India’s secularism under siege

The Constitution of India guarantees the fundamental right to freedom of religion. The Article 25(1) affirms that “…all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion.” For India, secularism is an article of faith. The bitter experience of Partition made our founding fathers want India to be a secular state, where religion is separate from politics and the state does not patronise any particular religion.

Having said which, we are a predominantly religious people. India is the birthplace of four leading religions – Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism. Freedom of religion and religious tolerance is central to the Indian ethos and civilisation from times immemorial.  As Nehru said in his autobiography, “Religion has been the inner development of the individual, the evolution of his consciousness in a certain direction which is considered good…”

For Gandhiji, “Hinduism is the religion of truth.”  That Hinduism has pantheons of gods, is a demonstration of the fact that it believes in diversity and tolerance. And unlike Christianity and Islam, it is not an organized, monolithic religion. A Hindu is free to choose his own God and may or may not practise any religious tenets. Nothing is binding on the follower.  And therein lies the beauty of Hinduism.

Indian thought had universal appeal. French philosopher Romain Rolland said: “If there is one place on the face of earth where all the dreams of living men have found a home from the very earliest days when man began the dream of existence, it is India.” Renowned British historian Arnold Toynbee said, “The spirit of mutual goodwill, esteem and veritable love…is the traditional spirit in the religions of the Indian family. This is one of India’s gifts to the world.” The advent of the right-wing government after the general election in 2014 has witnessed the polarisation of the people along communal lines. Religion has taken centre stage in Indian politics. The RSS and its affiliates, particularly the VHP and the Bajrang Dal, appear to think the vote for the BJP is the endorsement of Hindutva agenda. The RSS ideologue Ram Madhav and Subramanian Swamy have openly admitted this on television debates. They see no contradiction between development and the Hindutva agenda. Their reasoning is that after all, the people who voted the BJP to power knew its ideological leanings. The hawks in the BJP and the fringe elements in the Sangh Parivar feel emboldened to carry out the Hindutva agenda.

Hinduism, as practised, discriminates between people on the basis of birth. As the eminent sociologist M N Srinivas rightly observed, Hinduism without caste system cannot survive. It is heartening to hear RSS Awadh Prant Sanghchaalak Prabhu Narayan Srivastava admit that “untouchability and discrimination on caste lines promoted by the Hindu religion and society…pushed the deprived sections to convert to other religions and Christians and Muslims are not to be blamed for the conversion of Hindus.”  And 82 per cent of Indians believe this to be true. It is therefore important that the Sangh Parivar work towards establishing an egalitarian society and a just social order. It must address squarely the issues like gender inequality, dowry system, child marriage, female infanticide, honour killings and other evils that plague the Hindu community. The caste system and discrimination should be abolished, if religious conversions have to be stopped.

Pakistan, created on the basis of the two-nation theory, was divided into East and West Pakistan, with East Pakistan breaking away in 1971 to become an independent Bangladesh. Pakistan today has become a hotbed of Islamic religious fanatics and today faces an existential crisis. It is falling apart.  Does the Sangh Parivar want India to go the Pakistan way? And if we are able to showcase our achievements, it is because India has been a successful, secular and liberal democracy.

It is important to recognise that India is a multi-religious country with a composite culture. Any attempt to impose a monolithic religious culture will have devastating effects. Vice President Hamid Ansari, while inaugurating the 75th session of the Indian History Congress on December 28, 2014, had cautioned against pitching for a homogenous national cultural identity. According to the Anthropological Survey of India, we have 4,635 communities.  How can we talk of homogeneity in so massively a diverse country like ours? The pluralistic structure of Indian society has stood the test of time.  It is indeed strange that in the era of internet and the social media networking, when the world is getting closer, the religious fundamentalists speak of exclusiveness.

The rise of majoritarianism is dangerous. As the US president, Barack Obama, said in his address at the Siri Fort Auditorium, New Delhi, on January 27, “India will succeed so long as it is not splintered along lines of religious faith; so long as it is not splintered along any lines and is unified as one nation.” India is an example for other countries, including Communist China, of holding together as a free and democratic society, despite so many differences. It is what makes us world leaders, not the size of our economy or the number of weapons we have. Secular India is under siege. It is the duty of the state to protect religious minorities so that they feel safe and secure and live as free citizens with dignity.  The repeated attacks on churches are doing irreparable damage to the secular image of India.

The writer is author of the book,‘Nehru and World Peace’ and is Professor of Political Science and retired Principal, Kandivali Education Society College, Mumbai and Founder Secretary, Association of Indian College Principals.

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