CAA, NRC, Article 370 protests have called into question idea of India's secularism; answers lie beyond the Constitution
Saying India is secular because the Constitution says so is an appeal to authority. The people of India deserve the dignity of an argument for secularism
Secularism in India is peculiar. While we have no State religion, we do have a lot of State involvement in religious affairs
The government runs temples and mosques under the garb of managing these as 'charities'
The laws determine who has access to places of worship. The law recognises the idols as having the capacity to sue
When the government abrogated Article 370 this year, there was a lot of conversation around the fact that the people of Jammu and Kashmir should only join India with their consent. It seems like a reasonable proposition. But then it occurred to me that no one had bothered asking my grandparents whether they wanted to join India. They lived in the Madras Province, a part of British India proper.
No one had asked them if they thought Indian Independence and this post-Independence union was something they would have liked. Our Constitution declared us a republic. My grandfather fought for the Indian Army in the Second World War. He had to take an oath of allegiance to King George VI. When the Constitution declared India a republic, no one asked him what he thought about losing his king. Although the delegates to the Constituent Assembly from Madras were elected by the Madras Legislature, my grandparents didn't meet the income or property qualifications to vote for the Madras Provincial elections.
Then it occurred to me that most of this country was never given a choice to accept the Constitution.
It was enacted by a largely-unelected body that didn't meet modern standards of democratic legitimacy. For the longest time, India's Constitution has been beyond the realm of debate. The Supreme Court with its Basic Structure Doctrine even put certain constitutional features beyond amendment. But somehow we kept going along with this idea that the Constitution was something of which we should feel proud and something we should all accept as legitimate.
India was split on religious lines. Whether this split was a good idea or a bad one, is a question that only history will effectively be able to determine, and that determination is something that can only be made long after we are all gone. The Constitution, through its text, takes a philosophical view that this split was only on the Muslim side. Certain provinces left India to form the Muslim Pakistan, but a plural multi-religious and multi-cultural India remained.
But this view that the Constitution takes — a view that has been taught to us by many years of Congress governments — may not be the only view. If you ask the average Indian, s/he will probably tell you that India was split into two countries, India for the Hindus and Pakistan for the Muslims. Which given the migration patterns at the time seem to be a reasonable conclusion to draw.
While Pakistan debated the question and made itself an Islamic Republic, India never seems to have dealt with a similar question. The re-election of the Narendra Modi government, the reaction to the Ayodhya judgment, the National Register of Citizens and now the Citizenship Amendment Bill/Act, 2019 among other things tell us that this question is something the country needs to debate with some urgency: Do people here even want a secular country?
Secularism in India is peculiar. While we have no State religion, we do have a lot of State involvement in religious affairs. The government runs temples and mosques under the garb of managing these as "charities". The laws determine who has access to places of worship. The law recognises the idols as having the capacity to sue. The Shariat Act receives the entire body of Sharia law into the law of India (as far as the personal relations of the Muslims are concerned) and then there are laws that amend the Sharia as it applies to Muslims in India.
The courts frequently enquire into religious texts to determine if something is an "essential religious practice" or not. The law even decides that everyone must have a religion as you cannot formally be an atheist in India. If you're an atheist, you're treated as a Hindu for the purpose of your personal law, for India has an officially-sanctioned default religion. Is this true secularism or some version of religion being run like a public works undertaking?
We cannot avoid this conversation any longer. As I write this, there is panic among India's minorities that India will turn or already has turned into into a Hindu country. There are vested interests that are spreading fear that this will mean the complete exclusion and elimination of minorities in India. But this conclusion doesn't necessarily follow the premise.
Yes, the issue of secularism being a part of the future of India is a question that is in play. But is not a question with only one answer. The choice is not a secular India versus a Hindu Rashtra. There is a middle ground that is possible or there are alternatives that may work for all of us.
For example, look at the UK. The Queen is the Head of State of the UK, but she is also the head of the Church of England. The UK has a State Church with bishops in Parliament. There is freedom of religion in the UK though. People have their own faiths and can practice them freely. The UK is technically a Christian State. But it is secular from the perspective of the people who live there as the government doesn't interfere with their daily lives. Another example of this is Malaysia. Islam is the official religion of Malaysia, but there are many minorities there that enjoy full religious rights and protections.
In Lebanon, for example, they share power. Their Parliament is legally divided on religious lines and portfolios are shared. Lebanon also does have freedom of religion. But it is not secular. It is multi-confessional.
To say that secularism has worked in India would be false. For under the garb of secularism, all manner of assault on religion has been permitted. All religions have fallen victim to this legalised multi-religious state. For the Muslims, Indian secularism means that their personal laws aren't secure and for Hindus, their religious practices. For Christians there are laws that prevent them from missionary activities that could be used to target the average church service.
India needs to begin to have a conversation about the kind of secularism it wants. Maybe it will end up being a version where representatives of the various religious communities send people to Parliament in order to arrive at a consensus. But this is a discussion we need to have as a people and in the current circumstances, it is an urgent discussion.
There is a crisis brewing and misinformation has been weaponised to create an environment of panic and fear. The problem is that if anyone tries to challenge or even question the idea of India being something other than this hodgepodge so-called secular state, the refrain that the Constitution says we are secular is thrown back at them — as though that it is an argument. It is not.
It is an appeal to authority. Saying India is secular because the Constitution says so is an appeal to authority. The people of India deserve the dignity of an argument for secularism. The Opposition needs to make the case for it. We need to arrive at a consensus on what we want a future India to look like. Merely because there exists a word in the Constitution doesn't mean that it is something that ought to be put beyond the realm of debate.