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.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Secularism has been distorted, wrongly defined

Where have we Indians reached after 60 years of Independence? There are no doubts that we have achieved many distinctions in many spheres. But then another related, rather more vital, question arises. Can we consolidate all our achievements? And here, I cannot give a confident answer. I find India much more fragmented and divisive than it was at the time of Independence, thanks to our vote-bank politics, particularly in the name of caste and religion. One is really apprehensive over India’s future if the present state of affairs in our polity continues or allowed to continue. Let me give the following examples to explain the gravity of the situation India faces today.

In the late sixties and seventies, a significant trend was gaining momentum in Indian universities. Many students were dropping their caste-based surnames. They were nationalists to the core and thought that the best way to make India strong and a great power was to strive for one identity—the identity of being an Indian—by ignoring myriad other identities based on ethnicity, religion, state and region, etc. In fact, one was proud to have friends like them. It is against this background that I was really surprised the other day to discover the son of such a friend using now the family surname. “My dream of India as a casteless society has been shattered. All our political parties and governments are competing with each other to consolidate the caste-system in the name of reservation. In fact, my son’s future, be it admissions in educational institutions or the job opportunities, is dependent on our caste factor”, my friend explained, adding, “see how none other than our President Pratibha Patil now writes her name as Pratibha Singh Patil”.

Since almost all our parties are strong votaries of the caste-based reservations, and many of them now want these reservations getting extended to the private sector, what will happen to the India-Inc? Will foreign investments come? Will the Indian entrepreneurs shift their operations to outside the country (say China, Africa, West Asia as the available trends suggest)? There are all dangerous thoughts. And it will be intellectually dishonest to rationalise (positively) this dangerous phenomenon in terms of “politicisation (hence democratisation) of caste or for that matter religion. Real democracy is the one that unites; it does not promote divisiveness and elements of fragmentation. But unfortunately, the identity-politics in India has become so pervasive that corruption is no longer the issue if the leader concerned markets successfully his or her caste or religion factor. That explains why many of our top-most leaders today simply do not bother about their ill-gotten money.

Similarly, this type of identity politics, which is being nurtured to garner votes by our politicians, is now the biggest hurdle to combat the heinous acts of terrorism and secessionism. Let us begin with secessionism. While the nation’s focus is on the troubles in Jammu and Kashmir, it is also a fact that unrest is pervading the state of Assam. In a sense, the problems in the two states are compounded by one factor—the factor of religion. In Kashmir, when the Ghulam Nabi Azad government transferred a piece of land to facilitate the safety of the devotees’ yatra to the Amarnath Shrine for just two months every year, it was interpreted as an act against Muslims. The criticism against Azad’s decision by the agitationists and politicians in the Valley was based on the spurious argument that the land transfer (the land owned by the government was transferred to a body run by the government) would change the demographic composition in Kashmir and reduce the Muslims into a minority! In other words, the message that the agitationists, including top Kashmir politicians, whom our Delhi-based intelligentsia and media project as great secularists, convey is that they are Muslims first and Kashmir is essentially for Muslims.

In Assam, the Muslim factor is aggravating the problem the other way round. The state is literally invaded demographically by illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. And, this is something both the state judiciary and the Supreme Court have concluded repeatedly in recent years. In fact, recently the Guwahati High Court rued that “it can happen only in Assam”, while castigating the authorities over a Pakistani national entering Assam through Bangladesh, roaming around the Indian soil, but also contested an election. Sadly, majority of our political parties and intelligentsia are least bothered. The ruling Congress doesn’t dare take any action because doing so would hurt the Muslims and their votes. In the name of secularism, it pretends as if the problem doesn’t exist, despite growing intense popular anger all over Assam against the illegal immigrants.

This apart, the Muslim factor is also hampering our efforts to fight terrorism, notwithstanding that India is one of the worst victims of terror. In order to protect our so-called secularism, we cannot frame special laws, something which most countries the world-over have done, to fight terror. Why? Simply, because any such law will be branded as anti-Muslim. Worse, even the conventional law-enforcement mechanisms are not being allowed to be used under political pressure if the members of the Muslim community are suspect. The police force in various states, the counter-terror veterans in the intelligence agencies and even the Army have given enough hints that their hands are tied in apprehending the Islamic terrorists these days. The ongoing spectacles of politicians and parties, with a clear aim at wooing Muslim votes, exploiting the Jamia Nagar shootout and literally demoralising and insulting our security forces vindicate this like nothing else.

It is true that overwhelming majority of the Muslims in the world are not terrorists. But it is equally true that overwhelming majority of the terrorists in the world happen to be Muslims. Of course, terrorists are found in all religions. There are Christian terrorists in many parts of Africa and Latin America. And, there have been Sikh terrorists in India and Canada. However, there is a fundamental difference. Unlike terrorists of other religions, Islamic terrorists, invariably, justify their actions in the name of their religion. And unlike terrorists of other religions, whose goals are political and country-specific, Islamic terrorists have an international dimension. They all believe in Wahabism that talks of the absolute supremacy of Islam over all other religions. They fight to strengthen their ultimate goal of establishing the Islamic domination all over the world. If they die in the process, they are “confident” of going to “paradise” of their God.

Wahabism is totally opposed to Sufism, the main guiding force of Muslims in the Indian subcontinent for ages that talked of peaceful and harmonious co-existence with other religions. But the vote-bank politics in recent years has become so pervasive that our politicians and intelligentsia are totally defensive and often apologetic to the champions of the xenophobic Wahabism that is dividing not only the Indians but also other “world citizens”. See the way some of our leading politicians defended the SIMI recently until the Supreme Court stayed the verdict of a lower court removing the ban on the extremist outfit.

The Muslim factor in Indian politics has become so entrenched that foreign policy issues are now being seen in pro-Muslim or anti-Muslim terms. The much-debated India-US nuclear agreement is a case in point. Some political parties have openly described the nuclear agreement as anti-Muslim. What has a nuclear agreement between India and the US got to do with the Muslims and their religious convictions? And why those opposed to the deal are doing so in the name of Muslims? If the deal is really bad, then let us point out how this is against India’s long-term interests and how this is not really going to help the country meet its growing energy needs, as some enthusiastic supporters of the arrangement claim.

It is high time we all saw ourselves as Indians, not in terms of our caste, community and ethnicity. That is the true meaning of secularism. But then, unfortunately the fact remains that our politicians and intelligentsia have reduced secularism just to a slogan. They find in it a panacea to explain and justify all their deeds (or misdeeds). For years, you may be in the ranks of the “communal” BJP, Shiv Sena and Akalis, but if you change sides then the best way of explaining this is your discovering virtues of “secularism”. You or your party may have been in the alliance with the “communal parties” in the past, but if you or your party is now in the other side, it is because of your concerns for minorities and convictions to “secular politics”!

Ironically, “secularism” has been never defined by its champions in India. Though the 42nd Amendment in 1975 by Indira Gandhi’s Congress government did incorporate the word “secularism” in our Constitution, it did not define what secularism was. Ironically, her Congress party, which dominated the then Rajya Sabha in 1978, foiled an attempt to actually define secularism as “equal respect to all religions” by defeating an amendment bill that had already been cleared in the Lok Sabha during the Janata regime of Morarji Desai.

Thus, in the absence of a clear definition of secularism in our political parlance, we will continue to witness “communal politicians” becoming “secular” overnight and vice versa, with everything depending on the political convenience of the parties and their supporters. It is high time we defined secularism and liberated politics and religion from each other’s hegemony.

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