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The paradox of secularism

The basic criterion for labeling a group of citizens as minority is that they constitute less than 10 per cent of the total population.


Secularism has been a catchword and a watchword in the modern era, especially in post independent election-riddled India. All political parties swear by secularism and compete with each other to prove that they are more secular than the others. Die-herd secularists and intellectuals got a shot in the arm when Indira Gandhi, by the Constitution (42nd Amendment) Act, 1976, amended the Preamble to the Constitution adding the words ‘Secular’ along with ‘Socialist’ to make India a “sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic.”

Whether it was appropriate or at all necessary to amend the Preamble has been a matter of debate among the Constitutional pundits because the Constitution of India has always been secular. In view of the fact that Part III of the Constitution dealing with ‘Fundamental Rights’ fully guarantees liberty, equality and freedom; Part IV on the ‘Directive Principles of State Policy’ directs the government to establish a ‘Welfare State’ and ensure ‘Social Justice’, and the very fact that secularism is indeed a part of the ‘Basic Structure of the Constitution’, the amendment injects a jarring note in the musically composed Preamble.

Legal luminaries may view it as what is called an orbiter dictum in judicial parlance. The word ‘secularism’ owes its origin to the long struggle in Europe to separate the State from the Church i.e. freeing the State from the influence of the Christian religion. George Holyoake (1817-1906), a British writer coined the term ‘secularism’ and used it for the first time in 1851 in his book “English Secularism: A Confession of Belief.” Since then, the concept has assumed newer meanings and connotations and has been subjected to multiple definitions. The most common and acceptable definition of secularism has been – separation of religion from civil affairs, education and affairs of the State.

It has now become an essential and ‘sacred’ principle of state policy emanating from the tenets of liberal democracy – liberty, equality, freedom, non-discrimination, non-exploitation, respect, non-violence, tolerance, rationalism and scientific approach. Sir Ernest Barker, one of the greatest political scientists of the twentieth century reproduced the Preamble to the Indian Constitution on the first page of his famous book “Principles of Social and Political Theory” saying that the noblest principles of mankind have been enshrined in the Constitution of India, indicating that it is perhaps the best written Constitution of the world. And secularism has been one of these noble principles.

Secularism is also a way of life, a mindset and an expression of rationality. Secularism is interpreted in two ways – positive secularism and negative secularism. Positive secularism recognizes presence of all religions and their practices and treats all religions with equal respect without interfering in their affairs even though many of their practices could be in violation of democratic principles. Negative secularism calls for keeping all religions at equidistance with equal disrespect and disregard. Negative secularism will not allow any religious consideration to influence public affairs and policy because religion must be purely a private matter not infringing on individual rights. It reflects, therefore, the true spirit of secularism and democracy. Professing secularism on the ground in India presents a picture full of paradoxes and contradictions, and more often than not, results in negation of the principles of democracy.

Unfortunately, instead of embracing negative secularism, India has adopted and promoted positive secularism, which has resulted in exponential proliferation of religious organizations and institutions, religious education and research, and religious propaganda leaving considerable regressive effect on the society. The electronic media houses, religious TV channels and social media have further contributed to the frenzy of religious awakening. Positive secularism has not helped promote fraternity and peace in the society; on the other hand, it has taken the nation in the opposite direction creating social unrest, intolerance, and communal violence. The principle that religion should not be allowed to influence civil affairs, education and the functioning of the State appears to have been subverted, which is a violation of the Constitution. Politics and political parties have been the principal culprits for ‘killing’ the noble principles of secularism.

Political parties and successive governments in power have been using secularism as a tool to garner votes and create their own vote-banks. It is also used as an instrument, not for social transformation, but for social engineering for electoral purposes. Even the Communist parties, who have had strong genuine secular credentials, have fallen prey to caste and vote-bank politics. A peculiar paradigm has been created in India making secularism synonymous with minority identity and minority appeasement. Here, it is important to remove a misconception about the minority question. Who are the minorities in India? The obvious answer would be – it is mainly the Muslims and the Christians (the presence of others like the Parsees is minimal). But are the Muslims a minority? According to Najma Heptullah, former Minister for Minority Affairs in the Central Cabinet, Muslims are not a minority community in India; they are also a majority community. The basic criterion for labeling a group of citizens as minority is that they constitute less than 10 per cent of the total population.

Muslims in India constitute 15 per cent of the total population of 1.38 billion. How can a population of 200 million people be called a minority? In Jammu and Kashmir and in a large number of districts covering a number of States, Muslims are in a vast majority. Therefore, it is a misnomer to call them a minority community. Although they hold a ‘minority’ tag, they are nevertheless a ‘dominant minority’ and a dominant force in elections and formation of governments in several Indian States. Politically, they are as powerful as the majority, if not more. In a secular State like India, minority appeasement politics is considered poisonous and may lead to dangerous consequences. Caste, creed and communal politics, election engineering, and money and muscle power used to win elections strike at the very root of democracy and secularism. Another disturbing phenomenon observed in the milieu has been the double standards of the secularists and the intellectuals who are supposed to be the conscious keepers.

While losing no opportunity to condemn any fundamentalist activity of the majority, they choose to remain totally silent on dangerous fundamentalism and unacceptable fanaticism on the part of the minorities. The first blow to the secularism principles came from none other than the first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who gave in to the pressures of the religious leaders to exclude Muslims, Christians and Parsees from the ambit of B.R. Ambedkar’s vision of a Uniform Civil Code (UCC). Even a Hindu Code Bill (with a vision of UCC) piloted by Ambedkar received stiff resistance in Parliament and was scuttled by members of the Congress. On Nehru’s back-tracking on the issue, Ambedkar, now a broken man, resigned from Nehru’s Cabinet in 1951. Subsequently, Nehru managed Parliament to pass a diluted Hindu Code Bill split into four different Acts (1951- 56). Secularism received a severe jolt during Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure when his government overturned (1986) the historic verdict of the Supreme Court (1985) in the Shah Bano case (1978- 1985) taking away Muslim women’s right to equality, which was against the Constitution.

India’s secular credentials and image were destroyed in the 1990s when the government of Jammu and Kashmir remained a mute spectator to the mass exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from their original homeland, considered to be an epitome of secular ideals, because of religious persecution and Islamic terrorism. Secularism is often juxtaposed with religious identity. Here again, identity politics mainly hovers around the dominant minority community who are, by all standards, also a majority community. Identity politics on religious lines have a tendency to breed sectarianism and separatism. In the name of pluralism, identity politics should not be allowed to weaken national unity. In a globalised world, identity represented by dress, headgear, food habits, customs and rituals has almost lost its purpose and meaning. Religion, caste, creed, colour, and customs cannot confer real identity to a person. Identity of a person will depend on the quality, profession, character and contribution of the man or woman.

As for example, a Tamil Brahmin married to a Muslim colleague can, at the same time, be a Brahmin, an Indian (OCI), an American, a scientist and a noted violin player. What should be his real identity and the identity of his family and their children? Similarly, a Muslim doctor married to a Hindu colleague working in London can be, at the same time, a doctor, a Bangladeshi, a British citizen, a noted writer and a cricketer. What should be the identity of his family and children? Therefore, in today’s world, most of the people, especially the educated ones, do have multiple identities and multiple hats to wear. Religious, regional, colour and caste identities are fast disappearing giving way to professional identities.