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Secularism Under Siege: Several Parts Of Indian Subcontinent Witness Demise Of Pluralism

The areas of the subcontinent where Hinduism has become extinct have witnessed the demise of liberal values, such as democracy, pluralism and secularism.

Discordant Notes: Huge crowds attend Muslim League’s Direct Action Day in Calcutta in 1946
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We need to ask two questions: Why India is secular, when neighbouring Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan aren’t. And is there a threat to its secular character? India isn’t surely ‘secular’, because the word was surreptitiously introduced in its Constitution during Emergency in 1976. India is secular and a vibrant democracy because of its timeless ethos that includes equal respect to all forms of worship and right to dissent to individuals.

Why didn’t residual India become a Hindu Rashtra, when the breakaway part Pakistan dec­lared itself an Islamic Republic in 1947? It couldn’t have—because pluralism is central to its value system. In the entire Indian history, though the Hindu rulers lived by their faith, they hardly ever used force or state resources to pressurise or persuade their subjects to follow the deity or creed they believed in.

Pakistan and liberal Indian paradigm are oxymoron. Pakistan is just not a name of a country born in 1947. It is a toxic idea, which doctrinally hates and seeks to destroy pre-Islamic India, and all its visible symbols. It is a transnational concept; even many Indian passport holders suffer a Pakistan mindset. Non-Muslims have three options in an Islamic state such as Pakistan—to convert to Islam, lead sub-human life sans any dignity or perish.

Logically, after the creation of Pakistan, the communal virus should have died a natural death in residual India. But it didn’t, because Pakistan was largely created by Indians—Communists and Jihadis—from then United Provinces (now Uttar Pradesh) and Bihar. After establishing an Islamic state with the British help, a bulk of these elements didn’t go to their dream land Pakistan but stayed back in the country they had conspired to balkanise. They have since changed monikers for strategic reasons, but not their divisive agenda.

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Jawaharlal Nehru pitches for harmony between Hindus and Muslims, a few days before Independence Photo: Getty Images

In the 1946 elections, over 80 per cent of Indian Muslims in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Bombay, Madras and Bengal voted for India’s partition and rejoiced its amputation. The Muslim League won the majority of Muslim seats, 87 per cent, in these provinces. However, after Independence, several Muslim League leaders, who had arduously worked for the idea of Pakistan, donned Khadi and overnight turned into Congress leaders and surprisingly found ready acceptance in the new power structure.

One such glaring case was that of Syed Ahmad Mehdi, son of the Raja of Pirpur, the author of the ‘Pirpur Report’. The 1938 report brought out by the Muslim League listed atrocities suffered by Muslims in the Congress-ruled states and the document was used to demand and justify the partition of the country. Mehdi became a Congress MP for two consecutive terms, in 1957–62 and 1962–67. He became a parliamentary secretary in the Union Ministry of Irrigation and Power and later deputy minister for steel and mines in the Union Cabinet. There are examples galore of such turncoats.

The areas of the subcontinent where Hinduism has become extinct have witnessed the demise of liberal values, such as democracy, pluralism and secularism.

Sardar Patel, in his iconic speech in Calcutta on January 3, 1948 asked, “The Muslims who are still in India, many of them helped in the creation of Pakistan… Has their nation changed overnight? I don’t understand how it changed so much.” The same sentiment was voiced by Jawaharlal Nehru while speaking to the students of Aligarh Muslim University 21 days later on January 24. He asked, “I am proud of our inheritance and our ancestors who gave an intellectual and cultural pre-eminence to India. How do you feel about this past? Do you feel that you are also sharers in it and inheritors of it and, therefore, proud of something that belongs to you as much as to me? Or do you feel alien to it? “

The issues flagged by Nehru and Patel have to be seen against the backdrop of centuries of difficult relations between Hindus and Muslims. After a prolonged period of suspicion and tension, Hindus and Muslims had learnt to co-exist and as the events leading to 1857 showed—they willingly joined hands under the last Moghul Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar against their common enemy the crafty firangs.

Following the overthrow of the Company rule in Delhi in 1857, an aged Zafar was reinstalled as the King Emperor of India. A revolutionary council was constituted to assist and advise the octogenarian blind Emperor. The very first ‘firman’ (order) signed by Zafar at the instance of the Council was to declare hurting or killing of cow or its progeny a capital offence. This sequence of events underlines the fact that Hindu–Muslim ties had reached an even kneel.

Within few months, the British regained Delhi. The 1857 revolution failed, but left the British badly shaken and wiser. To consolidate their rule, the colonial masters started working on the fault-lines of Indian society under their policy of divide and rule. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan was picked up to break the fresh and fragile Hindu–Muslim unity. He repeatedly asked Indian Muslims to identify themselves with the British and stay away from the Congress. He divi­ded the country into ‘Muslim Nation’ and ‘Hindu Nation’. His speech, delivered at Meerut in 1888, laid down the road map for the eventual creation of Pakistan. To quote him, “Now, suppose that the English community and the army were to leave India, … who then would be the rulers of India? Is it possible that under these circumstances two nations—the Mohammedans and the Hindus—could sit on the same throne and remain equal in power? Most certainly not. It is necessary that one of them should conquer the other.”

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The Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), Sir Syed’s brainchild, played a decisive role in creating Pakistan. In fact, as early as 1941, Muhammad Ali Jinnah had recognised the contribution of AMU students to his cause and termed the university as “the arsenal of Pakistan”. In 1954, the Aga Khan also acknowledged the role AMU played in the creation of Pakistan in these words: “…surely it may also be deemed that the independent sovereign nation of Pakistan was born in the Muslim University of Aligarh.”

Life is full of ironies. The left—along with the British and Muslim League—was the prime mover for the creation of a theocratic Pakistan and is now a high priest of secularism in India. After Independence, with help from a complicit acquiescing establishment, the left managed to become a sole arbitrator on values like secularism, pluralism, human rights and individual liberty in Indian public discourse.

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The creed touted as secularism in India is cultured in a Communist petri-dish. Prior to Independence, the Congress was hauled over coals for persecuting Muslims. Now, the same charge is levelled against the BJP/RSS. In this blame game, the Congress has taken over from where the Muslim League had left and borrows heavily from its shibboleth lexicon.

The areas of the subcontinent where Hinduism has become extinct have witnessed the demise of liberal values, such as democracy, pluralism and secularism. The recent rise of Narendra Modi and the increasing influence of the RSS are a beleaguered civil society’s response to protect itself from politics of hate, bigotry and fanaticism, all of which has been practised in the garb of ‘secularism’ since Independence.

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(This appeared in the print edition as "‘Secularism’ Under Siege")

(Views expressed are personal)

Balbir Punj is a former Member of Parliament and a columnist

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