Indian Arrival and Religious Pluralism


Indian Arrival Day is around the corner, and, among other things, should remind us that the Indian immigrants added to our religious diversity. The Christian Europeans had hauled the Africans as slaves, before the coming of the indentured Indians, and stripped them of their religions, including Islam and other forms dismissively dubbed “animism”. They were to be “Christianised”. The Indians were overwhelmingly Hindus and Muslims.

Recently, there was a revealing colloquy between Dr Henry Jeffrey and Swami Aksharananda (who renounced his “Dr” for his robes) on the need for some ground rules on how the various religions now here in Guyana — more specifically Christianity and Hinduism — should relate to each other in the public sphere. The issue arose in the wake of a headmistress allowing a Christian missionary to “proselytise” the entire school population, which included children who were Hindus and Muslims. Dr Jeffrey acknowledged that the particular Christian preacher’s church called for “killing homosexuals”, and was “designated a hate group by some and banned from some jurisdictions.”

But disavowing any personal religious alignment grounded in belief in a deity, Jeffrey yet saw value in religions: to “socialise” much needed values into individuals. While he “would not have entertained” the Preacher, he would support a “radically inclusive” policy, since to bar the Preacher and his ilk would lead to “a level of bureaucratisation that is likely to be extremely exclusive.” He would let a thousand flowers bloom, even the poisonous Belladonna or Deadly Nightshade, and trust Guyanese — children included — to deal with the consequences.

But, as pointed out by Swami Aksharananda, things are not as simple as that. There is, for instance, the question of power and its alignment with particular religions lingering from our colonial past into the present. Even in gardening, some gardeners favour some flowers over others.

Responding to Swami’s critique, Dr Jeffrey then proposed a framework from the political philosopher John Rawls to deal with the varying truth claims of religions — which he saw as a subset of “comprehensive doctrines” — in a society:

“Reasonable comprehensive doctrines, religious or non-religious, may be introduced in public discussion at any time…provided that in due course proper political reasons…and not reasons given solely by comprehensive doctrines — are presented that are sufficient to support whatever the comprehensive doctrines are said to support.”

For several reasons, I had to smile when I read Dr Jeffrey’s piece. Not the least being that, after what is playing out in Britain, the rest of Europe and the US, he was still optimistic about Liberalism and its institutional approaches to create just societies. But then, Marxists were always most optimistic about changing the human condition by altering institutions. Dr Jeffrey had confessed to being “closer to Karl Marx” than to religions.

The other reason was that, in 1988, I had returned to Guyana armed with a freshly-minted law degree and the perspectives offered by two authors: John Rawls (Justice as Fairness) and Donald Horowitz (Ethnic Groups in Conflict). Both suggested institutional approaches to societal challenge — Rawls from a broader, more rarefied Kantian outlook, and Horowitz from a grounded crawl through multitudinous multi-ethnic societies, including Guyana. After several years of hauling out these two authors in the newspapers and over television, one friend asked facetiously: “How the Rawls you Kant understand these chaps aren’t for Guyana?”

But seriously, Rawls was forced several times to revise his ideas on how to go about creating institutions for a just and stable democratic polity since his “Justice as Fairness” from 1971. In “Political Liberalism” (1993), he attempted to deal with the challenges of what he now conceded were the norm: more pluralistic societies. He introduced the notion, among others, of “Public Reason”. By 1996, he had to revise his ideas further in “The idea of Public Reason”. These were again modified in the introduction to the paperback edition in 1997. The quote by Dr Jeffrey is from this last modification.

I plan to address Dr Jeffrey’s substantive proposal in the next article, but would suggest that if Rawls were around, he would have had to write a new book in the face of Liberalism finally forced to deal with another “comprehensive doctrine” – now aligned with power.