Want To Preserve Secularism In India? Well, Preserve The Hindu Ethos First

August 5, 2020 marked the bhoomi pujan of the Ram temple in Ayodhya. I have noticed that many have been genuinely anguished by this event. Some have been bemoaning it as the death of secularism in India.

I consider myself to be secular, so why do I do not see it that way?

What does the term ‘secular’ mean?

Strictly speaking, secularism means separation in entirety of church and state.

In a secular nation, the government must stay away from anything religious. But isn’t it odd that the word ‘secular’ was not part of the preamble to the Indian constitution when it was originally adopted?

Why was such an important word left out? As I see it, the omission was deliberate. What is even more surprising is that the two people who guided the drafting of the preamble of the Constitution were BR Ambedkar and Jawaharlal Nehru, whose secular credentials were unimpeachable.

To be secular in the truest sense of the word, the Indian state would have to stay out of the religious ambit completely. And this was almost impossible.

How could Indian courts recognise Sharia-based Muslim Personal Law while claiming to be secular? How could Central and State governments take over the management of Hindu temples if they were secular? How could a secular government provide financial assistance to educational institutions run by religious organisations? How could a secular government codify and modify Hindu personal law? How would the government extend the existing caste-based reservations to minority religions if it were secular?

These and many more such actions would clearly fall outside the remit of a secular nation. The writers of the preamble realised that it was better not to use the term rather than to use it dishonestly.

But then, just before midnight of 25 June 1975, the Emergency arrived. Over the next two years, the prime minister could rule by decree and most of Indira Gandhi’s political opponents were thrown in prison.

It was during this time that a series of constitutional amendments were passed. Many of these were extremely controversial not only because they were passed as ordinances but also because of the sweeping powers that they vested in the prime minister. Nestled among other sweeping changes was the insertion of the word ‘secular’—and also ‘socialist’—into the preamble of the Constitution.

Did the insertion of ‘secular’ imply that India had not been secular before 1976? Had the omission of the word turned India into a Hindu Rashtra?

Not at all.

By leaving the word out of the preamble, the fathers of the Constitution were making it incumbent on Hindus to remember their commitment to the Upanishadic ideal of ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’. That the world is one family. The framers of the Constitution were subtly saying that the Indian ethos was essentially Hindu in character but that ethos implied an ingrained respect for and tolerance of all faiths.

So, secularism in the Indian context would not mean the state remaining away from religion. Instead it would mean maintaining equidistance from all religions. Unfortunately, that equidistance never happened. Over the years, the test of secularism came to be whether India’s minorities perceived an action as secular or not.

For example, the government gave itself very little day-to-day control over the Central Waqf Council or over Christian institutions but soon exercised incredible control over Hindu temples.

Nehru decided to pass the four Hindu Code Bills while abandoning the objective of a Uniform Civil Code.

Even in politics, seeking Muslim votes by appealing to the Imam of Jama Masjid was considered smart but appealing to Hindu seers was communal.

Speaking up for minority rights was noble but speaking up for Kashmir’s abandoned Pandits was not.

This was no longer secularism; it was selectivity. This particular selectivity eventually came to be called pseudo-secularism by India’s saffron organisations and soon became the rallying cry of the majority.

What did several decades of this selectivity achieve? Frankly, all that it did was to create a majoritarian backlash. The Hindus, including myself, felt that there was a permanent burden on us to continuously ‘prove’ our secular credentials; to constantly apologise for actions that could be perceived as non-secular in this country.

Have you heard of the term ‘collective memory’?

Collective memory refers to the shared pool of memories and information of a social group. That pool of memories is significantly associated with the group’s identity.

For example, today’s generation of Jews may not have lived through the Holocaust but they carry collective memories of it. They even carry memories of their exile from Jerusalem and their captivity in Babylon although this event took place 2600 years ago. The same collective memory applies to Hindus too. Many Hindus share the collective victimhood of years of Muslim and Christian assaults on Hindu civilisation.

And those assaults were many. Take the example of the Somnath temple.

The temple was first destroyed in 725 CE by the Arab governor of Sindh, Al-Junayd. After it was rebuilt, it was destroyed during the invasions of Mahmud of Ghazni in 1025. It was rebuilt but destroyed yet again by Allauddin Khilji in 1299. The temple was once again restored only to be destroyed by the Muslim governor of Gujarat, Zafar Khan, in 1395. In 1451, it was desecrated by Mahmud Begada, the Sultan of Gujarat.

The final blow came from Aurangzeb who pulled it down in 1665.

None of today’s Hindus were present when any of those acts happened but we all carry collective memories of that victimhood.

Take another example. One of the most sacred Hindu temples is the Kashi Vishwanath in Varanasi.

The original temple was destroyed by the commanders of Mohammad Ghori in 1194. After being rebuilt, it was again wrecked during the reign of Sikander Lodhi in the fifteenth century. The final blow was delivered by Aurangzeb who razed the temple and built the Gyanvapi mosque in its place.

Similarly, Aurangzeb also destroyed the ancient Keshavnath temple in Mathura and built the Shahi Idgah mosque on its plinth.

Three of the holiest sites of Hindus—Ayodhya, Kashi and Mathura—were all destroyed and rebuilt as mosques.

You don’t even need to go to Somnath, Ayodhya, Kashi or Mathura to see the wanton trail of destruction. If you are in Delhi, simply visit the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque next to the Qutb Minar. Outside the mosque is a plaque that proudly announces that the mosque was built using parts recovered from the demolition of 27 Hindu and Jain temples.

The collective Hindu memories of victimhood are not only related to the destruction of temples but also to other actions. According to American historian Will Durant, “the Islamic conquest of India was probably the bloodiest story in history.” Ferishta, the Persian historian of the sixteenth century, talks of instances when the Bahmani sultans set targets of one lakh infidel heads to roll.

Death was often preferable to slavery, particularly sex slavery. Ahmad Shah Abdali’s army captured Maratha women for the Afghan harems. Often, when non-Muslim women were captured and impregnated, they were left with no alternative but to convert to Islam.

When Muslim armies surrounded Rajput forts, Hindu women within would commit jauhar—throwing themselves into open pyres—to save themselves while their husbands were slain on the battlefield.

If it wasn’t destruction, death or defilement, then it was duties—more specifically jizya, a tax payable by dhimmis or non-muslims.

Alauddin Khilji decreed that those who did not pay could be legally enslaved and sold in cities where there was demand for slave labour. Firoz Shah Tughlaq ordered that Hindus who converted to Islam would be exempted but those who chose to stay Hindu would pay a higher rate of jizya.

Jizya was abolished by Akbar but reintroduced by Aurangzeb and charged at twice the zakat paid by Muslims. More than tax, jizya was institutionalised humiliation and punishment for a dhimmi’s non-belief.

And all of this cruelty was perpetrated on a population that prided itself on providing sanctuary to others.

Zoroastrian refugees fleeing Muslim persecution in Iran were provided a home in Gujarat by a Hindu king, Jadi Rana.

St. Thomas’ Christians were provided a home in Kerala.

The first Jewish refugees settled over two millennia ago on the Malabar Coast and a second wave arrived pursuant to their expulsion from Iberia in 1492.

When Buddhist monks were being butchered by the People’s Liberation Army of China, India welcomed the Dalai Lama along with thousands of Buddhists. The country accepted millions of refugees from Bangladesh during the 1971 genocide. The Baghdadi Jews and the Bene Israel from Pakistan were sheltered in India.

That spirit of refuge is intrinsic to India’s Dharmic values. But for how long should India’s Hindus have to remind the world of that?

Some see Hindu revivalism through the lens of Narendra Modi and the BJP but that would be an error. One must go back to the fundamental clash between Abrahamic and Dharmic thought.

Dharmic thought is essentially plural. It embraces multiple truths. Some 33 million deities can be part of the same family. Jesus Christ can be incorporated on the façade of a Hindu temple and the Buddha can be absorbed as an avatar of Vishnu.

You can be aastik or naastik; Shaivite or Vaishnavite; vegetarian or carnivore; fire-worshipper, idol-worshipper or nature-worshipper. You may worship Shiva, Shakti or a combination of both. You may see the path to enlightenment as yantra, tantra or mantra or none of the above. You may hold that the Shiv Linga is a stone and I may hold that a stone is a Shiv Linga, and both of us are welcome.

We can have 300 versions of a single epic called the Ramayana but your version does not negate mine. All religions are seen as different paths to the divine.

Unfortunately, Abrahamic ideology attempts to impose a singular truth on a plural world. There is only one true God who will punish you if you are evil. But if you obey his word and follow his orders scrupulously you may save yourself from the hellfires of damnation. When one couples that absolutism with expansionist and proselytising tendencies, one has all the ingredients for conflict.

Judaism was rarely ever expansionist but both Christianity and Islam were. And both these Abrahamic ideologies wreaked havoc on the world and on themselves, be it through the Arab conquests, the Christian crusades, the Catholic Inquisitions, the Protestant-Catholic conflicts or the Shia-Sunni conflicts.

In India, the effects were profound. Whether it was Ghazni, Aibak, Khilji, Timur, Lodhi, Aurangzeb or Tipu, their direct attacks on Hindus and Hinduism were simply too vicious to fade from collective memory.

And why only Islam? Was Christianity benevolent towards Hindus? The Portuguese exported the Inquisition to Goa in the sixteenth century. Openly practicing Hinduism attracted the death penalty. Thousands were tried by the tribunals of the inquisition. Several were even burned at the stake.

Some historians consider the Goa Inquisition to have been one of the most merciless and cruel ever. It was a machinery of torture and death. Under a 1559 order, Hindu children could be seized and converted to Christianity even if one of the parents died.

Parental property automatically got seized when a Hindu child was taken. Hindu temples were demolished in Portuguese Goa and the community was prohibited from repairing them or building new ones. Any man, woman or child living in Goa could be arrested and tortured for simply whispering a prayer or keeping a small idol at home. Many languished in special inquisitional prisons, some for several years at a time.

I started out by saying that I am secular. But I could have avoided that by simply saying that I am a liberal even though the word has become politically charged.

The word ‘liberal’ is derived from the Latin word ‘liberalis’, a word that means ‘free’. I am firmly committed to individual rights, democracy, free markets, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, gender equality, LGBTQ rights, racial equality and indeed secularism itself. If you are liberal, you are by definition, secular too. But I am also a Hindu and I am proud of it. And I refuse to apologise for that.

Hinduism is among the few pre-Bronze Age cultures to have survived to this day. Do you see Zoroastrianism thriving in Iran? What happened to the Mithraic cults of Rome? What happened to Ra, Osiris and Horus of the Egyptians? What happened to Zeus, Apollo and Athena of the Greeks? What happened to the tribal belief systems and languages of the aboriginal peoples of Australia?

Most pagan belief systems and cultures could not withstand the onslaught of Abrahamic thought, but Hinduism survived against all odds. And that’s why I am proud of it and wish to preserve that legacy.

I firmly believe that we cannot hold the present-day Muslims or Christians responsible for acts of the past that they had nothing to do with. In fact many of today’s Muslims and Christians are the descendants of the very people who were persecuted generations ago and converted at the point of a sword. How foolish would it be to bear a grudge against them in the present?

Peace and harmony across communities is to be considered the greatest blessing from the divine. Truth and reconciliation is absolutely necessary. But truth must come before reconciliation. Truth begins with acknowledging the past. Unfortunately, we never allowed that to happen in India.

See the spate of statues being torn down around the world. These are reactions to one-sided historical narratives. History can be quite easily manipulated by any group to either erase their past sins or glorify their deeds. In India, we whitewashed our history in our effort to maintain the peace. When we do not heal wounds, they fester. Hindu revivalism is a festering wound. And it is much more a symptom of fear than aggression. We need to cauterise that festering wound quickly.

What causes that fear? I have already dealt with some of it. To start with, there are the collective memories of shared victimhood that I spoke of; then there is the sense of injustice caused by flawed secularism; there is also the historical evidence that pagan cultures could not survive Abrahamic onslaught.

But there is also the concern that population growth and proselytising could eventually alter the demographics of the only surviving Hindu civilisations of the world. Also Hindus get worried when they witness the rise of Wahhabi tendencies coupled with the inability of ordinary Muslims to question their faith because they are told that it is the absolute word of God.

When a Hindu looks at South Asia’s demographics, what does he observe? When Pakistan was created in 1947, Hindus were 15 percent of the population but were only 1.6 percent by 1998. In the Bangladesh of 1931, Hindus were 29.4 percent of the population but are less than 9.5 percent today. Contrast that with the Muslim population of India that was 9.9 percent in 1951 and grew to 14.2 percent by 2011. So when those on the left of the ideological spectrum question Indian inclusiveness it rankles the average Hindu.

Hindu fears are also a response to Wahhabi tendencies that have gripped many parts of the world.

In 2013, a Pew Research project was carried out through 38,000 face-to-face interviews of Muslims in 80-plus languages in 39 Muslim-majority countries. It presented some startling revelations.

Around 79 percent of Muslims in countries such as Afghanistan, Egypt and Jordan believed that Muslims who abandoned the faith should be executed.

A startling 39 percent of Muslims across all countries surveyed believed that honour killings could be justified in instances where women had had premarital or extramarital sex.

Almost 42 percent of French Muslims, 35 percent of British Muslims and 26 percent of American Muslims believed that suicide bombings against non-Muslims could be justified.

Scariest of all, 53 percent of those surveyed believed that Sharia, or Islamic law, should be the law in their countries. Can you imagine the fear that such findings trigger in a Hindu who is already carrying historical baggage?

There were 1.8 billion Muslims in the world as of 2015, which was approximately 24 percent of the global population. Although Islam is the second-largest religion after Christianity, by 2060 its numbers will have grown by 70 percent. By that time, Christianity will have grown by 34 percent and Hinduism by around 27 percent. And like the Jews, Hindus have never been very good at proselytising. Why isn’t it a natural reaction for Hindus to worry that they may eventually be overrun?

I am not at all proud of the fact that the Babri Masjid was torn down by a Hindu mob in 1992. But I am proud that 1.3 billion Indians were willing to put their faith in the judiciary to arrive at the Ayodhya verdict. It should never be forgotten that this temple is being built pursuant to a court order and not at the whims of a totalitarian state. And if you believe that the verdict is tainted then you would also have to question thousands of other judgments that went in a direction that fit your sensibilities. You cannot be selective.

Does the Queen of England, being the head of the Church of England, interfere with the secularism of the UK? Does the American President, holding the National Prayer Breakfast each year, interfere with secular principles? Those who believe that India’s secularism is challenged by a Ram temple in Ayodhya should realise that India is secular primarily because of its Hindu ethos.

In most Muslim-majority countries, Islamisation eventually creeps in. Just look at the 49 Muslim-majority countries around the world and you will realise that the only way to preserve secularism is by preserving Hindu syncretism.

We are proud of the Ganga-Jamuna tehzeeb of India. For every Bhimsen Joshi there is a Zakir Hussain; for every Vikram Sarabhai there is an Abdul Kalam; for every Rabindranath Tagore there is a Salman Rushdie. But ask yourself: why did this Ganga-Jamuna syncretism not take root in Pakistan? The answer is the underlying Hindu spirit that simply cannot be ignored.

In recent times, the Australian government has apologised to the aboriginal people for their crimes against them. The South African government has apologised for apartheid. The Japanese have apologised for their war crimes in Asia. The Germans have apologised to the Jews for the holocaust. Even Boris Yeltsin apologised for the Bolshevik Revolution. But from whom should Hindus seek an apology? From the Arabs who gave us Muhammad bin Qasim? From the Afghans who gave us Mahmud Ghazni? From the Turks who gave us Qutb al-Din Aibak? From the Turko-Mongols who gave us Aurangzeb? From the Portuguese who gave us Aleixo Diaz Falcao? Or from the English who gave us Reginald Dyer?

Hindus do not expect an apology from anyone. But my generation is equally unwilling to apologise for being Hindu. We are also tired of being the ones who have to regularly prove how secular we are. This agni-pariksha must stop.

Do you really want to preserve secularism in India? Then preserve the Hindu ethos first.

Ashwin Sanghi ranks among India’s highest selling English fiction authors with two New York Times bestsellers to his name. His famous novels include The Rozabal Line, Chanakya’s Chant, The Krishna Key, The Sialkot Saga, Keepers of the Kalachakra and The Vault of Vishnu.

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