Debating Secularism In A Communalized Society
By Ram Puniyani
09 July, 2014
In the aftermath of the recent elections Congress, Communist parties, Samajvadi and Lalu’s RJD, which can be called secular in some sense; bit the dust. In the review of defeat the major opposition party Congress, which has been in power for maximum number of years, one major opinion from its top leader A.K. Antony came forth to say that the secularism practiced by Congress was seen more as an appeasement of minorities (read Muslims) and so the large sections turned against it emasculating it to a mere 19% votes with 44 seats in Lok Sabha. In a free for all; different opinions on secularism, and failure of Congress are coming forth.
BJP with glee and confident assertion came to claim that it has the correct opinion of secularism, "We (BJP) have always said secularism should mean justice for all, appeasement of none, discrimination against none” Ironically this assertion, which negates the very concept of a democratic and secular society, has come to be perceived by many as ‘the secularism’. Many a commentators opined that Modi could demonstrate the hypocrisy of secularism and went on to take the cake of power. Sometimes victory can be taken as the proof of correctness!
In Indian scenario, secularism has been a much debated word, more so after Independence. At the time of Independence critics went on to say that state is not curbing religious practices in official places and called it an erosion of secularism. What we see today in most public places, the pantheon of Hindu deities adorning the Government offices and vehicles, and is passé’ was criticized by many earlier. Hindu practices like Bhumi Pujan (worshipping land) before construction of Government buildings became part of ‘normal practice’. Sarswati Puja, Surya Namaskar in some Government outfits by now is becoming a matter of routine. When Nehru was asked by Andre Malraux about such religious practices going around, Nehru did confess that we have a secular constitution but the society is in the grip of religiosity. Today a Prime Minister-elect performing a Ganga Aarti is part of the official menu and the tables are turned on those who question such practice of secularism by state and party.
As such the beginning of secular values and practices has been very different in India. While the Kingdoms and feudal lords were ruling in close alliance with religious clergy, the process of secularization in India began with the coming of industrialization and modern education during the British period. With the rise of newer classes, the industrialists, workers and modern educated classes, the concept of India, ‘India as a nation in the making’ started coming up. The kings and feudal lords, who were later joined in by a section of elite upper caste/educated section of society came up with communal outfits, Muslim League and Hindu Mahasabha-RSS. While the rising classes were all inclusive, incorporating people of all religions, the latter declining sections-communal formations were restricted to Muslims or Hindu elite respectively. The triangle of British policy of divide and rule on one hand and Muslim and Hindu communalists on the other led to the formation of Pakistan in the name of Islam and ‘India that is Bharat’ on the basis of plural, secular values. While Pakistan went through a painfully long trajectory where after the demise of Quaid-e-Azam Jinnah, a leader with secular soul in the communal body of Muslim League, led to the blunt and assertive upsurge of communalism, Islamic Fundamentalism, dominated by Mullahs and Military in the driving seat. It went through different ups and downs; its situation worsened by the US intervention which went on strengthening the communal elements there. Lately the secular elements in Pakistan are trying to come up from the stranglehold of the domination of Islamic fundamentalism.
In India the trajectory had been very different. After Independence the communal outfit Hindu Mahasabha soon went into oblivion; while the progenitor of Hindu nationalism, RSS went on to float different organizations to achieve its goal of Hindu Rashtra. Initially it helped to form Bhartiya Jansangh with elements drawn from Hindu Mahasabha, later RSS was in total command and though it was not in the forefront in electoral arena, it kept spreading ‘adverse common sense’ against Muslims in the beginning and later against Christians. The communal version of history was made popular, ‘Muslims are more loyal to Pakistan’, and the atrocities of Muslim kings became the cannon fodder of painting the negative image of today’s Muslim minority.
In this scenario three factors shaped the nature of things to come. One, the wide prevalence of adverse ‘social common sense’ against Muslims became part of social thinking. Two, the communal violence in which; most of the victims have been Muslims; shook the deeper psyche of the community. This in turn led to strengthening of orthodox elements and dominance of Mullahs and communal politics within Muslim community. The third factor was the marginalization of Muslim community in the economic and social sphere. It is in this backdrop that Congress tried to walk the talk of secularism and faced severe obstacles. Irrespective of the propaganda that Congress is responsible for communal violence; those on ground know the reality of the impact of communal politics. Congress itself had many communal elements within and the leadership at times played an opportunistic role by compromising with communalism on regular basis.
So Congress did try the things which in a democratic society a secular dispensation should be doing. In the matters of communal violence against Muslims and in the matters of economic issues, but its attempts were half hearted due to the factors outlined above. As an umbrella party with secular ideology and plethora of communal opportunist elements within, it could not go far in taking the affirmative action for the community so instead it went on appeasing the orthodox elements, as was most visible in Shah Bano case. The community as a whole remained a victim of violence on one side and discrimination on the other. The statistics about violence data and reports like Gopal Singh Commission, Sachar Committee and Rangnath Mishra Commission tell the story not only of the Muslim community but of the travails through which our democracy had to pass, where a big chunk of population remained neglected.
While all this was on, the communal elements sensing the possibility of coming to power through polarization of society, took up identity issues on regular basis, Ram Temple issue being the major one. They were successful in projecting that Congress is appeasing the Muslims. As a matter of fact, Congress policies have not benefitted the Muslim community in any way. The words and pronouncements of Congress fell on the hard rock of communalized polity. Making the statements like ‘They have a first right on national resources’ was used to show the partisanship of Congress. As a matter of fact seen in the context of a caring state, to say that weaker sections have first right on national resources should be the sign of a state committed to welfare of all. So Congress dilemma of wanting to implement secular policies, protection of minorities and affirmative action for them, fell flat. At the same time it did give a handle to the communal opponents to project as if Congress is there only for Muslims. The UPA I and II showed that the caring affirmative action was targeted not only for Muslims but also for other different disadvantaged sections of society as well. Same way the attempt to bring Communal violence prevention bill was nullified through a vicious propaganda.
So Mr. Antony may be partly right, but the problem is deeper. It relates to the semi-secularized society, the ascendance of communal politics, majority and minority both, and so finally landing up to mere electoral arithmetic of talking (not implementing) of schemes to win over the minority votes. Congress has not kept up the ideological commitment to secular values. Its workers hardly think differently on the issues related to communal propaganda. Many of its leaders come from communal stock, for many others standing upright for secular values is not important at all. There is a serious need for introspection, not only for Congress but for all those wanting to uphold the values emerging from our National movement for freedom.
Ram Puniyani was a professor in biomedical engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, and took voluntary retirement in December 2004 to work full time for communal harmony in India. He is involved with human rights activities from last two decades.He is associated with various secular and democratic initiatives like All India Secular Forum, Center for Study of Society and Secularism and ANHAD. Response only to email@example.com
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