The Burden of Secularism

Although Saifullah did not manage to say more than a few sentences, his silence as well as the few thoughts he did articulate were a poignant reminder of the condition of the Muslim community: voiceless.

Citizens for Peace, a Bombay-based think-tank, endeavours to "search for ideas that will bring peace to a troubled society." The goal is laudable particularly in a time when people, from across religious, ethnic, cultural and political lines are often not even willing to sit on the same table as others. However, the way in which these 'dialogues' are envisaged may need to be thought out more rigorously. In keeping with their mission, the trustees of Citizens for Peace organised a conference in Delhi in order to facilitate dialogue between K. N. Govindacharya and Syed Shahabuddin. The latter was unwell and his suggested replacement (Zafarul-Islam Khan) declined and so Zafar Saifullah was called in his place.

Before analysing the proceedings of the talks, it is important to first look at the backgrounds of the speakers. Govindacharya became an RSS pracharak as early as 1965 and was a member of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) until he decided to not renew his membership in 2003. Even today, his website proudly announces the fact that he was the 'chief architect of the party [BJP] and responsible for the "social engineering philosophy" in the 1990s. [1] Additionally, he was one of the key ideologues behind the Ram Janambhoomi movement and the subsequent "legendary"[2] Rath Yatra in 1992, which culminated in the destruction of the Babri Masjid and killing of about 3000 Muslims. Syed Shahabuddin is a former diplomat, parliamentarian and journalist while his replacement Zafar Saifullah was a career civil servant and the first and only Indian Muslim to be appointed to the rank of Cabinet Secretary in 1993.

Govindacharya, albeit a well-spoken and more polished supporter of Hindutva, has had a life-long association with an organisation that has a questionable agenda. Saifullah, an urbane, upper-middle class Muslim represented the 'secular' type of Muslims that are often deemed to be the acceptable or moderate face of Islam. I wonder whether a similar conference could have been possible with a person from one of the many prominent madrassas and seminaries in India? Given the background of Govindacharya, and despite Yogendra Yadav, the moderator's exhortations that Govindacharya is a changed man, it was up to Saifullah to be seen to be secular and liberal.

This was immediately confirmed during the introductions. Govindacharya began by reciting a short prayer for which the largely English-speaking audience respectfully bowed their heads and then said that he would speak in Hindi, punctuated with a bit of English. Saifullah, without much ado, began in English. Govindacharya talked eloquently for twenty minutes about his vision for India. He made the usual theological generalizations about India's 'thousands of years of geo-political unity, geo-cultural traits of Hinduness and ancient civilisation,' which clearly resonate with the writings of the early ideologues of the Hindutva movement such as V. D. Savarkar. His speech was peppered with political science jargon that would reverberate with an academic audience. An analysis of the "geo-political unity" of India was followed by a nostalgic lament about how no one in Afghanistan today would know what Ramraj is.  Disturbingly, he also claimed that Islam is intrinsically 'hostile' and that it somehow morphed into a more palatable and less violent religion once it came to India. Similarly, he argued that other religions had come to India and were adapted according to the nature of 'Bharat.' At the end of his talk, while sounding like a mysterious Kafkian bureaucrat, he insisted that 'the demolition of the Babri mosque should not be condemned or condoned' and that 'the patience of any community should not be tested.'

Unfortunately, Saifullah was not well and could not really repartee but he bravely tried to keep going even though most of his talk was punctuated by very long silences. The one word that he repeated many times was 'shameful' and in a brief moment of clarity he bemoaned the decline of law and order in India and the complete subversion of the judicial system. Although Saifullah did not manage to say more than a few sentences, his silence as well as the few thoughts he did articulate were a poignant reminder of the condition of the Muslim community: voiceless. This obviously has many causes. One reason might be the inability of the community to produce leaders who do not want to merely be power-brokers or compromise their position in order to appease their masters.

The efforts of Citizens for Peace in trying to bridge divides and create paths of dialogue is highly commendable. However, it is important to remember that in imagining and creating the fora of such discussions, it should not be up to one side or the other to strive harder to appear secular, democratic and inclusive. Such dialogues will, by their very nature, not result in any long-lasting results.  Govindacharya passionately reiterated the need for a society and educational models which are "culturally rooted." However, if a Muslim theologian, politician or leader (not that there are many) was to make a similar claim, he would be blamed for being antagonistic, divisive and sectarian.

In trying to separate religion from culture, Govindacharya and other proponents of Hindutva try to explain that minorities can partake in various activities because they are solely 'cultural.' Liberals and secularists use the same argument but add that these cultural traditions are devoid of any religious significance. However, both these positions ignore the fact that someone might view 'cultural activities' as having distinctly religious origins and symbolism. A minority then finds itself on the horns of a dilemma. To participate means to compromise on belief for the practical purpose of avoiding persecution and alienation and to not participate means being labeled divisive and intolerant.

Today the BJP and the RSS often talk of secularism as a form of minority politics and some other political parties do indulge in 'vote-bank politics.' However, the Indian Constitution envisages every citizen as an equal stakeholder in creating a just society. Unfortunately, it seems to be the lot of the minorities to carry the burden of secularism.

The author may be reached at bilehra14[]gmail[]com   [1]
[2] Ibid.