Secularism talk is always with us. But it seldom prompts change. This week it was US President Barack Obama’s wonderful address at Siri Fort and his reminder about the importance of our own constitutional values. It was followed by a storm in a teacup over the government’s alleged intentions on the Preamble of the Constitution. At one level, secularism, as a constitutional philosophy, needs to be woven into our identities as citizens. But there is much to the secularism chatter that is lazy, in two senses. First, it shies away from all the hard institutional issues, the concrete forms in which secularism needs to be manifest. The story with possibly more significance was the National Intelligence Agency revelation that Liaqat Shah was framed. Such a revelation is a small step, but it raises deep questions about the structures of discrimination inscribed in institutions. Ultimately, these thorny issues are not sorted out by hurling ideologies, or using these merely as a pretext for politics. The Congress’s secularism did not, for instance, stop the active de-Muslimisation of police forces in Uttar Pradesh during the 1950s. The hard labour of creating institutions where no one is targeted for being who they are, and where perpetrators of crime are brought to justice, is yet to be done.
Equally important, secularism as used in lazy discourse has also frozen a penumbra of issues that need discussion. Should the state be allowed to take over temples? Are even our current anti-conversion statutes compatible with secularism? Should forms of affirmative action transcend both caste and religion? Should minority education institutions get exemptions under the RTE? What should be the shape of a possible common civil code? How do you move to a citizenship order that detaches rights from the tyranny of compulsory identities? What are the kinds of institutional structures required to protect against discrimination? These are all tricky questions, but the fight between secularists and their critics have, in a sense, frozen our moral and constitutional discourse. There is no space to calmly work through these issues. Secularism should not become an alibi for avoiding hard questions. We need to defend secularism to death; instead, we often talk it to death.
We will also need to have a deeper understanding of the social dialectic that produces tensions. We have to be attentive to local variations. There is a political context and a social dynamic, like in certain parts of UP, for instance, or possibly West Bengal in the near future, where a heady mix of organisational mobilisation and local social cleavages may pose serious challenges to the politics of secularism. On the other hand, one can take heart in the fact that in Delhi, the election has been largely free of those communal pressures, contrary to what so many feared. Even the BJP’s master strategists are reduced to releasing negative advertisements on Arvind Kejriwal. This may not be pretty politics, but it gives its own reassurance.
The politics of secularism also has its own psychological paradoxes. We have experienced two, of late. Last month, there was genuine reason to be anxious that the BJP was not reining in supporters who have an interest in greater polarisation. The prime minister could have spoken more. There were two views on what was going on. One was the idea that RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s increasing visibility, which was timed with the Parliament session and the Jammu and Kashmir elections, was a bit of an act of desperation. After having been quiet for a few months, the RSS suddenly became more visible, costing the BJP politically. The interventions were designed to derail government, an attempt to make it beholden to its core rather than its pragmatic supporters. The other view was that there is no Modi-RSS divergence and the government was showing its true colours. Too many nasty people are feeling empowered and we cannot let our guard down. But the fact that some of the RSS’s more visible attempts to polarise were reined in, at least for the time being, suggests that there are more contradictory forces at work in our polity than believers of a seamless pathway to a non-secular politics often acknowledge.
The second paradox has to do with the complexities of globalisation and nationalism. Obama reminded us of what is truly important about India, and the central challenge we face. But his presence and his ability to warn about religious freedom in a country like India also points to deeper dynamics at work. The first, whether we like it or not, is that there is now much more seamlessness to American and Indian intellectual and knowledge exchange. Whether America’s future is in vedanta, as Swami Vivekananda used to joke, and India’s in American liberalism, we don’t know. That Narendra Modi may have used Obama’s visit to shore up his domestic political capital is probably right. The strategic implications of the visit are still far from clear. In fact, on many important issues, from our own neighbourhood to climate change, there will be serious points of tension with the US. Much has been written about the optics of the visit. But the part that has gone unremarked is Modi’s own attempts to claim America for himself: not just the misty-eyed remembrances of being photographed outside the White House or his extensive travels there, but also his references to Benjamin Franklin. This has a touch of manipulation from a master manipulator. Nevertheless, there was also a different cultural signal: that even those with RSS backgrounds now need to contend with the complex cross currents of a global history and their place in it.
The question is: to what extent does this placing in the complexity of global currents provide some hope for secular politics? To what extent can a society looking for foreign investment, foreign knowledge, foreign esteem afford to be narrow-minded and insular? The psychological impulses that drive an anti-secular politics are complex. Some is hate, pure and simple. But some of it is fed by a politics of anxiety, an uncompensated yearning for esteem and a belligerent compensation for our own failures as a nation. Can this psychological complex be sublimated? It may be indirectly addressed if the India growth story and the India as global power story acquire wings again. It might even be the cunning of history that globalisation, in the Indian case, will contain militant nationalism, with a few hiccups, and recast it in more palatable terms. Obama may be admonishing us, but our joining the currents of globalisation is also a performative act of significance. Indian secularism is at the intersection of lots of deep dynamics. Saving it will require a more artful and less apocalyptic mode of thinking, which combines vigilance with intelligence.
The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, and contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’