In Defence of Secularism: On the Use of Religious Slogans in Politics

In defence of secularism

There’s a debate in JNU now on the use of religious expressions as part of political slogans.

As the results of the elections to the posts of student representatives to the Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment (GSCASH) were being declared, some activists of the Students Islamic Organisation (SIO), the students wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami (an Islamist fundamentalist outfit), and some activists of the Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students Association (BAPSA), which is an ally of SIO, used the term “Insha Allah” as part of a political slogan.

Later some activists of the Students’ Federation of India (SFI) raised apprehensions about this on social media, and subsequently others joined the debate, with SIO-BAPSA as well as the “Maoist” BASO (Bhagat Singh Ambedkar Students Organisation) claiming that those who raise such apprehensions are Islamophobic.

Is “Inshallah” an appropriate slogan to be used in a university space like JNU?

Before trying to answer this question, let me retell a story.

In Ponnani in today’s Malappuram district of Kerala, in the year 1939, there occurred a historic strike of beedi workers. The strike was in response to wage cuts which pushed them to starvation. The workers under the leadership of E.K. Imbichi Bava approached K. Damodaran, one of the founders of the Communist Party in Kerala, following which Party leaders reached Ponnani to support and strengthen the agitation. As the strike intensified, the company owners locked out the company, but the workers were not cowed down.

Songs were written in support of the strike, and one of those, written by Premji (MP Bhattathirippad) was as follows (translated from Malayalam):


 “While the company owner is basking in comfort after locking out the company,


The workers who have to tend to their families by making beedis daily


are forced to wander like dogs in the middle of the town, without jobs.


Let the lockout end, let the company open quickly


Let workers get jobs, let them sate their hunger.


How will those who toil support their families?


O Muhammad Sallallahu Alaihi Wasallam


who said that workers should be paid their wages during Ramzan


before the sweat evaporates


and who opposed torture.”



(“കമ്പനി പൂട്ടി കമ്പനി ഉടമ കുമ്പനിറച്ചു സുഖിച്ചീടുമ്പോള്‍ ബീഡി തിരച്ചുതിരച്ചിഹ നിത്യം വീടുപുലര്‍ത്തും തൊഴിലാളികളോ


പട്ടണനടുവില്‍ പണിയില്ലാതെ പട്ടികളെപ്പൊലുഴന്നീടുന്നു


നിറുത്തീടട്ടേ ലോക്കൗട്ടുടനെ തുറന്നീടട്ടെ കമ്പനിവേഗം


പണികിട്ടട്ടേ തൊഴിലാളര്‍ക്ക് പശിതീര്‍ക്കട്ടെ പണി ചെയ്യുന്നോര്‍


എങ്ങനെ പോക്കും വീടുകള്‍ ഞങ്ങള്‍ എങ്ങനെ പോക്കും


റംസാന്‍ കാലം വേലവിയര്‍പ്പുകള്‍ വറ്റും മുമ്പെ


കൂലികൊടുക്കണമെന്നരുള്‍ ചെയ്ത


കൊല്ലാക്കൊലയെ എതിര്‍ത്ത


മുഹമ്മദ് സല്ലല്ലാഹു അലൈഹിവസല്ലം”) 

Singer Azeeez and others sang this and other songs for the workers, who frequently began to sing such songs as part of the agitation. As the strike intensified further, K Damodaran was arrested by the police, following which the workers were all put behind bars.

As the men were put in jail, the women and even children hit the streets for the strike. Even those Muslim women who rarely got out of their homes came out and actively took part in the agitation. One of their slogans reportedly was, “Inquilab Zindabad, Allahu Akbar”.

Muslim women joining the agitation in Ponnani, a place where the hold of religiosity was very strong, caused a political earthquake. As the common masses entirely came in support of the strike, the company owners and administrators came to negotiate and finally the strike came to a victorious end.

It was after this strike that the communist movement began to take deeper roots in Ponnani and the rest of today’s Malappuram district. Imbichi Bava soon rose to become a leader of the Communist Party. He became a minister in the Communist Ministry of 1967-69, and a member of Parliament from the undivided CPI and later the CPI(M).

Clearly, the use of religious slogans haven’t exactly been anathema to the communist movement while working among common masses who are deeply religious. But this, I would argue, is to be taken with immense caution. Let me try to explain.

It is not uncommon for the Left movement and its leaders to use religious idioms and expressions as part of political campaigns in places where the masses are deeply religious, especially where the people are mostly adherents of one religion.

To give a different sort of example, in Latin America, many leaders and followers of Liberation Theology (a progressive school of thought within Christianity, mainly within Catholic Christianity) are very much part of the Left movement. The influence of Liberation Theology and the work of organisations adhering to it have played a crucial role in bringing the Left to power in many Latin American countries during the 1990s and 2000s.

Again, this can be laid out in theory only with immense caution. The slogans or expressions should not be “war cries” directed against any other community. And while it might be appropriate to use some of these slogans or arguments within the gatherings of one community and so on, they might be inappropriate in a  political setting where people from different communities are present. Moreover, for the Left movement which make such expressions and arguments a part of their discourse, the objective is definitely not the establishment of a religious/theocratic state. In fact the Left movement stands opposed to the establishment of such a state.

Interventions in this regard have to be anchored in secularism. When that is not the case, the results may be unsavoury. (There are other kinds of intervention too. For instance, it is not uncommon for Left organisations to intervene in the committees which administer religious places of worship, or which organise religious festivals and so on. Such interventions also have to be done with caution and with the objective of promoting secularism in society.)

Thus it can be seen that the Left leaders in parts of Malappuram continue to use such idioms and expressions. It has also been reported that leaders of the CPI(M) in parts of Kashmir use expressions like “Inshallah” while giving speeches.

“Inshallah” (or “Insha Allah”), of course is not a “war cry”. It means “God willing”. Christians might be familiar with the equivalent Latin expression “Deo Volente” (D.V.) which is often used in wedding invitations and which also means “God willing”.

To return to the original question, is it appropriate to use religious slogans in a political gathering in a university space like JNU, where people who believe in all sorts of religions, and those who don’t believe in any religion live, study and work?

Some have argued that the use of such slogans is for “Muslim visibility”. The claim is that this is something progressive since Muslims are marginalised in India. For sure, the Muslims in India face many kinds of oppression and discrimination. Their relative backwardness compared to many other communities was starkly brought out by the Sachar Committee report, and the witch-hunts and attacks they are having to face these days are well-known. So is the solution then, to use religious slogans in a general political setting?

While considering this question, is to be noted that there are other communities too which are faced with attacks. Take the case of Christians, for instance. From Dangs to Kandhamal, from Graham Staines to Jhabua, and from attacks on churches to the assaults on priests and nuns in many parts of the country, Christians have faced persecution and oppression. Should they, therefore, start raising some religious slogans in JNU now, say, “Halleluiah” or “Praise the Lord”?

Or look at atheists. They are among the most persecuted communities in almost the whole of South Asia. Rationalist activists such as Narendra Dabholkar in India, Ahmed Rajib Haider, Avijit Roy and Washiqur Rahman in Bangladesh were all murdered by sectarian religious forces in the subcontinent. Should the atheists, therefore, start raising some of their own slogans in political gatherings where people of all communities are present? For example, “there is no god”, “all religions are false” and so on?

The absurdity and dangers associated with such competitive sloganeering surrounding religion should be obvious. The immediate beneficiaries would be the Hindutva outfits who are waiting for an opportunity to gain legitimacy for their communal slogans.

At the very least, in a space where people from all sorts of faiths live together, the effort should be to stick to secular slogans and arguments. In other spaces too, the effort should be in the same direction (if political discourse in such spaces is not yet on secular grounds).

The point here is not to equate some religious expression with another. Terms like “Inshallah” or “Ram Ram” or “Praise the Lord (Jesus Christ)” and so on are used by many religious and even the not-so-religious on occasions, usually in a non-political sense.

The majoritarian communal-fascist forces in India, however, have turned “Jai Shri Ram” into a political slogan. In JNU, students in general have remained opposed to the use of religious expressions in the form of political slogans, and I hope they remain so.

Now let me come to the positions of some of the political organisations mentioned earlier. Their positions on this issue do not come from misunderstanding or ignorance, but from their programmatic understanding.

First, SIO, the students’ wing of Jamaat-e-Islami.

SIO’s understanding comes from the principles laid out by Syed Abul A’la Maududi, the founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami. He was opposed to secularism and democracy (because that would be the rule of human beings and not God).

The objective of the Jamaat-e-Islami is the establishment of ‘Hukumat-e-Ilahi’ (Islamic State), which they are unable to preach openly in India because it would be so obviously against the Indian constitution. Never has the Jamaat-e-Islami or the SIO disowned Maududi. The campaign and work for the theocratic state continues in closed-door gatherings.

Interestingly, Maududi urged Indians to establish a Hindu Rashtra! To quote from the landmark 1993 article “What is Hindu Rashtra?” by Sitaram Yechury:

“On August 26, 1941, under the leadership of Maulana Abul Ala Maududi, the founding conference was held in Pathankot. Maududi is to the Jamaat what Golwalkar is to the RSS. The similarity of their political project and roles is indeed remarkable. Just as Hitler was a hero for Golwalkar, so was he for Maududi. Just as Golwalkar rejected everything modern in human civilisation—liberty, equality, fraternity, secularism, democracy and parliamentary institutions—as “alien concepts”, so did Maududi and the philosophy of Muslim fundamentalism.

Maududi, in a speech at Pathankot in May 1947, when Partition was imminent, urged Indians to organise their state and society on the basis of Hindu scriptures and laws, as they would organise Pakistan based on the laws laid down by “Allah”. He said: “If a Hindu government based on Hindu law came to India and the law of Manu became the law of land as a result of which Muslims were treated untouchables and were not given any share in the government, they did not even get the citizenship rights, I would have no objection” (Quoted in Nizami, 1975, p. 11).”

The politics of the Jamaat-e-Islami/SIO is clear. They don’t mind the rise of the Hindutva forces, because the resultant communal polarisation of society would help them as well. Not only are they not apprehensive of the dangerous consequences of competitive religious-political sloganeering, they are actually hoping and working for more intense communal divisions to take shape within society. As Yechury says:

“Hindu communalism and Muslim fundamentalism feed on each other. In the process, both spread communal poison deeper, threatening the very fabric of our country’s unity and integrity. Both act against the interests of the majority of people they claim to represent. India today is a secular democracy because a majority of Hindus and Muslims rejected this politics. It is this axis of Hitler-Golwalkar-Maududi that has to be politically defeated to preserve India today.”

What about BAPSA, which calls itself “Ambedkarite”?

BAPSA calls SIO “a strong ally”, and many people have wondered how a self-styled “Ambedkarite” organisation can ally with an Islamist outfit. People have raised the question whether such tactics and in general BAPSA’s activities are in keeping with the principles laid out by Babasaheb Ambedkar.

Let me set that question aside and approach the issue from another angle. Sectarian identiarian groups actually have no problem in allying with each other. The reason is fairly simple. Such groups consider themselves to be the sole representatives of certain sections, and their support bases don’t encroach upon each other.

Thus Jamaat-e-Islami would claim “monopoly” over Muslims, RSS would claim “monopoly” over Hindus and so on. BAPSA would make similar claims regarding Dalit students. The support base of the Left, however, cuts across people from all communities.

Many (not necessarily all) identiarian groups therefore find it easy to ally with other identiarian groups than with the Left, as long as the support bases of other identiarian groups do not overlap with their own. The BSP, for instance, allied with the BJP three times without qualms, just as BAPSA has no qualms in allying with the SIO.

As long as BAPSA considers it important to keep its ally happy, and as long as it finds it non-problematic to intensify communal divisions, it would have no apprehensions in competitive religious-political sloganeering either.

The consequences of a polity being dominated by identity politics is best demonstrated by the current state of affairs in Uttar Pradesh. As has been pointed out elsewhere:

“The largest and most powerful identity politics in India is Hindutva. If identity is the primary basis of political mobilisation in a society, a political formation which uses the identity of the majority community for political mobilisation will ultimately have an upper hand. In other words, the RSS-BJP – the biggest and most organised proponents of Hindutva – is better poised to play identity games than anybody else in India. In the UP elections, the BJP was able to successfully pit various caste and sub-castes against each other to make electoral gains. The politics of the BAPSA and like-minded organisations, which ignores class divisions within communities (and even the effects of sub-caste divisions within communities), has proven to be singularly incapable of countering the rise of the communal-fascist forces. The result — a rabidly “upper caste”-supremacist, anti-Dalit political formation is enjoying unbridled power in India’s most populous State.”

Third, BASO (Bhagat Singh Ambedkar Students Organisation).

BASO was formed by leaders of the Democratic Students Union (DSU) who left DSU in late 2015. In written statements they brought out while leaving DSU, they said that they were leaving DSU because they disagreed with the Maoists’ positions on gender relations. On other major issues, they neither expressed public disagreements with the Maoists nor disowned the positions they took while being part of DSU.

Hence it might be relevant to look at the position of the Maoists and DSU with regard to Islamist fundamentalism.

Ganapathy, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of India (Maoist), laid out the position of his party with regard to Islamist fundamentalism in a 2007 interview:

“”Islamic fundamentalism”, in my opinion, is an ally of the people in their fight against market fundamentalism promoted by the US, EU, Japan and other imperialists,” he said.

DSU’s positions in JNU have been in keeping with this understanding. Thus they brought out joint posters along with SIO and Campus Front of India (CFI), the student wing of Popular Front of India (PFI), another Islamist fundamentalist outfit.

Two infamous incidents are particularly worth mentioning in this context.

The first incident occurred in 2010. Goons belonging to the Popular Front of India chopped off the right hand of TJ Joseph, a college teacher in Kerala on 4 July 2010. His “crime” according to PFI criminals was that he had allegedly “insulted Prophet Muhammad” in a question paper he set.

In response, a large number of Muslim organisations in Kerala, including the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), the AP and EK sects of Sunni Muslims, Kerala Nadvathul Mujahideen, Nadvathul Mujahideen, Muslim Educational Society, Jamiatul Ulama, Kerala Muslim Jamaat Federation, South Kerala Jamiatul Ulama, Samastha Kerala Sunni Student Federation and the Sunni Yuvajana Sangham resolved to fight against fundamentalist and extremist outfits like the Popular Front of India and the Jamaat-e-Islami. Several Muslims organisations including the Muslim League condemned PFI for orchestrating the attack on the teacher.

What do you think the DSU did? They issued a long pamphlet defending the attack! PFI was not behind the attack, and in any case the teacher deserved what he got, said the DSU pamphlet.

TJ Joseph was acquitted by the court of all charges in November 2013. But Joseph’s wife Salomi committed suicide in March 2014 due to distress, as her husband had not yet been reinstated to his job, from which he had been suspended. In May 2015, the court found 13 activists of the PFI guilty of the attack on Joseph. Ten of them were sentenced to 8 years in jail, and three were sentenced to two years in jail.

DSU till date remains unapologetic about its notorious position.

The second incident was in 2012. The JNU Students Union held a musical concert by ‘Laal’, the progressive band from Pakistan, in May that year. During the performance, the band criticised Islamist fundamentalism and sectarianism. Just as the secular and progressive forces in India fight the majoritarian communal-fascism of the RSS, the progressive forces in Pakistan have been fighting the majoritarian communal, fundamentalist forces in their country. DSU, however, couldn’t tolerate the wide acceptance that Laal’s position found among JNU students. They brought out a pamphlet in defence of the Taliban and slamming Laal! Taliban are anti-imperialist fighters, and Laal is promoting Islamophobia, said DSU.

BASO continues to rehash the utterly bankrupt political position of the Maoists in the latest instance as well.

It might be relevant answering a related question here. Are both Hindutva and Islamist fundamentalism in India fascist? This is something that has been answered by many others, but it is worth repeating.

All kinds of communalism are dangerous and feed each other. Nevertheless there is some difference between Hindutva (political Hinduism championed by outfits like RSS) and Islamism (political Islam championed by fundamentalist outfits) in India. While the organised Hindutva outfits led by RSS have a fascist character, the organised Islamist outfits do not have the opportunity to assume a fascist character in India, because of sheer demographic factors. This implies that there are other countries where the demographic composition is different and where Islamist outfits could assume a fascist character. Our neighbouring countries Pakistan and Bangladesh are examples of this.

So is it the case that the “Maoists” at least have a different opinion about the Islamist outfits in such countries as opposed to the ones in India? We find that it is not even the case, as was shown by the warped Maoist position on the Taliban.

Finally, on the claims by SIO that the SFI is Islamophobic. It has been the longstanding claim by all communal organisations that criticisms against them amount to criticism against the community they claim to “represent”. While SIO claims that the Left is Islamophobic, the RSS has been claiming that the Left is anti-Hindu! Both these claims can be safely rejected with the contempt they deserve. Jamaat-e-Islami/SIO do not represent the Muslims of India, just as the RSS-BJP do not represent the Hindus of India, and hence criticism of these organisations do not amount to an attack on the respective communities.

In other words, when all communal forces vehemently attack the Left, it can be taken as an indication that the Left is doing something right!