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Saturday, September 19, 2020

A secularism more inclusive

The concept in India has been restricted to Hindu-Muslim issues. Conversations need to focus on all minorities, and emphasise rights and justice

September 4, 2020 8:06:30 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 Javed Iqbal Wani and L David Lal)

It has been repetitively emphasised, of late, that a spectre is haunting India – the spectre of secularism. Two recent articles published in this newspaper provide a curious contrast to each other. Both represent the core of a peculiar political anxiety in India. One end of the spectrum, liberal constitutionalism, is represented by scholars such as Pratap Bhanu Mehta (IE, August 5, ‘Ram I Will Not Find You There‘, and IE, August 11, ‘The Wrong Diagnosis’) the other end by Hindu right-wing ideologues such as Rakesh Sinha (IE, August 15, ‘A Hyphenated Secularism‘).

The foundation laying ceremony of the Ram temple in Ayodhya on August 5 by the Prime Minister, flanked by the RSS supremo and others, has reinvigorated the debate around the nature and status of Indian secularism.

While Mehta stopped just short of writing the obituary of Indian secularism, Sinha argued that the time for its rebirth has arrived. Both have valid points from their ideological standpoint. However, both overlook some key facts around the discourse of secularism in India. Sinha’s assertion about the rebirth of the secularism discourse in India rests on an assumption that Hindutva will eventually successfully establish its hegemony. It aspires to homogenise the differences and contestations within Hinduism and the diverse set of population which it claims are Hindu despite belonging to distinct religions.

In a recent article, political commentator Ajaz Ashraf has noted that when there are caste inequalities, it is wrong to solely emphasise the need for a harmonious Hindu-Muslim relationship. The discussion also excludes “Dalit” and “tribal” communities from the debate, not to mention various other acute socio-economic inequalities in India. The Hindu-right has always avoided any meaningful engagement with the challenge of the subaltern from within. It is pertinent to engage with the idea of secularism in India outside the framework of Hindu-Muslim contestation. As long as it is perceived as exclusive to these two communities it may lose its significance and relevance.

These positions also help sustain a fear psychosis which is no different from late colonial communal politics or the intense debates which occurred in the Constituent Assembly during the drafting of the Constitution for India. The Hindu communalists were then fearful of Muslim political assertion and the Muslims were equally fearful of Hindu dominance in the new India. If one pays attention to history, the discourse is no different today.

What is noticeable in the recent progressive posturing and interventions in the discourse of Indian secularism is the emergent dichotomy between the “Good” Hindu and “Bad” Hindu — a “good” Hindu is one who upholds liberal and progressive values and a “bad” Hindu is the one trapped in Hindutva politics. For example, Pratap
Bhanu Mehta claimed the identity of a “good” Hindu by expressing his devotion to Ram and protesting the colonisation of Hinduism by political power. He argued that the Ram temple in Ayodhya will be a monument of violence, revenge, retaliation and collective narcissism as its foundation is not laid on the values of Ram. Above all, he calls it a banal and nasty symbol of ethnic nationalism. He ignores that for many Hindus, the Ram temple is seen as a symbol of reclamation of past glory and recovery of their damaged Hindu-masculinity.

Owing to either lack of creative political imagination or opportunism, even liberals have begun to hide behind it. Their analysis fails to offer a way out of the obsolete political discourse on secularism in India and lacks commitment to the ideals of democratic citizenship. One example could clarify this point. Conversations on the declining numbers of Muslims in Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha are frequent. However, no attention is paid to the lack of Christain, Sikh, Parsi, Jain and Buddhist representation in both the houses. While one end of the political spectrum celebrates the marginalisation of Muslims, the other restricts its engagement to one constituency only. An active consolidation of minorities’ interest in India is urgently required to safeguard the ethic of democratic citizenship.

When the Constituent Assembly was drafting the Constitution for India, it assured people of all religions that majoritarian secularism would not be imposed. However, it soon turned into an unpleasant Hindu versus Muslim contest, thus excluding other minorities and minorities within a minority. This became apparent during the post-emergency era when the Indira Gandhi government incorporated secularism in the preamble not as an assurance and promise of equality to all citizens but with an aim to retain Muslim support which was eroding from its fold. Electoral data for Lok Sabha from 1980 to 2014 shows that Muslim representation has reduced by two-thirds. In the 17th Lok Sabha Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, Jains and Parsis have only 4 per cent representation which primarily owes to the large Sikh population in Punjab and the Christian populated states in the North-East.

The Indian experience of secularism cannot be equated with western conceptions of it because both the cultural experience and its evolution varies in India. We propose that the discourse of Indian secularism has created two main discursive exclusions and has thrived on political usurpation. One discursive exclusion is created by the predominance of scholarship and the political assertion around Muslim issues while completely ignoring other religious minorities such as Christians, Jews and Parsis, who do not fit into the framework of the membership of the nation according to Hindutva forces. The second discursive exclusion is created by the Hindutva discourse itself which usurps access to political debate and discussion from minorities such as Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists, who theoretically qualify as citizens of the Hindu-nation according to the ideology of the Hindu-right, but seldom appear in various political debates in India.

We contend that the current phase is neither that of a demise nor rebirth of secularism, instead, it is an opportunity to reinvigorate its spirit by making it more inclusive. To accomplish this, we propose that four issues need to be addressed. First, a movement away from branding politics as either Muslim-appeasement or Muslim-bashing and towards questions of access to rights and justice. Second, a collective secular assertion involving multiple minorities to intensify claims of minority rights in India. Third, more scholarship that undertakes comparative analysis across minority religions in India rather than dwelling on self-sustained political and ideological silos of singular community rights. And fourth, a movement away from fear psychosis to an active and direct political and legal confrontation with anti-democratic and exclusionary discourses of rights and justice.

Wani is currently is Assistant Professor at Ambedkar University Delhi. Lal is as Assistant Professor, Indian Institute of Information Technology-Guwahati.

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