Secularism At A Crossroads

The disastrous showing of the Congress in the elections has put a question mark on the whole idea of secularism, because over the years, Congress had donned the mantle of being the first among all secular parties.

The drubbing Congress got seems ironical because it happened after it had started to display soft Hindutva, with its leaders making regular trips to religious places in full public gaze to establish their Hindu credentials at the risk of damaging the party’s secular image.

The Congress’s existential dilemma is comical. It appeases the minorities and it ends up losing majority Hindu votes; it comes out forcefully on its Hindu identity and it loses its secular identity and consequently, minority votes. This time round, the Muslim-majority Wayanad constituency saved Rahul Gandhi. Otherwise, he would have been left without any seat in Parliament.

But if the leader of a prominent secular party like Congress has to rush to Wayanad to save his seat, does this mean that the secular experiment has failed in India?

One needs to understand the concept of secularism and its political implications in the Indian context a little more deeply.

A secular nation state means a country, which does not have a state religion and where a citizen’s religious identity does not matter as far as the state is concerned. A person is free to have his own belief system and practice as long as it does not impinge on others or violate the laws of the land.

For example, in the United States, the state is supposed to scrupulously avoid any interference in matters of faith as far as citizens are concerned.

The idea of secularism is fine because it places all citizens belonging to any religion on an equal footing as far as their rights, privileges and duties are concerned.

In India, however, at the time of Independence, makers of the Constitutional did not give any religious status to the state. They kept the state at equidistance from each religion rather than making the state and religion exclusive of each other. Thus, in India, legislators and the government have the right to frame laws regarding the religious practices of different religious groups. The state can intervene if it thinks fit to set right any malpractice, which is noticed in the religious practice of any religion.

This unique interpretation of secularism in the Constitution gave a handle to the political party in power to misuse it as a part of vote bank politics.

Actions favouring religious minorities by political parties, particularly Congress, was always criticized by the Opposition.

Flaunting its secular credentials as a party, which cared for Muslim, Sikhs and other religious minorities, as also Hindus, Congress kept on winning elections for decades on end, with bulk support from minorities.

The majority community was politically divided and groups like Hindu Mahasabha and RSS, hardcore Hindu organisations, were dubbed as communal. It was the formation of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 1980 from the erstwhile RSS, Jan Sangh that led to the formation of a counter narrative.

The BJP kept up a strident attack on the Congress party, which was in power and for its secular stance. Minority-ism and pampering of minority sentiments over decades naturally resulted in a backlash by the majority community, which was one of the main reasons for the growth of BJP with its strong nationalistic and Hindutva ideology.

India is not alone in facing the challenges that accompany religious nationalism. Many democracies all over the world are witnessing a rise in such political movements.

India may not be a highly developed country with a high per capita income but it is a country with a rich cultural heritage going back 5,000 years.

Interestingly, call it Hinduism, Hindutva or a way of life, as far as a majority of Indians are concerned, they share a belief system, which is not monolithic consisting of hundreds of sects, lakhs of idols, stories and legends, which sway their heart and soul. When a person talks of his Hindu identity, he may not be able to articulate in words what exactly he means but touches the core of his civilizational values, which he may be sharing with over 100 crore people.

Throughout the length and breadth of the country and in every little village or hamlet, you will see some manifestation of Hindu religious belief in some form or the other. The stories of Ramayana and Mahabharata and several from the Puranas are part of Indian psyche from generations.

In the civilizational march of the Hindu society of 5000 years, the coming of the Muslim rulers who ruled the country for a few hundred years and later the British, who ruled for another 200 years is just taken as an aberration.

Any political party, which taps into the grievances of the Hindu society and is ready to represent their values and peacefully fight for their traditions, is likely to reap huge electoral dividends, which the BJP did over the years.

Prime Minister Modi has pointed out that political parties cannot not wear the mask of secularism to dupe gullible voters. In 2014, the BJP had taken a stern decision not to give a single ticket to Muslims and even then win electorally, primarily because they had been able to coalesce the majority into a formidable group.

To allay any apprehensions in the minds of Muslims and other minorities, Mr Modi has given the slogan “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas and Sabka Vishwas.” He said that just as Muslims and Hindus fought together to remove the British from Indian soil in the First War of Independence in 1857, both the communities must develop the country together.

So it is clear that BJP will not go in for any kind of tokenism and appeasement policy towards minorities to show its secular ideology. With a massive majority, the Hindu nationalist right-wing party can work for the development of all the communities and sections of society without pandering to any group for electoral gains.

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