How to rescue genuine secularism

The government must focus on its primary business; to prevent religion-based violence, oppression and discrimination

May 28, 2019 12:02 am | Updated 12:47 am IST

One word conspicuous by its absence not only from the election campaign but perhaps from the entire political discourse in recent times was secularism. Prime Minister Narendra Modi brought it back in his victory speech . Most political parties in the last 30 years had practised a naqli (fake) secularism, he said. His great achievement, he implied, was to have unmasked these fake secularists and single-handedly dismantled secularism. Until now, for Mr. Modi, fake secularism has been the handmaiden of minority appeasement. Next day, however, he spoke of winning back the trust of the minorities, who, he said, have been deceived and cheated by other parties. With this, fake secularism was given a different meaning; it does not pamper but cheats minorities. In other words, it does not satisfy their real needs, but only gives the illusion of doing so. Here, Mr. Modi acknowledges that Muslims are a deprived lot. So, what, according to Mr. Modi, is asli (genuine) secularism? The answer he gives is the inclusion of minorities in ‘ sabka saath sabka vikas ’, which is translated by his party as ‘justice to all, appeasement to none’. To this he added ‘ sabka vishwas ’, winning the trust of all.

Fears of minorities

On the treatment of minorities by other parties, the Prime Minister is partly right and partly wrong. Wrong, because the insecurity amongst minorities is created largely by Mr. Modi’s own political supporters. Lynchings in the past few years and the fear such random violence creates are only the tip of this gigantic iceberg. Right, because when in power, most non-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) parties have done little more than provide security. Now, the condition of feeling safe and secure must not be underestimated. Freedom from fear is important, and to live in the fear of being lynched only because you are a Muslim is a very real unfreedom indeed. Yet, political parties have not helped Muslims with their vikas . Some have even pampered the orthodoxy within their communities and have done little to bring them out of their ghettos. So, this secularism is partly fake because it has often meant tolerating minority communalism, and hobnobbing with the most selfish and conservative spokespersons of the multiple Muslim communities of India.

It is very sad indeed that in the election campaign, these ‘fake secularists’ failed miserably to speak up for Muslims. Perhaps they were terrified that if they spoke of the legitimate interests of Muslims, they would be immediately branded as pro-Pakistan, anti-national or anti-Hindu. Yes, ‘fake’ secularism has failed the minorities and the people of India, but the BJP and its supporters, particularly the so-called ‘fringe’, must take a lot of blame for that. This needs course correction and the nation would be grateful to the Prime Minister if he began that process.

But is the secularism propounded or implied by the Prime Minister genuine? At least in theory, ‘ sabka saath sabka vikas ’ gets one thing right: no individual citizen should face discrimination on grounds of religion. Basic amenities, good health, education, housing and employment should be available equally to all, regardless of their religion. If he succeeds in this endeavour, he would make great strides towards realising secularism.

However, secularism combats not just discrimination and other worse forms of inter-religious domination such as exclusion, oppression and humiliation. It is equally opposed to intra-religious domination, i.e. the domination (of women, Dalits, dissenters) within every religious community. For instance, the fight against the hierarchical caste system in India, quite like the struggle against the church in European history, is integral to the fight for secularism — a point noted by both Ambedkar and Nehru. Equally important for secularism is opposition to religious fanaticism and bigotry. Neither of these is explicitly captured by ‘ sabka saath , sabka vikas ’.

Misunderstanding secularism

That Indian secularism is not anti-religious is widely understood — but not that it is simultaneously against both forms of institutionalised religious domination. How did this misunderstanding develop? First, the struggle against inter-religious domination (a defence of minority rights, opposition to majority and minority communalism) became separated from the fight against intra-religious domination (religion-related patriarchy and caste domination, fanaticism, bigotry and extremism). Then, this intra-religious dimension was jetttisoned from the meaning of secularism and, much to the detriment of its overall value, secularism began to be identified, by proponents and opponents alike, exclusively with the defence of minority rights.

This opened the door for viewing secularism first as a tool to protect the interests of Muslims and Christians, of no relevance to Hindus, and then for twisting it to appear as pro-Muslim and anti-Hindu. The strength of Indian secularism — its advocacy of minority cultural rights — was easily made to appear as its weakness and the burden of its defence, rather than be shared by all citizens, fell on the shoulders of minorities and ‘pro-minority’ secularists. This is unfair. Secularism is needed as much to protect Hindus from intra-religious domination, from their ‘fringe elements’, as well as from proponents of religion-based caste and gender hierarchies. And required equally to protect minorities from their own orthodoxies and extremisms. Asli secularism plays that role. Naqli secularism protects fanatics and legitimises gender and caste-based domination.

Secularism today has other problems. One is its intellectual failure to distinguish communitarianism from communalism. Communitarianism simply notes that an individual is at least partly defined by his or her religious/philosophical commitments, community and traditions. Therefore, it is entirely appropriate to claim that one is a Hindu/Muslim/Sikh/Christian/atheist etc, and to take legitimate pride in one’s community or be ashamed of it when there is good reason to be.

Communalism is different. Here one’s identity and the existence and interests of one’s community are viewed, even defined, as necessarily opposed to others. It is communal to believe or act in a way that presupposes that one can’t be a Hindu without being anti-Muslim, or vice-versa. Communalism is communitarianism gone sour. It is to see each other as enemies locked in a permanent war with one another. Every decent Indian national should be against communalism. But no one should decry legitimate forms of communitarianism. It is simply wrong to conflate communitarianism with communalism.

Attention must also be drawn to another problem of Indian secularism. Our education system often fails to distinguish religious instruction and religious education. No publicly funded school or college should have religious instruction, best done at home or in privately funded schools; but reasonable, decent education should include elementary knowledge of all religious traditions. A deeper understanding of these traditions is vital, for it would enable students to discern their strengths and weaknesses and identify what in them is worth preserving or discarding. But Indians come out of their education system without any critical understanding of their religio-philosophical traditions. As a result, a defence of our own religious traditions or critique of others is shallow and frequently mischievous. This too is fake secularism.

What is to be done?

What then must be expected from real, genuine secularism? Justice to all citizens, affirmation of all reasonable religious identities, rejection of majority communalism, careful defence of legitimate minority rights only when accompanied by a robust critique of minority extremism, and a critical appraisal of religions with a deeper, empathetic grasp of their traditions. The government’s primary business is to prevent religion-based violence, oppression and discrimination. Perhaps, those outside the government should attend to its other functions. Together, we may just rescue our genuine secularism.

Rajeev Bhargava is Professor, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi


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