After Prime Minister Narendra Modi participated in the bhumipujan for Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, a debate has begun on secularism. Yet on both sides of the divide, whether ‘secular’ or ‘non-secular’, there is an absolutism and absence of free thought. While majoritarian politicians demonise and attack minorities, ‘secular’ politicians have often pandered to narrow minded community clerics. A new word is needed for those challenging majoritarian politics. ‘Plural’ is a better word than ‘secular.’
In the past, both ‘secular’ and Hindutva politicians have used religion as a political tool to either project a false majoritarianism or encourage minority orthodoxies and anxieties. Instead, we could follow Mahatma Gandhi’s example. Gandhi ‘spiritualised secularism and secularised religion’. Gandhi upheld the truth in every religion, yet deliberately stayed away from rituals, temples, mosques or deities, thus evolving a liberal equilibrium combining personal belief with multi-faith public morality.
The 1950s and 60s were the high noon of robust secularism. At this time the Preamble defined India as a “sovereign democratic republic”, the word ‘secular’ was not in the original Constitution. Ironically, India’s secular values began to decay after the word ‘secular’ was added to the Preamble by Indira Gandhi in 1976. ‘Secularism’ as an intolerant, state-imposed, book-banning, free speech stifling dogma took shape post-1980, the same decade when violent communal riots and politics of religion were rampant.
Nehru exemplified idealistic secularism, placing padlocks on the then disputed Babri Masjid, staying away from the Somnath temple inauguration and driving Hindu personal laws towards gender justice, even as he refrained from interfering in Muslim personal laws, mindful to reassure Muslims in post-Partition times. But even Nehru, the vigilant secularist, held to his title ‘Pandit’, wrote of his attraction towards Advaita and reverence for river Ganga.
After Nehru, ‘secular’ politicians failed to implement secularism, either to separate church from state or to foster mutual respect among religions. Indira used ‘secularism’ to play her brand of ruthless politics. After her re-election in 1980, she turned zealously religious, visiting dozens of temples, accepting RSS help in J&K polls in 1983, making religion laced speeches in Assam and undertaking what academic James Manor described as an “astonishing adoption of themes that belonged to the Hindu chauvinist Right”.
The Rajiv Gandhi years were marked by intense confusion about ‘secularism’. Rajiv ricocheted from bowing to Muslim orthodoxy and striking down the Shah Bano judgment, banning Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses to bowing to Hindutva by allowing the unlocking of Babri Masjid and VHP’s shilanyas in 1989. PV Narasimha Rao declared, “I can fight the BJP but I can’t fight Lord Ram,” and sought to co-opt and neutralise the Hindutva movement, in the process failing to prevent the masjid demolition.
PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee professed his belief in ‘positive secularism’. He operated within democratic parliamentary parameters and tried hard to protect “rajdharma” during Gujarat riots. Yet Vajpayee also made several strident Hindutva speeches and declared, “I will always be a swayamsevak.”
Manmohan Singh was a product of the Sonia Gandhi era of ‘hard secularism’ in which Congress was perceived as anti-Hindu, an image trap which Sonia herself alluded to at a 2018 media conclave when she said, “BJP made people believe Congress is a Muslim party.” In the Modi period, ‘secularism’ has been almost completely discarded. In the prevailing majoritarian mindset, a bhumipujan is seen as a natural part of the persona of the pracharak PM. Lines between state power and Hindu religious functions are completely blurred.
Yet because of the way politicians have misused the word, the battle for the word ‘secular’ is not worth fighting. The word is meaningless and bogus. No politician has shown the will to frontally fight violent majority communalism or minority orthodoxies. Politicians have pandered to one or both. Instead of ‘secular’, we need to once again start building genuine tolerance in society. Yes, religion is a deeply important part of life, but it’s a personal matter. Progressive citizens must work towards making religion irrelevant in public life, administration and justice delivery.
In any society, the individual is the smallest minority. If the individual has legal protection, it follows that all others will too. If we focus on individual freedom, and not on community entitlement, then governance in India will be what it is supposed to be: Blind to religion and community sentiment. Otherwise, a system that yesterday failed Shah Bano and Salman Rushdie, is bound to also fail Sudha Bharadwaj and Anand Teltumbde, if individual freedom is constantly subordinated to sentiments of communities.
A modern, liberal society focusses primarily on the delivery of impartial and merciful justice to individuals, irrespective of community. If governments tilt towards one or the other religion, we will have backlashes and continuous religious wars. In India, ultimately, how can people who worship so many different gods coexist peacefully? We can only coexist if we all accept a common set of liberal values which are tolerant and respect each others’ individual freedoms. The state must be equidistant from all. Subsidy for the Haj must go, and governments should not fund Hindu temples and pilgrimages.
The ‘secular’/ ‘non-secular’ binary keeps us forever trapped in religious identities – which is what politicians want – when the urgent need is for citizens to demand that religion becomes immaterial to governance. Instead of reflexively thinking of ourselves only as “Hindus” or “Muslims” or “Christians”, or other religions, we can define ourselves as 21st century liberal democrats who demand a modern government insulated from all religion, with no special benefits to any one group. Utopian, yes, but worth aspiring for.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.