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Thursday, July 07, 2022

Secularism is still thriving

More than an abstract idea, secularism is a way of life in India. And, the country should guard against threats to this

August 21, 2020 9:22:12 pm
The Indian experience of secularism cannot be equated with western conceptions of it because both the cultural experience and its evolution varies in India. (Illustration: Suvajit Dey)

Written by Anoop Sadanandan

With a prime minister presiding over the ceremonial groundbreaking for a temple in Ayodhya where a sectarian mob criminally demolished a mosque, is secularism in India finally dead?

A case has been made to that effect: Over the decades, secularism has been virulently assailed. Secularism failed in the country also because its upholders failed to engage the idea with ordinary Indians and to connect with the religious traditions of the people. Most Indians — the Hindu voters — rejected secularism as it was practised since the 1990s.

There is an element of truth to the case. First, the BJP has been relentless in injecting politics with religious tropes in its campaign to build a temple in Ayodhya and in linking citizenship to religious identity. Then, there is the country itself — where religion seems to permeate society and all aspects of life — that makes secularism look unviable. According to the World Value Survey, 95 per cent of Indians interviewed were affiliated to some religion, 89 per cent considered themselves religious, and 59 per cent prayed daily. Instead of the proverbial wall separating religion and the state, pictures and idols of gods could be seen gracing the walls and alcoves of government buildings in India, with judicial approval.

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Yet, the lives of ordinary Indians and the values they hold suggest that secularism is far from being a dead or a spent entity in the country. More than an idea, constitutional ideal or political practice, secularism approximates a way of life for most Indians. Even when politics may have failed it, secularism appears to be a throbbing reality in the country.

As a political idea, secularism has two interpretations in India: In the first version, the state ought to minimise the role of religion in politics. This political aspiration is understandable given the immense inter-religious violence at the country’s founding. In a deeply religious place, though, the version would over time be narrowly applied — the state thus would remain equidistant from and neutral to all religions (dharma nirapekshta). In contrast, the second version embraces the inseparability of religion and politics, and sees truth in all religions. The state, therefore, should seek to treat all religions equally (sarvadharma sadbhava).

As a political practice, both versions of secularism floundered in the country where the state, from the outset, had to deal with multi-religious and caste differences, such as on individual rights (European or North American states, in contrast, largely faced Christian denominations with relatively few such differences). As the Indian state sought to align these differences with constitutional precepts — say, by extending Dalits and women the right to enter places of worship, or ensuring women alimony or inheritance and divorce equality — any aspiration that state policies would remain neutral to religion ran to ground. Over time, as the disparate impact of these policies piled, perceptions of equal treatment of religions also grew faint no matter how upright the intent of the policies.

Not all policies had upright intent. Cast as secularism, politicians also sought to please religious groups — for instance, by subsidising pilgrimage, banning books that mocked religion or overriding judicial verdicts unfavourable to religious orthodoxy — to secure the votes of the group members.

The BJP derides this as “vote-bank” politics, yet it perpetuates the political practice by building cowsheds, statutes and temples; the party replaces one religious group as a vote-bank with another. By blending into politics Hindutva’s sectarian rendition of Hinduism, Modi now throws into sharper relief the long-running floundering of secularism in India as a political practice.

Even as the practice of secularism stumbled in Indian politics, it seems to have flourished in the lives of ordinary Indians. The responses Indians gave to questions in the World Value Surveys indicate that most Indians accept equality among religions, and the need to keep religion out of democratic politics.

Over two-thirds of interviewed Indians wanted all religions to be taught to children in schools and had no aversion to adherents of other religions as neighbours. Above 60 per cent of the people saw followers of other faiths as moral equals.

These overwhelming responses are not driven by a particular religion’s greater toleration and openness to ideas, as is sometimes claimed: For instance, about 61 per cent Hindus considered adherents of other faiths as moral equals while 62 per cent Muslims thought followers of other religions to be as moral as themselves.

Nor are the responses indicative of a general acceptance of religiosity in all spheres of life by a very religious people. Most Indians draw a clear line on religion’s influence in politics. In response to a standard World Value Survey question that seeks to gauge the spread of secular values in societies, about 70 per cent Indians — with broad support among adherents of all faiths — did not want religious leaders to arbitrate in democratic politics. Only 27 per cent Indians wanted more religious people to be elected as political leaders, and a mere 12 per cent wanted religious leaders to influence their voting decisions.

The survey responses present a snapshot of secular values that pervade Indian society. They are also suggestive of the way of life of ordinary Indians — the way of life that resists religious chauvinism and treats all faiths equally. Those values are manifest throughout modern history to this day in the many acts of ordinary Indians protecting the places of worship of others, and of providing refuge to victims during episodic riots in the country.

Less conspicuously, those values are also present in the everyday lives of Indians. As people go about their lives — helping one another at work or in their neighbourhoods, partaking in another’s festivity or bereavement, sharing in someone’s joy or sorrow regardless of religious affiliation — they are also in some ways affirming aspects of secularism as a lived mass reality of India.

However, this secularism — the throbbing mass reality of India — is now being threatened in the country. Gujarat, where ascendant Hindutva engineered intense sectarian chauvinism and strife, offers an illustration of the threat to secularism India faces, and an intimation of what might already have taken place in some parts of India since the 2012 World Value Survey.

During the Hindutva experiment in Gujarat, secularism as a way of life among ordinary people in the state seems to have receded. The 2012 World Value Survey, compared to the 2006 survey, shows greater religious bigotry and acceptance of religion in politics among the people of Gujarat. A larger share of the state’s respondents in 2012 did not want as neighbours adherents of a different faith, and, at the same time, wanted religious leaders to be involved in democratic politics. What makes this turn in Gujarat especially regressive is that India as a whole during the period moved in the opposite direction— more people in the country were willing to have as neighbours people of other faiths, and a greater share of Indians did not want religious leaders to influence democratic politics.

As the Gujarat experiment of contrived sectarian supremacy and inter-religious strife is now sought to be replicated in other parts of the country, the values Indians elsewhere espouse can be expected to degrade. The shrillness of Hindutva sectarianism, amplified by segments of media and social media, could lead more Indians to forsake the ethos of religious equality and make them want more of religion in politics.

Unlike in Gujarat, the country’s federal system, opposition state governments, and ordinary Indians with greater awareness of the ill-effects of the Hindutva experiment could resist any great erosion of secular values in society. The price to pay otherwise would be an Indian way of life that arguably sustains the country itself.

Sadanandan is a political economist at the University of California, Berkeley

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