A hymn to secularism in India
In what could pass for a document from a government spokesperson or Nagpur headquarters, 32 retired IFS officers last week berated critics for “a sustained smear campaign against the current government on his alleged violations of the country’s secular ethics”. Ironically, their outburst of anger comes at a time when respected international ratings agencies have branded India an “electoral autocracy”, a “flawed democracy” and a “partially free democracy” following relentless attacks on minorities and dissidents.
Critics are accused of ‘anti-Hindu tirades’ for their opposition to Hindutva ideology and the government, implying that this regime and Hindutva embody the Hindu ethos, which many would see as a insult to a great religion. Government apologists argue that “attacks on majoritarianism are a way of challenging the mandate that the democratic process gives to the political party that legitimately wins elections and considers itself obligated to the electorate to legally implement its declared program “.
In their biased understanding, laws like the Citizen Amendment Act (CAA) are clearly discriminatory only since they were passed by a duly elected government. But the Nuremberg and Jim Crow laws were also ratified by elected legislatures. The refusal to acknowledge the persecution of Muslims, Christians and political dissidents is akin to the big lie of the American Republicans, denying that Donald Trump lost the presidential election or had anything to do with the Capitol insurrection on January 6, 2021. appalling social discord, secularism as the underlying credo of our multi-religious country is clearly under threat.
Secularism has meant different things to different nations. The French have a term – laïcité – to define their form of secularism which not only separates the state from religion, but also banishes religious practice and insignia from the public square. In contrast, the United States, the United Kingdom and, until a few years ago, India, adhere to multiculturalism, where one can be a good citizen and at the same time identify publicly with a culture which is not the most ascending. Unfortunately, India can no longer claim to be the secular republic proclaimed in our Constitution. There has been an abrasive intrusion of religion into the public square. Today, the religion of the majority enjoys state patronage while other religions are tolerated, some more than others. Ayodhya’s verdict, by favoring faith over law, dealt a blow to the fundamental idea of a secular republic. Last year, the country’s prime minister laid the foundation stone for the Ayodhya temple in an elaborate religious ceremony. The cries of “Jai Shri Ram” that rip through the air were nothing less than a dirge to secularism. The resurgence of religiosity has been accompanied by the “otherness” of Muslims and, to a lesser extent, Christians, who now live in a social environment bristling with distrust and hatred. A relentless horror story plays out, with the call for genocide of Muslims, the hunting down of Christians, state-sponsored eviction campaigns in minority-dominated areas, the disruption of minority prayer services, etc
In these darkest times for minorities, a section of the Muslim elite under the banner of Indian Muslims for Secular Democracy (ISMD) has fueled the agenda of the rabid right by turning against those who were already besieged, allegedly for the crime. that a handful of them supported the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. The actions of a few deviants have led these so-called secularists to harass the entire Muslim community with the rhetorical question: “Do they want a reformed modern Islam or the old barbarism of the past decades?” By establishing a contextual connection between the evil worldview of the Taliban and that of Indian Muslims, they have reinforced the right-wing disinformation campaign stereotyping Muslims as bigoted, deeply patriarchal and intolerant.
But the real damage to the interests of Muslims within the community has been caused by the inflexible obscurantism of the Indian Council for Muslim Personal Law (AIMPLB). Do you remember the Shah Bano affair and the infamous intervention that fanned the fires of inter-religious conflict? And his opposition to the law overthrowing the iniquitous instantaneous triple talaq? The preposterous AIMPLB’s retrograde response to the current attacks on Muslims is to urge the government to enact blasphemy legislation, which is a painful reminder of Pakistan’s terrible blasphemy laws. The AIMPLB request is inadmissible, does not represent the concerns of the community and should be withdrawn.
Jawaharlal Nehru foresightedly observed that too much religion and religiosity would destroy our nation. It already seems to be happening. How to find the secular essence which is the lifeblood of our country? Last year, the Delhi High Court stressed the need for a uniform civil code to overcome the entanglements resulting from the differences between various personal laws. Although the court’s prescription was beyond reproach, the justification given was not convincing. To believe, as the court does, that modern Indian society is “gradually becoming homogeneous and traditional barriers of religion, community and caste are slowly dissipating,” is an absolute travesty of the facts. On the contrary, the crux of the problem is that our society continues to cling to archaic practices in the name of religion, caste or tradition. It is high time that our interpersonal and social conduct was governed by a uniform system of rules and regulations. The need of the hour is a uniform civil code that addresses issues of gender equality and justice, but the understandable fear is that under the current dispensation such a code would be no more than the universalization of Hindu personal law.
(The author is a former civil servant and general secretary of the Lok Janshakti party. Opinions are personal)