Short on secularism

Published : Feb 26, 2010 00:00 IST

Gandhiji at Delhis Purana Qila where Muslim refugees prepare to depart for Pakistan, on September 22, 1947. His assassination by a Hindu fanatic was a setback to secularism.-AFP/FILES

Gandhiji at Delhis Purana Qila where Muslim refugees prepare to depart for Pakistan, on September 22, 1947. His assassination by a Hindu fanatic was a setback to secularism.-AFP/FILES

SECULAR India has undergone several convulsions during the past 60 years, so much so that doubts about its survival were entertained by many. Some of them tend to relate these convulsions to the nature of Indian society, to which they attribute centrality to religion in both personal and public affairs. In such a society, it has been argued, secularism can only have a perilous existence, that too by compromising some of its basic tenets. This view has received academic respectability and political support: the former from those who had no faith in the ability of Indian society for institution building and the latter from those who were inimical to secularism as a political creed.

The scepticism about secularism has only increased in recent times. The defenders of secularism are shrinking and some of them are exploring conditions beyond secularism. The weaknesses of secular practices add fuel to the fire: they confirm the doubts about the relevance of secularism in Indian conditions. At the same time, the unprecedented popularity that religiosity has gained has pushed secularism to the backyard. In assessing the state of secularism today, the impact of growing religiosity as well as the inadequacy of secular practices demand close attention.

All debates about secularism in India occur in the context of the European experience. The church-state relationship, which was central to the development of secularism in Europe, is the starting point of all discussions, both by supporters and by critics of secularism. For the consideration of the Indian situation it is a red herring. What is important in India is not church-state dynamics but state-society relationship and, more specifically, being a multireligious society, relations within society.

The Indian notion of secularism, based on uniform respect for all religions by the state and divorce of religion from public institutional practices, was evolved in the context of this Indian social reality. The obsession with the European experience overlooks the historicity of the Indian phenomenon. The process of secularisation is not necessarily similar in all societies. But all societies, including India, have undergone the process of secularisation at the onset of modernity. The European experience is important, as it was the earliest manifestation, but it does not connote that what happened in other societies is its mirror image.

When this process began in India would be difficult to locate with certainty, but the historical antecedents in which the process is rooted can be traced to fairly early times, possibly to the period of the Buddha. Let it not be misunderstood that what is suggested is that secularism existed at the time of the Buddha, but that Buddhism and the Bhakti movement and other churnings within different religions, being critiques of the then existing religious practices, created the space for secularism to emerge at a later time. Its modern form, however, found articulation and momentum during the course of the 19th century when humanism, rationalism and religious universalism provided the intellectual base for a secular discourse. The Indian Constitution internalised the logic of this discourse to shape it as secular in practice, although the concept of secularism was neither included nor elaborated in the Constitution until a later date. What imparted this character to the Constitution was, at least partly, the historical experience of Indian society.

Whether this concept popularly described as sarva dharma samabhava was adequate to ensure a secular state has been a subject of considerable debate. The equal attitude towards all religions does not make the state secular; on the other hand it might implicate the state in religious matters. This fear is not misplaced, as during the past 60 years, in the name of impartiality, the state had to associate itself with almost all religions. The consequence was not the equidistance of the state from all religions, but the involvement of the state in the concerns of all religions. Moreover, the state succumbed to the pressures of all religions. Therefore, instead of being secular the state and its apparatuses were mired in religious matters. Jawaharlal Nehru tried to resist this deviation and kept aloof from participating in religious ceremonies. The then President, Rajendra Prasad, did not uphold that principle and attended the consecration of the newly constructed Somnath temple, to the great chagrin of the Prime Minister. Nehrus legacy was also not owned by his successors, who in their quest for electoral support compromised the state with the demands of religious leaders. The worst phase was the period of the Ram Janmabhoomi dispute when the Prime Minister appeared to bend over backwards to appease religious leaders. Unless the state remains secular, society can never preserve its secular character. With the decline in the commitment of the state to secularism during the post-Nehru era, secular space in society became progressively smaller, which was eventually colonised by communalism.

What affected the secular character of Indian society most decisively was the intervention of Hindu communalism, which has a long history dating to the 18th century even though riots became frequent only during colonial rule. By the 20th century, communalism had made inroads among both Hindus and Muslims, considerably undermining the secular ethos in society and, finally, leading to Partition. The assassination of Mahatma Gandhij by a Hindu fanatic was a severe setback to secularism. After this Hindu communal organisations were rather dormant, which, however, did not mean they were inactive. The Gandhi assassination did not dampen their spirits, and under the leadership of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) they soon regrouped and reinvigorated their cultural work and physical training.

The communal organisations were aware that communalism could thrive only by undermining secular consciousness. As a result, the main thrust of the communal agenda was to eliminate the fairly powerful secular hegemony present in most domains. The communal attack on secularism was, therefore, intended to delegitimise it, accusing it of being an alien ideology without roots in Indian soil. Moreover, secular activists were physically intimidated and secular artists and intellectuals were defamed. The purpose was to ensure that the public prestige and acceptability that secularism enjoyed was tarnished so that communalism could occupy the secular space. The campaign was not without any impact. In the face of communal aggression, secularism considerably lost out politically in the 1990s. Martha Nusbawm, an American scholar, observed that during this period India slipped into religious terrorism but managed to slip out of it. This escape from the possible continued communal subjection was mainly, though not exclusively, because of the strength of its secular tradition.

Secularism in India is used as a synonym for communal harmony and religious togetherness. For long, Indian society had a reputation for collaboration and accommodation. The history of India bears testimony to this social condition in which Indians lived for centuries.

They not only shared material resources, but often worshipped the same deity. Hindus and Muslims contributing to the maintenance of each others shrines is a fairly widespread phenomenon. In a village in Marathwada where there are no Muslims, the Dargah of a Sufi saint is maintained by Hindus. At Bababudangiri in Karnataka, both Hindus and Muslims worshipped the same saint under different names. The now-popular Hindu shrine of Sabarimala in Kerala has a Muslim deity whom all devotees of the Hindu god invariably worship. Although Hindus have now appropriated the Sai Baba of Shirdi, nobody is sure whether he was a Hindu or a Muslim. This mutual relationship is based not on tolerance but on respect for and belief in each others faith. Such practices and perspectives were shared by the high and the low from the rulers to the peasants in the villages.

Communal harmony, however, is not secularism; communal harmony can only be an outcome of secularism, which is a condition in which religion, like any other faith, is a purely personal affair of the individual. It should not intervene in interpersonal relationships or institutional functioning. If secularism is to be a reality, therefore, it is not sufficient to have a secular state, there must also be a secular society. If the society is not secular the state is likely to depart from secular principles, as happened on several occasions during the past 60 years.

The greatest success of communalism has been to vitiate human interpersonal relations in society into a religious relationship, which affected the secular ethos adversely. Social relations thus came to be guided not by secular considerations but by religious identity. The 60 years of experience indicates that the secular character of the Indian state and society has declined steadily.

A major and discernible change during the past 60 years has been the rapid religionisation of society. Traditionally, religious rituals were confined to temples, where devotees congregated, or to homes, in which family members participated. Religion is now out in the open, with religious celebrations being conducted in public places and religious processions of all communities crowding the roads with music and fanfare. The improvement in technology has facilitated pilgrimages, and a secular enterprise like tourism has come to be linked with places of religious worship. The resulting commodification of religion is a spectacular change, which has led to the growth of pilgrimage tourism as an industry. As a result, the popular aphorism that India is a religious country does not need much convincing, particularly with the proliferation of meditation centres and godmen. The places of worship have not lagged behind; in fact, the increase in their number is phenomenal. The most saleable commodity in India today is religion.

It is arguable that belief in religion is not antithetical to secularism, if the character of secularism in a multireligious society is essentially communal harmony. It is a common argument that all true believers are secular in outlook and hence do not entertain animosity towards the followers of other religions. This may as well be true. But secularism is not communal harmony; communal harmony is the outcome of secularism. It is, therefore, imperative to explore what constitutes secularism as an ideology beyond harmony.

The real foundation of secularism is poised on a triad consisting of humanism, rationality and universalism. Most religions propound humanism and universalism, but rationality is alien to religion because the essential features of religion are based on faith. Moreover, rituals and superstition derive their legitimacy from religion, and division between religions is marked by religiosity. As a result, religiosity acts as an impediment to secular practice.

A weakness of Indian secularism is that its goal is limited to communal harmony. Even Gandhiji, perhaps the most committed exponent of harmony, could not succeed in his life mission of Hindu-Muslim unity because his passionate efforts were not backed by a secular foundation in society. Given this historical experience, secularism had to be reinvented in post-Independence India. The possible prescription was a creative combination of the Nehruvian notion of a secular state and the Gandhian idea of social togetherness. Unfortunately, the state increasingly lost its secular character and community relationship slipped steadily into religious antagonism, the sad consequences of which were witnessed in Gujarat and Orissa.

Despite limitations and departures, the post-Independence Indian state maintained a modicum of secular character, although for electoral reasons the state made several deviations from the ideal, particularly during the rule of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. The secular character of the state suffered most grievously during the six years when the Bhartiya Janata Party had control over the state apparatuses. The interventions of the state, particularly in education, culture and police administration, were palpably anti-secular. Under its administration the Indian state assumed a distinctly Hindu communal character and used the opportunity to undo the secular traditions of Indian society.

The unfortunate fact is that the secular rule that followed has not been able to erase this scar. Moreover, in many of its actions the state continues to carry the anti-secular baggage. Is it not because of that that a Bill for the prevention of communal riots has not been passed? Is it not for the same reason that the recommendations of the Sachar Committee have been kept in cold storage? Or that no action has been taken so far against those who have been indicted by the Liberhan Commission for the Babri Masjids demolition after 16 years of its labour?

The more abiding impact of Hindu communal activities has been on undermining the harmonious social relations that existed among different communities. This was attempted through a variety of ways, among them, through communal politics, hate campaigns, falsification of history and instigation of communal riots. Violence is the chief instrument of communalism, which spreads hatred, fear, ghettoisation, and so on, and communal violence is not an end in itself but the beginning of further rift between communities, undermining thereby the existing secular relations.

During the past 60 years, the activities of communal organisations have been such that Indian society has been ideologically and socially communalised. Moreover, communalism has made society brutal; brutality of the kind perpetrated in Gujarat and Orissa was unknown in the past despite communal riots occurring rather regularly.

The communal advance witnessed during the past 60 years is at the expense of secular space. That space has to be reclaimed if India is to remain a democratic society. Being a multireligious and multicultural society, democracy cannot survive in India without secularism. Are there efforts afoot, both by the state and by civil society, to further the process of secularisation?

After the defeat of communal forces in the general elections of 2004, secularism appears to have been put on the back burner both by the secular parties and by civil society organisations. Understandably because there was a sense of relief that the threat had been warded off. The general elections of 2009 gave enough reason for further complacency because communal forces were worsted in them. But secularism does not come to stay because of successes in an election or two. It has to be assiduously constructed through sustained work; continuity is the key to the creation of social consciousness. The secular forces hardly realise this fundamental factor, but believe that secularism can be fought and won in the political arena.

One of the main reasons for the success of Hindu communalism has been the failure of secularism to intervene effectively in the social and cultural domains, in which communalism is ever active. But secularism is as much a cultural and social phenomenon as a political one. The secular forces have not evolved an agenda based on such an understanding. At the same time, anti-secular forces attribute great importance to the non-political sector.

The agenda of secular forces has neither been innovative nor culturally sensitive to evolve an idiom to communicate with the masses. Much of the secular activity does not go beyond press statements by intellectuals and seminars in which committed secularists alone participate. There is hardly any attempt from secular intellectuals to reclaim popular cultural consciousness. The accusation that the secular intellectuals and cultural activists circulate alien ideas among themselves appears to stick, even if it is not entirely true.

If secularism is to be a force in society, it has to reinvent itself in cultural and social terms. Then and then alone it will be a part of the ideology of the masses. The Hindu and Muslim villagers in Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan who greet each other with Ram Ram have their own notion of secular interpersonal relations, despite being believers of different religions. Secularism has to internalise the culture of this social relation if it aims to be a hegemonic force in society.

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