National Interest: Secularism is dead!

This anti-Modi battle cry is lazy, illiberal and an affront to Muslims — and to Hindus.

Written by Shekhar Gupta | New Delhi | Updated: April 18, 2014 11:52 pm

This anti-Modi battle cry is lazy, illiberal and an affront to Muslims — and to Hindus.

If the opinion polls turn out to be generally correct, and Narendra Modi comes to power, it will unleash an angry flurry of obituaries of Indian secularism. Last week, some of India’s most respected public intellectuals signed a joint appeal to save the idea of India from Modi. That his rise is a crucial turn in the Hindutva project that began with the Babri Masjid demolition. That nobody and nothing will be able to resist this wave of saffron communalism. Not the liberals among the majority Hindus, not our great institutions and, least of all, Muslims.

Nothing could be lazier, more cowardly, illiberal or unfair to all three. Let me try to explain.

I said in a television discussion on NDTV 24×7 last week that India was not a secular country because only its minorities wished it to be secular. India is secular because its Hindu majority wants it to be so. I said, also, that if I were an Indian Muslim, I couldn’t be faulted for thinking sometimes that both sides on the secular divide in this election were hell bent on fighting their ideological battle to the last Muslim. It drew quite a bit of comment and I think it deserves a more detailed elaboration than a sound bite would allow.

This is how the picture would look to an Indian Muslim. First, the BJP, it would seem, has accepted that Muslims won’t vote for it, and it couldn’t care less. It would simply contest this election with, to take liberties with a golfing metaphor, a handicap of 15 per cent. The BJP is therefore not even bothering to address Muslim concerns and fears specifically. The “secular” group, led by the Congress, on the other hand, is pitchforking India’s Muslims into this unequal fight against the BJP. As if the responsibility of saving our secularism lies with our Muslim minority. An Indian Muslim would find it both unfair and worrying.

To say that only Muslim consolidation can stop Modi, or at least limit his mandate, is unfair to the Hindu majority as well. It is as if all of the Hindus have joined the RSS and have no faith in constitutional secularism. This is rubbish. Because if such was the case,  Modi would probably equal Rajiv Gandhi’s 1984 mandate of 415, if not better it. No such thing is about to happen. The most generous opinion poll estimates put the NDA’s vote share in the mid-30s, which accounts for just over a third of India’s Hindus. The remaining majority will be voting for others. And most of these 30-odd per cent would vote for the BJP/NDA not because they want to build grand temples, spank the Muslims or banish them to Pakistan. They will be voting in search of an alternative to the weakest, most incompetent, uncommunicative and incoherent full-term government in our history. Having voted in the UPA so enthusiastically for a second time, they are going elsewhere, in search of jobs, more buying power, stability and confidence. To insinuate that this mass of Hindus will be voting Modi because they have suddenly turned communal is unfair to them.

It is also intellectually lazy, morally cynical and politically disastrous. Put more simply, it is a bit like saying that Hindus have been voting for the Congress and other “secular” forces all these decades because they were not given a convincing saffron option.

India gave itself a secular, liberal constitution because a vast majority of all its people, in fact almost unanimously, determined that this was the finest formulation for nation-building in a land as diverse and complex as ours. The Constituent Assembly had participation from across the many ideological divides. The document it drafted has now acquired the status of scripture and nobody in mainstream politics dares to question it. The man credited with leading that process, Ambedkar, has been added to our pantheon of all-party gods.

It is also unique. Unlike Western countries, where secularism means living with one or two faiths, Christianity and Judaism or Islam, India is a deeply religious country, and peopled by every religion invented, including the many thousand variants of Hinduism. As Wendy Doniger says in her magisterial book, The Hindus — the one Penguin pulped, quivering with fear in the face of a man called Dina Nath Batra — Hinduism is the “Ellis Island of religions”. Pluralism and diversity are deeply ingrained in it, “the lines between different beliefs and practices are permeable membranes”. That is why, she says, there are countless more narratives of Hinduism than the ones defined by Sanskrit, Brahmins and the Gita. And if I may dare to make my own risky addition to that list of defining three, by the RSS or VHP.

In a country where the determinants of identity change every 10 miles, from religion to caste to language to ethnicity to culture, tribe, sub-tribe and region, secularism is the glue needed to keep it all together. It isn’t just a charter to protect Muslims. The Hindus need it as much as them. That is all the more reason why India is secular, and must remain so.

Indian Muslims can, in fact, complain that over the decades, they have been taken for granted and offered a minimal political deal in return for their votes: to give them physical protection from the Hindu right. I know some will argue that even that promise was never really kept. But the truth is, the Muslim vote has been hostage to fear. Explaining why he had joined the BJP now, M.J. Akbar said to me that in the “Congress/secular” view so far, the Indian Muslim had to conform to one of three stereotypes: the decadent, decrepit feudal with sherwani fraying at the collar, as portrayed in the 1960s’ “Muslim socials” like Mere Mehboob, a riot victim like the crying Gujarati with folded hands in that infamous 2002 portrait, or a petty criminal in the image of Haji Mastan, even if sometimes with a sacrificing heart of gold.

Since he hasn’t delivered, despite my asking him several times to put this in an article, I am borrowing the idea. That mainstream, liberal politics in India has deliberately failed to treat the Muslim as a mainstream Indian. The extreme and most shameful manifestation of this was Azam Khan’s claim that the peaks of Kargil were conquered not by Hindu soldiers of our army, but by Muslims with the battle cry of Allah-o-Akbar. This is not a secular claim, but amounts to spreading communalism to the one institution that remains so secular, the army. It is true that Muslim soldiers fought alongside the Hindus and the rest in Kargil. Two of the battalions with mostly Muslim soldiers, 12 JAK LI and 22 Grenadiers, suffered heavy casualties.

But to now view them in isolation, through a sectarian prism, and pit them competitively against their fellow soldiers from other faiths is not secularism. It isn’t even pseudo-secularism. It is the most cynical, anti-minority communalism. That is why this newspaper and this writer had objected so furiously to the Sachar Committee’s misplaced idea of investigating the recruitment patterns and numbers of Muslims in the army (‘Kitne Musalman hain?’, National Interest, IE, February 18, 2006,

The fundamental values of our secular Constitution sustain because of our institutions, which are trusted as fair and secular. The Election Commission can send Imran Masood to jail, ban Azam Khan and Amit Shah and then let one off with an apology. Some will call it unfair but nobody calls it communal. The Supreme Court, the UPSC, the armed forces, the mainstream media and the public intellectual class are, by and large, liberal and secular. Of course, these institutions will be tested by such a fundamental ideological shift on Raisina Hill.

But that is why the founding fathers invented them. We need to strengthen them, preserve their credibility and freedoms to protect and strengthen our secularism. It is too hasty to write its epitaph. Or to hunt for a sabbatical to a liberal campus on the American east coast until some post-Modi secular resurrection. I am conscious that this column is being written on Good Friday. But that is purely coincidental.

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  1. B
    Mar 8, 2015 at 11:15 am
    Well what can one expected from a self proclaimed leftist liberal. Six and half decades of appeasing Muslims ( not minorities because they cannot under any cirstanced be defined as minorities because, they are the second largest set of potion(without control) in India. The problem with the media is that they have lost the coziness and opportunity for whining they had for the last six and a half decades. May we call jealousy and helplessness!!!!!!!!
  2. S
    Mar 5, 2015 at 12:22 pm
    British ruled India got divided on the lines of religion - India was not secular. MMS promised first right on Indian resources to Muslims - India is not secular. Muslims of India vote collectively on the basis of there own communal interests- India is not secular. AND ABOVE ALL- Holy Quran considers Hindus as Kaafirs(Ignorant) and exhorts Muslims to educate them through Jihad which implies that all believing in that Text can never be secular.Hence with the non secular second majority India does not have any chance of being secular.
  3. R
    Raju Charles
    Mar 9, 2015 at 7:01 pm
    Secularism and Justice! No more reservation based on wicked caste and religion! Affirmative Action for all! One India,not caste India! Let India Be Strong!
  4. S
    Steve Bakewell
    Jan 7, 2015 at 4:04 am
    Muslims are not a minority they are the second majoirty.. the real minorities are the tribals,buddhists,sikhs,parsis and the dalits&brahmins.
  5. Z
    Apr 19, 2014 at 1:33 pm
    Can't agree any more, so true
  6. D
    Debashree Mukherjee
    Sep 15, 2014 at 3:23 pm
    Although various pronouncements of theConsution guarantee the ‘neutrality’of the state towards all religions and the freedom of ‘conscience’ of individuals against any form of forceful conversion,a huge void has been created between theory and practise. These days, religionis increasingly being used as a tool to pit one community against the other,thereby sowing seeds of sectarianism and communalism. Religious sentiments ofpeople very often become the soft target of parties and insutions, therebytriggering unsocial activities affecting the harmony between communities. Eventoday, minorities in India neither feel secure nor do they feel as being a partof the country itself. The reason behind such discrimination is that whileIndia is tolerant towards all religions, majority of people here are bound by‘Hindu’ feelings or sentiments. This pride of consuting the majority of thepotion in the country ultimately manifests itself in acts of exterminationof minorities, ault on the dignity of women and men alike, forcefulconversion of religion, destruction of religious insutions; communal riotsso on and so forth. While such atrocities are by all means penalising, seldomdo steps are taken to this effect. The reasons are by now clear as to whysecularism is a dying concept in the Indian context. The situation would onlyworsen day by day, unless men are wise enough to foresee the future they arethrusting themselves into.
  7. H
    Harihar Mani
    Apr 19, 2014 at 1:22 pm
    M.A. Akbar 's column used to appear in TOI under;Seize within' .He is one Muslim in India who has got it right.I have one beef with him.I'm using the word beef with purpose why it took him this long to leave Congress'I will have this to bone pick with him for long.Never mind past Dear Sehkar saheb,I now days recommand my friends to read your column,as you have got your act to-gather right now.Better late than never.The problem ,the rise of Modi and BJP today is the direct result of UPA2 and neglect of interest of the liberal sensible Hindus like me and friend like fellow friend from Hyderabad one muslim mr Mehmood.We are dislusioned by this blatant apeat and casting Hindus in 2 group good and evil--one who are followers of RSS,one who are followers of Sonia. Nothing can harm India also Congress more.You are right the 'idea of sicular' India is because of Hindu tolerance and to put Muslims as saving sicularism is false,just look around 36 muslim lands and you will know how tolerant and sicular they are.I rest my case..o,the Sun has risen there will now'Rosani on earth now!!'.This how rediculous these pseudo sicular sound and that is why Modi will win.
  8. J
    Apr 19, 2014 at 8:21 am
    Very well saidpliments.Let us hope that the secularism as defined and practiced by "secular parties" is given a decent burial after 16th May 2014.After 16th May, Hindus and Muslims should come together and appeal to all political parties to stop worrying about them as Hindus or Muslims.It may sound rhetorical on part of Modi but he is right when he says that he will worry and work for all 125 crore Indians.If he does that honestly and effectively, no need to save secularism.
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