“India seems to be fighting about secularism, without first deciding what it does or should mean”

“There is evidence that the slump is not cyclical but secular”, illustrates Oxford Dictionary of Difficult Words to explain a ‘difficultword, secular. While the aforementioned talks of Secular as an economic fluctuation or trend that persists over an indefinitely long period, it is uncanny how it could well have been talking of the debate on secularism in India.

Fortunately, or otherwise, the predicament surrounding the concept of secularism is a universal phenomenon.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s Turkey, which almost always votes for Islamist parties favouring the Sharia, is currently facing unprecedented pressure from within to undo its secular character; something that it has acquired over 80 years at the point of the army’s gun. A little away in France, Nicolas Sarkozy, chief of President Jacques Chirac’s UMP party, has argued for amending France’s law separating church and state. It is to be noted that the 1905-born law bars any state funding of religious groups and is the cornerstone of French secularism. USA, of course, has become the driver of an urgent debate on secularism by virtue of its “either you’re with us or you’re with them” laced ‘war on terror’.

The cultures cited are significant because, apart from India, they, more of less, represent the concept of secularism in the most significant contexts viz. the world’s only example of secularism in an Islamic society, extreme secularism in a western society and secularism in the melting pot of the free world.

Evidently, the aforementioned interpretation, where the state tries to either assert itself over or stay exclusive of religion, is quite unlike the Indian reading of secularism viz. ‘Sarva Dharma Sambhaav’ or equality of all religions.

However, what does equality of all religions mean anyway? Does the state have a bit of all religions or is there a split between the state and religion, wherein the state is merely a moderator between the various religions? If the state does have a bit of all religions, would the chosen doctrine of one religion then be binding for a conflicting doctrine of another religion? Similarly, if the state does not have a religion, would it supercede the ideals of all religions, under all circumstances?

But the most fundamental query is why must the state be distinct of religion? Moreover, is it possible in India?

Nothing illustrates the logic behind the separation of State and religion than the present debate in the United States about the appointment of John Roberts as the new Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Roberts, the liberals fear, might make abortion illegal and lift the ban on school prayer because of his strong Catholic upbringing. Clearly, State is not an inanimate entity; State too, after all, is its people. And people who form the governing arm of the State too have individuality; individuality of preferences and prejudices.

Yet, the answer to the latter query is ‘no’; unless, we decide to alter religion’s status in Indian polity with French ruthlessness. That seems improbable; for, the Indian State not only recognizes the right of expression of the various religions in polity matters but also has a stake in religious institutions.

Interestingly, none of the many religions of India has ever had reservations about this proximity of religion with the State. The conflict has primarily been about the nature and extent of the State’s relation with one religion vis-à-vis other religions; thereby, probably, indicating the failure of the Indian State in executing the idea to everyone’s satisfaction.

Adding to the dissatisfaction is the fact that even 58 years of myriad experiments with governance have not managed to throw up the root of the State’s failure. All the same, the Indian State might want to study a recent editorial in the Daily Telegraph of UK and reassess its own methods of discharge. Published in the wake of the recent bomb attacks on London’s subway system, the editorial had outlined the following as the fundamentals of law in that country: rule of law as defined by common law and Parliament; upward flow of political legitimacy, from the will of the people and the traditions of the constitution (not downwards, from interpretation of the will of God); the monopoly of state in matters of coercion (with violence by individuals and groups being illegitimate); nation being ultimate object of political loyalty (not religion) and free expression of a plurality of religious beliefs.

India, unfortunately, has not been blessed too often with straight answers. Partly because it is not always possible to achieve that in a nation that is a complex union of cultures; and largely because we don’t really excel in finding answers. Almost every discussion on the issue of secularism in India leads to a couple of, now drained, addresses like 1947, 1984, 1989, 1992, 2002 etc. In the process, not only is the present context buried under a deluge of influences, newer interpretations of and further hardening of history is achieved.

Late Dr. Rafique Zakaria, the eminent social scientist, in his book ‘Indian Muslims: Where have they gone wrong?’ had suggested that till a reconciliation happens with Pakistan, specifically a reunion of the two countries but with sovereignty vested in both along the EU model, the Hindu-Muslim chasm would remain. In other words, Dr. Zakaria had diagnosed the partition of India as the root cause of the problem.

The thing with theories, like that of Dr. Zakaria’s, is that no one quite knows how much they can be stretched! Injustice done anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, Martin Luther King had once remarked. And lo behold, there are human bombs going in every part of the world to avenge the injustice of Palestine, Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq. Where the argument fails is in recognizing that blood was cheap for the proponents of the present mayhem even before any of those addresses of discontent were born.

Religious fanatics, ironically, quite like the Communists, possess total disregard for political boundaries. Alas, it does not bloom out of any poetic dream of a world sans boundaries. It is born out of dangerous obsession with power; power of not only living according to the whims of one’s doctrine but also of making the entire world follow the suite.

A classic example of how ‘one’s doctrine’ is never the absolute form of any ideology comes from M. A. Muqtedar Khan, author of ‘American Muslims: Bridging Faith and Freedom’ (2002) in his write-up ‘The Myth of Secularism’. He states that the extremists (have been brainwashed to) believe that portion of Quran which says,

…And if one seeks a religion other than Islam, it will never be accepted from him; and he is among the losers in the Hereafter” (Quran 3:85)

In the process, Khan continues, the extremists completely disregard the voice of reason, which has been mentioned twice in Quran to override the aforementioned decree. The voice of peace says,

Those who believe (in the Qur’an), and those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Christians and the Sabians,- any who believe in God and the Last Day, and do good deeds, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve” (Quran 2:62 and 5:69)

Clearly, selective interpretation of an ideology in the garb of the ultimate tenet is the ill that is trying to swallow the world, and indeed India. It holds just as true for the Islamic extremists as it does for the ‘white man’s burden’ psychology of the Jesuit Missionaries, the nauseating militancy of VHP, Bajrang Dal, Babbar Khalsa and also of all of the thousands of religions and religious sects of India.

Making matters worse, in the clutter of noises, rituals or symbols of religion are getting confused as the soul of religion itself. And there lies India’s present waterloo. Ideologies-sans-reason are coming thick and fast from all quarters – all laced with suspicion for the ‘other’ and the personal and political agendas of their own. The fatal consequence of that can be seen in the form of perceptions taking on the garb of truth. To each perception, its own truth has become the order of the day.

So while the idea of the ‘common law’ is taken by a vocal section of India’s Muslim community as a hidden agenda of the ‘Hindutva brigade’, their opposite numbers take the refusal of the concept as the Muslim community’s resistance to assimilating itself into the mainstream.

The final nail in the coffin is put through a blatant attempt by an alarming number of media houses in propagating their own viewpoint as the solitary truth; a tendency that arguably traces its roots to gradual aligning of various members of the fourth estate with political parties of their interest. So, we have ‘feelings about an issue’ that is fueled by a 24X7 bombardment of selective portions of truth. And who can argue against a hearsay-turned-into-a-folklore-turned-into-a-tenet, right?

Amidst the entire din, one would expect a heartfelt urge for a dialogue and resolution of the conflict at the earliest. What one comes across, however, is at best an alibi and at worst, an accusation across the table from every single soul who has a stake in the state of affairs. And that’s when every August the 15th reminds the country of the vacuum left by the tall leaders of yesteryears. Admittedly, in today’s age of high-risk transition, there is not a single leader of national stature and/or acceptability who can take a lead in belling the cat of religious intolerance. And with none visible in the distant horizon too, it is time to start worrying.

Unless there is a unanimity over the nature and extent of the Indian State’s role in religious matters, the current imbroglio stands to last. A few coercive changes of law and few persuasive offerings to all the concerned should go a long away in achieving the ideal multi-religious nation that we had set out to become.

Finally, it would be worth reminding ourselves of the time when Kings and religious heads used to consult each other but temples were invariably built either on distant mountain-tops or in the middle of nature. Are we game for a little relocation of mind, matter and material?

(Originally written in 2006, published in League magazine in 2007)


Author. Entrepreneur. Filmmaker. Journalist.

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