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The divisiveness of secularism

The BJP’s call to treat all communities ‘equally’ must not ignore the vulnerability of those that are insecure and marginalised.

Published: May 31, 2014 2:12 am
The BJP has for long been distressed about the multicultural rather than the secular dimension. The BJP has for long been distressed about the multicultural rather than the secular dimension.

Gurpreet Mahajan

Looking at the number of seats that are stacked on the side of the BJP-led NDA government, with Narendra Modi as the prime minister, anxieties are running high. While there is some substance to the view that the RSS-backed BJP government may communalise society, the argument that we are likely to see more inter-community conflicts is not convincing. This is not because the centrist pulls in the Indian polity will compel Modi to act as a “moderate” but because the BJP understands, better than most, that the ammunition lying in the barracks of the secular can be used effectively to pursue its ideological agenda. One can be strongly secular without being multicultural, and this can place disproportionate burden upon the minorities.

The possibility of invoking the badge of secularism to polarise society may seem absurd to many. We have been schooled to pit the secular against the communal and treat these as opposing categories. But in actuality, the relationship between the secular and the communal is a complicated one. One has only to pause momentarily to see that, in India, parties claiming to be secular raise religious issues and they mobilise people along community lines; communal violence has also occurred under different ideological regimes, so the lines between the secular and the communal are more blurred than is ordinarily assumed.

One could be secular by distancing oneself from all religious communities and supporting no religious activity of any group directly or indirectly; or, one could be neutral by supporting certain activities of all religious communities; or, one could make no distinction between different religious communities and treat all of them in a like manner.

Clearly, no political party in India has followed the first path. All are willing to support some activities, for instance, educational work or the observance of certain religious practices and festivities, of different religious groups. What is perhaps even more striking is that political parties that are tagged as secular adhere neither to the first nor last of these options; that is, they neither separate themselves from all matters ecclesiastical nor treat all religions in exactly the same manner. Most of the time they support selectively some activities of a few groups within some religious communities, and the nature and extent of support they extend also varies from place to place. Eventually, it all comes down to informal networks of clientialism and patronage. The important thing is that neither are all sects within a community treated alike nor are all communities treated in an identical manner. Governments make distinctions all the time, and some of these are backed by a multicultural logic.

Indian democracy has, almost since its inception, worked implicitly with what might be called a majority-minority framework. Governments with undisputed secular credentials have functioned with the multicultural belief that the state has a tendency to lean towards the culture of the majority, and this leaves the minority communities and cultures vulnerable. It is this reading of the minority situation that prompted Nehru to refrain from intervening in the personal laws of the minority communities even as he reformed those of the majority community. The idea that protecting diversity requires a check on the majority community and its inclination to stamp the public sphere with its identity, reflects the same belief. In fact, the decision to leave minority communities free to define their educational and cultural concerns, and to lend support to these activities irrespective of their form, is also an expression of the same multicultural thinking. What is common to this frame of thinking is that it treats minorities differently, placing them in a different and special category.

The Constitution of India made space for the secular along with the multicultural. If it guaranteed equality before the law for all citizens, setting aside all considerations of religion, caste and gender, it also made provision for minorities to set up and administer their own educational institutions and impart education of their choice. Although this is the unique feature of the Indian constitutional structure it is entirely possible to stress on one dimension while neglecting the other, and this is the site of the ideological divide.

The BJP has for long been distressed about the multicultural rather than the secular dimension. It favours uniformity and identical treatment rather than exceptions for minorities. Its longstanding agenda of framing a uniform civil code is justified on this ground of treating all alike. In pushing for equal treatment of all communities, it can claim to be secular. After all, nothing is more “secular” than making all religious identities irrelevant in considerations of public policy.

However, this form of secular action, delinked from its multicultural component, has the potential of dividing society along the lines of religious community. After all, the construction of a uniform civil code would create greater consternation among minorities; and a decision to prescribe a set syllabus for all educational institutions that receive state funding, be they public, private or minority institutions, is likely to create similar anxieties. It is minorities that are likely to feel vulnerable and targeted.

The point is that critics of the BJP misread its agenda. While they proclaim loudly that secularism is likely to be betrayed under their rule, the likelihood is that it is just what secularism can mandate that is likely to create a minority-majority divide and deepen the former’s sense of insecurity. The effects of this agenda of uniformity might be mitigated to some extent if the BJP were to also ensure that treating all communities alike meant that their life and property would be protected equally against all forms of aggression, including targeted inter-community violence. That would be the crucial test, and it is this that will eventually determine just who can claim to be secular.

The writer is professor of  political science at  Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi

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  1. Anil Tandale
    May 31, 2014 at 5:44 am
    It is not understandable how the Consutional mandate of Uniform Civil Code, scripted by the Prophet of secularism, is going to create consternation among the minorities? What rights under which personal laws are enjo by pracioners of non-majoritarian religions in other countries? Let the JNU professor denounce Nehru as a rabid communal for incorporating Article 44 into the Consution. It is this perverted mindset which also treats temporary provision like Article 370 as permanent.
    1. Ramakrishna B C Maiya
      May 31, 2014 at 6:07 am
      But unfortunately - all these years - 67 years to be precise - what secularism means to us is - appeat of minorities - especially muslims to the detriment of very very poor and vulnurable sections in Hindu soceity.
      1. S
        Jun 6, 2014 at 1:27 am
        I imagine the author and most of her peers admire the US and UK. Those countries have a uniform civil code which is supposed to be enforced equally for everybody. People don't get a "free p" just because they belong to a different religion. So why should India have these illogical double standards?Not to mention, the UCC might actually be beneficial for large chunks of the minority potion. Don't Muslim children deserve to learn math and science in school? Don't Muslim women deserve alimony?
        1. K
          May 31, 2014 at 2:30 pm
          The congress party has ruled the nation for many years since independence in 1947 based on religion/caste. This has polarized the Indian society on religion and caste basis. If you define this as congress party's secularism then it has failed miserably. For the last ten years, the corrupt, incompetent hi dynasty rule has left economy in shambles. The congress party has given blind eye to the terror and killing of the Indian citizens by the stan based terrorists, e.g., Mumbai attack, Indian Parliament, etc. I don't think educated Indian electorate will ever accept congress version of secularism again.
          1. M
            Aug 11, 2014 at 11:20 am
            Prof. Gurpreet Mahajan has raised some good questions related to the debate of secularism in India. Especially, in the wake of thumping majority win, by the rightist party BJP in recent Lok Sabha elections. The opinion she has expressed relates to the question; can BJP claim to be a Secular? “In pushing for equal treatment of all communities, it [BJP] can claim to be secular. After all, nothing is more “secular” than making all religious idenies irrelevant in considerations of public policy.” writes Professor Mahajan.Author has rightly dissected the debate in the light of consutional and legal provisions as; secular and multicultural, “The Consution of India made space for the secular along with the multicultural.” She is convinced that secular consutes in treating all equally and alike; i.e. why she points towards “equality before the law for all citizens, setting aside all considerations of religion, caste and gender”, while as multicultural consutes in laying down provisions for minorities to setup their own educational and cultural insutions as guaranteed in Article 25 to 29 of Fundamental Rights. GM thinksthat in the above distinction BJP is in conformity with secular, but it has issues with multicultural aspects; because “It [BJP] favours uniformity and identical treatment rather than exceptions for minorities.” BJP also refers this as ‘appeat’ of minorities by other political parties and non NDA governments.Firstly, GM is benevolently generous in advising BJP led government to undertake meaning of secular as; alike treatment of all. While as the facts are totally contrary,BJP’s problem with multicultural is not because of differential treatment towards minorities. But it wants to homogenize India as a singular eny. BJP strives at making secular as ‘PanthNirpeksh’ [neutrality to sects] and not as ‘DharmaNirpeksh’ [neutrality to religion]. Neither BJP is a nascent political party like Aam Admi Party [AAP], nor Narendra Modi is like Arvind Kejriwal; where one can’t envisage the future recourse from the political rhetoric. BJP has the history of Hindutva agenda with its roots in RSS and Modi has baggage of 2002 Gujarat riots. So, the optimism which would make one to believe that BJP’s aspiration for abolition of multicultural aspects of Indian secularpolity will clear the ground for ‘secular’ is historically ill informed. BJP adheres to the ideology of ‘Bharat mein rehna hai to Ram Ram kehna hai’ [to live in India, one has to say Ram Ram]. It also proclaims ‘Vande Mataram’ and ‘Bharat mata ki jai’, to be the convction slogans of every citizen of country, and in its imaginations it boosts for ‘Akhand Bharat’. These ideological statements may not go well with the all communities, for known reason of coming in conflict with their belief systems. It is this homogenizing and imilationist project, on the ideal type of Hindutva ideology that BJP may mean as ‘secular’, not what author might have benevolently thought as otherwise; to lay the secular foundation of equidistance from the religion and alike treatment of all communities. To such a definition, even west fails to uphold and live up to it, when it comes to stereotyping of certain communities, like the Burqa debate in France or in other states; where state reflects biases of majority community in their case it is Christians. Author has rightly stated that “It is minorities that are likely to feel vulnerable and targeted” under this kind of secularism. But the question arises, even if minorities are ensured of security of life and property; will it be sufficient to rely upon, and on whose terms and urances; a political party or consution? What sense will opposition to Communal Violence Bill by BJP give to minorities? Theinsistence on abolition of Article 370 speaks of homogenizing and imilationist tendencies of right wing parties in India. They want every part of Bharat to be alike and similar to other parts. The very idea of differential or ‘multicultural’ treatment especially if availed by minorities irritates them.Secondly, author invokes a selective reading of Indian consution to justify her point of view – BJP has problem with the ‘multicultural’ aspect. The Articles on equality [Article 14 to 18] equally focus on the ‘equal protection of laws’; with a series of affirmative actions; based on sound logic of history and dominant cultural practices; like abolition of practice of untouchability et al. It is not only equality before law which is appreciated, but ‘equal protection of laws’ is also upheld by same consution. The categories of caste and untouchability are of specific reference to Indian subcontinent, thus are dealtin a best possible way to ensure equality.Articles, 25 to 29 certainly do guarantee religious freedoms to individual and communities to take care of their community concerns. While as, Directive Principles of State Policy [DPSP], carry the provisions like Uniform Civil Code [UCC] etc. By pitting provisions of Fundamental Rights against the Directive principles, one can also equallyclaim to be aspiring for ‘secular’. Invoking these consutional provisions, BJP or any other political party can make a strong case for ‘Consutional Secularism’.The larger point here is that, the hierarchy and arrangement of these consutional provisions speak of the necessity which is inherently needed in a place like India, having huge diversities. It is the recognition of this diversity and giving all sections an equal playing field, which needs to be appreciated and further strengthened; rather than pushing for equal treatment of all communities to become ‘secular’, which is covertly aimed at homogenization.Mudasir WaniJNU
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