Secularism in India is an illusion

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By Mukul Sinha

This is an edited text of the First Shahid Azmi Memorial Lecture, held on 11 February 2012 at Mumbai Marathi Patrakar Sangh, Mumbai, organized by Friends, Comrades and Students of Advocate Shahid Azmi, the 32-year-young lawyer who was shot dead at his office on same day in February 2010. At the time of his murder, he was fighting many terror related cases, including of those falsely accused in the Malegaon blasts and Mumbai Terror Attack.

Two words that have occupied the maximum space in the sphere of political discourse all across the globe in the last two decades are (i) Terrorism and (ii) Secularism. ‘Terrorism’ appears to have replaced the word ‘communism’ which the West had identified as its main enemy till the collapse of the Soviet Union. Secularism is projected as the higher stage of bourgeois democracy where people of different religious or ethnic groups enjoy equal rights without any discrimination. Terrorism is identified as the villain bent upon destroying this super structural advancement of the western civilization and dividing civil societies whereas secularism unites the people. Not surprisingly, most of the western countries have been singing paeans to this deception. The Indian State is totally in concert with them.

But after all the song and dance is over, have these nation-states been able to resolve their ‘minority’ issues? A perfunctory look at the recent history would show that even in the twentieth century, the attitude of the majority towards the minorities was one of total domination. An excerpt from Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar’s book, “We or Our Nationhood Defined” would establish this attitude without any ambiguity:

“German Race pride has now become the topic of the day. To keep up the purity of the Race and its culture, Germany shocked the world by purging the country of the Semitic Races-the Jews. Germany has also shown how well-nigh impossible it is for Races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one united whole, a good lesson for us in Hindustan to learn and profit by”…

In contest with this extreme Hindu nationalist position, the Congress promoted an ambiguous nation-state theory: the soft Hindu state propagated by leaders like Purusotham Tandon and Madan Mohan Malaviya and the ‘secular’ state of Nehru. This ambiguity of the leaders of Congress towards secularism continues even today and the slogan of “Sarva Dharma Samabhav” continues to deceive the minorities. At this stage, we may note some of the recent pronouncements of the Supreme Court on this subject:

“The word ‘secular’ is commonly understood in contradistinction to the word ‘religious’. Although the idea of secularism may have been borrowed in the Indian Constitution from the West, India has adopted its own unique brand of secularism based on its particular history.

“The First Amendment to the American Constitution mandates that, ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. In other words, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect ‘a wall of separation between Church and State’.

“Similarly, the Australian Constitution also prescribes that, ‘the Commonwealth shall not make any laws for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion’. Under the Indian Constitution, however, there is no such ‘wall of separation’ between the State and religious institutions…”

The above observations of the Apex Court in the case of T.M.A. Pai Foundation vs. State of Karnataka, quite correctly sums up the dichotomy in the concept of the Indian secularism. This ambivalent attitude towards secularism is reflected in the judicial pronouncements also. In the case of Valsamma Paul vs. Cochin University, the Apex Court felt that ‘pluralism of Indian culture and religious tolerance is the bedrock of Indian secularism. It is based on the belief that all religions are equally good and efficacious pathways to perfection or God-realisation. It stands for a complex interpretative process in which there is a transcendence of religion and yet there is a unification of multiple religions’.

As a contradistinction, we may extract another view of the Apex Court; in the case of *I.R. Coelho vs. State of T.N., the Court held that ‘the fundamental rights have always enjoyed a special and privileged place in the Constitution. Some of the rights in Part III constitute fundamentals of the Constitution like Article 21 read with Articles 14 and 15 which represent secularism, etc. The role of the judiciary is to protect fundamental rights. A modern democracy is based on the twin principles of majority rule and the need to protect fundamental rights.’ This judgment brings us to the moot questions: do the minorities get the equal protection of law in secular India?

Keeping aside the larger question of economic or social justice to the minorities, we may limit our discussions to the two basic questions: (1) affording equal protection of law to the minorities and (2) the efficacy of the criminal justice system of delivering justice to the minorities. At this stage it becomes necessary to recall some of the major events of violence in secular India to assess the extent to which the minorities get the “equal” treatment in law.

The Nellie massacre took place in Assam during a six-hour period in the morning of 18 February 1983. The massacre claimed the lives of 2,191 people (unofficial figures run at more than 5,000) from 14 villages of Nagaon district. Most of the victims were Bengali-speaking Muslim women and children who had immigrated to the region. A group of mediapersons passing by the region were witness to the massacre. No one has been punished to date for the most gruesome genocide!

On May 17, 1984, rioting began in Bhiwandi and spread to Bombay. Rioting continued till May 27. According to official statistics, the riots left 278 dead, 1115 injured, and 11,453 arrested. The large majority of all three categories were Muslim.

The anti-Sikh riots in 1984 were four days of mayhem in the northern parts of India, particularly Delhi, in which armed mobs set fire to Sikh homes and businesses, killed unarmed men, women and children and attacked gurudwaras. The violence, which left almost 3,000 people dead, was a reaction to the assassination of the country’s Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, on Oct. 31, 1984, by her two Sikh bodyguards. After 28 years of the carnage, there are very few that have been punished for the heinous crime.

The Bhagalpur riots that were sparked off on 24th October, 1989 were one of a series of riots organized by the Sangh Parivar in connection with the Babri Masjid demolition movement. It was sparked off by a procession carrying bricks for Shilapujan of the Ram temple in Ayodhya. A total of 116 persons were killed in the village Logai alone in Bhagalpur district on October 27, 1989. The rioters in Logai buried the victims in a field and planted vegetables on it. The irony is that out of 1486 killed during October, 1989 in Bhagalpur, though 1383 were Muslims but it were the Muslims who were punished; the Court awarded life imprisonment to one and ten years imprisonment to 11 persons in 1996. Beside this, two dozen Muslims had earlier received similar punishments.

The Mumbai riots started after the Babri Mosque demolition on 6 December 1992. This was followed by celebratory processions by Shiv Sena and BJP activists and targeting of Muslim localities. It is commonly believed that the riots occurred in two phases. The first was mainly a Muslim backlash as a result of the Babri Masjid demolition. The second phase occurred in January 1993, with most incidents reported between 6 January and 20 January. Around 900 (575 Muslims, 275 Hindus, 45 unknown and five others) died in the violence and police firing.

On 27 Feb. 2002, 58 passengers died in the S-6 coach of Sabarmati Express which burned down to ashes near the Godhra Railway station following an altercation between the Karsevaks who were traveling in the train with the Muslim tea vendors of the Godhra railway station. 58 dead bodies were brought to Ahmedabad and paraded in the streets.

By 10 am in the morning on 28 Feb. 2002, the saffron gangs were on the roads leading crowds up-to 20 thousands, attacking everyone who was Muslim. At the end of the day, three of the most gruesome offences were committed at (1) Naroda Patia - 100 dead; (2) Gulbarg Society - 70 dead and eight girls are still missing, and (3) Pandarwada - 100 dead. By next two weeks, over 1000 innocent Muslim men, women and children were brutally killed. Tens of thousands had to run away, crores worth of property were destroyed in the cities, every single Muslim business establishment was specifically targeted; for the first time, the violence spread to villages and Muslims of hundreds of villages had to run away.

No FIRs were allowed to be registered by any victim and police officers filed omnibus FIRs, carefully avoiding to give any details, sabotaging the very foundation of investigation. Investigating officers at police station level refused to take orders from higher officers and listened only to the local BJP leaders. After sabotaging the evidence, the trial of the cases were handed over to Public Prosecutors who were VHP/BJP activists. Result: acquittals like in the Best Bakery Case. Bail was granted for asking in murder, rape and arson cases.

Matters didn’t end there….

The next phase of the plan started unfolding from the end of 2002: to profile the entire Muslim community of Gujarat as a breeding ground for Islamic terrorists. The Prevention of Terrorist Act (Pota) was thus used against innocent youth, and hundreds were picked up between April 2003 to December 2004. Gujarat never had terrorists ever before, but Gujarat Government used Pota to create terrorists in Gujarat. POTA was thus used as the “Production of Terrorist Act” and not as the “Prevention of Terrorist Act”.

Next, it had to be put in the minds of the people that the Islamic terrorists were bent upon eliminating the “Great Savior”. Thus, started the encounters: Salim Pathan, Sadik Jamal, Javed, Ishrat Jahan, Sohrabuddin and many more were unfortunate innocent “terrorists” who had to be killed to establish that Narendra Modi was in constant danger. Every six months, one dead person was required to be sacrificed at the altar of Modi and in every FIR that followed the encounter deaths of such hand-piceked “terrorists”, a line was invariably added that “the accused had come to Gujarat to kill the Chief Minister”. The Supreme Courts interference has now totally exposed this game plan.

Besides the above cases of mass violence in the last decade, especially after the 9/11 event in New York, several cases of “bomb blasts” have taken place all over the country killing many innocents. The blame of course was placed on the Muslims ‘confirming’ their terrorist tendencies. The exposure of the Malegaon blast, Mecca Masjid blast at Hyderbad etc has, however, revealed the hidden agenda of the Hindu terrorist groups to spread anarchy and hate against the minorities.

How has the Indian judiciary and other democratic institutions reacted to the repeated instances of mass violence or the encounters and bomb blasts? At the lower rungs of the justice delivery system, the proximity of the police, prosecutor and the politician has, as a rule, denied a fair deal to the minorities. In any communal conflict, the majority community has successfully turned the prosecution on its side and in severe situations like in Gujarat, even the judiciary in the state has faltered.

Few instances will suffice to establish this point. In the case of the death of the 58 passengers of the Sabarmati Express on 27 Feb. 2002, the session court awarded death penalty to eleven accused and life sentence to 20 more accused whereas in the Best Bakery case, all the accused were acquitted by the sessions court despite the brutal murder of several persons. POTA was invoked in the Sabarmati Express case and 100 or so accused remained in jail for over eight years under trial whereas all the accused in most of the 3000 plus cases involving the brutal murder of over 1000 Muslims were bailed out within few months. POTA was never invoked in such cases though the Muslims all over Gujarat were terrified and helpless against the mob violence supported by the state.

Besides these cases, during the main phase of violence, hundreds of Muslim youth were detained under POTA in connection with Haren Pandya murder case, tiffin bomb case (no one was really injured in this case) and one omnibus case strangely called the ISI conspiracy case. All these cases ended in conviction of the Muslim accused and several are undergoing life sentences.

It must be said here that the Apex Court has time and again intervened to protect the fundamental rights of the minorities but in a country of over a billion people with a sizeable percentage of minorities, even with the best intentions, it would be impossible for a single court to protect the basic structure of the Constitution and afford equal protection of law to the minorities when the players in the state themselves pitch for the majority community.

Secularism is, therefore, an ambiguous word slipped into the preamble of the Constitution during the dark days of Emergency by way of the 42nd amendment of the Constitution in 1976. In our country, it has become purely a political slogan for and against the minority during elections.

In the international arena, the declaration of US of its resolve to wage a “War on Terror” after the 9/11 event, has forced the genuine secular forces to retreat as otherwise they would be seen to be siding with the “Islamic Jehadis”. This political propaganda has hit the shores of all countries with their rightist forces queuing up to support the “war on terror” to please their western masters.

Interestingly, the campaign of the BJP-led Sangh Parivar against the Muslims has also changed after the 9/11 event. Prior to 2001, the campaign used to revolve around demand of building of the Ram temple as a retaliation to the alleged past oppression of the Muslim rulers. After 9/11, the campaign shifted in profiling the Muslims as terrorists and the death of the 58 karsevaks of the Sabarmati Express was used to demonise the entire community.

Defenders of secularism must, therefore, take lessons from the reality of the present day. While we salute warriors like Shahid Azmi, we must realize that this struggle has to be waged by the masses as a part of their larger struggle for democracy.

Dr. Mukul Sinha is a trained scientist turned trade-unionist and lawyer based in Ahmedabad, who has unearthed crucial facts about the Godhra carnage and the post-Godhra anti-Muslim pogrom and conducted successful trails of fake encounters.

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-30 April 2012 on page no. 2

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