Is it time for secularism to acquire a new language?

Political parties, especially in India, have been speaking in forked tongues for a long time by appearing to use ‘secularist language’ while all the time looking to appease their vote banks.

The word secular may have been enshrined into the preamble of the Indian Constitution through a constitutional amendment in 1976, but there is a disconnect between the ‘Book’ and reality.

In recent times, there have been several incidents of killings and mistreatment of minorities. The recent electoral results have also made some marginalised sections of Indians uncomfortable and unsure of whether this is the end of secular democracy in the country.

With religion becoming the fulcrum of political and media discourse, the youth of India is a very unhappy lot also. Be it majoritarianism or minoritism, the youth of today believes that these false secular narratives need to be left behind. They want employment, education, safety, in other words development to be the new language of secularism.

Take for example 20-year-old Anureeth or 18-year-old Prathamesh (names changed on request), who want a job when they graduate and don’t care who is in the cubicle opposite them. Or for that matter musician Akash Suvarna, who also doesn’t care about religion, but only wants to follow his dream of being able to create music and make guitars.

Poet and author Maitreyee Bhattacharjee Chowdhury echoes the same thought. She says, “A new India needs to understand that aspects like employment, good work ethics, dynamic research, world class education and peaceful co-existence will take the people and the country forward. Focusing on religion can only benefit a handful. Employment, perhaps, needs to be the new language of secularism. A country like ours cannot afford to spend so much time on religion when people are hungry on the roads.”

She adds, “Ideas like secularism work best in a country where leaders prioritise peace and harmony above partisan politics. Of late, the trend in our country, as elsewhere, has been the winning of ‘A’ party, rather than the winning of a nation and its people. As such secularism is an inconvenient approach because when people are united, they see through the scheming politics being played out.

“World over, people are far more divided today on the basis of religion than ever before. It's an alarming trend especially when the role of all religion is presumably to spread peace.”

Political satirist Cyrus Broacha says, “The Right has been pushing the agenda of Nationalism, over everything else. Of course, our ‘Nationalism’ has GST attached to it. But to give the Right its due, this is not that much different from America or Western Europe from a few decades back.”

Reviving secularism

What can we do to ensure the survival and revival of secularism? Maitreyee suggests that empathy towards everyone, discipline and taking people of all religion, class and caste together should be the way forward for secularism. She says, “The young people of our country really don't care who belongs to what religion or caste. If you give them the right education and employment, they will know how to drive the country forward. If these are not focus areas for political parties, people MUST understand that they are being made a fool of and their time wasted in religious animosity.”

Cyrus strikes a cautious and cynical note though, “Secularism is not rocket science. No, seriously! Rocket science pits country against country, race against race, religion against religion. You can’t force ‘secularism’, just like you can’t force a man to wear underwear. When you come with the baggage of the ‘caste’ system, it's not easy to switch that for egalitarianism and secularism. It will take generations. I see India playing football World Cup, before ‘secularism’ being truly part of our way of life.”

Akash, though, isn’t that despondent and still believes that this is just a phase and it too shall pass.

What is the language of secularism?

According to Maitreyee Bhattacharjee Chowdhury, “The language of secularism by definition is of course maintaining an equal distance from all religions, especially in matters of the State.”

Cyrus Broacha has a slightly different take. He says, “I think secularism is linked to the idea of egalitarianism, equality, fraternity, and perhaps even the age old ideal of a welfare state. I think secularism was last mentioned in a Miss India contest, that too way back in 1997. And I think we are all missing the point. Secularism is defined by the majority and the powerful. (Generally, they are one and the same, and must never be confused with democracy.) Whether this majority use it in patronising tone is up to them.”

And what is the idea in new India?

Both agree that Humanism is paramount.

Cyrus, while quoting a urinal he visited recently, says, “Humanity must lead, then all other ideals follow”. Perhaps a lesson can be learnt from reading Leigh Hunt’s poem “Abou Ben Adhem”. If new India believes in helping its fellowmen, all roads will lead to secularism.

Maitreyee concurs, “In the present day context, I think the 'language of secularism' should imply Humanism before anything else.”

Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)

Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,

And saw, within the moonlight in his room,

Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,

An angel writing in a book of gold:—

Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,

And to the presence in the room he said,

"What writest thou?"—The vision raised its head,

And with a look made of all sweet accord,

Answered, "The names of those who love the Lord."

"And is mine one?" said Abou. "Nay, not so,"

Replied the angel. Abou spoke more low,

But cheerly still; and said, "I pray thee, then,

Write me as one that loves his fellow men."

The angel wrote, and vanished. The next night

It came again with a great wakening light,

And showed the names whom love of God had blest,

And lo! Ben Adhem's name led all the rest.

(Abou Ben Adhem by Leigh Hunt)

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