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India needs its secularists to engage in open, self-critical debate — rather than polarising polemic

India’s secularists must wake up to the fact that the discourse on the ground has profoundly altered. More and more, mainstream Hindus feel that they are being taken for a ride under the banner of secularism.

India CAA protest, India citizenship protest, CAA NRC protest india, India secularism CAA, BJP Narendra Modi Citizenship bill, Assam NRC, Indian Express news India’s secularists must wake up to the fact that the discourse on the ground has profoundly altered. More and more, mainstream Hindus feel that they are being taken for a ride under the banner of secularism.

India’s constitutional commitment to secularism is under serious threat. This is not just because the BJP government, riding its strong electoral mandate, appears determined to undermine India’s secular ethos. More fundamentally, it is because popular scepticism of secularism has grown substantially in the last few years.

In my recent travels across India, covering places as diverse as Amritsar and Goa, Ladakh and Hyderabad, and Delhi, Mumbai, and Chennai, I have been struck by the fact that the recent flurry of perceived anti-Muslim measures — revoking Article 370 and downgrading Kashmir to a Union Territory, the triple talaq ban, the Supreme Court verdict on Ayodhya, and now the CAA/NRC — are seen as a good thing not only by Hindutva diehards but increasingly by the “moderate middle”.

This large constituency is made up of thoughtful, not particularly religious, and broadly liberal-leaning Hindus who are not reflexively anti-Muslim. Most in this segment find the crude bigotry and dog whistle politics of Messrs Modi and Shah distasteful and are far from signing up to a “Hindu rashtra”. However, many now buy in to the Sangh Parivar’s critique of secularism. It is no longer taboo to raise questions that were formerly the preserve of the right-wing fringe about Muslim special privileges, personal law, or patriotism, and correspondingly allege a neglect of Hindu concerns. Indeed, I have heard more from mainstream Hindus on the “Muslim question” over the last few months than collectively over the past four decades.

This sort of open airing of views reminds me of the time when the Emergency caused Indians of all stripes to seriously examine their commitment to democracy. Many will recall the arguments from the 1970s and early 1980s about whether poor, diverse, and divided India could only progress under a dictator — or at least a powerful, directly-elected, executive president.

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Those debates were a good thing. An unexamined Constitution is not a sustainable one. India’s Constitution was “given” to the country top-down by the Constituent Assembly. Even though nearly three-quarters of the members of that body were indirectly elected, the franchise was limited. People at large did not have much of a say in shaping our Constitution. Today, thanks to the Emergency and its aftermath, democracy is taken for granted amongst Indians. No one — left, right, or centre — seriously challenges our parliamentary system and federal form of government. Secularism must attain a similar status.

Over the last few years, the relentless drum beat of anti-“sickular” rhetoric from the Sangh Parivar has prompted many mainstream Hindus to reconsider how the Muslim minority is treated. Ideally, this should provide the setting for robust and clarifying exchanges on why the Constitution’s endorsement of secularism still makes eminent sense. The problem is that those who are passionate about protecting India’s secular fabric have not shown up at this debate.

Rather than make the case for secularism and answer doubters, its champions indulge in rhetorical name-calling, citing the likes of Nathuram Godse to tarnish and shut down critics. Secularists take for granted that secularism is self-evidently right for the country. They cite the Constitution in support, as many anti-CAA protestors are doing, without realising that it is this very document’s secular thrust that has become suspect and in desperate need of re-legitimisation.

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The approach of self-righteously throwing the Constitution at anyone who supports the Modi regime’s agenda and demonising them as “bhakts”, “Sanghis”, or “chaddiwallahs” reminds me of how Britain’s liberal elite lost the Brexit battle. They assumed away the obvious correctness of their cosmopolitan worldview and sanctimoniously labelled those who voted to leave the EU as misled racists and “little Englanders”. A similarly patronising attitude towards Donald Trump supporters may well stymie the Democrats’ efforts to regain the US presidency this year.

India’s secularists must wake up to the fact that the discourse on the ground has profoundly altered. More and more, mainstream Hindus feel that they are being taken for a ride under the banner of secularism.

Preserving the country’s secular fabric in this changed environment will require secularism’s advocates to urgently and respectfully engage with the “moderate middle”. They must make the case for secularism anew, on principled (individual equality and freedom of conscience and personal habits) and practical grounds (no country can flourish by degrading one-seventh of its citizens). They also have to create a compelling counter to the majoritarian “India-is-a-Hindu-country” narrative by underlining Hinduism’s plurality and rooting secularism firmly in its “live and let live” culture, syncretic traditions, and long history of respect and accommodation of difference.

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But most important, hardline secularists need to show some humility. It is not a betrayal of ideals to admit that at least some of the right-wing accusations of “pseudo secularism” are well-founded even if couched in chauvinistic bombast. For instance, no objective observer can seriously deny that the Congress and other left-leaning parties have exploited Muslims as a “vote bank” without doing much to improve their lot. Equally, much evidence points to politically-sponsored illegal migration changing the demographics of some border areas in favour of Muslims. Also, defending Muslim personal laws as that community’s prerogative rather than campaigning for a progressive uniform civil code, flies in the face of allegiance to individual rights and equality across citizens.

In short, it is not anti-Muslim to accept where secularism has been compromised in practice. Rather, openness to fair-minded criticism will allow secularists to make their positive case more credibly.

Red lights are flashing over India’s future. The ongoing protests against the CAA notwithstanding, there is a very real possibility that if the “moderate middle” lose faith in secularism, the BJP will be further emboldened to pursue Hindutva. Even if non-BJP governments eventually regain power, they will struggle to roll back anti-Muslim legislation, systemic biases, and bigoted attitudes that are creeping into the educational system, police, and civil service and could soon become widespread across society.

In this anxious hour, India needs its secularists to engage in open and self-critical debate — rather than polarising polemic. This is the only way secularism, like democracy after the Emergency, can be re-founded as an unchallenged constitutional tenet that is “above politics” and second nature to our republic.

This article first appeared in the print edition on January 6, 2020 under the title ‘Secularism’s Brexit moment’. The writer is a private equity investor and former McKinsey partner.

First published on: 06-01-2020 at 04:00:09 am
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