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.
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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