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Published in the 1-15 July 2005 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Speaking Out

Indian Secularism and Religion

The Milli Gazette Online

Of late, Indian elites, including politicians and media personalities, have become a little too concerned about what should be definition of secularism. Given the nature of Indian society, to even consider de-linking the term from religion seems erroneous. One can be a practicing Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Christian or adherent of any religion and yet be secular. Any individual’s secular credentials are held to be questionable when and if his practices or beliefs cause harm to others in the society. In other words, when and if an individual takes his religion to the point of communalism, the question of his being described as secular loses its credibility. 

Confusion regarding definition of secularism prevails primarily because of respected elite’s tendency to link it only with being non-religious, atheist and/or a-religious. Given that more than 90 percent Indians, hailing from various religious communities, are conservative, tradition-bound and adherent of basic religious principles, the question of alienating the average Indian from religion is as good as chasing a mirage. Yet, if a devout Hindu/Muslim or any Indian’s secular credentials are held to be questionable simply because he happens to be a devout person, by this logic, not too many “secular” people live in India. Taking this argument further, be they politicians like Mahatma Gandhi or religious clerics like Mother Teressa, there is little doubt that their appeal among the Indians cuts across religious differences. The communal label cannot be attached to any of these personalities. At the same time, it is erroneous to hold that just because Gandhi was a practicing Hindu and Mother Teressa a devoted Christian, they cannot be labeled as “secular” Indians. 

Yes, one cannot remain oblivious of the degree to which religious sentiments have been exploited at various levels for exclusively political gains. Herein, the degree to which Ayodhya-issue was exploited to reach the political helm cannot be ignored. This also draws attention to where should the line be drawn between linking of secularism and religion. Be they the riots related to Ayodhya-issue or the Gujarat-carnage, select groups targeted the minorities in pursuance of their extremist aims. 

With due respect to religious values of any individual, group or community, the minute these assume the form of targeting people pursuing different religious sentiments, the question of their being regarded as secular ceases to exist. Rather, these need to be labeled as communalism.

This also implies that greater deliberation is needed on the linkage between religious practices and terms such as secularism, fundamentalism, extremism, communalism and so forth. In context of Indian society’s multi-religious nature, with religious fundamentalism at the fulcrum, if secularism is at one end, communalism/extremism may be held to be at the other. One can be a fundamentalist person, along religious lines, and also a strong patriot and a secular person. However, there is a tendency to view the term fundamentalism only along negative lines. This is primarily because in the West, fundamentalism is in general associated with religious movement directed against the state and/or any external group. A brief insight into India’s history suggests that religious fundamentalism has always been an intrinsic part of Indian society and culture. Whether they were Bhakti or Sufi movements, Buddhism or Jainism, they were not directed against external factors. Rather, their main goal was directed towards internal ramification, that is reforms within their circles. 

This has been deliberately pointed out to highlight the fact that religious passion can be devoid of communal tinge, when it is not directed against any external group or any other religious community. For instance, the gathering of Muslims to read namaz together, that of Hindus staying up whole nights for kirtans, the Sunday masses at churches for Christian and other practices bringing together members of the same religious community, may hold tremendous passionate value for the participants. If their importance is confined to respective religious groups, along positive lines and is not directed against persons of other communities, without doubt they would be regarded as symbols of religious fundamentalism. However, just as it would be erroneous to paint these activities as signs of communalism, they cannot also be assumed to hold Indian secularism at stake. 

Yes, without doubt, Indian politicians do have the tendency to hold secularism at stake by indulging in religion-related campaign to emotionally sway the voters to their camp. To assume that the Indian voter, be he illiterate or poor, is not blind to such politicking is equivalent to ignoring his own political smartness. It was not without reason that BJP had to push its Hindutva-agenda to the backburner to assume power at the helm of NDA coalition. In the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, BJP did not simply lose to Congress and its allies but was defeated by secularism portrayed by Indian voters. So the problem regarding definition of secularism does not rest in the religious or even conservative attitude of the typical Indian voter. But it assumes acute proportions for two sets of people: for those who prefer understanding secularism along non-religious (atheist) parameters or those who would rather let it be overshadowed by their own communal/extremist tendencies.

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