Hindu dharma is implicitly at odds with monotheistic intolerance. What is happening in India is a new historical awakening... Indian intellectuals, who want to be secure in their liberal beliefs, may not understand what is going on. But every other Indian knows precisely what is happening: deep down he knows that a larger response is emerging even if at times this response appears in his eyes to be threatening.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Democracy and secularism go hand-in-hand: Donald Smith

By Suresh Nambath

CHENNAI, MARCH 9. "Democracy and secularism are tightly held together by logic. If India abandons one, the other will go," according to historian Donald E. Smith, who pioneered the study of secularism in India with his book, India as a Secular State, in 1963.

Although the Indian tradition of secularism, based on religious neutrality, is different from the Western concept of separation of religion and state, 57 years of independence has created a "sense of solidity" about secularism and democracy in India, Prof. Smith said in an interview to The Hindu.

The American experience of secularism had been successful and, "relatively speaking," so was the Indian experience. "There will be a huge outcry in India if someone said that Hinduism must be the official religion," he said. The commonality was religious tolerance. The core issue relating to the practice of secularism was religious pluralism.

The Indian tradition of secularism, which was not rooted in the distinction between the private and public spheres, allowed the State to indulge in religious activities such as funding pilgrimage and renovating places of worship. This gave cause for inequitable sharing of State resources among different religious communities. Questions would be raised as to who got what share of the State funding. Also, resources would be diverted from other secular responsibilities of the State, he said.

Noting that politicians representing the authority of the State in countries such as India and Sri Lanka were usually publicly demonstrative of their religious affinity, he said there was no harm as long as people could see through such demonstrative religiosity as a public relations exercise.

Secular institutions usually developed in multi-religious societies, but secularism had relevance for all societies. The alternative to secularism was a theocratic state. Iran was an example of a failed theocratic State, he said.

Even in single-religion societies, as in many Islamic countries, people did not want to be governed by religious heads. As the case of Iran proved, religious leaders who came to power riding on a wave of public disillusionment with secular politicians perpetuated a theocracy. While Islamists might gain in an election in Egypt, the Ayatollahs would most likely be thrown out of power in a free election in Iran, he said.

Some religions were more accommodative towards secular institutions. Unorganised religions, which did not have a clergy, such as Hinduism and Buddhism allowed for a secular State.

"Despite its hierarchy, Hindu relativism provided a fertile ground for secularism," he said. This, however, did not mean that such societies were non-violent or tolerant to religious minorities, he said, pointing to the example of Sri Lanka. But these were more conducive to the growth of secularism than societies dominated by dogmatic religions such as Catholicism. The experience of Latin America's Liberation theologians, who were progressive and secular, was different because they were from the lower clergy and represented the poorer sections.

But globalisation and the growth of a huge middle class, alongside the aspiration for political freedom, could bring about a change in favour of democracy and secularism throughout the world. The example of the Western model of economic development aside, political awareness was a major reason for the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, he said.

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