Secularism Under Siege

Kamal Mitra Chenoy

The all-out assault on secularism is not merely against tolerance; it is against democracy itself and the very basis of a pluralist India. As before, a two- nation theory will only lead to Partition, or as Yugoslavia and the USSR have shown, to Balkanisation

Independent India was born in the fires of communalism, through the genocidal carnage of the Partition. In the desperate contest between the secularists led by the Congress under the Mahatma and Nehru, and the communalists abetted by the British and led on the one side by the Muslim League and on the other by the Hindu Mahasabha–RSS, the latter won. The periodic and increasingly menacing communal violence that has occurred since then is symptomatic of the unfinished secular agenda.

Those who fondly imagined that the bloodletting that followed the Babri Masjid demolition, particularly in Bombay and Surat, would be checked by the moderate and statesman–like Vajpayee leading an NDA coalition that included secular parties, were in for a rude shock, especially after the genocide in Gujarat by the RSS–appointed Narendra Modi’s government in February–March 2002. The BJP’s current moves to vacate the Supreme Court stay on religious ceremonies near the Babri Masjid site, and the proposed bill to ban cow slaughter, starkly highlight that secularism is under assault as never before.

A major reason this assault has progressed so far has been because of the assiduously spread myths and falsehoods about what secularism, democracy, the Indian nation and culture are. The core and co-ordinating body behind this Hindutva attack, the RSS, has its own Western roots. The Italian researcher Marzia Casolari has exposed the RSS links, after it was set up in 1925 with the Italian fascist party led by Mussolini. RSS sarsanghchalak MS ‘Guru’ Golwalkar’s admiration for Hitler is well known. Many of the core concepts of Hindutva are Indianised versions of Italian and German fascism. Swadeshi versions some might say.

For example, the sangh brigade has argued that since India is very largely Hindu, it is a Hindu Rashtra or nation. This is similar to Hitler’s concept of the German ‘herrenvolk’ or pure Aryan community. The sanghis argue that the Aryans, contrary to all historical evidence, were indigenous people and the forebears of a Hindu race. All minorities, esp. the Muslims and Christians (but the Sikhs and Jains are not so stridently included as they are considered part of the Hindu family), are considered illegitimate converts by force and fraud by Muslim and British rulers.

The attack on the Babri Masjid (a misnomer as Babar never visited Ayodhya) was part of the sangh purification (sudhikaran) of history, and righting of mythical historical wrongs by the Muslims. Babar and ‘Babar ke aulad’ demolished Ramajanmabhoomi, and so the sangh brigade had to repay the Muslims in the same medieval coin. And today, Vajpayee talks of historical proof that the Rama temple existed there, despite the evidence given by renowned archaeologists like D. Mandal, and eminent historians like RS Sharma, Romila Thapar et al. Despite the fact that in Ayodhya there already exist several Rama temples, for the sangh brigade desperate to remain in the seat of power, Lord Rama also has an accommodation problem.

Many of us forget that India was the birthplace of Gautama Buddha, and that the very influential emperor Asoka was his disciple. The Asoka chakra is at the centre of the Indian national flag. What happened to all the Buddhists in the land of the Buddha? They were forcibly converted to Hinduism by the Brahmins and their followers. Buddhist shrines and monasteries were despoiled and turned into Hindu sites. Thus the Bodh Gaya temple today in Bihar is managed by both Buddhists and Hindus. The sacred Boddhisatva tree nearby, where Buddha attained enlightenment, was chopped down by a Hindu fanatic centuries ago.

No one, including the Buddhists, talk of this now. So forcible conversion and the demolition and co-optation of religious shrines are nothing new, and the Brahmin–led Hindus because they were the most powerful, were the biggest offenders. This was pre–eminently not a matter of religion, but of political power, as indeed Hindutva is.

At the core of this history of hate is the communal project that argues, as the fascists did, that the Hindus are a homogeneous community, with little difference, and no pluralism. Thus the term ‘majority community’. This community is seen as having objective contradictions and differences with the minorities, the ‘other.’ But aren’t Hindus divided by class, caste, gender, region, language, etc.? Aren’t the Tamils and Kannadigas feuding over the Cauvery river waters mostly Hindus? Is SM Krishna who tried to side-track Supreme Court orders on this issue less of a Hindu than Ms. Jayalalitha?

Are those for and against affirmative action including the Mandal Commission recommendations less Hindu than the others? There are also Hindus on both sides of the bitter dispute on the Women’s Reservation Bill. Such examples can be multiplied. Clearly Hindus never were and never can be homogenous. Similarly, Muslims and other minorities are also not homogenous. For example, Muslims who claim to have descended from upper castes or more lofty ancestors like the Sayyids, Ashrafs, Khans do not normally marry the comparatively lower caste Ansaris and Qureshis. In Kerala, the Syrian Orthodox Christians do not normally marry the Latin Christians or frequent the same church. Thus there is no homogenous ‘majority’ community or its counterpart ‘minority’ communities.

The assault on secularism is also based on a crucial misrepresentation of democracy. The sangh argument is that democracy means majority rule, and since Hindus are a majority, Indian democracy must be Hindu, and what for them is the same thing, Hindutva rule. But this is another distortion. Democracy is not simply majority rule. Liberal democratic theory holds that all majorities are temporary. Take elections. Yesterday a party/coalition e.g., the BJP–Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, was in power. Today another party/coalition, e.g. the Congress–NCP is in power. The leadership/membership of both is predominantly Hindu.

If one makes the trivial statistical point that in either case Hindus are in the ‘majority,’ the concomitant confession will have to be that Hindus are different: they vote and act differently. That further proves they are not a homogenous community. Further, in the ‘first past the post’ electoral system, Narendra Modi’s sweeping electoral victory in Gujarat, like Mrs. Indira Gandhi’s famous Lok Sabha victory in 1971, was based on a minority vote, less than 50 per cent. Very few Indian political formations have got more than 50 per cent votes, and they have never consecutively repeated the performance. Moreover, democracies must guarantee minority rights.

That leads us to the next anti-secular canard of minority appeasement. For example, the sanghis argue, that Article 30 of the Fundamental Rights, which allows minorities to run their own educational institutions, has resulted in the proliferation of madrassas that are spreading Muslim fanaticism if not terrorism. This they say is minorityism, against democratic majoritarianism (that we have already refuted). In the first place, there are enough criminal laws in place in the IPC and CrPC to counter this, apart from the extraordinary anti–terrorist laws like NSA, Armed Forces Special Powers Act and POTA. No minority institution is above the law. But the question that arises is what about the ‘majority’ RSS–controlled Saraswati Shishu Mandirs, Vanvasi Kalyan Kendras and the like? Don’t these spread Hindu fanaticism? And don’t these fuel genocidal terrorism as in Gujarat and elsewhere? Behind the rhetorical façade it appears that ‘majority’ fanaticism is seen as patriotism, but ‘minority’ conservatism as ‘jehadi terrorism.’

Similar is the argument that subsidies to the Haj pilgrimage are minority appeasement. If subsidies for the restoration/rebuilding of Hindu shrines and pilgrimages and the Kumbh Mela are acceptable, then why not this? But there is a more profound objection. If secularism is about the separation of religion and politics, why is the state subsidising religion? We must distinguish between the state being partisan between religions, funding religions per se, and subsidising a few religious activities. In such a stratified and largely poor society, where religion not only for the pious, but even for the atheistic, is an integral part of culture, limited state subsidies cannot be simply decried as anti–secular, as favouring either Hindu or Muslim. In any case, quite contrary to the Hindutva argument, Hindus have got more subsidies than the minorities.

Today, the latest furore is over cow slaughter instigated by the Congress CM of MP, Digvijay Singh. Facing an election later in the year, the two term CM sought to beat the BJP at its own game like other Congress leaders before him, and raised the issue of cow slaughter, accusing the BJP of being insincere in this objective. The local youth Congress even printed posters accusing Vajpayee of being a ‘beef eater.’ In the first place, eating habits have nothing to do with nationalism or democracy. Secondly, many lower caste Hindus as well as Hindus in eastern, north–eastern and southern India, apart from the minorities, eat beef. Thirdly, Article 48 of the Directive Principles, which unlike Fundamental Rights are not judicially enforceable, does not focus exclusively on the prohibition of cow slaughter. It concerns the scientific organisation of animal husbandry and enjoins on the state to preserve and improve on all existing indigenous breeds, and prohibits the slaughter not only of cows, but of all "draught and milch cattle." In other words, under this Directive Principle, all draught and milch cattle including cows, buffaloes, yaks, mithuns, should not be slaughtered.

So why this Brahminical insistence only on cows? The comprehensive prohibition in Article 48 is just not enforceable. Hindus, especially lower caste and poor, widely eat buffalo meat, and where they can get it, beef, as in Kerala, West Bengal and the north east. In any case there are other Directive Principles such as Article 41 which includes the right to work, Article 39 for an equitable distribution of wealth, etc. that no one talks of today. Is cow slaughter more important than all this?

It is clear that the current assault on secularism is motivated, aimed at establishing a pseudo–theocratic, authoritarian polity in which the BJP can secure its rule forever. Where progressively the sansad (Parliament) will be substituted by a dharma sansad of self–appointed ‘sants’ acceptable to the sangh brigade and the political opposition be booked under POTA.

The all–out assault on secularism is not merely against tolerance; it is against democracy itself and the very basis of a pluralist India. As before, a two–nation theory will only lead to Partition, or as Yugoslavia and the USSR have shown, to Balkanisation. 

Archived from Communalism Combat, February 2003 Year 9  No. 84, Cover Story 5




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