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.

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.
Published on:May 31, 2014 2:12 am

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  …continued »

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