Problem of Indian Secularism

India faces a general election in 2019 and the battle lines are clearly drawn. The Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government, which came to power promising an economic miracle, has been an abject failure: Like many other administrations before them, this administration gave precedence to political imperatives ahead of economic policy. While its defenders would be quick to list out the government's various achievements, the brevity of the list would be embarrassing to all but those who are either ignorant or have a political motive. The Modi revolution was a whimpering affair, more of tinkering than of bold moves, and after four and half years, as is usually the case with a country like India, the country has gone backwards by not moving forward.

Despite this, however, in the run-up to the general election, no one seems to be asking the economic question: 'Are you better off now than you were four years ago?' Rather, the big battle cry of the opposition is Secularism, and a platform, of regional parties and the Centre-Left ones, is said to be in the making. The very configuration of this 'opposition' makes the economic question impossible to ask: There can hardly be any common economic agenda between the Communist Party (in India, some of them are more Marxist than others), Indian National Congress representing the landed and financial interests and the populist regional parties, whose spendthrift politics centres around not economic prudence, but bail-outs by the Union government. Therefore the common minimum agenda is one of 'Secularism', a constitutional principle that has become a political slogan and battleground of ideas of late.

It is true that Mr Modi's government has been generally accommodative of vigilante Hinduism on the streets, allowing violence to keep its cadre base involved and energised. People were lynched for eating beef; couples were chased and harassed for holding hands in public; critical nongovernmental organisations were shut down on flimsy excuses and human rights activists, when they were not shot dead, jailed on trumped-up charges. These atrocities have naturally focused minds and aroused passions - and led all those unlikely bedfellows in a still very improbable combination. 'Secularism' has arisen as a battle cry, but only because no other common battle cries are possible.

However, the issue of secularism is much bigger, one that needs more careful consideration. It was one of the foundational ideas of the modern Indian constitution and supposed to be the glue that kept India together for seventy years. However, by treating this as a 'holy cow' - as various Indian political parties have done so far - the essential idea has atrophied and decontextualised. Making it a political slogan now exacerbates the problem, as it is now a political strategy and, I suspect, a poor one. Instead, a fresh debate, what secularism really means and whether India should really be secular, would perhaps be more productive in making sense of the idea itself.

A good starting point is to think when did India become secular in the first place. That would perhaps be an uncomfortable question to answer, because it may never have been secular. It is actually one of the most God-fearing countries in the world, where life revolves around religious festivals and all important events of life are essentially religious celebrations. Secular came as a political strategy of constructing a modern, united India, an aspiration rather than an expression of its reality. And, that way, the question of secular may open up the essential issue that one has to deal with, that there is a difference between what India is and what the founders of modern India thought what it ought to be.

But why did they think it ought to be secular? This is why the origin story of India is important, and recognition that the India we speak about is not a timeless land, ever existing, but a modern country conceived in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. There are two important influences in this conception, one much discussed and the other less so. First, the partition - the terrible event associated with the creation of the land of the pure, Pakistan: The founders of India could look at the tragedy of such an enterprise and see clearly the injustices that state-creation based on pure identities entail. Second, as is obvious in the writings of some of the Founders of India, they saw India, after the British, as an impossible country, an assemblage of an infinite variety of religions, castes and languages, where a majoritarian politics is bound to fail. Creation of Pakistan was both an empirical proof of the impossibility of a one-nation India, and the soundest reason why secularism was the only way to go.

Indian secularism, therefore, was a project, rather than a self-evident fact. And, this was indeed forgotten in the subsequent canonisation of secularism.  The implicit assumption that Indian state-making is over led to, instead of the pursuit of the secularism project, its absorption in India's daily reality: A formulation that religion as a private affair that was obvious and absurd in equal parts. Obvious, because religion indeed guides private life so very intimately and absurd because the State doesn't need to teach people that. And, also absurd because this meant the State didn't look to promote scientific thinking or republican citizenship values - rather it indulged in all sorts of religious iconography - but wanted to rid the public sphere, the space for communal life, of the religion.

Here is the problem of Indian secularism, then: In its unique formulation, it stood for an undermining of the only form of community life available to most Indians, while also abdicating its responsibility to spread a liberal and scientific education that may make rationalism and republicanism possible. And, without the communal life and republican commitment, in the midst of pervasive selfishness of narrowly educated, secularism's shelf life, in its current form, appears very limited indeed.

The new-found popularity of secularism as the political glue that binds a rather ramshackle coalition doesn't bid well for the idea, which needs to be reimagined. And, yet, something needs to be done. Mr Modi's government has pursued a self-conscious agenda of institutional transformation, putting sympathetic judges and key functionaries in positions of power and influence an preparing the ground for a 'Hindu revolution' in the days to come. Going by its track record, this means a system of discrimination, not of minorities in favour of a majority, but - as most people in India is actually belong to one kind of minority or another - a system that would allow a handful to marginalise very many. The reimagination of secularism is urgent and overdue - and the case for doing it was never been stronger.



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