In India, the alternative is not only scary but destructive for nation-building
Often, in response to my tweets, I get labelled as ‘sick-ular’ (secular for the rest of us) by agitated twits. This disenchantment towards what I would call one of the noblest tenets of our Constitution stems from the fact that over the years the spirit of secularism has waned leaving a crumbling body behind.
In the western societies, secularism (first propounded in the mid-19th Century) meant separation of state and religion. This implied that not only would the state not interfere in the religious beliefs and practices of the people, it would not impose any religion on them either. From the western perspective, secularism was the first step towards a modern inclusive society, a huge leap from the days of King Constantine who after conversion to Christianity made it the state religion. From there to the overwhelming influence of the Church on the State was a short distance. The medieval history of Europe is replete with examples of what happens when religion gets state sanction. Crusades apart, the Inquisitions, in the name of moral policing, killed not only Jews and pagans but Christians as well.
India was no different. Religions flourished under political patronage. With the rise of Ashoka, Buddhism grew, with his fall and coming of age of Hindu kings, Hinduism revived. Similarly, with the coming in of the Muslim rulers, Islam flourished. Like in Europe, religion-inspired persecution was common in India as well, even during the so-called non-violent times of Buddhism.
Since most of our political ideas came from the West, we discovered secularism through the British Raj. In India, the British used secularism selectively keeping their political and imperial interests in mind. Hence, even as they allowed each community to do what it pleased, they frequently played one against the other to ensure a certain degree of friction among them.
Always the fast-learners, Indian politicians understood the importance of both religion and secularism. Hence, instead of separation of religion and state, Indian secularists envisaged equidistance from all religions. Even though the word secularism was formally inserted in the Constitution through the 42nd Amendment in 1976, the policy-makers even at the time of writing the Constitution aspired towards a state which did not patronise any religion. They were guided as much by pragmatism (keeping a multi-religion, multi-lingual, multi-cultural country together) as idealism. Despite enormous pressure from several leading politicians and scholars — many of whom were members of the Constituent Assembly — to define India as a Hindu state, Jawaharlal Nehru led the charge towards secular polity. And to show that he meant business, he tried to introduce Hindu Code Bill as early as 1948 in the Constituent Assembly. The wounds of Partition were still fresh, so it was felt that the beleaguered Hindu community should not be troubled further by an assault on their religion. The Bill was subsequently divided into three parts (addressing issues like marriage, adoption and succession) and tabled in the first Lok Sabha.
When the Nehru government started a similar exercise for the Muslim Personal Law, it succumbed to the pressure of those advising it on Muslim affairs and the personal law was allowed to continue till such time that Muslims were ready to accept the Uniform Civil Code. The opportunity was lost; it could have been passed then, when there were powerful leaders like Abul Kalam Azad. In today’s fractious, caste and community-ridden politics, when even among the Muslims there are two personal law boards, a uniform code is a mere fantasy. Just as the politicians started viewing Muslims as a monolith vote-bank, politically ambitious Muslims have learnt to play on the insecurities of the government.
Riding on the sentiment of injustice meted out to the majority community by the government through so-called appeasement of Muslims, the Hindu right-wing spun myths which over time came to be regarded as truths. Secularism became a dirty word. For most people, disdain for secularism stems from appeasement of Muslims, which in turns boils down to the Muslim Personal Law. While many claim that they object to it on the grounds of unequal treatment of Muslim women, some spill the beans. For them, the sticking point is that the law allows Muslim men to marry four times, whereas Hindu men were denied this privilege under the civil code passed in the 1950s.
It is true that what is being practised in India is opportunistic secularism, but even this tokenism is better than the alternative, where national leaders brazenly throw their weight behind one religious or caste group. This, coupled with the false narrative of appeasement, has vitiated the society to such an extent that even educated people do not hesitate to judge others on the basis of religion or caste. I think the first step towards reclaiming our secular heritage would be to completely remove religion from public spaces, starting with schools where religious teaching is being imparted in the name of culture by vested political interests.
We don’t have to go very far in history to see what happens when State patronises one religion. The corpses wrought by communalism line our politics. Not only do we need secularism more fervently today, we need to purge it of opportunism.