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Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Irrelevance of secularism

Turkey has played a crucial role in India’s history; indeed,it is central to the partition of India and the subsequent adoption of secularism by India.

Written by Meghnad Desai |
June 19, 2011 2:15:32 am

Turkey has played a crucial role in India’s history; indeed,it is central to the partition of India and the subsequent adoption of secularism by India. When the Ottoman Sultan lost in the First World War,his role as the Khalifa was threatened. There were rumours that the Allies wanted the Mufti of Jerusalem to be the new Khalifa. Gandhiji saw in this his chance of launching an anti-British struggle in which Hindus and Muslims could fight in a united front. The Khilafat agitation was the biggest peaceful struggle across India against the British,even larger than 1857.

Of course,Gandhiji unilaterally suspended the movement after Chauri Chaura. Muslims were disappointed and left Congress in droves. There was never again another joint struggle against the British. Congress spurned Jinnah’s demands that there be minority rights guarantee for Muslims in the Motilal Nehru Report. Jinnah left India in disgust and resumed his law practice in London for the next six years. When he came back,his demand for minority rights had become a demand for a separate nation. Congress lost the Muslim vote and in 1946 did not win a single Muslim seat. Partition followed.

But,of course,in Turkey back in 1923,the incoming Kemal Ataturk abolished the Khalifat. He insisted on Turkey being a modern secular republic. By secularism,he did not mean protection for minority faiths or even equal treatment of all religions. His secularism was humanist; he wanted to remove religion totally from political life. He thought religion kept Turkey backward. Modernisation meant rejection of religion. The Army became the protector of the Constitution and guarantor of secularism.

Now nearly 90 years later,a religious party,the AKP (Justice and Development Party) has just won the election three times in a row. The secular party has been beaten down to a minority position with the AKP winning neatly two-thirds of the seats. The AKP is an Islamic,but not an Islamist party. In its first term,it ran into controversy over the head scarf it wanted all women to wear. But later,it has been a modernising party with a huge investment in infrastructure. Indeed,the Army,the guardian of secularism,had become a conservative force. The AKP has shown that it is a modernising force despite being non-secular. Secularism has been so deeply embedded in Turkey that it is irrelevant now. The challenge is to modernise.

India has no non-secular party like the AKP. The AKP did not indulge in any revivalist talk of re-establishing the Khalifa. It does not want to turn the clock back to some old glorious days of Turkey. The BJP,alas,has such old revivalist dreams; and,even if it does not,it cannot escape the RSS,which finds even the 20th century difficult to adjust to. India’s secularism has become a shibboleth,a force for conservatism which allows the Congress to neglect the interests of Muslims. Nehru and Subhash Chandra Bose were secularists in the sense of Ataturk; they were against religion in all its forms. What secularism has now come to mean is excessive display of religiosity—lighting the diya at all public functions,celebrating iftar parties,paying homage to swamis and babas (Ramdev temporarily excepted),highly publicised visits by netas to Shirdi and the Sathya Sai Baba’s ashram and to dargah at Ajmer and so on (few Christian locations though).

The robust insistence on modernity and the critique of superstitions and mythologies which Nehru encouraged have all but disappeared. Now astrologers and numerologists and palmists frequent our political circles. Cabinet reshuffles are postponed because of the alignments of stars; newly elected ministers consult jyotishis to seek the exact minute when they should take oath.

Perhaps there will be a party some day which refuses to take sides in this fake dispute over religion. Secularism has compelled the Congress to take religion far more literally than is healthy. It needs to be a modern party like the Swatantra Party or the Praja Socialist Party used to be. For them,the question of communalism/secularism never arose; it was irrelevant. They thought of all Indians as Indians and not as Muslims or Hindus. How long before that happens?

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