Secular Imagination and Indian Politics

That India has a secular constitution, seems to be a great progressive leap for many people. India was, and is, the world's largest Hindu country, with a long history and heritage. Hinduism, and its 'sacred geography', seemed to have provided Indians their common identity, despite being divided by language, castes, customs and preferences! And, Hindu (and Budhdhist, the other major religion that originated in India) icons are everywhere in the imagination of Independent India, from the invocation of the 'Mother India' to its national flag and anthem. It seems the secularism of India is a deliberate, progressive turn, a statement of aspiration to build a modern nation by leaving its religions and superstitions behind.

And, indeed, it was. The leaders of Modern India, particularly Nehru, was intent on building a nation based on economic independence (from the West) and technological progress. With the horrors of racialism in context and battling the 'two nation doctrine' that successfully won over Pakistan, tearing through the 'sacred geography' and peoples and families, the modern, technological, forward-thinking nation was the logical option. Not many Congress leaders would have stood by the ideology, but the politics made it a common sense option. Besides, the various groups and linguistic communities that needed to be united - one of the most contentious issues in the Constituent Assembly was to decide on the Official Language, and despite the insistence of all top leaders, English had to be left in its place for a number of years - and it would have been impossible to unite them for a Hindu country!

Then, there was hope! The moment of independence, darkened as it was by the Partition and the violence that followed (in the enduring words of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, this was not the morning they set out for), was a great moment of hope and opportunity, not just for India, but the entire colonised world, whose freedom was to follow. For the makers of Indian state, they were conscious of their historical responsibility, to be a beacon of freedom, as they saw India to be, within a continent of misery and servitude. And, many of them saw the partition as an artificially imposed mistake, a part of the Colonial mischief (which it indeed was), something that was to be healed with time, perhaps with a reunion. Their politics could not have been the inverse of Pakistan's. Besides, they were conscious of the many million Muslims who chose to remain in India, refusing to buy into the two-nation theory, or simply seeing through the absurdity of it. It fell on them to build an united, progressive state, whose minorities felt empowered and free, keeping the door open for Pakistan for a rapprochement one day.

It was then. But the historical context changed, and what appeared common sense then, it does not any longer.

Once India came into being and was moulded into a powerful state, we have come to take it as a given. The state's voice has obscured all the dissenting voices - of the displaced peoples, of Aborigines, of landless peasants, of those smaller minorities, of hill people - and steamrolled everything under one narrative of economic growth and national superiority in the league table of nations. Secularism was common sense, it was an essential glue keeping the country together, but this is no longer deemed a challenge.

More so as India failed to heal the rift with Pakistan, fighting three and half wars and becoming its geopolitical rival by succumbing to Big Country power-plays. The Pakistani elite and its army found the main justification of its continued rule in its 'jihad' for Kashmir, and with American money, bankrolled various conflicts till it came to bite them back. Indian politics, though, failed to rise above the narrative, and in time, became defined by its opposition to Pakistan. While Vietnam may have reunited, and even Koreans dreamt of coming together one day, Pakistan (and its offshoot, Bangladesh) and India drifted apart ever further, and memories of a common past receded in the background. It made no sense to keep the door open anymore.

Finally, even when the Indian state is powerful and ever ascendant, the question of Indian identity came to the fore. New melting pots in the form of big modern cities and IT services firms with their mixed gender workforce and 24x7 schedule emerged, and made possible what the secular constitution failed to do: Pulling Indians into marriages across caste, religion and even linguistic communities (the last one, I reckon, being most difficult), and yet, what is an Indian may have remained unresolved. This is perhaps because the shaky hold of Hindi in India - despite being the national language, more Indians do not speak Hindi than they do! Hindi movies, while popular, failed to reach a lot of Indians, and IT service firms linked India through English rather than Hindi. While the globalisation hit and Indians craved for an unified Identity, it found nothing: While the big city drawing rooms settled for the weak alternatives of cricket, Whiskey and hatred for Pakistan, for the people at large the 'sacred geography' and the ideas of a redemptive religion remained irreplaceable.

So, it has become much easier to argue that India is essentially Hindu and secularism was only a political stance that is past its sell-by date. In fact, Indians have invented a term and using it liberally: 'psuedo-Secular'!

The conditions that dictated Secularism - the diversity of the country, the need for a reconciliation with Pakistan, the need to build a modern dynamic 'opportunity society' - all exist and if anything, they are even more urgent and important today than they were sixty-nine years ago. However, the context the Secular ideal was presented with has changed. The Indian State, its ruling party (parties, one should say) used 'secularism' as a tool for political advantage and as an empty slogan (the meaning of 'psuedo-secular') and failed to supplant the ideal of secularism with a secular imagination. 

I shall argue that the time to do so is now. The secular narrative is truly broken, particularly in the economic stagnation of the last several years since the Great Recession, and a new identity politics of Hinduvta has arisen. The hope that this is a passing phase is mistaken, as, without a re-imagination, secularism may never regain its place in Indian polity. This is not about the electoral fortunes of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, but the power of the concept itself: The questions, is secularism integral to India, and why, need to be asked again.

And, its answer, I shall argue, is Economic and Political: The secular is not just about religion anymore, but opportunity. India's development, urgent as it may be, will not come through technocratic solution, as the current government and all those politicians advocating change from above believes. India has come to the point when the Government needs to step aside, concentrating its energies in restoring the rule of law: Curbing corruption, making Courts and police forces functional, reigning on black money (which drives corruption) and allowing level playing field for small and medium businesses. This can not happen within a state that wants to dictate social preferences, and runs on a majoritarian politics. The point of secular is to not to accept Diversity, which is anyway an inescapable feature of India: It is about making it a core economic strategy, an advantage, something that we compete on.

This line of argument, thinking of secular as an economic, rather than moral, argument may be loathsome to some people. But I shall argue, while being secular is moral ideal for private persons (as it is for me), in Statecraft, both religion and secularism are strategies, that need to be adjusted with social and economic realities. Secularism made sense in India in 1947, and it does now. However, one needs to re-imagine secularism - as a precondition to opportunity society - rather than try to hark back to the world of the past that has irrevocably changed.

Photo Credit: Everystockphoto


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