In Mohandas, Rajmohan Gandhi, mentions Arundhati Roy saying that Gandhi introduced religion into politics and in the hands of lesser individuals that followed, its misuse was inevitable. The first half of the story is not true. Religion was already a part of the Indian political scene before Gandhi returned to India in 1915. In the late 19th century, Syed Ahmad Khan had charged Congress with benefiting Hindus and harming Muslims. In Bombay, Muslims felt frightened when Tilak mobilized Hindus around religious festivals. Bengal was partitioned into Hindu-majority and Muslim-majority parts in 1905. The Muslim league was founded in 1906 to look after the interests of Muslims and wanted a separate electorate. Rajmohan Gandhi writes:
Between a politics that pretended that religion was absent from India and a politics that squarely faced religion's hold, Gandhi chose the latter, and tried to remind all concerned that true Hinduism taught goodwill and that true Islam, Sikhism and Christianity did the same. One survey suggests that he made the right choice, and also that without him, intolerance would have been even stronger in both Hindu India and Muslim India.Gandhi’s prayer meetings were a unique experiment in bringing people together. They did not require a building, they did not bring in priests and were not restricted to people of a particular faith. They combined devotional practice and song with discussions of group and national issues. During the Calcutta riots at the time of Partition, if there was an objection to reading some verses from the Koran, Gandhi would drop it from the schedule. In his talk later, he would discuss that very objection and at the end of his talk, the protester would often withdraw his objection.
Even critics of Gandhi's method of mixing religion with politics said that his prayer meetings had a calming effect. After he brought the Partition-related riots in Calcutta under control, an awed Mountbatten wrote that Gandhi did alone in Calcutta what 50,000 troops couldn't do in Punjab. Gandhi uses the word 'religion' several times in different contexts in his seminal text Hind Swaraj. For eg., he says, 'It is contrary to our manhood if we obey laws repugnant to our conscience. Such teaching is opposed to religion and means slavery.' This gives the impression that he was a reactionary figure who was mired in the past.
This is due to a misunderstanding which Anthony Parel clears in Gandhi: Hind Swaraj and Other Writings. In the original Gujarati text of Hind Swaraj, Gandhi uses the term ‘dharma’ which is usually translated into ‘religion’ in English. But ‘dharma’ has a much wider meaning than ‘religion’. Gandhi uses the word ‘dharma’ in two different senses throughout the text: ‘dharma’ as ethics and ‘dharma’ as sect. Most occurrences of the word ’religion’ in the English translation of Hind Swaraj should be read as ‘ethics’.
In Freedom in Exile, the Dalai Lama endorses Gandhi's view of religion when he says that 'any deed done with good motivation is a religious act'. He therefore sees no contradiction between politics and religion and says that religious people are morally obliged to help solve the problems of the world. He says that politicians need religion more than hermits. 'If a hermit acts out of bad motivation, he harms no one but himself. But if someone who can directly influence the whole of society acts with bad motivation then a great many people will be adversely affected.'
In his essay An Anti-secularist manifesto, Ashis Nandy writes that in the Western concept, ‘secular’ is used in the sense of being opposite to the word ‘sacred’. In the Indian concept, it is not opposite to ‘sacred’ but to ‘ethnocentrism’, ‘xenophobia’ and ‘fanaticism’. This Indian concept is what the leaders of the freedom movement adopted knowing the Western concept of secularism will not make any sense to an overwhelmingly religious population.
The separation of religion and politics has not kept religion out of politics. It has only resulted in the more unacceptable and anti-democratic forms of religion to gain more power and visibility. When we abandon symbols of religious tolerance, others appropriate them, which is what has now happened with Gandhi's legacy . Ashis Nandy says in "The Return of the Sacred: The Language of Religion and The Fear of Democracy in a Post-Secular World" :
For more than three millennia, human beings have invested some of their best cognitive and affective resources in the spiritual and the religious. That investment, in retrospect, might not have been uniformly wise and uniformly creative. But it has not been uniformly forgettable either. The investment in secular statecraft and secular public life, on the other hand, has been relatively recent and, though it has also often been immensely creative, it has been spectacularly destructive, too.
In any case, the second set of investments can never compare with the three millennia of human achievement in the sphere of religion. Civilization, as we know it, is largely the achievement of the religious way of life, though we try hard to forget that part of the story. I say this as a non-believer who has invested some years of life in the study of the psychological and cultural sources of human creativity.
Can we ignore or bypass these achievements for the sake of a theory of progress that seeks to wipe clean the pre-Enlightenment world or freeze it as a museum piece?