It is unlikely that the discussion on secularism will even lose relevance in India. Right now secularism is under global spotlight because of events in France. The French idea of strictures on public displays of religious symbolism – laicete – is once again being discussed avidly.
We are all well aware that India has a religious nationalist government at the center and in action after action by this government, there is the public expression of religious themes. We recently witnessed the inaugural event of the Ram temple in Ayodhya which was graced by the prime minister, no less.
But how does one process the actions of some other political outfits which do not project themselves as outwardly religious? The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) recently proposed a “collective Diwali puja by all 2 crore of Delhi residents” by joining the AAP cabinet in virtual mode as it performs the puja at a prominent Delhi temple.
The AAP has never made clear its religious inclinations. Before the assembly elections earlier this year, party leader and Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal made it a point to visit the Hanuman Temple in central Delhi. Another party member hosts public recitations of the Ramayana at his place.
According to a respected part of the AAP’s cabinet, such instances are not viewed as being exclusionary or aimed to appeal to any one section of the citizenry. She stated that AAP leadership marks celebrations of all faiths equally, such as celebrating Eid at a Muslim minister’s residence.
The facile idea of “sarv dharma samman (or sama bhav)” – equal respect for all faiths – seems to be the cherished and totemic idea of Indian celebrations. It is often trotted out to assure sceptics that India is truly the place where “critical respect and distance” is maintained towards all faiths.
However, even if one considers the above instance of the public announcement by the Delhi CM, one can see how several majoritarian assumptions undergird it. In fact, so brazen are those presuppositions that one can only shake one’s head at the audacity of it all.
There is no hint in the announcement that the “do crore dilliwaasis” being appealed to might not all be in favor of performing Diwali pujan at all. Forget people of faiths other than Hinduism, there are many within Hinduism who’ve never had anything to do with any pujas or such ritualistic observances. Then, of course, there are people of different faiths who might not be wished in such rituals, much as they might respect the passion for them by the Hindus.
There are also many others who do not wish to be included in such rounding-up for Diwali worship. In fact, several sections of society actively discard the idea represented by Diwali – festival of lights, victory of good over evil etc – and try to see the darker history it attempts to hide.
The ability to presume on behalf of others is the privilege of the majority in such cases. There is no indication or hint in the Diwali announcement that one need not view the puja as a religious affair but should come to it in a spirit of a cultural celebration or just some sort of convival, societal getting together.
Last year the AAP had organized public fireworks in central Delhi – the effort was to reduce people setting off fire-crackers on their own and thus adding to the air pollution in the city. That event could have been passed off as quite religiously neutral, though firecrackers and Diwali have very strong associations. Still one could argue that they probably do not have any religious mandate.
But a “Diwali pujan” at a certain muhurta is a serious affair. It has a religious mandate and context. A homogenization of religious identities and preferences without consultation is an act of majoritarian privilege. It is an distortion of secular ideals and practices
It seems regrettable that AAP which tries to avoid targeting religious identities and attempts to push a welfarist agenda had to throw all caution to the wind in this instance. Symbolism and messaging matters. While representing a diverse citizenry, it behooves the political outfits to respect diverse faith persuasions and being extra-cautious about the messages one sends out by one’s public actions. But it seems AAP, like so many other institutions in India, simply assumes that everyone is on board with a majoritarian way of conducting one’s life.
The author is based in the Delhi NCR region.