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Home > Communalism Repository > India: Contours of Secularism

India: Contours of Secularism

by Irfan Engineer, 17 June 2014

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(Secular Perspective June 16-30, 2014)

Triumphant and victorious in the 16th general elections for the Lok Sabha, the Hindu nationalists are attributing their victory as rejection of secularism by the Indian electorate. The election results have unwittingly started sort of questioning on the desirability of using the term secularism. It is true that secularism has become a much abused term in India. Regional parties like the Samajwadi Party in UP and the RJD in Bihar and Indian National Congress misused the slogan of secularism to cover up their mis-governance and corruption. The slogan of secularism was used opportunistically to garner votes of the minority communities. They would not have any policies or programmes to ensure equal opportunities or ensuring fair stake of the minorities in the development. To them, secularism meant ensuring security of minorities, and they failed miserably in this too. There were more than hundred riots in UP during the Samajwadi Party regime and likewise under the Congress in other states. Security and intelligence forces victimized and even staged murders and incarcerated scores of innocent Muslim youth in the name of counter-terrorism operations in what has come to be called the cow belt of India and Hyderabad. They failed to check the growth of communal forces and did not counter the stigmatization of the minorities.

Opportunistic secularism of the so called secular parties meant joining hands with fundamentalist forces within the minority community in the hope that they would be able to deliver at the polling booths. The fundamentalist tendencies within the minority communities are as marginal as the cultural nationalists are within the majority community. As well organized and vocal as in the majority. They deftly use media coverage to create their larger than life image on issues like preventing Salman Rushdie from visiting India or problematizing Taslima Nasreen’s visa extension or getting various books, films, websites and artistic expressions banned just like the Hindu nationalists do so (i.e. use media coverage) demolishing Babri Masjid and opposing freedom of expression on the ground that it offends their faith.

The Hindu nationalist organizations (HNOs) used this opportunistic secularism to their advantage and sought to blame and stigmatize the minorities as a whole as if they were responsible. The HNOs, well organized as they are, mobilized and instilled dislike not only against the political parties subscribing to opportunist secularism, but also against the members of the minority communities. The HNOs laid the primary blame for opportunistic secularism not on the "secular" political parties but on the very existence of the minorities within the nation, particularly those having their holylands outside. They primarily problematize Islam and Christianity and their presumed separatist mindset rather than opportunistic secularism. HNOs propund that so long as Muslims and Christians exist, there will be parties to benefit politically from opportunistic secularism. The solution desired by the HN ideologues therefore is either expel the minorities if possible from the nation, or subdue them to second class citizenship without any rights. It is the opportunistic secularism that needs to be problematized rather than locating the problem within any community as all communities are diverse and have diverse traditions, customs and cultures. Cultures are being made and unmade through social, economic and political changes and each individual responds dynamically to the changes occurring.

Religious ethos in India

The HNOs have problematized secularism itself as a western notion to be discarded. However, one must accept that there is no universally accepted understanding of secularism. While in France, USSR and Turkey, secularism has meant uneasy tension between church and the state. In India the dominant discourse of secularism was more inclusive in its formulation of "sarva dharma sambhav", where state indulges all religions equally and citizens are at liberty to practice, profess and propagate their religion. State is often called upon to impartially mediate during conflicts between different religious communities.

HNOs are also Hindu supremacists though they pay lip service to the Hindu ethos of tolerance. They want privileged status for Hinduism (or rather re-invented and selective traditions of upper caste elite). Golwalkar, the revered ideologue of HNOs, wanted minorities should dream of nothing but the glory of Hindu rashtra and Hindu traditions and symbols. Even in the Manifesto of the BJP for the 2014 elections, it calls for return to "civilizational consciousness" that was lost during the colonial rule. The democratic notion of liberty, equality, human dignity and citizenship sound western ideas, alien to Hindu culture.

Usage of the term Hinduism in the sense of religion was popularized during the colonial rule. Hindu community signified people living on the southern and eastern banks of river Sindhu and was inclusive of followers of diverse religious practices. Religious consciousness at popular level evolved from the resistance to the dominant upper castes, particularly the Brahmins, and their monopoly over notions of purity and pollution and structuring society into rigid hierarchies. The popular resistance was led by many bhakti saints, including Tuslidas, Kabir, Ravidas, Mirabai, Gyaneshwar, Namdeo, Tukaram, Chokha Mela, the Warkari Sampradaya, Bahinabai, Guru Nanak, Basveshwara, Narayan Guru, the Bauls in the Bengal, Shankar Deva in Assam etc.

The popular religious consciousness of the subalterns developed due to popular compositions of the bhakti saints who opposed the notions of purity and pollution and believed in equality of all before one God. God was not a power who punished the deviants with lower status during cycles of re-births or to be feared. God was benign compassionate power to whom one should devote to and derive ecstasy from devotion. Devotion to God meant loving all God’s creation - all humans practicing diverse traditions of worship, from any ethnic community, belonging to any culture. Loving and being non-violent towards even animals and nature. Muslim bhakti poet Salbeg, credited with numerous compositions in praise of Lord Jagannath and as tradition has it, Lord Jagannath’s rath could not be moved on its annual yatra till Salbeg could join the yatra. Raskhan similarly composed on Lord Krishna. Sufi Islam was as inclusive and contributed to the religious consciousness of Muslims as well as Hindu devotees who were attracted to their shrines. Sufi Islam like the bhakti saints emphasizes on love of compassionate and merciful God believing in inclusive traditions of worship. Sufis like Mazhar Jan-e-Janaan believed that Vedas too were revealed book of Allah and Nizamuddin Auliya would have recitation of bhajans in praise of Ram and Krishna every morning.

The priestly class of Brahmins and Ulemas aligned with the state seeking state patronage, blessed coronation ceremonies of the rulers advised them on "right path" of shari’at (Muslim Law) and rules of worship, purity and pollution. The popular religious consciousness of the subalterns on the other hand was inclusive, for them all paths reached God and respected all religions as true. Religion was more of a path that taught them to be humble, human, and to live harmoniously in society with others and with nature. The priestly class catered to the elite and were supremacist in their notions of religion. Subalterns constituted roughly about 90% of the people. Therefore, the dominant ethos in India were not defining religious boundaries, recruiting followers exclusively and then governing on the basis of religion of majority or minority. Subalterns had ambivalent attitude towards religion. To be Hindu did not exclude them from being a Muslim or a Christian. Drawing from this ambivalent attitude, the formulation of sarva dharma sambhava aptly described the nature of secularism desirable to Indian people. Indian experience of secularism did not come from struggle between the church and the state where one or the other had to be a victor and other vanquished.

The HNOs mislead the people of India when they claim that secularism is a Nehruvian concept borrowed from the west and in the same breath claim Hinduism to be a tolerant religion. The religion of subaltern Hindus is more than tolerant - it respects all faiths and for them truth is multi-dimensional. However, HNOs stoke intolerance. Diverse as it is, the HNOs realize that Hindus can be united only if they can be made disapprove of something in other religious communities and therefore are involved in the project of stigmatizing the minorities.

Reclaiming secularism

Opportunistic secularism vies for Muslim votes and in the process gives in to the demands of fundamentalists and communalists within the minority community. That strengthens and empowers the tiny but well organized fundamentalists and enables them to impose their hegemony over the community and redefine the community on their terms. The fundamentalist sections appear to be much larger than their actual strength and often the only voice within the minority community. It enables them to victimize weaker and marginalized sections, particularly women within the community, and weed out dissenting/alternative opinions. Strengthening of hegemony of the fundamentalists within the minority community strengthens HNOs. The neutral political and cultural space is greatly reduced.

The HNOs also reduce the liberal space within the society; pose a threat to the religio-cultural diversity and pluralism and polarize attitudes and behaviour of people on issues of identities, forcing people to behave in conformity with their identity. Without constructing a totalitarian state, the HNOs cannot eliminate the liberal space where citizens are not reduced to their religio-cultural identities but are dynamic beings, agents of change, re-ordering their cultural spaces and their lives. The HNOs desire to construct cultural-totalitarian state to defend non-negotiable symbols of patriarchal upper-caste hierarchical social order.

Secularism and state:

We must then reject opportunistic secularism as well as "India First" as not being secularism in any sense. Secularism is outcome of process of secularisation wherein institutions are liberated from the hold of the Church and institutionalized clergy. For example, knowledge and education was liberated from the Brahmins, Madrasas and Church. For secularism, we have to have a secular state and a secular society. A secular state is one which is not based on religious scriptures, theological dogmas or doctrines nor sponsored by church or any religious institution. Though the state does not profess any religion, it gives freedom to its citizen to profess practice and propagate any religion of their choice or even atheism. HNOs want the state to privilege Hindu religion and religious symbols.

A secular state is not concerned with the religion which its citizens profess and practice. In framing public policies and laws, in executive actions, public employment, education, and in dispensing justice, religion of the citizen is irrelevant. Public policies are based only on welfare of the citizens. Secular state treats all its citizens even handedly irrespective of the religion they profess. The HNOs and the fundamentalist/communalists within minorities on the other hand seek to negotiate with the state space for their community. The fundamentalists derive their power from state recognizing them as representatives of their respective communities which they are not. A secular state is not even supposed to recognize any community. Any such recognition triggers off competitive communalism/fundamentalism and competition for more communal rights and greater share in power and state resources. Citizens are then pushed into tighter hold of the community as their rights and entitlements are essentially based on membership of community. Communal membership is more or less birth based. The state is reduced to protecting and promoting the hegemony of the fundamentalist/communal elite.

A secular state should rather protect the rights and liberties of the dissenters, however weak or minority within the group they may be. However, a secular state may frame policies for a group to address any adversity arising merely from group membership. Right to dissent, disagreement and dialogue is sine qua non of progress in knowledge and our understanding of truth. Similarly, dialogue of cultures, faith and religion is essential for cultural advancement.

Secularism and society

Secular state does not emerge from the vacuum. Though Indian Constitution is secular, state in India strengthens cultural entrepreneurs. As the majority in the scenario are more influential and powerful, they corner larger share in social space and national resources. For example, Supreme Court Judgment stating Hindutva is way of life, or anti-cow slaughter and anti-conversion legislations euphemistically named as Freedom of Religion Acts or non-protection of minorities by security forces during riots and targeting minorities in police encounters.

State action should not be based on group identity. The cultural entrepreneurs of the minority community demand more protected and secure space for themselves and tighter hold over the community resistance to any change in their Personal Laws, tighter control over women from the community.

Nothing is so sacred that it should be put beyond the rational scrutiny. But that does not mean disrespecting the sentiments of the believers. One has to be not only rational, but also reasonable person when we share political space with members belonging to different communities. Religion is often conceived as a threat to secularisation. It is not religion but cultural entrepreneurs misusing religion and religious institutions that oppose secularisation and liberties. Religion and egalitarian values associated with religion can be a resource in secularisation of the society as the bhakti and sufi understanding of religion are.