New Internationalist

Saving the secular

Issue 370

In recent elections Indian voters kicked out the ruling Hindu nationalist BJP. But does that mean the country's constitutional secularism is no longer in danger? Sadanand Menon checks its pulse.

A few weeks ago, in Paris, I was privileged to be present at the emotional reunion of two long-time friends – the legendary photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson and Chandralekha, India’s most provocative contemporary choreographer. He, 95; she, 75; both frail and unwell. It was inevitable they would jostle each other’s memories.

The one incident they remembered vividly was being together on the streets of Madras (now Chennai), South India, in the middle of an intense crowd waiting for the appearance of a religious pontiff. Devotional expectation hung in the air. Both were sceptics and observed the crowd of devotees clinically. When the ‘holy man’ finally appeared, a gasp went up among the assembled throng. Chandralekha watched an old man in crumpled clothes standing alongside her, with a look of beatitude on his face and tears streaking down his cheeks and white beard.

Cartier-Bresson was moving about taking pictures, but he had also seen what Chandra had seen. When they returned home, he asked her: ‘Do you have faith?’ The then 20-year-old replied: ‘Personally no, but I have deep faith in the faith of that old man who was beside me.’ It was amazing that over 50 years later, they both remembered this story and could share it again with each other.

For me, it redefined my entry point into the notion of the ‘secular’ – not as a denial of faith but a ‘faith in the faith of the other’.

Secularism cannot be about ‘absence’ of faith: indeed it is about ‘assertion’ of faith – faith in freedom and people, not dogmas. One of the limitations of the ‘secularism’ debate is that it is often presented as being contrary to religiosity. This is problematic. We need to be able to reinvent the ‘secular’ as an entirely valid space within the practice of faith and politics. A space where one can pause to acknowledge the other, the one who is different, the alien, the non-believer; and where one can negotiate the public sphere without the need to foreground or privilege one’s own mode of worship. At its best, the secular society demands a near impossible fairness on the part of the state and its citizens.

The notion of ‘secularism’ being the principle of the State’s distance from religion is a relatively new and inherited definition in India. However, the history of the subcontinent is replete with stories of rulers who professed a specific faith but were impartial in their accommodation of other faiths. The great Mogul emperor Akbar even initiated a universal religion, synthesizing Islam, Hinduism and other forms of worship. It’s a different matter that Din-e-Ilahi never took off.

The period of colonial rule in India accompanied by blatant missionary evangelism, contributed to the suppression of the syncretistic movements and the ascendancy of reactionary Vaishnavism (Vishnu worship) that had been gathering momentum in pre-colonial times. Hindu Vishnu worship became the subtext of the Indian national movement too, as epitomized in a wholesale politicization and absorption of it by Mahatma Gandhi.

Dalit leaders like Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar and backward caste leaders like ‘Periyar’ EV Ramaswami Naicker were sharply critical of what they understood as a ‘Hindu-Brahminical hijacking’ of the freedom agenda, leading to the creation of what would eventually be a ‘Hindu state’ – a prediction steadily being fulfilled over the past decade.

This is what prompted the incorporation of the term ‘secular’ in the preamble to the Indian Constitution. And this is why secularism – more than anything else – is the most embattled of the constitutional guarantees even 50 years after India declared itself a Sovereign, Secular, Democratic Republic. Not a day has passed since then, that the idea of the ‘secular’ has not been under threat.

Secularization implies a plurality of cultural choices. It’s about having sufficient space within one’s faith and armature of beliefs to permit a healthy and critical distance from one’s focus of adoration – enough to laugh at or even parody it without feeling a sense of threat or insecurity. Even more importantly, not to get touchy when someone from outside one’s own belief structure takes liberties with its funny side.

It is romantic to imagine that anything like this prevails today. Religious fundamentalism, mobilized in the public sphere as majoritarian communalism, has infiltrated almost all walks of life in India. Its primary task is to ridicule, harangue and de-legitimize the notion of secularism. It has achieved this in India by coining the term ‘pseudo-secularism’.

Over the past 75 years, a systematic, pre-planned, cynical laboratory experiment has been in place for manufacturing a brute majoritarian, patriarchal Hindu Rashtram – or Hindu ‘nation’ – in India. A consequence is a sheer dehumanizing belligerence that subjugates all minorities and women to a secondary status. If the German Nazi party was born in 1919 and the Italian Fascist party in 1922, it is important to remember that India’s own storm-trooper outfit, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), came into being in 1925.

In the 55 years since the strategic assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by pathologically disturbed elements of the RSS, we have been witness to what KN Panikker calls the planned ‘molecular transformation of civil society’. The focus of the Sangh (rightwing brotherhood) and its extended parivaar (family) has been such that within five years of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) coming to power, Hindu activists have successfully usurped institution after secular institution. Education, history, textbooks, archaeology, museums, social sciences, nuclear technology, healthcare, popular festivals and cultural organizations have all caved in to the mixed tactic of steady nibbling from one flank and putsch-like serial assaults from the other.

In an analogy used by poet Javed Akhtar, a frog will leap in panic and escape if it is dunked into a pond of boiling water. But the result is different if the temperature of the water is slowly and systematically increased so that the frog gets conditioned and accepts every increment on the mercury scale. A time will come when the temperature climbs above the tolerable limit and kills the frog, without it displaying the least resistance. The frog, in this analogy, happens to be Indian democracy.

The alarming situation now is that even if the defeated BJP does not win elections for some time ahead, its social consolidation has already given it many salient, invisible victories. Political scientist Aijaz Ahmed has called it a ‘hurricane from below, not a frontal seizure of power’.

But there is also a tendency to aggrandize communalism without seeing it for what it is – the ‘Trojan horse’ in whose belly hides the real monster called ‘state authoritarianism’. The majority community, in whose name unspeakable crimes are being daily committed, is destined to be the real target of a newly beefed up and muscularized State. But it still does not know it, choosing naively to believe that a ‘Hindu nation’ will be its benefactor, while tilting at ‘pseudo-secularism’.

Such mass naivety is the swamp from which reaction spreads like a noxious fume, instilling in us an essential ‘fear of freedom’. It is on such mystical hot air of repressed humanity that fascism is built. For the development of freedom requires that one be ruthlessly free of illusions.

Sadanand Menon is a writer and stage-lighting designer based in Chennai, India.

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