India is not a secular country. India does not treat all its religions equally. For example:
- India allows Muslims, Christians, Jews and Parsis to manage their civil affairs according to their respective religious laws. But it places restrictions upon how Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains can manage theirs. Indian Parliament even overturned a Supreme Court ruling to appease Muslims.
- The Indian government annually subsidizes -- to the tune of Rs 413 Crore -- the annual Haj journey for Muslims to go to Saudi Arabia.
- Andhra Pradesh government sponsors a Rs 2 Crore religious junket for Christians to Bethlehem.
- Aligarh Muslim University is allocated an annual budget -- Rs 245 Crore -- that is one of the highest for any university in India. However it still allows the central university to retain its distinct Muslim character. All dining halls serve halal meat and no space is available for Hindu religious congregation. Same goes for Jamia Millia Islamia.
- Indian Muslims can have multiple wives but people belonging to other religions can’t unless they convert to Islam. Indian Muslims can utter talaq three times and get over with it whereas others need to go through tedious court proceedings.
One could go on and on in similar vein.
All the statements listed above are true. Therefore, I conclude that India is not a secular country -- rather it is, in fact, a defender of monotheistic religions, particularly Islam.
It is easier now to understand the fallacy of Dr. Omar Khalidi’s argument, such as it is, in his essay Why India Is Not A Secular State.
He selectively picks and chooses dots to create an ugly picture and then presents it as reality. It is as if Dr. Khalidi has come up with a checklist of carefully drawn items that he keeps checking till he reaches the conclusion that India is not secular. It is the same methodology as is used by Islam-bashers to conclude that Islam equals terrorism. It is the same exercise as is undertaken by Hindutva extremists to prove that the Indian state appeases Muslims. It is, therefore, unfortunate that someone like Dr. Khalidi, who has in the past produced important works like Muslims In Indian Economy and Khaki And The Ethnic Violence In India would indulge in such sophistry.
Dr. Khalidi quotes Hindu Marriage Act (1955) to buttress his claim for legislative preference shown to Hinduism. In reality, some of the biggest critics of the Act were conservative Hindus, including Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), leaders. If the Act was just an attempt to co-opt Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists into the fold of Hinduism, as Dr Khalidi suggests, wouldn’t Hindu leaders have welcomed it with open arms? Dr. BR Ambedkar in fact resigned from the union cabinet in October 1951 apparently because of the stringent opposition to Hindu Code Bill (the precursor to Hindu Marriage Act). It was not until after the 1952 elections that Nehru became strong enough to push through the Bill again.
It is not by accident that all "Indic religions" have been slotted together under Hindi Marriage Act and those originating outside India were left out from its purview. It was a common-sense approach to take at that time and, if anything, it did not go far enough. If Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains think that they have been co-opted within the larger fold of Hinduism then its evidence is certainly hard to find. In an ideal situation, there would be one civil law for all religions as laws should be the same for all citizens. However the nation that had then recently seen, at the time of Partition, thousands die on the question of religion, did not want to push through a Uniform Civil Code on to a vulnerable Muslim community lest it were seen as an example of Hindu domination. Unfortunately, the issue has been communalised so much since then that it is difficult to even have a debate on it now. Eventually India will move towards a Uniform Civil Code and it will then have to thank the Hindu Marriage Act for paving the way.
Dr. Khalidi talks about the anti-conversion measures passed by various state governments. I have my concerns about such legislations, as do many other Indians. It is absolutely right that such laws infringe upon the freedom of religion. But the question of infringement on the right of an individual to choose a religion arises only because that individual right is enshrined in the constitution. These battles can be fought and will be won in courts.
Dr Khalidi also brings up the subject of reservations in jobs and educational institutions for Schedule Castes (SCs). It is another contentious issue -- those who convert to Christianity or Islam are denied benefits which were previously available to them. Personally, I am against reservations and I think India should be moving away from a reservation based system. However it is important to note that a similar clause for Scheduled Tribes (STs) does not exist and let's not forget that there are Scheduled Tribe Muslims as well in India.
Dr. Khalidi also makes much of General JJ Singh sporting a beard whereas Muslims servicemen are not allowed to do the same. It is interesting that Dr. Khalidi quotes the example of General Singh, a Sikh, and not any Hindu General to support his argument. Simply because there cannot be any Hindu General sporting a beard either, just as there won’t be a Muslim General with beard. Actually, by default, no one can sport a beard in Indian Armed Forces except for Sikhs. One could argue about the merits of this policy and whether it is biased in favour of Sikhs but it is hardly a case of the Indian state favouring Hindus and discriminating against Muslims, the basic premise of Dr. Khalidi’s essay. In Indian Navy, for example, anyone can sport a beard after taking permission from senior officers.
Cultural discrimination is a complex issue and not simply an issue of one religion being given preference over others as Dr. Khalidi presumes it to be. Does he cry foul when government-sponsored iftars are hosted? Or when Eid Milad-un-Nabi gets declared a national holiday by VP Singh? What about the Indo-Islamic Culture course that is a requirement at 10+2 level at Aligarh Muslim University?
His assertion that Door Darshan does not broadcast any serial of Muslim or Christian characters is blatantly incorrect. What about Alif Laila, Mullah Naseeruddin and Bibli Ki Kahaniyan? And to dismiss Tipu Sultan and Mirza Ghalib as stock characters! Oh please. Kaifi Azmi must be turning in his grave and Gulzar has a good case for litigation.
Dr. Khalidi in his article fails to understand the complexity of Indian society and the nature of the Indian state. Just as Dr. Khalidi can quote selective examples to prove India is not a secular state but predisposed towards Hinduism, other selective examples can be used to "prove" that indeed India is not a secular state but one predisposed towards Islam. This just goes to show that the reality lies somewhere in between. Unfortunately, Dr. Khalidi reduces the essence of secularism and tolerant Indian ethos to a checklist of randomly selected items.
It is obvious that there are major issues facing India that need to be addressed. However all those can be addressed within the Indian constitutional framework. Aftab Ahmad Ansari, an aircraftsman of Indian Air Force, might not have yet got permission to wear a beard but cases such as his will ensure that eventually India will implement a more balanced policy on the issue. Similarly on other thorny issues of religious conversions and reservations, a consensus will emerge when we start treating an individual as the only minority and get out of our preconceived majority-minority paradigm. Same goes for the Uniform Civil Code. It is easy for Dr. Khalidi to dismiss UCC and Haj Subsidy as an aside but those issues severely undercut his major premise that Indian state is predisposed towards Hinduism. And if that were the case, then surely the Indian state has done a very poor job at that with a Sikh Prime Minister and a Catholic leader at the top for the past 5 years!
It would have been too easy for Dr. Martin Luther King and other civil rights activists to conclude that United States was a racist country, wash their hands off and emigrate to Jamaica. In that case the world would have never seen Barack Obama. Indian Muslims, by any stretch of imagination, are not in the same discriminatory situation as blacks were in USA. The community would do well not to pay heed to Dr. Khalidi who, instead of encouraging them to strive for their rights, if and when denied, within a democratic set-up, is curiously bent on proving that they don’t have a chance anyway. Dr. Khalidi’s essay is an affront to all those Indians who are fighting for the rights of fellow Indians -- including those Indians who suffered in Delhi 1984 and Gujarat 2002 -- every day to make India a better country. It is an insult to millions and millions of Muslims -- like my grandfather -- who chose to stay in India because they believed in the idea of India.
When the French writer Andre Malraux asked Jawaharlal Nehru in 1958 about his "greatest difficulty since Independence," Nehru had replied, "Creating a just state by just means". He then added: "Perhaps, too, creating a secular state in a religious country."
Indian state is a work in progress but the foundations are right. The champions of modern Indian state fought hard to create a secular democratic state. India will remain secular as long as the people of India -- you, me, and everyone -- choose it to be. It doesn’t help a bit to start with a position that says India is not a secular country. It is the responsibility of all Indians to ensure it stays secular and Indian Muslims need to do their bit as equal stakeholders in the future of the country.
Mohib Ahmad is the founder of Indian Muslims Blog, a group blog dedicated to discussing issues concerning Indian Muslims.