Analysis: Striving For Secularism In A Resurgent India

Analysis: Striving For Secularism In A Resurgent India

For India to fulfil its potential and take its seat as a great power, maintaining a safe space for its minorities remains vital

Rishabh BhandariUpdated: Tuesday, January 30, 2024, 10:08 PM IST
article-image

The new year has begun with global spotlight on a resurgent India. The consecration ceremony at the Ram temple in Ayodhya has garnered unprecedented attention at home and overseas. As India gears up for a general election, the Narendra Modi government has sent an overt signal to its supporters that it is in tune with their sentiments. An image of a confident India willing to acknowledge and celebrate its majoritarian traditions is beginning to emerge. As the Modi government plans ahead, though, it should remember that economic and social stability cannot be sustained if a fifth of the population is at risk of being left behind.

To start with, it’s important to acknowledge in an era where political promises are routinely cast aside, the Modi government has sought to be different. What started with LK Advani’s rath yatra in 1990 has culminated in the Modi-led refurbishment of Ayodhya and the consecration of the Ram temple there. The general tendency of a political party tempering its ideological zeal and forgetting key promises once in power has been refuted by the BJP. Its ardent critics may rail against it, but the truth remains that the party’s commitment to its core vision hasn’t wavered. Frankly, this is remarkable and speaks to the party’s discipline and focus. This consistency of purpose is what the Modi government as cited in support of its transformative vision for India.

There is little doubt that the cultural and social iconography of India is currently being recast with a much firmer voice for the majority. Yet even as the Modi government looks to reshape India’s image to a more assertive footing, some important questions remain. As the executive looks to explicitly champion a particular cultural-religious perspective, the historic principle of neutrality seems to be obscured. Where might this journey culminate, Constitutionally? Across the border, there is some schadenfreude that India’s turn towards the cultural right is a modern-day validation of the “two-nation” theory. That might be hyperbolic, perhaps, but it does bear contemplation.

In this context, the 2023 annual report of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USIRF) makes for sobering reading. The 2023 report assesses religious freedom violations and progress in 28 countries and makes independent recommendations for US policy. Last year, the USRIF designated India as a “country of particular concern” — such designation is reserved for governments that are seen as either engaging or tolerating severe violations of religious freedoms.

Predictably, the Indian government lambasted the report. Yet the report deserves close attention, and makes for uncomfortable reading. Taken together, the controversies over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, anti-conversion laws and lynchings have contributed towards an environment of hostility against minorities. In addition, inflammatory rhetoric against minorities at the national, state, and local level have increased the climate of fear among non-Hindu communities. Can it credibly be argued that India is not on a negative trajectory? Granted that India isn’t North Korea and has a functioning democracy; but that is a low aspirational bar.

The truth is that minorities — particularly Muslims — continue to face routine insults on a daily basis. They are under-represented within many sectors such as the civil service and professional services. The central government has been apathetic at best and indifferent at worst. Dismissing constructive engagement as pseudo-secularism ranting has been its impulse mode. This lack of critical thought simply dodges the issue. If unaddressed, the slippery slope of resentment may well lead 200 million citizens to conclude — invoking VS Naipaul — that their India is turning into “an area of darkness”.

From a comparative perspective regarding the impact of religious authoritarianism on a democracy, Turkey provides us with a cautionary tale. At the turn of the century, its economy was growing by approximately 6% annually. The country served as an important secular democratic cornerstone in a benighted part of the world. However, as the strong-man politics of Erdogan began to assert its grip from 2003, a corrosive institutional impact has been hard to ignore. Moving away from Ataturk’s secular vision into religious orthodoxy has coincided with instability, high unemployment and recessionary pressures. A country that stood out as an exemplar of inter-faith dialogue and a thriving outward-looking youthful population has slid into a repressive spiral with critics routinely imprisoned and freedom of expression stifled.

The Modi government should reflect accordingly. Geo-politically, as several post-Covid economies seek to reduce their dependency on China, this presents a massive opportunity for India. Given that Western economies are poised to re-examine their relationships with China, this may well turn out to be a seminal moment to reset alliances and seek newer ones. The stage is set for a turbo-charged boost to Indian foreign policy. There may well be renewed interest in exploring India as a viable and reliable alternative hub for manufacturing with its youthful population, low-cost labour and democratic credentials. It may galvanise the government’s “Make in India” policy. That said, investors and strategic partners may well struggle to commit fully if concerns over civil instability and frequent unrest continue to loom.

To be sure, domestically there will be those who continue to hanker for a lost world of mono-cultural cohesiveness. But that quest is simply illusory. India has maintained a proud tradition of heterogeneity over millennia. It has drawn strength from its plurality. As Pandit Nehru put it eloquently in his Discovery of India, the nation was akin to “an ancient palimpsest on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed, and yet no succeeding layer had completely hidden or erased what had been written previously”.

That profound observation should remind us of what we ought to cherish. Turning to the present day, as the government contemplates steps ahead, it should ensure that a large minority isn’t forgotten. Sustainable progress will be challenging if millions of citizens feel excluded. It should be an urgent moral and economic duty of the Modi government to ensure safe spaces and conditions for all citizens to flourish regardless of creed. Anything less will be a disservice to the idea of India that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Rishabh Bhandari is a London based lawyer and political commentator

RECENT STORIES

Fali Nariman: A Genius And A Doyen Of The Bar

Fali Nariman: A Genius And A Doyen Of The Bar

Analysis: Will The Hindi Heartland Stand Solidly Behind The BJP?

Analysis: Will The Hindi Heartland Stand Solidly Behind The BJP?

Analysis: War Drums Add to Economy Anxiety

Analysis: War Drums Add to Economy Anxiety

Editorial: An Exercise In Continuity But Some Key Misses

Editorial: An Exercise In Continuity But Some Key Misses

Analysis: When Governors Don The Gloves In Political Boxing Matches

Analysis: When Governors Don The Gloves In Political Boxing Matches