Are we a pseudo-secular state?

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By Abdul Khaliq

Last week, that inveterate hate-monger Pravin Togadia made an impassioned plea for a new Indian Constitution that allows for “anyone who converts Hindus to be beheaded.” He went on to assert that “we Hindus should include Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains because their line of thinking is no different from Hindus, except for a few small habits.” Is this isolated fundamentalist ranting or the indication of a trend towards increase in the forces of hatred and division in our society?

The Preamble to the Constitution is the most-noble statement of our commitment to secular humanism. It spells out our resolve to be a humane society that will secure justice, liberty, equality for its citizens and promote fraternity among all. Of these cherished values, the greatest and the most neglected is fraternity or brotherhood, perhaps because it is least amenable to political action. As a wise man once said, the State can prevent me from coveting my neighbour’s property but it cannot oblige me, by law, to love my neighbour. And yet, the success of our pursuit to be a strong, united and civilized country ultimately depends on whether we love one another as brothers. Our prescient Constitution-makers, knowing its importance, underlined fraternity as a key ingredient for building a vibrant democracy.

 We have failed dismally in this endeavour. The country today is the hotbed of a million mutinies. Our PM has spoken of terrorism as the biggest threat to the nation. Others believe that the long shadow of the Maoists over the heartland is our Achilles heel. However, there is another insidious, omnipresent and all-consuming poison that is eating into the vitals of the nation: religious prejudice and intolerance. When a bomb explodes and kills innocents, cold fear grips the Muslim community. They know, from bitter experience, that although terrorism claims affinity to a host of faiths and ideologies, the invariable reaction to a terrorist act is to blame it on some Islamic terrorist group. The grim reality is that only Muslims are made to feel that they have to answer for the perverted deeds of their co-religionists, whereas an equally heinous crime by Breivik, the Oslo monster, is rationalized as a case of individual madness that has nothing to do with Christian fundamentalism. Similarly, the terrorist acts of the right-wing Hindu extremists are seen as an aberration. The fact that so-called “Islamic terrorism” claims many more Muslim victims than others is studiously ignored because it vitiates a neat argument.

The bogus perception of Islam and the Muslim has unfortunately seeped into the State law-enforcement apparatus. Following every terrorist act, the intelligence agencies unfailingly blame some Islamist terror group. Then follows the all too familiar exercise of arresting suspects. Is it a surprise that they are all Muslims? Time and again, the nation is confronted with the unacceptable injustices perpetrated on members of the minority community in the guise of fighting terrorism. After the 2006 Malegaon blasts, 115 Muslims were picked up and all, barring nine, were released after five years of incarceration and torture. These nine innocents remained behind bars until last week, despite Swami Aseemanand’s confession about a year ago that it was the handiwork of Hindu extremists. Earlier this year, 63 Muslims who had languished in jail for nine years for alleged involvement in the Godhra train massacre of 2002 were released for want of evidence. The Godhra verdict itself threw up a major paradox. The Court on the one hand adjudged that this horrific incident was the result of a criminal conspiracy and on the other came out with the astonishing contradictory ruling letting off the main “conspirators” who were allegedly instrumental in mobilizing the mob on that fateful day. The Hon’ble Judge apparently does not subscribe to the dictum that a case is only as strong as its weakest link. Full of loose ends and imponderables, the Godhra judgement has done little to inspire confidence and finally clear the air.

In July this year, 12 Muslim youth who were implicated for the Haren Pandya murder were set free after five years as there was no evidence against them. More recently, 21 Muslims who had been implicated for the Mecca Masjid blasts of 2008 were released because they were innocent. Not surprisingly, the advocate commissioner who had been appointed by the A.P. State Minorities Commission to investigate allegations of police abuse not only confirmed torture but his report also added that the detainees believed that they had been picked up and tortured “because they belong to a particular community.”

 What the years of torture, unfair defamation and separation from their families have done to these broken spirits is impossible to express in words. So acute is the discrimination that Muslims wonder whether they have equal citizenship rights under the law. The most tragic irony is that hundreds of innocents are still behind bars because of their religious affiliations, whereas there are thousands of murderers - the perpetrators of the Sikh killings of 1984, the Mumbai riots of 1992-93, the subsequent Mumbai blasts of 1993, the Godhra train massacre of 2002 and the subsequent Gujarat riots - who are roaming free and wild in our cities. This is the chilling reality of life in our country today which can be ignored only at our own peril. These hate mongers would need little provocation to kill again.

Justice Katju, former Judge of the Supreme Court, has recently berated the media for accentuating the false perception about Muslims. He is convinced that the media often twists facts and creates the impression that Muslims are terrorists and evil. Observers have noted that the media is quite muted and guarded in exposing the atrocities committed by other right wing extremists. It is significant that the mainstream media ignored the recent revelations by a special director of the IB at the annual conference of the State Police Chiefs that Hindu extremists have either been suspected or are under investigation in 16 incidents of bomb blasts in the country (out of which four incidents have already been confirmed as the work of these extremists), which makes Hindutva terror a much bigger phenomenon than previously envisaged. The media, however, continues to portray the Muslim as the archetypal terrorist.

Fuelled by prejudice and intolerance, our public discourse has degenerated to the lowest possible level. The most inflammatory and divisive rhetoric has become commonplace. For decades, we have heard the hate-filled ranting against Muslims by the Shiv Sena boss. This is what he said in 1993: “If you take Mein Kampf and if you remove the word ‘Jew’ and put in the word ‘Muslim’ that is what I believe”. More recently, Varun Gandhi had this to say during electioneering in 2009: “All the Hindus stay on this side and send them to the other side. This is the lotus hand. I will cut their throats after elections.” He won the election comfortably. We are all aware of the scurrilous remarks about Muslims recently made by Subramanian Swamy, who has called for disenfranchisement of Muslims if they do not proudly acknowledge that their ancestors were Hindus. He has also advocated making the learning of Sanskrit and singing of Vande Mataram mandatory in schools. Even the once respected Justice V R Krishna Iyer made this scandalous observation: “ I do suspect their loyalty. If every Muslim in India feels India to be his motherland and wants to defend it, the Indian Police intelligence will easily get information about the secret manoeuvres of hostile Muslim elements”. Can hate and prejudice get more absurd and hurtful than this? With such deviant thought processes in the public domain, our founding fathers’ cherished dream of universal brotherhood lies in tatters.
In this mind-numbing environment of hostility and prejudice, one would have thought that the political leadership would help to redress this grave situation with their courage and humanity. But far from trying to rectify matters, they have only added fuel to fire. Who can forget Rajiv Gandhi’s awful statement about the inevitable effect of the falling of a big tree? Or Vajpayee’s heartless comment following the Gujarat riots that Muslims did not condemn the Godhra carnage loudly enough and that they do not want to live with others peacefully. Then we had Narendra Modi’s infamous Newtonian observation justifying the Gujarat riots as reaction to an action. Contrast such inhuman reactions with the stirring response of the Norwegian PM Jen Stoltenberg who, in the immediate aftermath of the horrific killings by Breivik, declared “we will meet this attack with more democracy, more openness. You will not destroy our democracy or our ideals for a better world. No one will scare us from being Norway”.

Today, the woes of the ordinary Muslim seem never ending. Living as he is on the margins of society, discriminated against in education and the job market, even when looking for accommodation, he is also burdened with the awful stigma of being in tacit collusion with terrorists. In communal conflicts, he is not only pitted against the other group but has to contend with the clearly partisan actions of the State as demonstrated in the Gopalgarh incident where only the Muslims were gunned down by the Police. And despite his intolerable travails, he is considered the main beneficiary of “minority appeasement". Is it any wonder then if many believe that our secular democracy exists only in the statute books?
The author, a former civil servant, is secy. gen. of Lok Janshakti Party