National Interest: Secularism is dead!
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, iexp.in/FC79596)
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.