Busting some foundational myths of Indian secularism

The Indian secularism has several foundational myths and the debate needs to go beyond Nitish Kumar and Narendra Modi.

R Jagannathan April 18, 2013 17:14:00 IST
Busting some foundational myths of Indian secularism

There is one reason why we should all be thankful to Nitish Kumar: for bringing up the issue of secularism and communalism in India. If we actually use this opportunity to discuss what secularism should mean, and how secularists should conduct themselves, it would be a huge gain for India.

While many debates have been kicked off in the process, most of them have focused on the political aspects of Nitish Kumar’s definition of who qualifies as a secular leader. In his view, Narendra Modi does not fit the definition, and thus he is not fit to lead the NDA in the next elections.

However, we need to really go beyond the politics of Kumar and Modi, and Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s column in The Indian Express today sets the right tone for a broader debate. The core issue Mehta raises is simple: in India, we have reduced secularism to the narrow virtue of the individual, rather than about building secular institutions. Our politics is about deciding who is secular, not about what is secular.

He writes: “Secularism as a personal virtue is the idea that the individual does not harbour invidious prejudice against particular communities for being who they are….But in India this personal virtue has been… an unreliable guide to the institutional practice of secularism… How do people come to be marked as secular in political terms? If people make the transition from being allegedly non-secular to acceptably secular in political terms, like LK Advani apparently has but Narendra Modi has not, what are the markers of this transition?” (Read Mehta’s full article here).

Busting some foundational myths of Indian secularism

Has the onus of secularism been laid on only one community? Reuters

This writer has long argued that India’s secularism is bogus for the simple reason that it starts with labelling rather than defining. And the reason why we are more prone to doing this rather than what Mehta suggests is because Indian secularism has stuck to some foundational myths that have been internalised by our people and politicians over 65 years. Every other myth follows from these foundational myths.

The core foundational myths of Indian secularism post-1947 are two: that India is an overwhelmingly Hindu majority country, and hence any talk about secularism must pertain to this central fact. This is the reason why even the Communal Violence Bill emphasises that oppressors can only be from the majority community, and not the minority. Why not then rename it as Hindu Communalism Containment Bill? That would at least be honest.

The second foundational myth is that secularism is only about religion, and not any other form of sectarianism that is antithetical to the concept of equal citizenship consistent with human rights and inclusiveness. The other myths flow from these two foundational myths.

Let’s debunk them one by one.

Myth 1: India is 80 percent Hindu, and hence Hindus have to be more secular than the rest, and they must carry the can for secularism whatever the cost to their own identity.

Every Indian believes this 80 percent number. Quite apart from the fact that the 2011 census could well show this number to be less than 80 percent due to demographic change, the importance of this myth will not change in case the Hindu population is shown as 79 percent or even less.

But are Hindus really 79-80 percent of the population? Thanks to horrendous caste injustices of the past, Hindu society deliberately kept a large chunk of people as “untouchables”. Can somebody who was kept out of Hindu society by a deliberate act of exclusion be considered Hindu? Take the SC/ST groups out of the definition of Hindu, and you have to exclude 22-23 percent of our people now lumped under the term “Hindu”. This brings the Hindu population from near 80 percent to somewhere around 57 percent.

Now, if one were to look at populations that have specifically rejected Hinduism – the Dravidian movements in the south, and the Left are obvious groups to consider – and the clear trend that most conversions have been away from Hinduism in the past, we could lose another 4-5 percent of the Hindu population. We are now down to a core Hindu population that is closer to 52 percent.

Next, we need to consider the Hindu population not within the context of India’s current national borders, but the larger porosity of its fences with Pakistan and Bangladesh. Reason: minority population flows have largely been one-way – into India. The entire Assam and north-eastern problem relates to this inflow. The Christian and non-Hindu tribal states of Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya, despite being next to Bangladesh, do not allow any inflows at all.

If we accept that at least 1-2 percent of the Indian population is the result of minority immigration from Bangladesh, is it unreasonable to conclude that the real Hindu population cannot be above 50 percent?

India is majoritarian Hindu only in a civilisational sense – and not in a religious sense. The short-point is not about claiming that Hindus are not more than 50 percent – it’s a very difficult number to be sure about without asking more pointed questions in the census - but the 80 percent Hindu population is surely a gross overestimate.

Myth 2: The only sectarian threat to Indian unity is religion, not other forms of sectarianism, including caste, region and ethnic differentiation.

Critics of Hinduism rightly castigate the religion for creating an oppressive structure based on caste identities. If we take this as true, the definition of communalism needs to be expanded to caste conflicts too. But the entire basis of Indian politics is caste-focused, with even Nitish Kumar seeking votes on the basis of a consolidation of extreme backward castes and Maha-Dalits (extremely backward Dalits), not to speak of the upper caste votes that presumably come with the BJP coalition partner.

Mulayam Singh’s casteism is rooted in a Yadav core. And so is Lalu Prasad’s. In Kerala, there are at least two Hindu caste-based parties (Ezhavas and Nairs); in Andhra, Chandrababu Naidu is thick with the Khammas. In Tamil Nadu, we have a separate party for the Vanniyars. We can go on and on, but the point is this: in India, it is not communalism that is the primary threat to individual rights and citizenship, but multiple forms of caste and other sectarianisms. To focus only on the Hindu-Muslim issue is fallacious.

Beyond these two foundational myths, there are several others that derive from them to make the communalism versus secularism debate a partial farce.

Myth 3: The BJP and Sangh Parivar are the primary communal groups in India.

The truth is, no party or group can be called fully communal. Or fully secular. All parties are partially secular, for the simple reason that politics is about garnering power, and in the pursuit of power, parties metamorphose towards greater inclusivity. This is the case with the BJP in all the places it is in power, including Goa, Madhya Pradesh, and other such places.

But all parties are also partly communal. The Congress win in the last Assam assembly election resulted from a consolidation of the non-Muslim vote away from traditional Assamese parties such as the AGP. The communal clashes between Bodos and Muslims in Kokrajhar last year are the result of this new political trend in the Congress, which saw the Muslim party AUDF as its main threat. When it saw Muslim votes slipping away, it sought a deal with Hindus and Bodos.

The Congress, the Left and regional parties are thus not secular by definition. As Pratap Bhanu Mehta notes: “Rajiv Gandhi's regime, in a short span, took more anti-secular decisions than any government had in living memory, achieving the rare feat of making every community feel targeted.” Decisions taken in his time stoked the Ayodhya movement, including the decision to reverse the Shah Bano judgment on alimony to a divorced woman, through an over-riding legislation.

Myth 4: Anyone associated with the BJP/Sangh Parivar is communal, anyone not associating with them is secular. This does not need elaboration. Nitish Kumar has been with the BJP as partner for more than 15 years now. More, if one traces his links to the short-lived Janata Party, of which the pre-BJP Jana Sangh was the biggest component.

Myth 5: A riot/communal incident in any BJP-run state is ipso facto communal; something similar in a Congress, Left or regional party-run state is merely an aberration.

We don’t have to go as far as 1984 to prove this point. Consider how gentle the national media and other political parties have been about the Assam communal carnage of 2012.

Busting some foundational myths of Indian secularism

Is association with the RSS proof of communalism? PTI

Myth 6: Minorities can only be served by identity politics.

The key markers of secularism in India seem to be based only on identity. Neutral definitions based on economic conditions seem to be abhorred. If you want to help Muslims, it can only be done through reservations and special allocations. Why can’t the same be done through schemes focused on identifying economic or social backwardness, rather than communal identity?

Despite its flaws, the NREGA make-work scheme has one big plus: it is universal, and self-selecting. The poor come to NREGA for jobs, and the identification does not happen depending on whether you weak a “topi” or a “tilak” – to use Nitish Kumar’s colourful expressions.

This is the way to go: if you want to identify the poor, identify them by criteria other than their “topi” or “tilak”. But then, it is precisely such identification that enables the creation of vote-banks. It also fosters communal thinking. How then is identity politics secular?

Myth 7: The Left and the Congress have perpetual labelling rights to designate someone as communal or secular.

This point is so self-evident, that even LK Advani had to coin the term pseudo-secular to try and debunk this myth. But the myth endures. It has now become a badge of honour for fake secularists to call themselves pseudo-secularists and take pride in it. Any criticism by the BJP looks good on the secular CV.

Mehta notes that since the first task of the new nation was to build unity, an attempt was made to erase all memories of a communal past on the lines chosen by the Congress and the Left. He notes: “Being secular used to be identified with a historical orientation: subscribe to one single Congress-Left narrative of Indian history… It went about this task by disavowing the idea that there could have been genuine religious difference and conflict in the past. It sanitised, almost as if to say that the truth of Indian secularism needed the lie of Indian history. Where secularism lost out was that both secularists and non-secularists were fighting on the terrain of the past.”

True secularism cannot be built on air-brushed history, whether done by the Left or Right.

Myth 8: Hinduism must only be equated with caste atrocities. Any form of Hindu pride in the past is by definition pandering to Hindu communalism. But this logic will not apply to other groups.

This is so obvious in our political discourse, that it needs no elaboration. Whether you are a Dalit or an upper caste Hindu secular intellectual, it has become important to deride our Hindu past. But the same logic does not apply to the minority religions, which are routinely assumed to be egalitarian, even if they have adopted the same caste prejudices that exist in Hinduism. Today the big debate is not about reservations for the SC/STs, but reservations of Muslims and Christians who abandoned Hinduism for their own reasons but ended up remaining Dalits in their new religious identities. Should their new religions not carry the cross for continuing this atrocity?

Myth 9: Any Hindu institution is fair game for governments. The rest are free to run their institutions free from government interference. For example, all Hindu institutions have to follow government policies on the Right to Education even if they are privately funded; this does not apply to minority-run institutions. Is the right to run institutions without interference only a minority right?

Nobody also stops to think why state governments are so keen to control Hindu institutions, whether it is the Tirupati temple or any other place of Hindu worship. Clearly, politicians want access to the money that flows into temples.

Consider: when riches were discovered in the Padmanabhaswamy temple, the Left immediately wanted to claim it as state property.

As Firstpost noted earlier, KN Panicker, Left historian, said the Rs 100,000 crore of valuables discovered in the sealed vaults of the temple in Thiruvananthapuram said the riches belong to the state. “The assets accumulated over centuries were the offerings made by kings and devotees. The kings from elsewhere had also contributed. It is a state property with a lot of public contributions,” Panicker was quoted in the media in 2011.

One wonders what he would have decided if the riches had been found under a mosque or church?

The larger point is this: Indian secularism has gone off track. It is time to renew the debate so that we put it back on rails based on long-term fundamentals, and not short-term political opportunism.

For Hindu Right-wingers who dream of  a Hindu-Rashtra, I have an additional point to make: if Hindus are anyway not a big majority even now, or could potentially become a minority even in India due to demographic transitions, they should have the greatest stake in secularism. It is in their interest to create a non-sectarian institutional structure that respects their rights no matter whether they remain a majority or become a minority in due course.

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