Defining Secularism

Who is Secular?

Manas Bakshi

A secular democratic framework–dreamt of and devised at the dawn of independence–seems to have lost much of its sheen on the eve of the platinum jubilee celebration scheduled on 15th August 2022. It was to happen like this in a country where disorder has become order of the day. That democratic values are gradually on the wane is because of certain snags in the administrative machinery not plugged over the decades. In effect, economic offenders and political hypocrites are moving scotfree, dadagiri and lumpen raj is well-entrenched in the socio-economic milieu, torture on the Dalit and Adivasi communities is continuing unabated–the latest one being the Hathras gang-rape and murder victim. There is nothing to ring surprise because, as the Centre admitted to the Supreme Court in March 2018, "36 per cent of the sitting members of parliament and members of legislative assemblies were facing trial in 3045 criminal cases" and the apex court "is reportedly looking for ways to end criminalisation of politics". And, sorry to say, the unholy nexus between business and politics has remained integral to the funding of politics, to be more specific, it is instrumental in fattening the coffers of the political power wielders, of today and tomorrow, for the benefit of business as also for political gains.

What is more, the ideals of secularism have been given a go-by as politics of and in the name of religion has largely become a tool in the hands of the power-wielders as also the opposition to exploit public sentiment in strengthening their vote bank. Side by side, the economic situation has worsened more than it was apprehended. Price hike and scarcity apart, recession and joblessness have led to a steep decline in GDP as a sequel to Covid-19. From automobile industry to IT sector, millions of bread-earness have been worst hit. Nothing could be more shameful to a civilised society than the plight and dreadful tragedy of migrant labourers consequent upon an unplanned lockdown which we have witnessed. Furthermore, any compensation has been denied to those who died in accident and of starvation on their way back home as the government "did not have any data on the death of migrant workers". And to odd it further, there has been onslaught on the farmers with the passing of the 'anti-farmers, anti-poor' Firm Bills and the crucial Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill.

While Corona virus will take time to fade out or to be warded off, here one would like to duel on the threat of communal virus which has been despicably sapping our vitality and morality with instigation from internal as also external sources. Political forces that are often claiming to be 'secular' and 'democratic' have also been found sometimes drifting ideologically from their avowed standpoint. In the recent past, the hubris-laden slogan "Abki Bar, Pachattar Par' paid no dividend to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as far as the election in Delhi was concerned. And interestingly, in Maharashtra too, the poll results sought to underline the significant issue of bread and butter over Hindutva nationalism for which even the groggy Opposition got an edge over the Nationl Democratic Alliance (NDA). More interestingly, came to surface the unexpected alliance between the Shiv Sena, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and Congress in Maharashtra. The coalition government formed with a 'common minimum programme' is an eye-opener to all of in at least three respects in the main.

First because it is claimed to be an exceptional political venture meant to 'defeat the BJP's attempt to undermine our democracy' and at the same time, to provide the people of Maharashtra 'a stable, secular and pro-poor government'. To what extent it is tenable poses a question. Secondly, the Hindu Right ideology owing much allegiance to political personalities like V.D. Savarkar, K.B. Hegdewar, Deendayal Upadhyaya, M.S. Golwalkar, Syama Prasad Mookerjee, Balasaheb Deoras, Ashok Singhal and L.K. Advani had in the backdrop the influence of organisations like the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, Hindu Mahasabha, the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Shiv Sena and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. And neither of these organisations was free from the influence—direct or indirect—of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). On the other hand, the founder of Shiv Sena, Mr. Bal Thackery had a distinct ideological identity though, undoubtedly, he shared the ideological standpoint of RSS so much so that Shiv Sena's alliance with BJP in Maharashtra politics had developed and continued for a long time. Now, the separation between the two has taken place and it is a story of different alliance partners committing "to uphold the secular values enshrined in the constitution". But the point is it all depends upon their future course of action. Thirdly, a question arises–what can be inferred from such a development that is at best an "alliance of contradictions"? True to say, a political alliance reached before election has always a common minimum programme. It can also happen afterwards; but it has been found when an alliance is entered afterwards it is backed more often by manoeuvring politics in consonance with the "art of the possible" than any ideological basis.

What follows, then, is another simple question–will such an alliance brighten the secular image of Congress? The answer may be traced to the quintessence of real politic that shirks off all stern reservations to diverse political philosophies with an alibi that the changed situation so demands. However 'odious' it may seem or sound, it is a fact that the communal-secular divide–as proclaimed by the opposition–has so far hardly stood in the way of BJP's onward march to acquiring power and having dominance over India's polity.

It is against this perspective that the Supreme Court verdict on the controversial Ram temple-Babri masjid is relevant. How far it gives a jolt to the Hindutva wave is a different issue but, at the time the process of building up the Ram temple in Ayodhya started on 5th August, 2020, Congress made "a cautious but astute intervention in the national discourse on the temple construction in Ayodhya emphasising that Lord Ram represents righteousness, sacrifice and unification". On the occasion of the bhoomi pujan, Uttar Pradesh Congress chief Mrs. Priyanka Gandhi Vadra said–"Hope this ceremony becomes a symbol of Ram's message and consolidates national unity, fraternity and cultural harmony" and that "The Ramayana has influenced religion, policy-making, sense of duty, sacrifice, liberalism, love, valour and service in the Indian subcontinent. Ram's legacy has helped integrate humanity in India".

While questions have already been raised about Modiji's comparing 'The movement to build Ram temple with that of India's heroic struggle against the yoke of colonialism' and his performing bhoomi pujan by laying the foundation stone in violation of the constitutional convention, it is a matter of discomfort that subtle grievances are cropping up among some Congressmen as well. For instance, Mr T N Prathapan, a Congress M.P from Kerala has objected to the "enthusiastic support offered to the construction of Ram temple in Ayodhya by senior Congress leaders such as Kamal Nath and Digvijaya Singh" Though there is no point right now in seeking to mix up religiosity with communal hate-politics, and fearing that Ram will be used as a tool for establishing political Hindutva and not as a symbol of faith, it goes without saying that the secular fabric of Indian democracy is no more that seamless as it was prior to the demolition of Babri masjid in 1992.

Though BJP is often blamed for heralding the cause of Hindutva, may be in the name of patriotic nationalism, and there is enough fanfare in holding rally on religious occasions like Ram Navami, Mahavir Jayanti and the like, the Congress–proud of its secular image–is not far behind in adopting almost the same line of approach. Rather it is keeping pace with the BJP as far as drawing the attention of majority on religious issues are concerned. It was evident when Rahul Gandhi's penchant for 'temple-hopping' at the time of election campaign in 2018 was in question. And Congress M.P, Mr. Sashi Tharoor, defending the "Shiv Bhakt" Rahul Gandhi, said it was a "battle between true Hindus and godless secularists" and that "it was time for us to avow our faith, but to do so within a framework of inclusiveness and acceptance of other faiths" Needless to clarify the implication of the observation because BJP's overt Hindutva and Rahul Gandhi's soft Hindutva hardly make any difference as far as religious sentiment is concerned.

No doubt, the erection of Ram temple will definitely embolden the Hindutva hard-liners to add a new dimension to their activities but that will hardly enliven the spirit of nationalism. India's secular moorings lie in pluralism and diversity of religions, thoughts and culture..

And secular India exists not only in what is inscribed in Article 25 of the Indian Constitution that all people are "equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion" but also in the relentless united struggle for existence of all communities fighting off–to whatever extent it has been possible–political and religious provocations. In a country where poverty, illiteracy and ignorance are rampant it is easy to provoke people and draw them into the fold of politicking with religion. But to prove one's secular identity, one is not required to eat beef in public. To cavil at the short comings, if any, of Hinduism is very easy but it does not happen otherwise.

Eating beef is of mean significance either historically or ideologically–it is just a food habit. In ancient India, some of the Hindus were accused of taking beef. While some other communities strictly follow religious restrictions even with regard to food habit, some Hindus pretend to be more secular than others by taking beef for a newspaper coverage. Religious faith cannot be so fragile that, unless demeaned deliberately by divisive and motivated forces, it is affected when a Hindu is called a 'Hindu' or a Muslim a 'Muslim' and/or is not marked by his food habit. This is just to become controversial and come to limelight, or gain cheap popularity by pin pointing the area one's religious sentiment is, and should remain, attached to and can be infuriated on flimsy grounds like live-jihad or honour killing.

Love Jihad is definitely condemnable as much as honour killing. There are instances galore of marriage between a Muslim youth and a Hindu girl. Disagreement in such cases leads to Love-Jihad. Truth is love knows no religious binding or barrier. But marriage between a Hindu or a non-Muslim youth and a Muslim girl is a rare sight. Even if it happens, it often sparks off controversy and inhibition–setting instances of honour killing. In both events, unless mutually agreed, the outcome is communal clash. If it is the after-effect of religious intolerance, concerned people will have to root out the factors responsible for a boisterous outburst of hate-politics keeping in view some historical truths.

Chatrapati Shivaji's army had the representation of a sizeable Muslims. And the man who led the Maratha army while the third battle of Panipath took place in 1761 was none other than Ibrahim Khan. Again, Sirajud-Daulah, the last Nawab of undivided Bengal trusted Mohanlal very much. Mohanlal was a Hindu bureaucrat wedded to Nawab's younger sister Shahzadi Afseen Begam and Nawab elevated him to the position of his Diwan.

It should not be forgotten that majority Indians do hate intolerance and swear by peaceful co-existence. It is evident also from some events in the recent past. On November 18, 2019 Mr. Feroze Khan joined the Banaras Hindu University as an assistant professor of Sanskrit. Unfortunately, some 12 students staged a dharna in protest against his appointment as a Sanskrit teacher. While over 100 students, vehemently in protest against such an act, submitted a memorandum to the V C, Mr Rakesh Bhatnagar demanding punishment for the "anti-constitutional criminals who believe India is a Hindu Rashtra, social activists and artists of Varanasi condemned the 'anti-constitutional' protesters. The same spirit was manifest in mass gatherings in protest against CAA almost all over India.

Even more glaring events are there. It happened in Indore in Madhya Pradesh. During the lockdown, some Muslim neighbours arranged for the cremation of a Hindu woman–carrying her body on foot for 2.5 kilometres as Hindus in sufficient number were not available then in the locality. Side by side, there is an instance of a Kashmiri man staying with his brother in rented rooms in Burdwan in West Bengal during the season for shawl trading. "Their part year landlady, with whose family they have a long and warm relationship, has ensured that the brothers can have their sehri and iftar jsut as they would at home during Ramadan. The practice of their faith should not be affected because they could not return when the lockdown descended" And here is the true spirit of secular India.

For one thing nobody from the families of landlords, big capitalists or industrialists had shed a drop of blood during India's struggle for freedom. But privileged as they are, they are enjoying the fruits of freedom today. And even now, all who are joining the Army, Navy and Air-force are mainly from the lower rung of the society–the poor, lower and middle class families. Some bear the legacy of their forefathers who sacrificed their lives for freeing the country from the foreign yoke, some join such service in tribute to their family tradition. They are protecting India's borders, fighting valiantly against insurgence and terrorism from inside and outside Indian territory. And to speak of secularism, it absolutely exists in the Army, Navy and Air-force. Secular India is alive in the hearts of millions of Hindus and Muslims living in slums and shanties, working together in farm and factory, facing and fighting off hand in hand the calamities and crises in and around life everyday.

Vol. 53, No. 22-25, Nov 29 - Dec 26, 2020