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Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 40

Fragility of Our Secular System


Wednesday 26 September 2007, by SC


The issue of Ram Setu has suddenly become the focus of national attention overriding the basic questions related to the Sethusamudram project. Whereas the entire project should have been subjected to close scrutiny on ecological grounds and other questions like those connected with the displacement of fisherfolk from the area, the debate has been hijacked by the controversy over the affidavit filed on behalf of the Union Government and prepared by the Archaeolo-gical Survey of India wherein it was stated:
Valmiki Ramayana and Ramcharitmanas admittedly form an important part of ancient Indian literature, but these cannot be said to be historical records to incontrovertibly prove the existence of the characters and occurrences of events depicted therein.

On the face of it one cannot take exception to this submission per se. As has been pointed out elsewhere, this maybe taken “as a valid exposition of the scientific method”. But the ASI or the Ministry of Culture under which it functions need not have gone into those aspects which in any case were extraneous. Perhaps it would have been sufficient to point out that the structure under discussion was not man-made and it happened to be a “natural formation made up of shoals and sand bars”.

Anyway the affidavit was exploited to the hilt by the BJP to whip up pro-Ram sentiments and direct those against its political adversary, the Congress. This was, of course, expected of a party like the BJP which, with its North Indian base, always relies on majoritarian support for its very existence. Bereft of any issue by which it could effectively corner the principal ruling party (the Indo-US nuclear deal is far from the politics the party is used to playing), the BJP immediately clung on to it as its prime weapon to be used in the coming elections.

That it was behaving in a highly opportunistic manner must be emphasised (as the Left parties have done) for the Sethusamudram project was mooted during the tenure of none other than the BJP-led NDA Government at the Centre.

However, what is most distressing is the Congress’ overreaction. It could have removed the controversial parts of the affidavit leaving the other portions intact. Instead it withdrew the entire affidavit and announced re-examination of the question of channel alignment to protect the Ram Setu. What is more, Law Minister H.R. Bharadwaj appeared to be engaged in competitive politics with the BJP when he declared: "Lord Ram is an integral part of Indian culture and ethos and cannot be a subject matter of litigation in court... We have equal faith in Ram or Shiva...” By such a statement he only exposed himself to the criticism that he was pandering to the sentiments of one segment of our society. How far is it compabile with the secular values as upheld by our Constitution? At the same time the whole question of the Sethusamudram project, the concerns of the ecologists, the problems of the displaced fishermen were relegated to the background.

Subsequently DMK chief and Tamil Nadu CM M. Karunanidhi went out of his way to make pronounce-ments seeking to bring out the myth of Ram:
Some say there was a person over 17 lakh years ago. His name was Ramar. Do not touch the bridge (Ram Setu) constructed by him, they are saying. But then, from which engineering college had he graduated? Is there any proof of this?

Such pronouncements incensed the Hindutva lobby beyond measure. It was not long before the Ram-devotees attacked the Bangalore residence of Karunanidhi’s daughter Selvi. Karunanidhi was obviously pandering to Dravidian sentiments and predictably won support from the Dravida Kazhagam leader, K. Veeramani, the ardent follower of the late rationalist E.V. Periyar.

In this entire drama what has come out in the open is the fragility of our secular system. This indeed is a known fact. But the Ram Setu episode has once again projected it in bold relief. In the wake of this renewed manifestation of the weakness of our polity in this area is it not incumbent on us to once again try to evolve a holistic approach in tune with our pluralist culture without giving any quarter to sectarianism of different hues?

In the dismal setting one reassuring note has come from the JD(U): it has refused to join the BJP on the Ram Setu affair as it does not consider the matter to be part of the living reality associated with the burning problems of our people. Can this have a sobering effect on the main constituent of the NDA? Perhaps not, since the question is fully intertwined with electoral politics which no party, least of all the BJP, would dare eschew.

September 20 S.C.

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