The concept of secularism has been through a roller-coaster phase in terms of its conceptual existence. In the Western political discourse, it is closely linked to Enlightenment and the rise of the modern State. It attained a pivotal position in the notions of progress of the Whigs; it was central to the notions of liberalism and individual autonomy and the different hues of collectivism. The term has essentially implied separation of Church and State and the absence of discrimination based on religion as well as freedom to pursue one’s faith.
Till about the 1960s it was widely assumed that politics was divided from religion and that as societies became more industrialized, religious belief and practice would be restricted to private thought and action. The processes of modern industrialisation, which in the reckoning of Max Weber was characterized by de-personalized relationships and increasing bureaucratisation, were leading to the final ‘death of God’ or at any rate to the ‘disenchantment of the world’.
However, if one were to move out of the Western thought process and its localized and canonical connotations of secularism and interpret the term as a thought process that accords dignity and rights to the proverbial ‘other’, there is a plethora of critical examples.
Take Ramayana for instance. There is considerable emphasis in the text on human dignity. The benign and dignified treatment and regard shown by the warrior prince Ram, during his exile when he comes across culturally distinct beings, is a shining example of a cultural construct of the secular doctrine. Lord Ram’s interaction with both and Kevat the boatman and Shabri the forest dweller is an iconic way of dealing with diversity and showing respect to their positions and social existence.
The warrior Prince appreciated the existential constructs and sentiments of these culturally different persons and accorded them the respect they deserved, thereby laying down for posterity certain architectonic principles of acknowledging the dignity of the ‘other’.
The early stages of Islam provide another classic example. The setting up of the Dewan in the nascent Islamic caliphate by the second Caliph Umar is a significant version of secular discourse that is different from the conventional Western view. Dewan is a Persian term that literally means Registrar. It was an early institutional recognition of the able-bodied followers of Islam whose moral worth and contribution to the new faith took precedence in the grant of pension out of the Zakat collected. But the interesting feature of governance was that when it came to the lame and destitute, the grant was sanctioned not on the basis of religion or ethnic specificities but was based on the social and economic condition of the poor recipient. It is a striking instance of public policy that went far beyond religious considerations in early Islam.
In the Sikh faith, the words miri and piri are used in reference to the temporal and spiritual components of life. The terms represent the basic principle that have influenced their political thought and governed their social structure. This concept had originated with Guru Hargobind (1595 – 1644) who, unlike his five predecessors, carried two swords, one representing Miri (political) as the command of the community and Piri epitomizing spiritual leadership.
Combination of Miri and Piri does not envisage a theocratic system of government. The practice of Khalsa rule, initially brief under Banda Singh Bahadur and later under the Sikh Misls and Maharaja Ranjit Singh, yielded a form of government that was neutral in terms of religion. It envisaged equidistance from faiths on issues of governance.
The problem of secularism in independent India lies in the fact that the Constitution was essentially a Western construct with the sidelining of the Gandhian Influence in the Constituent Assembly. Its adoption of secular credentials was manifest in the abolition of discrimination based on religion and the cementing of minority rights and the provision of ways and means of fostering minority institutions. Secularism got linked to the development agenda, poverty alleviation, enhanced role of the public sector and pursuit of the scientific temper that brought in greater emphasis on inexpensive higher education and creation of jobs in such institutions.
The practice of politics entailed the increasing accommodation of religious groups and elites which in a way ensured that there was no further rupture in the national fabric; but the flip side was the increasing political and social importance accorded to the minorities much beyond their numerical value and creation of what could be called the rentiers of secular politics in the polity and the academia.
The vote-bank politics indeed segmented the national existence and fostered social clusters based on identity including religious identity. This was further perpetuated by the inherently divided nature of the majoritarian discourse due to structural and primordial differentiation. The politics of elite and minority accommodation continued for six decades of our national existence. This political instrumentality had naively developed a sense of self-righteous right to govern. This was widely accepted by the supportive left-liberal intelligentsia that seemed to carry intellectual weight much beyond its inherent worth and relevance to present-day issues. This establishment is guilty of being gullible enough not to recognize the deep cracks of non-performance in the old political monolith and did precious little while sitting in their intellectual ivory towers to salvage the declining political machine.
Democracy and elections have their own logic especially as both are sustained by the masses and non-performance and perceived de-legitimization of institutions of governance can ultimately bring about a regime change.
The challenge for governance in a developing country remains the same ~ how to ensure development. The discourse might sound a bit cultural and discordant especially to the socalled ranting secular rentiers who perceived that the sense of paradise loss is taking them to new levels of chest-thumping. But the issues concerning the system as a whole are the same.
There is one significant qualification for the present dispensation to seriously consider and act ~ how to establish the inherent universalistic, pluralistic and accommodative notions of Hinduism as a benign cultural construct that at once acknowledges the rights of the minorities and accords a sense of true and responsible citizenship to the minorities much beyond dubious vote-bank exploitation in the name of secularism.
The writer is a civil servant and the views expressed are personal.