Secular agenda for the 21st Century



    A two–day Seminar was held at Gandhi Labour Institute under the joint auspices of Movement of Secular Democracy (MSD), Vikas Adhyayan Kendra, SAMVAD, St. Xavier’s Social Service Society and Centre for the Study of Society & Secularism. More than a hundred secular activists and intellectuals from Delhi, Mumbai and different parts of Gujarat attended. Prof. Prakash Shah, the convenor of MSD and editor of Nireekshak, a Gujarati journal, welcomed the guests and put the whole seminar in perspective by highlighting the socio–political context of Gujarat.


    At the first session, ‘Indian History: Syncretic Tradition’, Teesta Setalvad, editor of Communalism Combat and founding member of KHOJ, initiated the discussion. She opened the debate by stating that we have spent enough time harping on the fact of our composite culture. What we need to do now is to stress our democratic tradition. When we look at our post–independence history, we do realise that nationalism and politics have made in–roads into our educational system at the expense of democracy. Several examples of exclusion can be identified within our texts and these need to be highlighted while offering creative alternatives. Sharp caste biases, the absence of any gender perspective within history and social studies texts and the clever manipulation by the Hindu right (post–Independence) in keeping itself out of texts (the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha rarely find mention or description in Indian texts) are some examples. Today this biased approach has come unto it’s own with the current political dispensation run by the rightwing BJP. Latest manifestations are the withdrawal of K.N. Panikkar and Sumit Sarkar’s book for the NCERT. The present attitude has brought about violent ways of suppressing any expressions that do not toe the line.

    This initiation was followed by responses from two panelists, Prof. Shireen Mehta, a retired professor and one time president of the Gujarat History Parishad and Dr. Iftikhar Ahmed, Professor of History, MSU.

    Dr. Iftikhar Ahmed began his response by asking why the impact of something that happened a 1,000 years ago has still remained. Religious extremism has been there among both Hindus and Muslims. The Marxist discourse tried to steer away from this but did not gain much success. On the one hand there is a syncretic tradition, but on the other, there is also an atmosphere of intolerance in our country. We must accept the positive and fight to overcome the negative in our heritage. The debate was thrown open to the house.

    The afternoon session, moderated by retired Prof. of English and social activist Prof. Abid Shamsi, was devoted to ‘Politics of Culture – Fascist Portents’. Dr. Sandeep Pendse, activist, academician and scriptwriter from Mumbai, was the main initiator of the discussion. He said that there was unity among all fundamentalist sections be they Hindu, Muslim, Christian or any other. The Nazi regime too had begun by advocating the one nation, one people, one culture theory. He pointed out the danger of making a distinction between citizenship and nationality as being semi–racist ideology. According to these fascists, only those who’s ‘Fatherland’ and ‘Holy Land’ were India could be Indian nationals. But these advocates forget that neither Shiva’s abode nor some of the Buddhist holy places are in India.

    Dr. Purushottam Agrawal, Professor from JNU with a background in RSS shakhas, responded by asking the house to reflect on why RSS is receiving such a wide support. He said that even if Hindu identity was a constructed one, people live by that identity and that is what counts. In this situation the most important thing to do is to win the minds of the people. He ended by saying that we need to give a dream, a vision to the country.

    Dr. Suguna Ramanathan, Dean of Arts faculty and Head of the English department of St. Xavier’s College, Ahmedabad, responded from the perspective of women. She stressed the need to integrate our culture with its positive and negative aspects. The West began its journey from a closed society to a modern, open society. Unfortunately, we seem to be going from an open society to a closed society. We extol motherhood at the expense of sexuality. We have limited women to the level of symbolic power. We have also accepted the Brahmanical model as pan–Indian model. The Brahmanic control of the female sexuality is also at the root of the caste structure. She advocated rationality and ethical absolute and pleaded that these should not be written off as alien to our culture.

    Rajiv Shah was the last panelist to respond. As a journalist, he claimed that we need to study the Congress culture in Gujarat to understand the overall situation of Gujarat. In present day Gujarat, important cities are segregated on the basis of religion. Being a Gujarati is being equated with Hindu. He called this a low intensity communalism. He asked all to reflect that if a low intensity communalism succeeds, why is there recourse to violence in Gujarat? We need to analyse the changes within BJP too to understand this situation.

    The first session of the second day was devoted to finding a secular agenda for our situation. Dileep Chandulal, a retired government official and social activist moderated this session. Mr. Dwarikanath Rath, the leading force behind MSD and a leading activist, stressed the need of decentralization and the need to spread to the remotest villages in all areas of life. MSD must try to win over the fence sitters. MSD takes up too many activities and thus spreads itself too thin. MSD must encourage People’s Committees all over and establish channels of communication. We need to develop secular symbols like Vasant-Rajab (martyrs for communal harmony), recognize secular journalists, artists etc.

    Contact: Movement for Secular Democracy, c/o Wilfred, SAMVAD, on behalf of MSD

    Archived from Communalism Combat, March 2000, Year 7  No. 57, Breaking Barriers 3