A Watered Down Version of Secularism

Zaboor Ahmad

Most of the narratives  on communalism that appear in media have been centered on secularism as the best defence wall against strife in society, the truth is that secularism has proved utterly insufficient in warding off the communalisation of Indian body politic and society. The problem with the conceptual formulation of secularism often lacks consensus in India as becomes evident by two different paradigms. Gandhi looked for a principle that could glue people subscribing to diverse faiths together. He found the elixir in the doctrine of sarva dharma sambhava which can be read as equality of all religions. But it has normative tone which recognises its value in personal lives. Nehru, ill at ease with it, found solace in the notion of secularism called dharma nirpekshata which implies the state would not be moved by religious consideration in enacting policy. Both these considerations have been put in cold storage and none is followed.

The constitution-making process in India got underway in the background of Partition and given the gigantic nature of social problems in society, the state armed itself with so much wherewithal of forced intervention that little was left for enjoyment and whatever was put down in the constitution was deemed as sufficient by the minorities. In the early 1920’s the political project of chiseling secularism was accompanied by an overlapping project, that of commitment to the rights of minorities to live and preserve the autonomy of their culture and religion. This found strong reflection in the Nehru report of 1928 and Karachi resolution of 1931.This dichotomy stemmed from the logic to keep at bay the demand for communal electorate based on religion in post-Independence India. In one way, Partition signified the failure of secularism. The Congress leadership failed to convince the Muslim community that they would be armed with equal citizenship rights as well as constitutional protection to their religions in post-Independence India. As Article 25 in the third part of the Constitution containing fundamental rights makes it explicit, that subject to public order, morality and health, all persons are equally  entitled  to freedom  of conscience and right to profess and propagate and practise one’s religion while provision second says nothing in the Article shall prevent the state from making any law regulating or restricting any economic, financial, political or any other secular activity that may be associated with religious  practices. Will the state restrict the religious pilgrimage to the sensitive and ecologically fragile areas which can have the disastrous fallout like kailash yatra, or else to Amranath situated in Kashmir  and will the majority community abide by the policy decisions? The space provided to the state intervention in the religious domain has been so large that religious rights have turned to be hollow. The constitution in fact provides numerous rights to all communities like right to life, liberty, property and dignity. Every communal riot has not only violated these rights but has endangered the right to freely practise one’s religion. Regrettably, the communalisation of society has been paralleled by communalisation of polity. In 1984, the state came to be seen as complicit in genocidal attack on Sikhs. In 1992 not only was central government inactive when Babri Masjid was demolished, the Kandhamal killings of Christians, and the Gujarat riots are just the tip of the iceberg. The state has made redundant the secular model. The remedy is to recover the tradition of tolerance.

The burgeoning intolerance would have manifested much earlier, but the alarming bells were not heard. The assassination of Gandhi by Hindutva zealot Nathuram Godse was the first major instance of act of political intolerance. It was symptomatic of what was going to visit Muslims if ever Gandhi’s assassins were to taste power.  Attempts have been made to transfer the cow protection to federal list and rewrite textbooks. LK Advani-led Babri Masjid demolition was the tipping point in the breakdown of social and cultural contacts between Hindus and Muslims. After having exhausted the historic role of religion in dirty game of electoral politics, BJP used the fictitious mask of political economy. Once it garnered enough seats in its kitty it fell back to its communal ideology.  

A new lexicon has been created, according to which vegetarianism is nationalism while beef eating is anti-nationalism. This is the only country in world where the test to qualify as national is so simple.  In his 1996 judgment Justice Verma endorsed Hindutva as a way of life. After that it became a state-sponsored programme. Serialisation of Ramayana and Mahabharata on Doordarshan was central to the rise of Hindu fundamentalism. The Rama imagery was captured by the Sangh Parivar once it embedded itself into the consciousness of people to demolish the Babri Masjid.

Take the instance of revision of text books. Attempts were made to institutionalise the recitation of Saraswati vandana in schools backfired in 1998 immediately after M.M.  joshi was appointed human resource minister. It turn he appointed someone  who had been close to the Sangh as head in Indian Council of Historical Research as it would enable the Sangh to access the public sphere. In a similar way the Information and Broadcasting Ministry recently appointed a close associate of BJP as president of Film and Television Institute of India. similar controversy erupted over the appointment of Subramanian Swami as vice-chancellor of India’s most prestigious institution, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Swami vowed to cleanse the campus of communists.

The policy is to employ state apparatus for using the public space to disseminate the ideology of hindutva. The state has allowed the speech of Mohan Bhagwat to be telecast by Doordarshan addressing the larger populace. Neither the secularism of Constitution, nor of the Congress, nor the pseudo-secularism of BJP has been able to stem the rising tide of communalism. 

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-31 May 2016 on page no. 2

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