Monday, 30 March 2020

Secularism Redux In Modi-Fied Way

Updated: June 20, 2015 10:00 am

Despite claims made for religious impartiality the State of India has often intervened in the religious matters; this particularly holds in case of management of temples and religious institutions, such as monasteries and monastic heads. It is beyond doubt that some provisions of the Constitution and some of the laws passed do interfere with the religious customs and practices of Hindus. The religious tolerance or non-intervention does not mean secularism

As it celebrated its first birthday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is turning a secular leaf, though a sweepingly different shade from the UPA model of appeasement secularism. The government has decided to go for an image makeover where it will look more open and secular with a clear thrust on nationalising minorities. The PM has assigned the task of building bridges with minority leaders with a nationalistic bend of mind to his Cabinet colleagues like Minister of Finance Arun Jaitley and Minister of State for Minority Affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi. And they are already on their job.

Jaitley recently met 13 Christian leaders and discussed ways to improve the relationship between the government and the Christian community. Similarly, Naqvi is busy building bridges with nationalist Muslim group leaders. He also arranged a meeting between Modi and a group of Muslim leaders last month. Though not with major following, these leaders, including Allama Raza Tasleem Shahib of Barelvi Sharif, Syed Abdul Rashid Ali Shahi Darga and Syed Ali Akbar of Tajpura Sharif of Chennai, are crucial in connecting with the community. And most recently, Modi assured a delegation of Muslim leaders that he would be available to address their issues even at 12 in the night. Interacting with the leaders, the PM said he neither believes in politics which seeks to divide people on communal lines, nor will he ever speak communal language. The politics of majority and minority has caused a lot of damage to the country the PMO said in a statement after Modi’s meeting with the delegation of 30 Muslim leaders led by Imam Umer Ahmed Ilyasi. As it seems, Modi’s efforts to reach out to the minorities are paying off. A day after Modi met with a 30-member delegation of All India Imam Organisation, the BJP claimed that as many as 30 lakh Muslims have joined the party in a recent membership drive.

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 All these events have started the all- pervasive debate on secularism yet again. Over years, there is a rising opinion among politicos and the public that the twisted meaning that secularism has acquired over the decades needs to be debated and corrected. The mainstream media has so far swept this other and the correct view under the carpet and perpetuated the distortion. As a result, the Indian secularism is neither Indian in the sense of equal protection to all faiths nor Western in the sense of equal repugnance to all religions.

Donald Smith in his book, India As A Secular State defines a secular state as one which guarantees individual and corporate freedom of religion, deals with individual as citizen irrespective of religion nor does it seek to promote or interfere with religion which has been incorporated in the Indian Constitution too. Smith laments the fact that the Indian State, in spite of constitutional guarantee for liberty of the individual and the liberty of corporate religious bodies, intervenes in religious matters. This has been described as inconsistency in the growth of secularism in India. He further writes that despite claims made for religious impartiality the State of India has often intervened in the religious matters; this particularly holds in case of management of temples and religious institutions, such as monasteries and monastic heads.

It is beyond doubt that some provisions of the Constitution and some of the laws passed do interfere with the religious customs and practices of Hindus. The religious tolerance or non-intervention does not mean secularism. Rather partial non-intervention has led to religious fundamentalism in place of growth of humanism. Thus religious fundamentalism has been indicative of a breakdown of secularisation process in India. It has brought escalation of ethno-religious conflicts and national disintegration.

Critics have alleged that the Indian polity has not been able to develop along true secular lines and it suffers from serious shortcomings. Some of the important factors that have impeded the growth of normal secularism in India are as follows:

Problem of Uniform Civil Code

A problem of uniform civil code is essential in the direction of bringing about national identity and the integration of members of all religious communities under the umbrella of one common citizenship. Following independence, it was hoped that this step would be taken to usher in secular society. But unfortunately till now no progress has been made in the evolution of a uniform civil code and today its adoption appears to be more problematic than it was at the time when the Constitution was framed.

Thus, the Muslim minority compelled the government in 1986 in Shah Bano case to enact legislation concerning maintenance of divorced women which it felt was closer to its Personal Law and, therefore, religiously more acceptable. Modern secular considerations, and the opinion of those Muslims who took a secular position, were given no cognizance by the government. Similarly, other minorities like Christians and Sikhs, too, have given some indications that would render the formulation and enforcement of a uniform civil code an impossibility. Such limitations indicate that the path leading to a truly secular society in India is strewn with numerous hurdles.

Politics and Religion

The political parties in India have tended to use religion and caste factors for the promotion of their political interests and thus greatly undermined the secular values. The growing communalism has also greatly hampered the growth of genuine secularism in India. Despite abandonment of communal electorates and a ban on the use of religion for soliciting votes, the various political parties and groups have frequently made use of communal factors to get into power. Unless this feeling of communalism is shunned, secularism cannot take firm roots in the Indian soil.

The responsibility of undermining India’s limited secularism falls upon the shoulders of the leaders of the post-Nehru era, many of whom are not intellectually enlightened, because of their traditional background, to understand and appreciate genuine secularism. These leaders are lacking in true commitment to the secularisation of Indian society, not only in terms of developing non-religious outlook but also in terms of developing a rational and scientific temper. This failure of the leadership has thwarted the progressive separation of religion and politics in India.

Failure of the Government in Evolving a Just Economic Order

For the past 67 years, the failure of the government to evolve a just economic order and eliminate poverty also gave a serious set back to secularism. The common masses suffering from deprivation and grinding poverty could not develop any faith in the polity which failed to provide them basic necessities and consequently did not attach much importance to secular values.

Cultural Symbols and Secularism

Many public rituals and ceremonials like bhoomi pujan, breaking of coconuts on inaugural or auspicious occasions, performing of aarti and applying tilak to distinguished guests are perceived by Hindus as cultural or nationalistic expressions, but to non-Hindus these are manifestations of Hindu culture. The confusion between Hindu and Indian has largely arisen in the last forty years. The cultural dimension of secularism has been totally neglected, and we have, therefore, neither attempted to develop a composite Indian culture based on a true amalgam of all religious sub-cultures, nor have we developed a new culture based on secular values, with emphasis on secular symbols. Of course, this was not an easy task but efforts too have been lacking.

Of late, an attempt has been made by a sizeable section of the Indian society to equate Hindu cultural symbols as national culture. This is possibly the expression of what has been called the Hindu backlash, which is believed to be the consequence of rise in Muslim and Hindu fundamentalism. But this, or any other, explanation does not condone the lapses of the State in this regard. Such insensitivity to the feelings of the minorities destroys the credibility of the secular professions of the State.

Due to the limited interpretation of secularism, as being confined to State policy only, the religious identities and other sub-cultural differences of Indian citizens have continued to remain strong. In societies where such distinctions are emphasised, groups and communities remain distanced from one another.

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Minority Group Perceptions

Apart from education and jobs, prejudice and discrimination are perceived as operating in the matter of intergroup violence and conflict. There is now ample evidence to show that at times the administrative machinery of the State does not operate impartially at the time of communal riots; those responsible for ensuring law and order act in a non-secular way and tend to victimise members of both the majority and minority groups.

The Defective Educational System

The defective educational system which has encouraged the people to think interms of groups and communities, has also failed to inculcate secular ideas in the minds of young students and promote feeling of mutual give and take.

The Distortion of the Constit-utional and Democratic Institutions

The distortion of the Constitutional and democratic institutions has also greatly contributed to the weakening of the secularism in India. The Constitution and the political institutions have not worked the way they were envisaged by the framers of the Constitution. For example, though use of religion is not permitted for soliciting votes, yet political parties have made free use of factors like religion, caste etc. to secure votes. All this has hampered the growth of a true secular polity in the country.

26-31 Cover Story_Layout 1_Page_3All this said and done, the question arises whether the government of the day or it is better to say whether Narendra Modi is trying to redefine secularism in the Indian context. This issue has set tongues wagging in the Indian political sphere for a long time now. The issue has to be seen in its entirety. When Narendra Modi performed Ganga Aarati on his return to Varanasi to thank the voters who had elected him, some so-called secular intellectuals began asking whether Modiâs Aarati was in tune with secular politics. Given the gist in the Indian secular discourse, they might not have asked this question if Modi had offered a chaddar to Ajmer Dargaha ritual in Ajmer. Ganga Aarati is a ritual which every believing Hindu going to Varansi does. Modi, a believing Hindu, performed the Aarati which he was banned from doing before the elections. On one side, the electronic media shows Modi performing Ganga Aarati for competitive TRP rating and the print media publishes the news and photos of the event for sales, and on the other, debate starts on whether Modi’s act of personal faith was secular!

Even earlier, during the Lok Sabha election campaign when, at Faizabad, Modi addressed a public rally from the dais, against the backdrop of Rama’s picture and that of the Ayodhya temple, the secularists again raised a hue and cry charging that it was a religious appeal. And the Election Commission even issued a show-cause notice on the issue. Everyone fell into silence when the BJP cited the great Urdu poet Allama Iqbal, who said that Rama was not possession of Hindus alone but equally an Imam of Muslims! The Indian secular discourse, termed a vote-fetching machine, has always become increasingly wicked. Lament this with a fact that commenting on his victory, a newspaper said in a front-page edit that symbolisms of Narendra Modi were an expression of the cultural nationalism of the BJP which, it contended, was not consistent with secular polity.

The worse thing is that the Indian definition of secularism started to degenerate at the start only. Jawaharlal Nehru mixed his personal scepticism with secularism and distorted the very definition of secularism. In spite of allaying all religions from the sphere of politics, it started at the wrong foot. Hindu leaders publicly forsaking or privatising their own tradition came to be regarded as symbolic of secularism.

Worse, all thanks to the distorted secularism, gradually even issues of national values have become communal symbols. When the BJP released its manifesto for the Lok Sabha elections in which it had mentioned its three distinct issues the common civil code, Article 370 and Ram Mandir it was dubbed the three Hindutva issues back to the for by many so-called secular media. These set the tone as if these issues are Hindu religious demands and are against the fabric of secularism. Now, let us check the facts. Take Article 370. The chapter [Chapter XXI] in which the Article figures was originally titled as Temporary and Transitional Provisions meaning that the Article was temporary in nature. Article 370 was specifically sub-headed Temporary provisions with respect to the State of Jammu and Kashmir. This was in 1950. Pundit Nehru told the Lok Sabha on November 23, 1963, that Art 370 would be eroded away. All other articles from Art 371 A to 371 H in the chapter are titled special provisions. Art 370 is not. It still remains as a temporary and transitional provision. So, it is amply clear that the demand of revocation of the temporary and transitional provision of Art 370 cannot be dubbed a Hindutva or a communal issue. Whether it is to be revoked or not is a different issue for debate. Similarly take the issue of common civil code. Art 44 of the Constitution says that the government shall endeavour to secure for the citizens a uniform civil code throughout the territory of India. So, how one can claim that providing a constitutionally approved mandate of uniform civil code, is against secularism and a Hindutva issue? And yet, the media clubs these two political and constitutional issues as part of Hindutva issues and turns them against secularism.

All of the above-mentioned examples show the mindset of the so-called secularists, who are hell bent on creating an image of the government as anti-minority and against the secular fabric of the country. It is this mind-set, which has to be changed by the government of the day and it has started working in this regard. The meeting of Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the leaders of different communities is an attempt to building bridges with minority leaders with a nationalistic bend of mind.

As part of this strategy, the Ministry of Minority Affairs has been told to prepare a list of national faces from the Muslim and Christian communities who have made contributions to the nation. Their fields of contribution could be cultural, political or academic. They could be past heroes or current ones. The key is that they all must have made contributions to the nation as a whole, said an official with the ministry as quoted in The Sunday Standard.

The ministry is collating the names of minority leaders who were part of the national movement. The ministry has also been asked to get in touch with the community leaders regarding the collection of names. The list includes freedom fighters Vakkom Abdul Khadir Moulvi, Ubaidullah Sindhi, Begum Hazrat Mahal, George Joseph, Akkamma Cherian and leaders of the Parsi community Pherozeshah Mehta and Bhikaji Cama. Also in the list are poet Iqbal and proponent of Unani medicine system Hakim Ajmal Khan. The next step in this regard will be to collate the names of those from the minority communities who have contributed to the post-Independence India.

As it seems, promoting these names will work in two ways. First, it will help in fostering a sense of collective national pride in the minds of minority communities and will allay their fears, and secondly, it will also help in creating a secular image of the government.

Recently in an interview to PTI, PM Narendra Modi has clarified: Any criminal act against any individual or institution in the country is to be condemned. The attackers must be strongly punished as per law. I have said this before and I say it again: any discrimination or violence against any community will not be tolerated. My position on this is very clear: Sab ka saath, sab ka vikas. We stand for every one of the 1.25 billion Indians regardless or caste or creed and we will work for the progress of every one of them. This answers surely will allay the fears of the minorities and it also assures the public of the nation that the total perverted sense of secularism will be redefined.

By Nilabh Krishna

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