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Published in the 1-15 Jan 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Is secularism dead in India?
By Asghar Ali Engineer 

Secularism had evoked certain controversies in India from very beginning but nevertheless it was accepted by all barring few exceptions. Since the concept of secularism did not exist in India its equivalent was also not found in Indian languages. It had to be translated. In Hindi it was translated as dharm nirpekshta and in Urdu it was rendered as la diniyyat. Both these translations were not correct as they implied neutrality towards religion and being non-religious respectively. 

Even in the west it did not mean being non-religious. It implied neutrality of state towards religion. West had ushered in democracy much before India did and secularism is quite important for democratic functioning and particularly if society as in India happens to be multi-religious. A multi-religious society cannot function democratically without secularism.

In democracy citizenship and citizens’ rights are most central, while in a non-secular state religion becomes central and citizenship becomes secondary. India was from very beginning of its known history a multi-religious and multi-cultural society. Democracy in such a society cannot function without secularism as in democracy citizenship has priority over religion. In democracy all are equal citizens though they may not follow same religion or may not follow any religion at all.

Thus when the Britishers left and India chose to be democracy it had no recourse but to opt for secularism as well. Only a secular democracy can ensure equal rights for all citizens. The argument that since Pakistan chose to be Islamic nation India too has right to become a Hindu Rashtra is not a valid one. Pakistan was based on two- nation theory and was primarily a Muslim nation it could choose to be Islamic nation (though a modern nation-state and a religious state are anomalous) but this course was certainly not available for India, it being a multi-religious, multi-cultural and multi-lingual country.

Thus India rightly chose to be a secular country in the sense that Indian state shall not privilege any religion and that followers of majority religion shall not have more privileges than the followers of minority religions in terms of citizenship. Also that state shall protect all religions equally without any distinction.

This came to be known as Nehruvian model of secularism and a broad consensus was evolved around it. Only the Jansangh, which had very narrow political base until then rejected any concept of secularism and stood for Hindu Rashtra. However, even Jansangh while merging into the Janta Party in post-emergency period in 1977 accepted secularism and Gandhian socialism and took pledge to this effect on Gandhiji’s samadhi in Delhi. However, for Jansangh it was more a tactical move than a principled stand.

Though in its new avtar as BJP it continued to swear by secularism but began to promote most militant Hindu nationalism in mid-eighties. One of the members of Sangh Parivar the Vishwa Hindu Parishad adopted Hindu militancy without any restraint. In the post-Minakshipuram conversion period the Vishwa Hindu Parishad came to the forefront and got involved in most militant propaganda of Hindutva. There were open assaults on Nehruvian model of secularism and even secularism as such was dubbed as a western concept quite alien to Indian culture.

But for the BJP there were certain restraints and it could not reject secularism openly without drawing criticism. So it adopted a new tactics; it began to talk of positive secularism and denounced Nehruvian secularism as ‘pseudo-secularism’. According to the BJP Nehruvian secularism was based on what it called ‘appeasement of minorities’ and it defined appeasement as allowing minorities to follow their personal law and allowing their men to take four wives.

This assault on Nehruvian secularism, which ultimately meant assault on constitutional secularism, became sharper and sharper with passage of time. The BJP ultimately adopted what it called the ‘Hindutva agenda’ and this agenda, as is well known, included abolition of personal laws (enforcing common civil code), Article 370 (special status for Kashmir) and building Ram Temple at Ayodhya.

Obviously a secular state cannot undertake construction of temples and mosques and BJP’s Hindutva agenda was a direct blow to the constitutional concept of secularism in India. The BJP government and its other Parivar members are openly attacking the concept of secularism around, for which there was a broad consensus, as pointed out above. 

The BJP was somewhat restrained at the Centre as it is a coalition government but it had no such restraint in Gujarat where it was in power of its own. And it was in Gujarat that one could understand to what extent it would go if it ever came to power at the Centre. Gujarat was often described as a ‘laboratory of Hindutva’ and it became a mini-Hindu Rashtra. And after the horrible Gujarat riots, which shamed the country and winning the elections with two-third majority the BJP leaders began to say that we will repeat the Gujarat model in other states of India.

Thus it has become more than obvious that the BJP in principle rejects secularism and only adopts it tactically while in power as part of NDA alliance. Not only this it has been systematically carrying out campaign for Hindutva politics. Even the Prime Minister Shri Vajpayee is on record to have said in USA that RSS is ‘my soul’ and RSS, as everyone knows stands for Hindu Rashtra.

It is unfortunate that this aggressive propaganda has affected even the principal opposition party the Congress. It has also wilted under pressure and has adopted what is being described as softer variety of Hindutva. Even in late eighties and early nineties some of the Congress members had begun to talk of secularism being unsuitable for India and under pressure from aggressive BJP propaganda sought to redefine secularism. Mr. Narsimha Rao, the then Prime Minister also adopted policy of soft Hindutva and even refused to take any action while the Babri Masjid was being demolished. He was almost under awe of the BJP propaganda.

In fact the Congress commitment to secularism began to weaken in the last phase of Mrs. Indira Gandhi when she tried to utilise VHP for her survival and to compensate for loss of Muslim votes. Mr. Rajiv Gandhi too did not show any strong commitment to secularism and his notorious reversal of the Shah Bano judgement and laying the foundation of Ramjanambhumi and call for Ramrajya on the eve of 1989 parliamentary elections also delivered a great blow to Nehruvian concept of secularism.

The Gujarat carnage in February-March last year further struck fear in the minds of Congress politicians and except for few exceptions the Congress leaders are adopting soft variety of Hindutva. Though the ‘Gujarat model’ did not work in Himachal Pradesh and the BJP lost elections there the fear of alienation from Hindu voters is very much there in the minds of the Congress leaders.

Even during the Gujarat election campaign in post-Gujarat carnage the congress leaders, particularly Mr. Kamalnath who was in charge of elections in Gujarat, did not allow any Muslim congress leaders like Mohsina Kidwai or Ahmed Patel to campaign for the Congress. Not only this he did not allow even leaders like Arjun Singh to campaign for election as Arjun Singh has pro-Muslim image.

The Congress openly played pro-soft Hindutva card by making Waghela as the Congress chief of Gujarat as he was an ex-RSS man and it was thought that he will be better able to attract the Hindu votes in Gujarat. However, the soft Hindutva did not work in favour of the Congress and BJP won with two-third majority in Gujarat elections.

But instead of learning any lesson from the Gujarat defeat the Congress leaders want to play the soft Hindutva card in other states like the Madhya Pradesh. Even a person like Digvijay Singh who has been known for his commitment to secularism is now playing this card and is demanding ban on cow slaughter throughout India. He did this to embarrass the BJP and to woo the upper caste Hindu voters. 

The ban on cow slaughter should be discussed on its own merit as Gandhiji also maintained. Gandhiji even refused to take up cow slaughter issue to win over the Hindu support for Khilafat movement. He maintained that both Khilafat movement and ban on cow slaughter should be taken up on their own merits and not to trade one with the other. 

It is regrettable that leaders of Nehru’s Congress are indulging in such sensitive issues just to win elections. It is certainly weakening commitment to secularism. It can be said without fear of contradiction that Nehruvian concept of secularism is as good as dead and we are left with cheap tactics to win elections. It has serious implications for future of our democracy in a pluralist society like India. There is great need to revive Nehruvian concept of secularism, which is based on cultural and political wisdom. It can perhaps be done only by a leader of Nehru’s stature as it requires courage of conviction and not simply lust for power.

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