By Amulya Ganguli
The Hindustan Times
several years now, the BBC's Mark Tully has provided indirect
support to the BJP's Hindutva cause. His contention, as reiterated in
a new TV documentary, Hindu Nation, is that secularism is unsuitable
for India. The reason: it is a doctrine which keeps religion out of
public life, an attempt which is bound to fail - and has failed - in
a country as "deeply religious" as India. Hence, the Congress's
decline and the BJP's rise.
The first flaw in
this thesis is how does one distinguish between a
deeply religious and a less religious country and then claim that
secularism will only succeed in the latter? Second, the Congress did
not fail because it espoused secularism. It failed because the
party's name had become synonymous with corruption. Its long years in
power had made the party rotten inside. Nothing showed the
degeneration better than the identification in the public mind of the
ubiquitous Gandhi cap worn by Congressmen with blackmarketeers.
If, of all the parties,
the BJP has been able to cash in on the
tarnishing of the Congress's image, it is, first, because of the
Sangh parivar's organisational spread, which enabled the party to use
the services of the RSS, the VHP and other fraternal units in its
campaign. Second, the BJP was quite uninhibited in its exploitation
of communal sentiments to sway public opinion. It has not even been
averse to using riots to win votes, as Gujarat has shown.
However, at the
national level, its present strength in the Lok Sabha
is probably the highest it will ever get. All indications are that it
will not reach this figure of 182 in the 2004 election. It is clear,
then, that the BJP's use of religion in a "deeply religious"
hasn't been a runaway success.
The reason why the
BJP has fallen well short of a majority in
Parliament is the nature of an average Indian's religious feelings.
Unlike the West, especially Europe, where overt religiosity is on the
decline - an aspect of life which may have distorted Tully's thinking
- an Indian is almost aggressively religious in the matter of
visiting temples or mosques or churches or gurdwaras.
The BJP made the
mistake, however, of interpreting such religious
sentiments in communal terms. The party believed that if you are a
religious-minded Hindu, you will be anti-Muslim as well. The BJP also
tried to buttress this mistaken belief by demonising the Muslims by
blaming their ancestors for breaking temples and the present
generation for terrorism.
But the innate tolerance
of the Hindus, as also the respect with
which they regard all religions, have frustrated the BJP's pernicious
efforts. Tully vaguely acknowledges this when he pleads for tolerance
in public life, but he has been a victim of the other trap of
mistaking a Hindu's reverence for his own religion as animosity for
the religions of others.
not his only failing. His belief that a highly
religious country cannot afford secularism is fundamentally flawed.
What he is saying is that such a country can only have a theocratic
government. What he ignores is that secularism - the separation of
church and State - is as fundamental a tenet of modern governance as
the 'one man, one vote' rule. Without secularism, every democracy
will become a victim of endless strife because no country is
To say that secularism
is unsuitable for a religious-minded country
is like saying, like Ayub Khan, that democracy is unsuitable for a
hot country. If Tully's argument is accepted, then it was wrong for
the US authorities to have removed the granite block with the Ten
Commandments inscribed on it from the premises of the Alabama Supreme
Court because the "deeply religious" people of Alabama were
But a secular State
could not allow the block to remain on government
property. It could be installed in a private park or a private home
or a private institution. But the government could not have anything
to do with it because it represented one religion in a country of
many faiths. Hence the absence of devotional music on the
audio-visual media in India which Tully bemoans.
The separation of
church and State is an even greater necessity in
India than in the US because India is a country with 4,635
communities, 325 languages and 24 scripts.
It is the birthplace
of four major religions - Hinduism, Buddhism,
Sikhism and Jainism - not to mention the animistic cults of tribals,
and is home to Islam, Christianity and Zoroastrianism. If devotional
music is to be played on radio and television, even one-line hymns
will take up a good part of the morning unless only bhajans are sung,
as the BJP will want.
It is the height
of absurdity, therefore, to claim that secularism is
unsuitable for India - and blame Nehru for it, as Gurcharan Das of
India Unbound fame does in the documentary. It is Nehru's and
Gandhi's insistence on secularism and pluralism which has saved
India. If they had followed the Sangh parivar's prescription of
cultural nationalism - one country, one people, one culture - where
culture means the Hindu way of life, India would have been torn apart.
We can see what
would have happened if India followed such sectarian
policies from the events in our neighbourhood. Pakistan broke up
because its dominant western wing tried to impose Urdu on East
Pakistan, which the Bengalis resisted. Even the oneness of their
religion could not save the Pakistanis from the split. Sri Lanka is
embroiled in a civil war because of the majoritarian policies
followed by the Sinhalas who tried to foist their language and
religion (Buddhism) on the Tamil-speaking Hindus of the north. Even
the fraternity of Hinduism and Buddhism did not prevent the rupture.
All over the world,
from the Balkans to Northern Ireland to the
African continent, sectarian policies in the form of establishing the
primacy of a religion or a race or a language have led to bloodshed.
In India, the wisdom of Gandhi and Nehru, and in South Africa of
Nelson Mandela, have ensured that their countries will remain united.
And the basis of that unity is what Mandela said on the occasion of
his becoming the president of a multiracial South Africa: "Never,
never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will
experience the oppression of one by another."
Secularism and pluralism
go hand in hand. If a multicultural society
such as India's is to survive, the government has to abide by secular
principles so that no religion is given pride of place. All religions
will have equal status. This was Nehru's single-most important
contribution to make India survive the trauma of partition, carried
out on the basis of religion. If the RSS types had been in positions
of power at the time, India's fate would have been something like
Rwanda's, with our own Hutus and Tutsis trying to exterminate one