Arch rivals the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party continue to trade accusations against each other of playing the communal card in the campaign to the general elections. These are classic instances of the confusion over what secularism is in India. Restoring clarity on the conceptual aspects is critical to rescue the theory and practice of secularism, from the crisis it has encountered internationally over the decades, argues Rajeev Bhargava, senior fellow and former director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi, in an exclusive interview.
The exercise is imperative, says Dr. Bhargava, as the only realistic future for secularism, both in India and in western democracies, is to articulate and consolidate the indigenous strand of the doctrine that is found in our Constitution.
Model of Indian secularism Indian secularism advocates a particularly distinct stance of separation between state and religion, which Dr. Bhargava dubs the model of principled distance. This is most unlike the absolute two-way separation practised in the U.S., or one-sided state interference in religious matters, as it obtains in France. The Indian Constitution, on the other hand, authorises active state intervention to protect the freedom of religion for all and to eliminate caste and gender inequalities sanctioned by religion, as well as complete non-interference in religious affairs. The legal prohibition of untouchability is the most audacious example of state intervention in religion in a caste-ridden society, Dr. Bhargava points out. The provision of state funding of educational institutions, regardless of religious affiliation, is an instance of the commitment to protect the freedom of religion.
In a scrupulous adherence to the principled-distance model lies the future of secularism in a multi-religious society such as India. Embracing this model would enable western democracies to better reconcile religious pluralism, given that inter-religious diversity is a more recent, post-world-war phenomenon in those countries, he asserts.
Now, the Congress’ charge of communalism against the BJP was occasioned when the founder of the Art of Living, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, allegedly made politically endearing observations on that party’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar also averred that it was difficult to be at once spiritual, apolitical and socially active in India, in response to accusations that his organisation was backing the BJP candidate from East Delhi.
The BJP’s counter-attack on the Congress was triggered following the party president Sonia Gandhi’s recent meeting with the Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid, supposedly to prevent any potential split in the Muslim vote. On Dr. Bhargava’s reading of Indian secularism, the actions of neither Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, nor Ms Gandhi would be legally liable to the charge of communalism.
The author of The Promise of India’s Secular Democracy (2010), is categorical that “In any democracy, on the basis of any interest or identity, people can start a political movement and also form a political party. So, the mere fact that a party says that it stands for Hindu or Muslim interests and takes part in democratic politics does not make such a party communal.” Indian secularism is violated only when religious identity is politicised in a manner that causes injustice to other communities.
These are communitarian parties, says Dr. Bhargava. However, “a party becomes communal if it does not observe the constraints imposed by the secular part of the Constitution. Indian secularism, within the Constitution, does not encourage any public expression, or any pursuit of interest of any community which is necessarily at the expense of another community; which articulates its interests in a way which deliberately causes harm to another community; which offends another community in a serious way which will be upheld by the judges of the courts and so on.”
The ongoing election campaign is replete with examples that Dr. Bhargava would bracket as cases when the communitarian turns communal. The most notorious of them all are the provocative utterances of Azam Khan of the Samajwadi Party government in Uttar Pradesh. The hate speeches and personal threat from Imran Masood, the Congress candidate of Saharanpur, against Mr. Modi, or the equally venomous remarks of BJP leader, Amit Shah, are the others.
The latter’s exhortations at a rally in Shamli in Western U.P. to the electorate to caste a revenge vote in the polls is clearly not innocent in the context of the 2013 communal riots in Muzaffarnagar.
Secularism as political theme
Dr. Bhargava offers a strong rebuttal of the secularism versus development binary that has come to dominate the current electoral debates. “Development is intrinsic to the secular project in a religiously diverse society, to caste in a caste-ridden society and to class in a class-divided society,” he affirmed. “If some communities have been denied the benefits of development on grounds of religion, then we should say that this development is anti-secular.”
The implications of this position are obvious enough, considering how often governments and political parties trumpet claims of development or inclusive growth, largely without evidence in terms of community disaggregated data. A high proportion of Muslims are engaged in the informal sector of the economy, according to the report of the 2005 High Level Committee under Justice Rajinder Sachar. The implications of this scenario are especially acute, given India’s abysmally low provision of social protection for the general population.
In the event, secularism as a political and electoral theme has returned to centre-stage, unmasked by the rhetoric on development and governance. The BJP’s manifesto contains all the contentious and polarising promises that once went to make it the party with a difference. The construction of the Ram temple at Ayodhya, abrogation of Article 370 and the adoption of a uniform civil code — issues that in one way or another appear to be unjust to Indian Muslims. These could never be abandoned by the BJP, given its implacable opposition to India’s pluralism, and constitutional guarantees to the minorities. Secularism is a prerequisite to religious freedom.