“India has a peculiar brand of secularism”

By Mahtab Alam
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Mumbai: Mumbai:  India has a peculiar kind of secularism, said Dr. Mukul Sinha, while pointing out how many of us suffer from the illusion that India is a secular polity. Dr. Sinha, an eminent activist and lawyer from Ahmedabad, was delivering here the first Advocate Shahid Azmi Memorial Lecture, on 11 February.

He said, in recent times, two words have been presented to us by the West -- “terrorism” and “secularism”. After the fall of Soviet Union, only forces that need to be contained according to West are Islamic forces. He reminded the audience that even nationally, the birth of secularism was mediated by three competing ideologies. The Nehruvian idea fought with Gandhian and RSS views on secularism. But even within the Congress, there were soft-Hindutva elements that were against strict separation of state and religion. In fact, secularism was slipped into the Constitution only in 1976 during Emergency.

Speaking about the role of judiciary, he pointed that the Supreme Court judgments also reflect the ambivalent character of the secular polity in India. The judgments traverse the spectrum of the idea of Indian secularism from “Sarva Dharma Sambhav” to “separation of church and the state”. In India, secularism does not mean godlessness, but god everywhere. If the judicial ideas remain confused on the meaning and relevance of “secularism” in India, how can we expect trial courts to be free of biases, he wondered.

There is another myth that secularism protects the minorities. Here, leaving aside the question of economic and social justice, Sinha focused on two basic questions: affording equal protection of law to the minorities and the efficacy of the criminal justice system of delivering justice to the minorities.

With a list of major communal riots where Muslims were the victims, Sinha pointed out that such a perception was misplaced. Beginning from 1983 Nellie massacre, 1984 Sikh riots, 1989 Bhagalpur, 1993 Mumbai and Gujarat 2002, it has never happened once that the perpetrators were punished. Ironically, in a few cases such as Bhagalpur riots, the only people punished were Muslims. However, Muslims have kept their enormous faith on the idea of secularism.

Earlier, in his introductory remarks, Professor Jairus Banaji of the London School of Oriental and African Studies termed the killing of Advocate Azmi as a ‘political assassination’. He claimed that the same people who killed Hemant Karkare were also behind the murder of Azmi. He wondered why in major cases of political assassinations, the forensic evidence has never been preserved by the Indian State because it does not want forensic and legal outcomes. Banaji added that the state apparatus was a seamless web of intrigue and deception. The most staggering fact of Indian democracy is that any crime can be committed with no accountability. The Indian state is enmeshed with the political forces of the right. On the other hand, the extreme right pursues the ‘strategy of tension’ resembling Italy of the 1970s. The terror networks of the right organized themselves during the NDA regime. Hemant Karkare had started dismantling this network when he was killed. During the investigations of Malegaon blast, Praveen Togadia’s name had cropped up but it disappeared later without a trace.

Prof. Banaji asserted that the crime branch remains the most criminal organization across the country. At the same time, building a resistance cannot be accomplished individually, but in solidarity and collectively. Indian democracy is turning fascist; a fascist society which works from within and is much more insidious than classical fascism.

Talking about Shahid Azmi and his work, his brother Arif Azmi narrated how Shahid was fighting 110 POTA-related cases and he had secured 14 acquittals too before he was silenced. He always used to receive calls asking him to refrain from such cases but he never budged. Shahid maintained that if justice had to be delivered, it had to be delivered to all. Recalling his association with Shahid, Maulana Gulzar Azmi, Secretary of the Jamiat Legal Cell in Maharastra, recalled the eventful year of 2006 when young Muslims were being framed in cases of Aurangabad (May), Mumbai (July) and Malegaon (September). MCOCA was being invoked against the accused in most of these cases. Shahid was fighting all these cases simultaneously. When he asked Shahid why he is deeply bothered about such cases from across India?, he replied, “I want peace in the country. I was jailed myself and I fear these accused will go to jail and turn from innocent youth to real terrorists. And the peace of India will be disturbed.” Shahid felt every such case as his own -- he used to say, “they must be undergoing exactly what I went during my imprisonment and afterwards”.

Advocate Marrukh Aidanwala, a close associate of Shahid, said he used to go to the courts with a mission to fight for justice. We are terribly missing him both on personal and professional levels. She further said, he fought cases of not only Muslims but of all those who are marginalized, downtrodden and oppressed. He was a true People’s lawyer.

In his presidential remarks, Prof. Banaji concluded the discussion by highlighting two major ideas of Sinha’s lecture. First, that the idea of secularism in India as balancing between different religions, in effect becomes majoritarian rule. Second, the culture of political impunity where the legal and political system actively ensures that the criminals are not punished. He added that judicial compliance was a cornerstone of fascist politics in Germany for 10 years leading up to Nazi rule. Indian fascism is more dangerous because it is deep-rooted and molecular.

The lecture was held in the memory of the young criminal and human rights’ lawyer, Shahid Azmi who was shot down, allegedly by the “nationalist” underworld in February 2010. The 32-year-old Shahid, at the time of his murder was fighting many terror-related cases, including of those falsely accused in the Malegaon blasts and Mumbai terror attack, who were later acquitted by various courts.

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 1-15 March 2012 on page no. 10

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