We should be examining the ways in which we can foster a truly plural and vibrantly secular culture in India…

The judgment on the Ayodhya dispute lends renewed urgency to a critical, life-or-death, question that has been hanging precariously in mid-air for decades.

What would it take to build a truly dynamic plural and secular culture in 21st century India?

If we take the Shah Bano case and the village-to-village collection of Ram-shilas, in the late 1980s, as watershed events in the journey of Independent India, it feels as though 20 years have gone by in just fire-fighting struggles to contain the inferno of communal discord.

Constructive endeavour

Some of us who have been activists for communal harmony have gradually grown tired of working in reaction to disturbing events. Rather than asking how to fight communalism it seems much more constructive to ask ourselves — in an open, relaxed and self-critical manner — what can we do to build the immune system of Indian society? What will render us less vulnerable to identity-based prejudices, tensions and violence?

When Citizens for Peace (CfP), a Mumbai-based group, initiated such an endeavour five years ago, we began by acknowledging both the authenticity and diversity of grouses against the actual practice of ‘ secularism'. The next step was to establish non-negotiable parameters for an exploration which, as a creative challenge, we dubbed “A Secular Rethink”.

The first and obvious core value is unconditional respect for Right to Life and Right to Dignity of every human being — as enshrined in the Fundamental Rights of India's Constitution and the United Nations Charter on Human Rights.

It follows that all communities must at all times be equal before the law. Thus, Dharm Nirpekshta pertains essentially to the State — that it be identity-neutral and not be aligned with any faiths or ethnic group.

However, equality before the law is the bare minimum pre-requisite for a stable, plural and just society. Fulfilling these aspirations requires deep introspection on a regular basis. But this is only possible if we resist sticking labels like ‘communal' and ‘secular' on each other. Doing this rigorously means that we will have to jettison facile assumptions about the motivations and aspirations of the ‘other'.

For instance, is it fair to denounce every Hindu who favours a temple at the disputed site in Ayodhya as being anti-Muslim? Or is it fair to decry every Muslim who wants a mosque rebuilt on that site as a fundamentalist?

Just as Dharm Nirpekshta is a duty of the State to all its citizens, Sarva Dharma Sambhava is the responsibility which accompanies that right. At its bare minimum this means, not tolerance of ‘ others' but, mutual acceptance of differences.

For the longest time the anti-communal discourse has rested two somewhat fragile grounds. One was to foster images of love and friendship across identity barriers. Granted, such bonhomie has a natural allure. But fostering a vibrantly secular public culture need not depend on ‘lovability'.

So what if you don't particularly like your neighbour who belongs to an ‘other' community? Why should that interfere with finding mutually acceptable ways to co-habit social, economic and other public spaces without conflict and dissonance? Thus, CfP's motto — “Respect for All”.

The second was a sometimes subtle tendency to think that if people simply don't have religious or caste identities, life and society would be better. This underlying assumption has often gotten in the way of finding more effective ways to both acknowledge and process the angst that members of different communities feel towards each other.

Instead, various kinds of grievances have been dismissed by us, proponents of communal harmony, as imaginary or irrelevant. This has been particularly true for those who regard themselves as ethnic-identity-free modernists.

Inadvertently, this left the field free for entrenched ideological interests to twist the sources of angst to fuel a politics of dissension and hatred.

What we need instead is to foster mechanisms for healthy and constructive airing of dissensions — at the community level, in workplaces, in the media — in order to naturally isolate the extremist and fundamentalist elements of all groups. This would encourage more and more people to reject all forms of extremism — rather than making excuses for the extremists of their faith and demonising those of ‘ other' faiths.

However, it is vital to note that this discourse is no longer limited to religious tensions. The challenge of fostering a dynamic plural and secular public culture extends to the whole spectrum of identity-based divisions defined by language, regional affiliation, caste.

Perhaps the most challenging bit of rethinking falls upon us, various hues of progressives, who have willy-nilly longed for identity-based groupings to wither away. What we actually seek is indeed most precious — namely a values-based ethical coherence as the basis of nationhood and co-existence in a civilised society.

Value of identity

But such coherence need not depend upon rubbing out differences in identity. It might instead flourish if there are healthier ways in public spaces for us to meet both as citizens who also locate ourselves in a complex web of intersecting group identities.

Much of this work is already on the ground not only in the realm of NGOs but in sections of the business world. CfP's work with leading corporate houses in crafting a voluntary code on Business for Peace has shown how rigorously this striving is being pursued by some companies. The workplaces of companies such as Mahindra & Mahindra, Infosys, Thermax, Tatas and many others are incubating a social milieu in which people from different castes and religions can work as equals.

Given the horrendous realities of identity-based violence and brutality, these may seem like fragile trends driven by an idealistic minority. But, as the media build-up to the Ayodhya judgement and subsequent coverage has shown, more and more young people have no patience with disputes based on religious or caste identity. Whatever their views on the term “secularism”, most people respond warmly to the value of ‘equal respect for all' — which is CfP's motto.

As the Ayodhya judgment is analysed from many different perspectives it becomes clear that the dispute is not fully behind us. But one sure way of ensuring that it does not reignite a conflagration is to pro-actively focus on the longing for public culture of respect for all.

Our future may depend on treating this striving not as a challenge or burden — but as an exciting project drawing on our most creative energies.

Rajni Bakshi is a Trustee of Citizens for Peace, which was founded in 1993 as a response to the communal violence which scarred Mumbai in the wake of the demolition in Ayodhya.