June 26, 2015 12:31:28 am
The classical concept of secularism we adopted after freedom is under immense pressure. There are three main reasons for this. First, the Western concept of secularism originated in Europe when the separation of church and state had become a major concern. India has never had an organised church, so this concept was not really relevant to us. The term “sarva dharma sambhava (respect for all religions)” is a far more meaningful formulation for us.
Second, our secularism was based on the erroneous assumption that religion is a purely private affair with which the state is not concerned. This may be true as far as individual prayer and spiritual practice are concerned, but quite clearly, the collective impact of religion on society and the state is far from personal. That millions of Indians should flock regularly to the kumbh melas and numerous other places of worship, whether Hindu, Muslim, Sikh or any other, is itself an indication that the state has necessarily to take cognisance of religion as a social force. When we add to this the conflicts within and between religious groups that create serious law and order problems, and the way religion is widely used for political purposes, it becomes quite clear that the myth that religion is a purely personal matter can no longer be sustained.
Third, the assumption that, as education increases and living standards improve, religion will steadily lose its hold over the minds of people has been repeatedly disproved. On the contrary, there is evidence to show that with increasing affluence, the interest in religion shows a marked upsurge. A survey of rural India will show that a place of worship is one of the first demands of a newly affluent area. The upsurge of Islam in the oil-rich countries of West Asia proves the case convincingly.
It is clear that we have to move to an entirely new concept of secularism. In the Indian context, secularism cannot mean an anti-religious attitude or even an attitude of indifference towards religion on the part of the state. What it should mean is that, while there is no state religion, all religions are given respect and freedom of activity, provided they do not impinge upon each other and that foreign funds are not allowed to be channelled through ostensibly religious organisations for political purposes. Any attempt to disturb communal relations
must be put down with a firm hand.
It is also essential that we overcome the religion-phobia in our educational system. At present, we are getting the worst of both worlds. We refuse to make a positive attitude of presenting our rich, multi-religious heritage to our students. And we leave religious education entirely in the hands of bodies that are seldom equipped to undertake the task, and usually offer narrow and obscurantist interpretations of the living truths that permeate religious traditions.
India is by far the richest area for multi-religious studies anywhere in the world, and should attract some of the best scholars. Hinduism itself, the religion of over four-fifths of Indians, is a vast treasure house of philosophy and mythology, sociology and worldly wisdom. Yet, in the last four decades, more work on Hinduism has been done by foreign scholars than by our own.
It is incumbent on us to ensure that the younger generation understands and appreciates not only its own religious traditions but also those of the other religions in the country. How many Muslims in India are able even remotely to appreciate the depth of feeling among Hindus for the sanctity of Lord Ram’s birthplace? Conversely, how many Hindus understand the emotional trauma of Muslims when they saw what they genuinely believed was a mosque being destroyed brick by brick?
No nation can continue to grow if its central concepts become fossilised and it loses the capacity for creative reinterpretation of its philosophical roots. The great secret of the Indian civilisation, which has survived so long despite massive incursions, holocausts and two centuries of colonialism, lies precisely in its capacity for such periodic reformulations.
What is needed is a deeper understanding of the importance of religion in the life of our people, and a new and dynamic interpretation of secularism.
The writer is a Congress Rajya Sabha MP
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