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Secularism in India

"I do not expect India of my dreams to develop one religion, i.e., to be wholly Hindu or wholly Christian or wholly Mussalman, but I want it to be wholly tolerant, with its religions working side by side with one another.'' So said Mahatma Gandhi.

India has been declared a secular state by its written constitution and it is every Indians duty to stand by and believe in this declaration. And yet recent political and social events have questioned this declaration. Is India a secular country only on paper or does secularism actually exist in India; or is in the form of pseudo- secularism, a term the BJP and its allies seem to repeatedly harp on.

During the freedom struggle, secularism was emerging as the most dominant principle. The leaders of the Indian National Congress; Gandhi, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Nehru and others were deeply committed to the ideal of secularism, though each expressed it in very different manners. Secularism became the mantra of the Indian nation, a nation exhausted by partition and sectarian riots and above all the assassination of Gandhiji, did not want any more divisive talk. The founding fathers represented the aspirations of the different sections of society and it is due to the struggles of these different people that secular principles got enshrined into the Indian constitution.

Under Jawaharlal Nehru and later under his successors in the Congress Party, the concept of a secular nation-state was officially adopted as India's path to political modernity and national integration. Unlike in the West, where secularism came mainly out of the conflict between the Church and the State, secularism in India was conceived as a system that sustained religious and cultural pluralism.

In the post Independent scenario the social dynamics was very complex. The process of secularisation/industrialisation was going on at a slow pace. Even at this stage, though constitution was secular, the state apparatus: the bureaucracy, the judiciary, the army and the police were infiltrated by communal elements. The Congress government, though predominantly secular, had many leaders in important positions who were influenced by a Hindu communal ideology. This resulted in a social development that was mixed; on the one hand secularism thrived and on the other though communalism remained dormant, was never dead. With the social changes of the late 70's and the early 80's, communalism got a strong boost and it started attacking secularism in a big way.

The B.J.P. was quick to take up the mantle of 'the' communal party, riding on the wave of the post-mandal upper class/caste backlash. The BJP began attacking, what they called "pseudo-secularism", which pampered the minorities at the expense of the majority and demanded that special rights for minorities be taken away.

Supporting the BJP was the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a relatively new outfit with branches all over the world and drawing on support, both moral and financial, from the Hindu diaspora in the West. This took an aggressive form when the Babri Masjid\Ramjanambhoomi controversy erupted. This period also saw the rise of other militant Hindu organizations such as the BajrangDal and the Shivsena. These groups quickly mushroomed and poisoned the social space with communal rhetoric and the agenda of Hindu Rashtra; and launched an ideological, social and political onslaught on secular ethos, syncretic culture and composite nationalism. They refused to recognize the contributions of Muslims and other minorities, to India's history and culture. They selectively concentrated on intolerant Muslim rulers, extending their often-brutal conduct to the entire period of Muslim rule and, even to all Muslims. But such prejudices were not openly aired in public; but now they have not only gained legitimacy, but have also almost become the mainstream opinion.

The attack on the Mosque at Ayodhya led to a rash of violence across the country. The events leading to the demolition of Babri Masjid and their aftermath of communal carnage mark a watershed in the history of free India. The traumatic events clearly exposed the chasm that had been created between the two communities by communal forces.

The year 2002 witnessed one of the most devastating riots in Gujarat where mobs went on a rampage, destroying Muslim homes and businesses, killed Muslims, including men women and children and drove thousands of people away from their homes. The ostensible reason for this fury was the burning of a train coach that was carrying Hindu pilgrims returning from Ayodhya. Fifty-nine people including women and children died in the fire. This action, sparked off, as the state's Chief Minister put it, in Newtonian terms, a reaction, except that it was grossly disproportionate to the original crime. A Human Right's Watch report paints a chilling picture of state complicity in the religious violence in Gujarat. This marks the first time when the state has emerged as a major player and actor in violence by mobs, a qualitative change from previous such situations in India. It is in this backdrop that one has to understand, as to why it is only during the last decade and a half that secularism has come under a cloud and the concept of a Hindu Rashtra is being asserted aggressively.

Today, the biggest challenge to the Indian nation is coming from forces claiming to represent the mainstream majority. There is an emergence of extremist voices that claim to speak for Hindus and they are laying down demands that threaten the very idea of a secular India. The biggest area of concern is that the state has emerged to be complicit, as an actor and player in mounting this challenge to Indian pluralism, which goes under the name of Hindutva.

The communal forces are actively propagating the myth that Secularism is a new mask of fundamentalism. They denigrate the secular policies, which are a hindrance to Hindu Right's unobstructed march to subjugate the oppressed in general and minorities in particular. They are equating fundamentalism with Islam; and the policies of Indian rulers with secularism, and the appeasement of mullahs as being synonymous with secular policies. Further, Hindutva forces accuse that secularism pampers the Muslims as a vote bank. The Muslims are accused of extra-territorial loyalty because they allegedly cheer for Pakistan whenever India and Pakistan play cricket. Since Muslims are being thought synonymous to fundamentalism; therefore the assertion that the Indian state is appeasing fundamentalists in the name of secularism. It is precisely on this charge that the Father of Indian Nationalism, Mahatma Gandhi, was assassinated by one of the votaries of Hindutva.

The Christians, who are much lesser in number, are accused of being more loyal to the Vatican, another outside force and of trying to convert poor Hindus with inducements of education and food. Who can forget the brutal burning of Graham Staines and his two minor sons by a member of the Bajrang Dal in the name of religion? Or even the rape of some sisters in Gujarat, their fault being the spreading of the word of their God.

The fact, however, is that the social and the economic conditions of the Muslim community is dismal. If at all the opportunist political policies of various governments have struck compromises, it has been with certain religious leaders of the minorities and the minorities have been kept in abysmal conditions. In that sense, the govt. policies have been anti-oppressed, rather than pro Muslim. Further, the fact that 130 million Muslims decided to stay back in India rather than joining Pakistan, should settle their status as true citizens.

Secularism introduces science, technology and rationalism in the society and forms the basis of a modern secular state. In the process, it has to oppose and struggle against the clergy and vested forces in the society. And as such, the fundamentalist communal onslaughts are the 'other' of secularism and secularization. The oppressed sections join the secular movement to wrest the accompanying liberal space that can be the base for launching the struggles for their rights. Fundamentalism is the regressive reaction of feudal elements and sections of middle classes in league with the clergy, to crush the aspirations of oppressed class, whose movements for their rights is a big source of tension for them. The secularization process and the accompanying movements of the oppressed increase the insecurity of fundamentalist forces. They try to lure these classes into their fold through religion and liberal use of money and muscle power.

The burgeoning neo-middle classes have emerged as pivotal points that embraced consumerism as modernity but simultaneously began looking towards culture and tradition for support. The advent of globalization has been welcomed in India but it has also shaken people who fear that their own cultures will be destroyed. Hence they show an inclination towards the conservative Hindu identity. It's all about culture, religion and ritual, all cleverly juxtaposed with nationalism: what is Hindu is Indian and from that follows, what is not Hindu is not Indian.

A new disturbing trend has been witnessed in recent years where villages are no longer tranquil as urban-rural interactions have become much more intense. With subdivisions of land holdings, there are few jobs left in the villages for the agricultural class. They are looking outside the village and getting involved with the issues and ideas that have a reach beyond the village. The prosperous classes in rural India have also actively promoted the VHP and other communal forces. We can no longer ignore the possibility that post Gujarat 2002, villages too can become sites of ethnic riots.

There is a blatant attempt to subvert history, change school curricula and create a new set up in line with a Hindu Rastra. There is a new, muscular nationalism, one that holds up the nuclear bomb as a sign of strength and wants to keep neighbours and internal minorities in their place, and which derives its strength from invented mythology; and has taken over the polity. Indian secularism, once thought to be non-negotiable, is beginning to look shaky now. In a country with over 140 million Muslims and million of Christians, to say nothing of hundreds of other castes and communities, this can have very dangerous consequences.

It is not so much a question of defending or preserving the existing secular character of the Indian polity, but rather a need to create and build a secular polity in the nation. Only the ideal of building a secular democratic nation can stem the tide of communal fascism in the country. Sarva Dharma Sambhav has to operate at the personal as well as the social level, while Dharma Nirpekshata or Secularism per se continues to be the state policy. Religious clergy, bigotry, dogmas and rituals cannot be allowed to guide the state.

Mahatma Gandhi has rightly said: "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 would look after your secular welfare, health, communications, foreign relations, currency and so on, but not your or my religion. That is everybody's personal concern!!"

Hinduism is a faith that on the whole is favorable to the development of the secular state in India. It also has a strong tradition of freedom of conscience and tolerance of religious diversity that is not rightly projected by the Hindutva forces.

This strength of the Hindu religion is now viewed as a weakness. Secularism in the Indian context should imply respect for pluralism and a non-coercive and a voluntary recourse to change. Respect for diversity not only embodies the democratic spirit, it is the real guarantee of unity. We should value democratic, not fascistic, unity. No democratic society can downgrade diversity and pluralism in the name of unity. Secular ethics can be strengthened only when the acts of vandalism are sternly dealt with and the guilty are made to pay for it. With secularism that insists on the inalienable rights of the citizens and a due process of law, it will be easier to mount public pressure against sectarian killers and those who promote hatred. The battle of secularism and democracy has also to be fought at the grass root levels where a set ideals generating strong idealism is required to mobilize and prepare the masses for struggle.

In the end, secularism begins in the heart of every individual. There should be no feeling of "otherness" as we all have is a shared history. India being a traditional society that contains not one, but many traditions owing their origin in part to the different religions that exist here, has so far managed to retain the secular character of its polity. Ours is a society where Sufis and Bhakti saints have brought in a cultural acceptance for each other. Are we going to let it all go to waste and listen to people who have concern for their careers as politicians or leaders rather than our welfare at heart? Let us instead concentrate our efforts at making India a powerful and progressive nation.