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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 34 New Delhi August 10, 2019

Whither Secularism: Democratic Society and Minority Rights

Sunday 11 August 2019

by Ram Puniyani

We are living in times where the social norms, the values of the Constitution have been violated times and over again. The increasing atrocities on Dalits, the lynchings of minorities in the name of cow-beef have changed the social equations in a drastic way during the last few years. This in a way is part of the ascendance of a politics of communalism which believes in a narrow, sectarian religious identity as its defining point. This may get further worsened with the big mandate for Modi in the 2019 elections. In the aftermath of the elections leading to his return to power, Modi in his victory speech made certain observations which are very disturbing on the one hand and also give an idea of the shape of things to come on the other.

He stated that this election campaign had unmasked the deceitful claims of the secularists and that said, they now can’t mislead the country. As per him, secularism as a mask has been destroyed in these elections and that secularism was a cover for minority appeasement. He stated that minorities have been deceived and cheated by the parties claiming to be secular.

This statement is not just in the euphoria of victory. For communalism it has been a deeper agenda to do away with the practice of secularism. It is true that there had been aberrations and weaknesses in the practice of this concept, with fallacies like the reversal of the Shah Bano judgment or opening the gates of the Babri mosque for shilanyas. The assertion that minorities have been appeased is a total lie. The reports of the Gopal Singh Commission, Rangnath Mishra Commission and Sachar Committee tell us about the worsening plight of the Muslim minorities. Some fundamentalist elements within the Muslim community have been promoted but the Muslim community as a whole has on the one hand been economically marginalised and on the other been subjected to social insecurity. Going beyond the obvious one needs to understand as to why the shortfalls in the practice of secularism have dogged our nation.

Secularism has been defined and interpreted in various ways. In the Indian context ‘Sarva Dharma Sambhava’ has been the major interpretation. Also that the state will not interfere in matters of religion and religion (clergy) will not dictate the state policy have been the major understanding of this concept, secularism, which is a core and integral part of the concept of democracy. Some examples of this are in order. In the wake of the demand for renovation of the Somnath temple, Gandhi said that the Hindu community is capable of building its own temple. While his disciple Nehru did follow Gandhi’s path in times to come; yet the same Nehru later called the dams, industries and universities as temples of Modern India.

Gandhi in his own way puts it up brilliantly when he says, “Religion and state will be separate. I swear by my religion, I will die for it. But it is my personal affair. The state has nothing to do with it. The state will look after your secular welfare...”

Social scientist Rajiv Bhargava points out that secularism “...combats not just discrimination and other worse forms of inter-religious domination such as exclusion, oppression and humiliation. It is equally opposed to intra-religious domination, i.e. the domination (of women, Dalits, dissenters) within every religious community.”

Secularism did not have a smooth march in India. It came up with the rising classes during the colonial period. The classes which came up with the changes like industrialisation, communi-cation and modern education. They called the process of comprehensive change as ‘India as a nation in the making’. The streams like those represented by Bhagat Singh, Ambedkar and Gandhi made it the foundation of their political ideology and struggle for a better society. They stood for Indian nationalism. While the declining classes of landlords and kings shaken by the changes in the social fabric and loss of their earlier hegemony came up with communal politics. This communal politics in turn had a bifurcation, Muslim communalism and Hindu communalism. They dreamt of the Muslim nation and a Hindu nation respectively. As Professor Bipan Chandra points out, communalism regards a community of one religion as a nation. In India it went through different phases of mild, moderate and extreme communalism. Its understanding is that people of one religion have similar interests, which in turn are different from those of other religion, and so the religious communities are made to pitch against each other. This politics regards the ‘other’ community as a threat to its own self. At the same time the intra-societal hierarchies are put under the carpet, as the deeper agenda of these groups is to maintain those hierarchies of caste and gender.

One of the weaknesses of the practice of secularism in India has been the tremendous opposition from communalism which has been on the rise. While in Pakistan, Muslim communalism was strong right from the beginning, in India it has become stronger during the last four decades or so. Its strength has been founded on the polarisation, which is an outcome of communal violence. Its issues are those of identity issues like the Ram temple, Love-Jihad,ghar wapsi and holy cow-beef. It is this communalism which has stood as a counter to the secular ethos of the country; it is this which is the major obstacle for secularism being properly implemented. There are many factors which have been conducive to and helping in the promotion of divisive politics of communalism, one of them being the non-completion of the secularisation process, the process whereby the power of the landlord-clergy duo is abolished in a society marching towards democracy.

In India, due to colonial rule, the national movement had to direct its energy primarily against the colonial rulers, while the landlords-kings, to be later joined by some elite-middle classes, continued on the margins, giving the life-breath to communalism, leading to partition of the country among other negative phenomena in the society. Surely India’s plurality and diversity, though currently under a cloud, will not let the secular values being eclipsed by sectarian politics, which is currently on the prowl.

(Courtesy: Secular Perspective)

The author, a retired Professor at the IIT-Bombay, is currently associated with the Centre for the Study of Secularism and Society, Mumbai.

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