Religious neutrality has become an accepted behavioural script for the state, but not for society and certainly not for individuals even when they are state actors

The framers of our Constitution were well aware of the need for politics that could transform a society rooted in caste and religious tradition. The nationalist struggle was not only a struggle to overthrow the British Raj, but was a moment of manoeuvre to rework a society that had a dismal record and understanding of human dignity and worked on the tyrannical hierarchy of caste that negated self-evident individual rights. It was this awareness that led to a conscious choice of institutions and symbols that formed the basis of such a transformative articulation of politics. For instance, the national flag has Ashoka’s Wheel of Law — a symbol taken from a Buddhist era — which was to function as a reminder for every citizen and the state to commit to dharma. Ashoka’s dharma was a secular one, based on a collective morality that hinged on undoing the worst practices of Indian society. Post-1947, the commitment to secularism in India did not only mean a commitment to freedom of religion, but also a commitment to do away with religious practices considered being at odds with liberalism. In other words, secularism didn’t simply mean state neutrality towards all religions. In India, it encompassed the desire to undertake social reform.

Fate of the secular script

What has complicated the project of secularism in India are two issues. First, the state may be neutral towards religion, but this does not mean that state actors and individuals in society are neutral towards religion. Second, there is no agreement in India that religion should be relegated to the private sphere. In fact, the opposite is true. Indians, of all religions, pray in large numbers in varying frequencies every week and they do so collectively and in public. This has meant that political appeals are often made through religious spaces and spokespersons.

In India, the state cannot afford to be indifferent to religion because societal and individual decisions are still dictated by religious conditioning and imperatives. What has emerged over 65 years of muddling through this issue of secularism and religion is that religious neutrality has become an accepted behavioural script for the state, but not for society and certainly not for individuals (even when they are state actors).

This fate of the secular script is currently in the limelight. As observers have noted, more and more members of the bureaucracy are tacitly Hindutva supporters and some court judgments over the last two decades have emphasised religious morality or interpreted Hinduism in particular ways. Increasingly, the urban middle class in tier-one and tier-two cities, business persons and a growing number of women also support Hindutva, even less tacitly.

Theoretically, there is nothing obviously wrong about supporting any political ideology. If the left can exist and be supported by many people, so can the right. However, Hindutva is not merely the statement of a political ideology. It is also a process wherein there is an attempt to make Hinduism and Indian nationhood almost coterminous. This is something that the Constitution framers were dead against, notwithstanding a massive debate in the Constituent Assembly where elected representatives from the right actively argued in favour of a Hindu nation, but were denied by Nehru and the Congress.

Breakdown of tolerance

Indian society is not yet fully secular, while the Indian state understands secularism as state neutrality towards religion combined with select interventions in the religious domain to safeguard some rights. Perhaps the concept better suited to understanding Indian society and its relationship with religion is more like a “scale of tolerance” — in some places, society is more tolerant of other religious and caste groups, in some places less so, but nowhere in India is society perfectly secular, i.e., nowhere in India do people not care about religion or maintain their distance from it.

The problem is that tolerance is an independent, individual choice and cannot be forced onto anyone. It is also a deeply patronising value. Its exercise rests on perceptions an individual possesses about another community and its implementation then becomes a matter of individual dispensation and benevolence.

In recent years, nothing has testified to the breakdown of religious tolerance in society than the various instances of communal and caste clashes. Riots are manufactured in contemporary India and they, more than anything else, tell us that essentially we live in a society where tolerance has a weak societal foundation, evidenced in the easy way mobs are mobilised by political entrepreneurs to engage in killing. While tolerance is a sought after value by many in India, we have been unable to enforce it in society, or even broaden the appeal of being tolerant in society. Campaign speeches by our politicians that often invoke hate speech against particular groups do not help the matter.

Let me illustrate this with a few examples. First, many people in India do not want to rent homes to Muslims, single women and men and people from the northeast. The logic offered is often that such people may do “bad” things, “immoral” things or may eat food that homeowners don’t want cooked in the spaces they rent out. Often, local society associations decide that certain types of people cannot be rented homes. If they do charge rent from these groups of people, the rents and deposits are usually higher. This intolerant rental discrimination is allowed to work precisely because there is no law that prohibits a landlord from discriminating against people based on religion, race, gender or marital status. In essence, a person’s perception of what a group represents (single women, Muslims, people from the northeast), allows that person to informally institutionalise his intolerance of such groups.

Second, while broadly practising tolerance in public, many parents brief their children that they cannot marry Muslims, a dark-skinned person or a lower caste person. Matrimonial advertisements still exemplify a demand for same-caste marriages although this has decreased over time as a recent study by Ahuja and Ostermann shows. But the people most likely to marry outside their caste are lower castes, Scheduled Castes and Other Backward Classes (OBC). And while we’re on this subject, khaps in north India have sanctioned honour killings for what they consider bad marriage decisions between people of the same gotra.

Third, conversations and studies of recruiters in private corporations suggest that they reject resumes based on last names, prefer people of the same caste and sometimes profile people based on region. For instance, a call centre recruiter said that she didn’t take people from Bihar because they were bad in English. She also left out the resumes of Muslims. During a study I undertook in Chandni Chowk in New Delhi in 2005, Muslims reported that they were often seen as a credit risk and that banks were unwilling to lend them money. Some also reported that the police had detained them for no reason.

Undercut by the majority

Finally, in recent conversations with educators, many who run private schools are unwilling to implement the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) because it would mean an influx of underprivileged OBC students whose behaviour and language, they suggest, will act as a bad influence on their students. The word used to describe them was ganwaar, or rustic and ill-behaved.

Essentially, what I am trying to argue is that even while the state protects religious and caste groups through various institutional measures, much of this is undercut by a society that doesn’t similarly value the rights of other groups or individuals. Part of the support for the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Shiv Sena and other politicians like Mr. Owaisi, for instance, comes from those who believe that certain religious minorities, majorities or outsiders, need to be “shown their place.”

Such people don’t want tolerance, perhaps because trampling on someone’s rights serves the majority well. It means that benefits and rights, economic opportunity and social equality are not properly extended beyond the majoritarian fold. A case in point being reservations, where only a small percent of reservations go to non-Hindu groups (like tribals); only recently have reservations been extended to Muslims in some States, via an incorporation into the State’s OBC list. So, predominantly one religious group, Hindus, most often capture the benefits of reservation.

There is a grave need to instil, cultivate or build a culture of tolerance in society, broadly through legislation if necessary. Untouchability being deemed an offence went much further than religious reform movements over 200 years in fighting the practice, as did the legal abolition of sati. Creating institutional mechanisms to deal with hate speech is a great place to start.

(Vasundhara Sirnate is the chief coordinator of research at The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy.)

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