On the eve of the 2004 general election, held against the backdrop of the Gujarat riots, with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies widely predicted to win, a group of leading South Asian scholars discussed the alarming resurgence of the Hindu Right and its implications in a book somewhat rhetorically titled Will Secular India Survive?
The authors made it clear that they did not presume to be the “arbiters of India’s secular destiny” which historian Mushirul Hasan noted would “ultimately be settled in the rural hinterland and dusty towns and not on the campuses of Delhi or at the India International Centre.” But they had an upbeat message. They believed that “India’s millions” were too deeply wedded to the idea of “pluralist co-existence” to allow any attempt to subvert it. The country’s complex cultural diversity and its long tradition of people of different faiths living together despite periods of often violent dissonance were the biggest safeguard against it becoming a “Hindu India.”
2014 and fading moderate voices
Prof. Hasan, who edited the volume, summed up their underlying message with a quote from Andre Beteille, the distinguished sociologist: “The social and political turmoil in the country does not make the case for secularism weaker, it makes it stronger. Indian intellectuals will do little good to themselves or their country if they espouse secularism in fair weather and disown it in foul weather.”
It was not exactly a fashionable view to take at a time when the supposedly better informed psephologists and media pundits were declaring game over for secular politics. In the event, though, the “ivory tower” academics proved closer to the mark as the BJP lost not only the 2004 election but also went on to lose the next one, in 2009, and its Hindutva agenda hasn’t quite recovered since.
Ten years on, an intense debate on the future of secularism is raging again in the face of an increasingly toxic election campaign in which moderate voices are struggling to be heard. One doesn’t know how those scholars would respond if they were to be asked the same question today, and most likely, secular India will survive “Modiwad” to live another day. But there is a new disturbing trend: the public discourse on secularism has hardened and become coarser (on social media sites, secularists are routinely mocked as “Sickular” and “sickularists”). More and more people across all communities see it as a failed idea and blame it for encouraging competitive sectarianism. Rather than promoting harmony and coexistence as it was intended to, Congress-style secularism is seen to have ended up as a divisive force instead.
There are echoes here of the debate on British multiculturalism which many believe has prevented ethnic minority groups from integrating into the wider society and led to cultural ghettoization. But there is an important difference. Whereas in Britain, minority groups love multiculturalism and see it as a mark of success of their campaign for the right to preserve their cultural identity, Indian secularism is despised in almost equal measure by minorities, especially Muslims, as its traditional detractors on the Hindu Right.
Convergence of religious Right
The increasingly outspoken Muslim attacks on secularism, almost echoing the language of the Sangh Parivar, is a relatively new development. It has gone beyond murmurs of disillusionment or a show of protest against political abuses of secularism, and is now verging on a wholesale rejection of the idea of secular polity itself. There is even loose talk whether Muslims should launch a brand new party of their own to protect their interests having been “betrayed” by the Congress and other secular groups. On the face of it, the increasing convergence of the Hindu and Muslim Right on this issue might sound strange but it is no coincidence that they are singing from the same hymn sheet.
The truth is that the Muslim Right which hijacked the community’s leadership after independence was never really comfortable with the idea of secularism which it associated with anti-religiosity but found it a convenient means of advancing its own sectarian agenda. Religious issues which were of no importance to millions of ordinary Muslims were raised in the name of secularism. And if these demands were not met it was claimed that secularism had failed to deliver. It will be instructive to look at the list of Muslim “causes” espoused in the past 60-odd years and see how many of them had anything to do with the community’s “secular” interests as opposed to religious matters. The Sachar Committee’s findings are as much an indictment of the Indian state as of the Muslim leadership for failing to address the community’s problems.
The irony is that many of the Muslim leaders waxing eloquent about the failure of secularism today have been complicit in its abuse in return for official patronage. It is with their help that the Congress and groups like the Samajwadi Party were able to ply their trade in what Shahid Siddiqui, editor of Nai Duniya and former Member of Parliament has described as “electoral secularism.” Now that they are being challenged by a new generation of Muslims who want an end to the old ways of doing politics, they are trying to portray themselves as victims.
The danger of blind rage
In a way, it is just as well that secularism is rid of fair-weather friends. What is more worrying is the intensely anti-secularism mood in the wider Muslim community which feels it has been used by the secular political class to fight its own battles with Hindu nationalists. Few will quibble with that argument and the sense of frustration and anger this has generated among Muslims is understandable. But the difficulty is that they are confusing the Congress brand of distorted secularism with the idea of secularism itself. They are making the same mistake that they throw at non-Muslims who wilfuly or otherwise confuse the al-Qaeda version of Islam with true Islam. The result is that in their blind rage they are in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Secularism, let’s remember, was an important reason why so many Muslims happily chose to stay back in India and though often the ride has been bumpier than they may have expected at the time they have never regretted their decision to live in a secular state. For all its flawed implementation and abuses, the fact that there is a constitutional regime designed to give minorities protection and that there are secular laws they can invoke to seek justice are nothing to be scoffed at.
The narrative in which Muslims see themselves as victims of secularism has about as much validity as the Sangh Parivar’s charge of Muslim appeasement. At the risk of laboring the point, I repeat that they are not victims of secularism but of a certain kind of secular politics; and, more often than not, they themselves have been guilty of abetting the sins committed in the name of secularism.
If today the nation is debating threats from communalism it is because secularism matters to the vast majority of Indians. I’ve heard it said in Muslim circles that the choice of secularism was not a favor done to them, but even as “accidental” beneficiaries they should cherish it because as a minority in a Hindu-majority India, they need it more.
To undermine secularism in a fit of anger will be politically suicidal akin to turkeys voting for Christmas. Besides, nothing will please the BJP more. Secularism must be nurtured and restored to good health if only to deny its detractors the pleasure of seeing it buried.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article first appeared in The Hindu, a leading newspaper of India. Click here to go to the original.