Guest Post by Sanjay Kumar
In an election rally in Bihar on 8 October, country’s Prime Minister exhorted his audience with a homily pretty standard in India’s secular discourse. He asked Hindus and Muslims to decide whether they want to fight each other, or fight poverty together. His call against communal strife had come ten days after a Muslim man was lynched by a mob in Bisada, a village near the mofussil town of Dadri, 50 km from the national capital. There was no reference to events in Bisada in Mr Modi’s speech, yet ‘PM has spoken on Dadri lynching’ became the prime news on TV, and headline news in every newspaper the next day. If nations are imagined communities, then the media in the neo-liberal era imagines itself to be the prime mover and shaker of national imagination. And, when the ‘national leadership’ had remained silent on an important national news for more than a week, a subtle disquiet had indeed settled; as if, the story maker was not getting suitable yarn to complete the web and tie open leads. This may explain media’s eagerness to combine Mr Modi’s election rally remarks with Dadri lynching, about which he actually said nothing. Perhaps the media is expecting too much, and has a rather pompous self image. The women of Bisada had assaulted reporters and TV crews on 3 October, accusing them of presenting only one side of the story, bringing a bad name to their village and disrupting normal life. We have a Prime Minister who is pained even when a pup is killed under a motor car. Is not it unjust to expect him to express his anguish publicly every time some one is murdered in this huge country of ours? The PM has declared many times that his one motivation and project is to build a strong and vibrant India. Should not his country men and women be content with the nation’s highest elected official using his exemplary social media skills for projecting a happy and confident mood. Would not shouting from the roof top on issues about which he is genuinely worried tarnish the very image he has been so painstakingly trying to build?
Now, after the media read his election rally remarks as his statement on the Dadri lynching, sections of it have begun criticising him for not saying enough. It would be much fairer to the man to assume that he actually did not say anything about the Dadri incident. But then, are his remarks true about the general state of affairs in the country? Are Hindus and Muslims actually fighting; are at each other’s throat pushing their respective sectarian agendas? Country’s Prime Minister is utterly wrong on this point. Even more worryingly, he has managed to wrap his very dangerous Hindutva agenda under a standard argument of Indian secularism.
A fight involves two groups of people to fight over something. Hatred, animosity, rumours or ignorance are necessary to build frenzy, but they by themselves do not make up a fight, unless there actually is a clash between two groups of people. Mr Mohammad Aflaq Saifi’s lynching in Bisada village was no fight. The man was simply pulled out of his bedroom and murdered. Actually, events that pass off as communal clashes in India’s national imagining and secular discourse, were hardly so. Nellie (1983), Delhi (1984), Bhagalpur (1989), Babri Mosque demolition and accompanying killings (1992), Mumbai (1992-3), Gujarat (2002), and Muzaffarnagar (2014), were not communal clashes. All these were planned violence with well defined political goals against citizens belonging to beleaguered minorities. Even during 1947, while there was a fight between Congress and Muslim League over the future of undivided India, very few communal killings actually took place during fights between two groups of armed men. Cornered and hapless children, women and men were simply butchered. The so called communal clashes in India should better be identified according to their true character as pogroms. Now, what is the point of all this? Humans also fight over principles, ideals, for someone else’s safety and security, and such fighting often involves virtues like courage, conviction and fortitude. Calling an event a fight, while it actually is not, leaves open the possibility for a killer to parade as a warrior. It covers up the inhuman barbarity of real perpetrators. A day before Mr Modi’s advise to Hindus and Muslims, the President of the Republic had reminded his countrymen and women that tolerance and co-existence are the basic tenets of Indian civilisation. How does one tolerate communal barbarity? How does one co-exist with communal killers? The conventional tropes of Indian secularism are misleading and comforting illusions, which do not allow one to face the real, but difficult questions that arise in the face of an organised and successful communal politics.
According to the standard genealogy of secularism in the West, the idea of separating state from religion emerged in the wake of the more than a century long wars of religion that ravaged Europe in sixteenth and seventeenth century. A way had to be found so that religious differences do not lead to horrors of war. A framework of public ethics was needed which would allow for co-existence and toleration of religious differences. A similar history and imperative can be read into ideas of Indian secularism. A way had to be found out of the religious divide promoted by colonial rulers. Hindus and Muslims had more important challenges to strive for, freedom from the colonial rule before 1947, and building a prosperous and just nation after that, than to fight over sectarian differences. All building blocks of Indian secularism, communal amity, respect of religious diversity, toleration of differences, etc. follow from this reading. Special constitutional provisions for minorities, which have rattled Hindu fundamentalists the most, could be justified as necessary steps meant to reassure minorities after the communal holocaust of 1947; that the overwhelming majority is committed to not push its weight behind its own sectarian demands, and is willing to let minorities be as they wish. For the religious minded this secularism could be interpreted as ‘Sarv Dharam Sambhav’, which Indian politicians interpret as ‘equal respect for all religions’. Hence Indian state not only provides administrative and financial resources for religious pilgrimages, but also bans books, films and certain food in deference to religious sentiments.
The dominant understanding of secularism in India ties it up with Indian state’s relationship with religious communities. The latter are accepted as the chief determinants of citizens’ identities and interests, and enjoy normative preference over nonreligious interests of citizens and their associations. Fortunately for Indians, the Constitution in its basic orientation is not guided by this understanding. It actually establishes a secular framework for the Indian state on thoroughly nonreligious principles of equality and freedom, which are self validating and require no further grounding. The promise of equal freedom to all citizens logically demands that the state keep itself away, or equidistant, from all religions; else it would end up favouring followers of one religion over all others, including non believers. Constitution, and the law following from it, authorise secular state authority to adjudicate on matters deemed religious. Hence, specific religious practices like untouchability that are found to be against basic assumptions of Constitution are outlawed. Similarly, personal and family codes found to be discriminatory against women can be altered. Even matters of personal faith, like Santara among Jains, or Sati among Hindus, do not enjoy a priori sanction.
Mr Mohammad Akhlaq was killed because his attackers saw him only as a Muslim who, according to them had violated their religious beliefs. It is high time the secular discourse in India refuses to identify Mohammad Akhlaqs of the country the way their attackers see them; and also refuses to treat such crimes as clashes along matters considered religious. Communal discord does not lie at the base of the dominant communal politics in the country today. Its votaries have perfected the art of coloring their political goals in religion. In the process they have been quite successful in redefining the popular religion itself and given it a political edge. Waving the flag of conventional Indian secularism against them is ineffective because a significant number of Hindus have begun to see Hindutva politics as representing their community interests. Harping on secularism as a balancing act between competing community interests plays directly into the hands of votaries of Hindutva, because they are the loudest claimants of representing the ‘Hindu’ community. The politics of Hindutva is a downright criminal assault on the secular citizenship of all Indians. Unless Indians realise that many truisms, assumptions, and homilies of conventional Indian secularism are not only not true, but are also useless in building a normative environment against Mr Modi’s type of politics, whatever democracy exists for ordinary citizens of the country is under threat.
(Author teaches Physics at St Stephen’s College, University of Delhi)