Modi's graveyard remark: Outrage over PM's comment points to sorry subversion of 'secularism' in India

The founding fathers of Indian Constitution, while seeking to build a modern nation-state, did not include the word "secular" in the Preamble. It was later enacted through the 42nd amendment in 1976. The sagacious heads who drew up the framework of modern India were not fools. They were well aware that the concept of western secularism, which was rooted in the movement for personal freedom against largely Christian theocratic states, would be ill-suited for the multi-cultural ethos of the Indian melting pot.

Whereas in the west the notion of "secularism" indicates the separation of state and religion, in India the term eventually sought to accord 'equality' to all religions — equal respect, freedom and importance. The importance of this cannot be overstated. The 42nd amendment makes it clear that Indian state won't play the game of favouritism. There would be no special status for any religion. Or at least that was the plan.

In 40 years since that amendment was enacted, secularism has now become a much-abused term — a notion violated so much in spirit and letter that it has come to mean the opposite of what it was intended for. It is now a code word. A dog whistle for rampant favouritism and pitting one religion against other. In this mutated form, "secularism" is now a cancer on the Indian state.

The honour of this mutation, once again, must go to the Congress which subverted "secularism" into "minority-ism". That does not mean that it worked hard to improve the condition of the religious minorities in India. That would have been a laudable step. For all its "secular" credentials, the Congress which enjoyed lion's share of power as the 'national party, was oblivious to the cause of Muslims beyond the ballot.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Fatehpur on Sunday. PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Fatehpur on Sunday. Modi made the graveyard remark during the rally. PTI

Muslims remained laggards in nearly every metric. According to the Amitabh Kundu committee report, Muslims of India have remained behind not just in respect to the majority community but also to other smaller religious minorities. A vast number of them are still bereft of basic services and consequently have little representation in Indian power structure.


Why did things come to such a pass when India's "default operating system" — as Rahul Gandhi once put it — was at work? The answer is simple. If Muslims had been subjected to real socio-economic uplift, they would have risen and demanded a better future. They would then be less insecure, more aspirational. They would be more discerning in their choices, and less easily ghettoised. All this is good for the nation but bad for political parties.

It was important for Congress, and other copycat parties which borrowed from its 'ideology', to create a paradigm where a sizeable portion of Indian population would vote out of fear. They would be driven to the poll booths not to demand a rise in their socio-economic condition but to keep the bogeymen away.

If the fissures of Indian polity can be widened enough by harping on the insecurities of a particular community, then those members would slip through the crack and remain forever in darkness.

The Congress and those parties that followed this model perfected this art, stunting the Muslims in India and trapping them into their own identity. They did this by subverting the word "secular" and were helped along by a complicit media. The mainstream media played no small a part, frequently queering the pitch so that no one notices how "secularism" has travelled from its roots of equality to precipice of "favouritism". False favourtism, because it ended up doing more harm than good.

Therefore, we see no controversy when Calcutta High Court slams the West Bengal government for "trying to appease the minority sections of the public." We see no evil when a High Court strikes down Mamata Banerjee government's move as "unconstitutional" to provide a monthly allowance to imams and muezzins. We don't bat an eyelid when a Samajwadi Party minister says Muslims produce more babies because they have nothing better to do. We see nothing wrong when Mayawati seeks backing from Muslim clerics and ulemas ahead of elections.

Our 'secularism' compass moves wildly, however, when someone actually calls for an end to appeasement and pandering to 'minority-majority' sentiment. Our conscience is outraged not when someone appeals to Muslims to vote as a community, but when someone urges the electorate to rise above caste and community calculation. Our 'idea of India' is shaken when an appeal is made to end politics of discrimination and direct the country's resources to the section that needs it the most irrespective of whether they are Hindus or Muslims.


The recent controversy around the Prime Minister's statement refocuses light on the nature of subversion that the word "secularism" has undergone. It is staggering to note that so-called secular political parties and usual suspects in the media have raised 'polarization' stink over comments that are by any metric fair, just and balanced. It is an indication of just how much the narrative is skewed.

Consider the statement that Narendra Modi made during an election rally on Sunday in Fatehpur:

"If a village gets a graveyard, it should get a cremation ground too. If there is electricity during Ramzan, "there should be electricity during Diwali too. If there is electricity during Holi, there should be electricity during Eid too. There should not be any discrimination…"

Far from being a divisive remark, Modi's comments stick close to concept of secularism as it was envisaged in the Preamble.

He went on to add: " Discrimination is the root of injustice… Dalits say they are not getting their rights, OBCs are getting everything. OBCs say the government only gives the Yadavs. Yadavs say only those associated with the ‘family’ are getting their rights, and the rest goes to Muslims… This discrimination cannot continue… Regardless of who gave birth to you… Everyone should get their rights, that is sabka saath sabka vikas),” he said, according to The Indian Express report.

The Prime Minister should be lauded for raising the bar of electoral debate. While Mayawati is trying to leverage a Dalit-Muslim combination to power, the ruling Samajwadi Party has joined hands with the Congress to prevent the fracturing of Muslim votes. Muslims, not for the first time, have been reduced to their votes. In this cauldron, the prime minister's statement is a welcome departure.

It is understandable, though, why the Congress has threatened to move the Election Commission and why Leftist parties including the neo-Left, Aam Aadmi Party, are seeing red. If fault lines no longer exist, these outfits will then be held accountable for the work that they do, not the fear that they monger or the rotten apple that they dangle.

As for the media, it should introspect why there is no controversy when the leader of a rival political party calls the prime minister a 'terrorist'. Getting to the answer honestly should lessen the disconnect it suffers at the moment from people.


Published Date: Feb 20, 2017 03:56 pm | Updated Date: Feb 20, 2017 05:09 pm



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