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Does Secularism Have A Place In Ritualistic India?

Caught between a deeply religious citizenry and a religion-driven polity, secularism is facing threat both as an ideal and as a practice

Secular Assertion: A man wears the artwork declaring “I am secular”
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At the core of the crisis secularism faces in India are a set of questions and a paradox. Which model of secularism should a deeply religious and ritualistic society adopt? Can one expect a believer to suddenly distance herself from her religion when she becomes part of the government? Is expecting a theist to have equal respect for other reli­gions misplaced because a believer, unless highly evolved, tends to consider one’s religion superior?

The paradox emerges when secular commentary traces the roots of religious harmony in certain icons of Indian history. The commentary ignores that the theological argument of personalities like Kabir and Mahatma Gandhi was founded in deep faith. They were profound believers who invoked divinity in order to create a space for other faiths. Far from being separated from religion, Gandhi’s politics and his normative order was rooted in his faith to the extent that he could term the 1934 Bihar earthquake a “divine chastisement”.

But a secular state can derive its legitimacy only from the Constitution and not any religious text and hence cannot invoke divinity to explain its acts. Can millions of citizens, who swear by scriptures, easily appreciate and promote a secular polity? Secularism, like any other modern ideal, is an ongoing political project that requires a robust leadership to cultivate the value among the people. Even Indira Gandhi, who inserted the word ‘secular’ in the Preamble to the Constitution, had been visiting and consulting godmen. Since then, most politicians of various parties have turned to religion in their public life, undermining the ideal of a secular state.

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A Historic Moment Jawaharlal Nehru addresses the Constituent Assembly Photo: Getty Images

“Secularism as a political theory of state has never been able to find any supportive argument that can link it socially with Indian society,” political analyst Abhay Kumar Dubey tells Outlook.  Secularism in India is facing a crisis, because there are fewer leaders who can inculcate the spirit in the people. When Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal invokes Hindu mantras or Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel announces several projects related to the Ramayana, one can sense a distinct majoritarianism, a political realisation about the Hindu votes. Their moves do not seem to be that of a genuine believer but an electoral ploy to compete with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). To be sure, a range of Muslim politicians, among whom Asaduddin Owaisi is just one, have been no less brazen about playing their community card. Section 100 of the Representation of the People Act, which declares a candidate’s election void for seeking votes on religious grounds, is challenged and defeated in almost every election campaign.

Any recourse to religion in politics upsets the secular order, twists the electoral process and damages democracy. Professor Neera Chandhoke underlines the need “to distinguish between religion as faith and religion as politics” and to establish “neutrality as a state principle to prevent majoritarianism”. Few politicians have been able to follow the principle in the last several decades.

Since then, most politicians of various parties have turned to religion in their public life, undermining the ideal of a secular state.

The model of secularism India needs has seen vigorous debates, beginning with the Constituent Assembly. Congress leader Lokanath Misra said during the debate that the term “‘Secular State’ is a slippery phrase, a device to bypass the ancient culture of the land”. While H.V. Kamath stated that “a secular state is neither a God-less State nor an irreligious nor an anti-religious” one, Brajeshwar Prasad believed that “secularism is the negation of all religion”.

Amid this, Jawaharlal Nehru was certain about the ideal. He strictly kept religion out of his politics and government and took the new Republic to a distinct direction. Seventy-five years later, it is essentially the legacy of Nehru that is being contested. Was he ‘anti-religion’ and his model of secularism divorced from the Indian soil?

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Religion and Politics NDA leaders release their poll manifesto in 1998 Photo: Getty Images

Nehru has some admirers even in the opposite camp. Speaking to this correspondent earlier, BJP’s National Executive member Swapan Dasgupta admitted to the significance of Nehru’s model. “Every idea has a time. Probably at that time, partly because you were recovering from Partition, you needed to be a little more circumspect,” he said. “When Nehru said we must make sure that Muslims must feel especially welcome in India, maybe he had a point. Maybe then. Certainly not now,” he said.

He quickly added that the model envisaged a “cosmopolitan identity” for Hindus, but “the minorities would be allowed to have their own sectional identities”. “So while the Hindu identity eroded quite substantially, you had a very firm Muslim identity which has stuck on,” he said.

Senior Congress leaders also admit to it. “Perception has gained ground that we are quick to condemn majority communalism but are slow to condemn minority communalism,” Congress leader Jairam Ramesh once told this correspondent.

However, Nehru’s secularism was not in disregard to Indian culture. He disapproved of the presence of President Rajendra Prasad during the inauguration of Somnath Temple. But consider this instance. In 1958, Hindi poet Mahadevi Verma sought financial assistance from the Union government for the publication of her translation of Asvaghosa’s Buddhacarita and the Rig Veda. While Education Minister Abul Kalam Azad believed that the “State patronage of publication of works whose primary significance is religion should be avoided as far as possible,” Nehru argued that “books like the Buddhacarita or the Rig Veda are classics of ancient India and can hardly be considered just as religious books”.

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BJP leader Rajnath Singh savouring Iftari Photo: Getty Images

It was such love for Indian culture which ensured that while fissures about the minority appeasement had appeared even during Nehru’s government, including over the drafting of the Hindu laws and leaving out similar provisions for Muslims, secularism worked mostly well up to the 1970s.

A series of developments, both within the country and globally, rocked the secular polity in the 1980s. The reversal of the Shah Bano judgment coincided with the Ayodhya movement, leading to the increasingly louder voices about Muslim appeasement. It was also the time when Islamic fundamentalism was on the rise in other countries. The US had been funding the Afghan Mujahideen, who eventually defeated the mighty Soviet Union. Pakistan had taken a decisive Islamic turn, and militancy had begun in the Kashmir Valley, leading to the exodus of the Pandits.

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One now needed a genuinely secular polity to counter the rising Hindutva fundamentalism. But the moral fibre of several alleged secular parties was diluted when leaders like George Fernandes, Mamata Banerjee, Naveen Patnaik and J. Jayalalitha joined the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA government at the centre. On the other front, leaders like Mulayam Singh Yadav indulged in Muslim vote bank politics and allowed themselves to be portrayed as exclusive champions of Muslims. “Secularism could have flourished as the offspring of Indian tolerance. But practitioners of this creed themselves proved too intolerant and narrow in their attitudes. They began to lose their way in the early 1980s and never recovered thereafter,” says Dubey.

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It gave the BJP a perfect pretext to attack the secular polity, even take recourse to the argument of India being traditionally secular. “Neither the BJP nor the RSS is opposed to secularism provided the spirit behind the concept is understood and practised. For centuries the Indian mind, in other words the Hindu society, has accepted all forms of worship as different paths towards one ultimate truth. Being Hindu and being secular are the same. Political parties have distorted the idea of secularism and are using it as a tool for vote bank politics,” Sheshadri Chari, former editor of the RSS mouthpiece Organiser, tells Outlook.

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Lalu Yadav, Mulayam Singh and Subramanian Swamy at an Iftar Photo: Getty Images

Vote bank politics by ‘secular’ parties ensured that the inclusion of the term ‘secular’ in the Preamble in 1976 remained a mere tokenism. The Supreme Court might have termed secularism to be the basic feature of the Constitution, the ideal had suffered a major damage during the Ayodhya movement.

Two more factors intensified the turn. By then a false binary between religion and secularism had been established, with a section of the English elite nearly proposing atheism to be a higher moral and aesthetic order and contemptuously looking upon rituals. Being non-religious came to be seen as an ideal. Another belief also made its home that while the English elite disregarded Indian ethos, Indian languages had kept the values alive. It widened the rift between Indian languages and English. It was also the time when a large section of the Hindi press was decisively turning rightward. It enabled the BJP to delegitimise intellectuals and academics, who had been the champions of secularism.

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The net effect is an unprecedented assault on the rights of the Muslims and their shrinking representation in governments.

“The English-speaking elite monopolised the idea of secularism to an extent that it became completely cut off from discourses in Indian bhashas. It was never democratised. The westernised elite reduced it to a defensive tactic for minority rights. Persistence of this tactic delivered a body blow to the social legitimacy of a possible Indian secularism,” says Dubey.

Secularism has rather become an abusive word in the last few decades. There are now petitions in the Supreme Court to remove the word ‘secular’ from the Preamble. The net effect is an unprecedented assault on the rights of the Muslims and their shrinking representation in governments. The BJP does not have a single Muslim MP in the Lok Sabha, for instance, and only two ministers in all the states it is ruling. The party did not give a single ticket to Muslims in the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections. “Show us the winnability. If they are winning, we will give tickets,” Union Environment Minister Bhupendra Yadav tells Outlook.

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Like many other modern concepts, secularism is an ideal-in-progress. But have we placed an undue burden on the ideal, which is still in its infancy in world history? Secularism demands a moral order without invoking divinity, an ethical code devoid of faith. It is a stunning demand in Indian history, even elsewhere in the world. For several thousands of years, Indians have been taking recourse to various forms of divinity to lend meaning to their lives and politics, as well as to gain personal redemption. Can they overnight abandon their cultural memories in exchange for an ideal whose icons and leaders are yet to arrive?

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“Secularism as such has no future in India. It is condemned to exist either as a minoritarian or a majoritarian creed,” warns Dubey. Harsh words, but if the Republic is to survive, a government is required that allows various faiths to coexist, a polity that does not seek votes for religion and a state that does not discriminate against its minorities.

(This appeared in the print edition as "The Great Indian Paradox")

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