dalit critiques of how this symbolism reasserts the subjugation of the lower castes and tribals by the upper castes. There is the much older, and similar, “debate” over the depiction of Ravana and his killing by the god Rama.

Today, the public religious festival has entrenched itself in the social fabric of the country. These religious festivals are occasions for celebrations, for sharing and exchanging gifts, visiting family and friends and participating in social gatherings which build local level fraternal bonds. To attack and critique such religious festivals is almost akin to assailing the celebrations and festivities of the people at large. Given how dominant these events have become, they have also been co-opted by political parties and organisations as well as by the market. It is a symbiotic relation where these festivals provide politicians and marketers with captive collectives of people with similar tastes, languages and perspectives; it also provides political and financial muscle to these festivals to expand and encroach more of the public space. The roads and parks are taken over, loudspeakers drown out any other talk, social pressure increases to conform to food and sartorial codes, while work and school schedules are increasingly dictated by these occasions. This has been the result of conscious and deliberate effort, almost all of it of right-wing and reactionary political forces.

Perhaps precisely because of this, it is necessary to develop a critique – both intellectual as well as political/practical – of the public religious festival. Some earlier attempts, like those of Tagore in Bengal, Gora in Andhra Pradesh and Periyar in Tamil Nadu, to critique them and move away to other, non-religious public festivities, have been unsuccessful, despite their initial promise. More recent attempts, those from the women’s movement or the anti-caste movement, or even from the peoples’ science movements, have been insufficient. Much of the left and radical politics has in fact surrendered to these and do not even make a formal attempt to provide critiques or alternatives.

In the social and cultural transformations of the last century and more, a process which has only intensified in recent decades, public religious festivals have become important mechanisms for building solidarities as well as creating divisions; of celebrating and sharing with friends and family as well as excluding those identified as “others”; of protest as well as conformity. Is it possible for radical and progressive forces to find forms of public festivities which can rival the public religious festival? Is it possible to build a popular culture which does not rely on religion and communal identities? We will not know the answer till the battle is truly joined.


The above editorial from Economic and Political Weekly is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use.