Deep Roots of Secularism in India
Posted on 11-September-2018
An oft repeated statement about the people of India is to say that they are at heart secular minded has acquired the status of one of Aristotle's self-evident truths in a certain kind of discourse. In this telling this deep seated secularism of the people has been rent at different times by the manipulations of colonial administrators, compromises made by India's ruling elites or by the opportunistic manoeuvres of narrow-minded sectarian politicians. Like many other self-evident truths, this statement may not be true. The truth of axiomatic statements in science has to be borne out by actual observation. This statement about Indian secularism does not pass that test. Such a statement is based to a large extent on another that Hindus, by which is meant not the myriads of beliefs and practices of people who together are conveniently described as a single religious community called Hindus, but the Higher castes among the people bound together by Brahmanical beliefs and ritual practices in the northern two-thirds of India and India's largest religious minority, Muslims--again imagined to be a monolith--have lived for centuries together as one peaceful community. It is also said that the two communities--Christians figure marginally in these discussions except when it comes to proselytisation by missionaries--practice syncretic forms of their religion and that for ages they have joined together in celebrating festivals like Id, Holi and Christmas. These statements need to be examined carefully.
That Hindus and Muslims and Christians have for the most part during the last several hundred years lived together in peaceful coexistence in India is no doubt true. Not only in India but in much of the world elsewhere people of different religious persuasions, different ethnicities and cultures and of different linguistic backgrounds have for most of human history not only lived together peacefully, or travelled long distances unhindered and unharmed but also engaged in mutually beneficial exchanges. This has to do with human nature itself which makes for people to instinctively recognise the humanness of other human beings across ethnic, cultural, religious and cultural divides. It is this that explains how diverse communities have co-existed peacefully in India and not because of any deep attachment of the people of India to a set of values called secularism nor because, as is frequently asserted these days, Hinduism is a religion of tolerance. Such relations break down under pressures of competition for resources or of demagogues inflaming resentments and promising to their gullible followers paradise on earth. Religion has more often than not been a divisive force, not only in India but elsewhere in the world too, not only now but in the past too. Coming to Indian Hindus, Muslims and Christians, even though they have for the most part lived together in peace, they have done so in their own separate shells. Stories of Hindus greeting their Muslim friends during Id or Muslims splashing colour on their Hindu neighbours during Holi are at best anecdotal. Beyond this, members of the three main religious communities of India remain ignorant of the basic tenets of each other's religion. Leave aside the creed, the reiteration of which is one of five duties enjoined upon a Muslim, but very few Hindus would be able to recite the words of the azan which they can hear five times a day if they live not far from a mosque. Christmas is a festival marked by lights and by many a non-sacred celebration and therefore it gets rejoiced in by many Hindus; but hardly any Hindu is aware of the religious and spiritual meaning of Good Friday and Easter for the Christian faithful. Likewise Muslims and Christians remain untouched by the emotions aroused by Hindu devotional songs. Muslims and Christians are indifferent to the feelings of Hindus towards the Bhagvad Gita or the Ramayana. The first two are monotheistic, admitting of worship of none other than Allah or the Holy Trinity, or a la rigueur, veneration of the Prophet and Pirs (in the case of popular Islam influenced by Sufi mysticism) in the case of the former, and the veneration of Mary and the saints in some forms of Christianity. For them many Hindu practices are anathema. For the gloriously polytheistic, even pantheistic Hindu it is not always clear why a Christian or a Muslim cannot venerate Shiva, Vishnu, Rama or Krishna because he has been taught that Allah, the Christian God and Hindu gods are different manifestations of the same Supreme Being. Pretending that these differences do not exist is what those who defend secularism in India do. Syncretism of Islam, Christianity and Hinduism in India has limits, and to the extent that it is there it is no more than a veneer.
The dominant narrative of Indian history in the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century covers what is called the Indian or the Bengal Renascence, the Swadeshi movement, the rise of the Indian National Congress, the non-Cooperation movement and other mass programmes started by Gandhi. The voices of everyone from Ram Mohan Roy, Keshab Chandra Sen, Ishwar Chandra Vidya Sagar, Dayanand Saraswati, Aurobindo Ghosh, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Madanmohan Malaviya, Lala Lajpat Rai, Chittaranjan Das, Motilal Nehru, Mohandas Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajendra Prasad, Vallabhbhai Patel, Subhash Chandra Bose and other not so prominent members of Hindu elite were heard. None of these people showed much awareness of the intellectual churning among leaders of Indian Muslims. Syed Ahmad Khan got noticed partially and that too negatively because of his two nation theory. His conviction that Indian Muslims had to modernise themselves got elided over. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad was heard courteously as the most prominent Muslim who opposed the partition of India. His views on other aspects of the life of Indian Muslims were not described in the dominant Indian nationalist historical narrative. A highly influential Muslim who spent about ten years of his early life, from around 1855 to 1866, in India, Jamaluddin Afghani is rarely, if ever mentioned in Indian history books. Gandhi who in the context of the freedom struggled strove for Hindu-Muslim unity--the fact that in the four decades leading to the independence of India there was so much talk of Hindu-Muslim unity was itself an indirect admission that such unity did not exist or was fragile--extended a hand of friendship to those Indian Muslims who were angry over the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate. He chose an issue which was important for the religious sentiments of many Indian Muslims. Indian Muslims were unmoved by the Bengal Renascence or the Swadeshi movement; they were barely more than mute witnesses of Gandhi's Civil Disobedience movement of 1930-31. The by and large Hindu leadership of the Indian National Congress looked quizzically, if at all, at the deeply felt urge of the post-1857 Muslim elite for preserving their cultural and religious identity. This did not help.
In less than two decades the demand for a an independent state for India's Muslims became irresistible: on 14th August 1947, a new state, Pakistan, comprising Muslim majority provinces in the west and east of British India came into being. In independent India, occasional large scale Hindu-Muslim violence continued: Bihar 1964, Ahmedabad 1969, Nellie 1983, Mumbai 1993, Gujarat 2002, Muzzaffarnagar 2013, and many others. That when such violence occurs, the largely Hindu constabulary either joins the killing mobs or simply stands by is well documented. On 6th of December 1992, a mob encouraged by various groups and individuals affiliated to the Rashtriya Svayam Sevak Sangh (RSS), destroyed a mosque in Ayodhya built in 1528 under the rule of Babar, the first of the dynasty of Mughals. Then when in 2007, Tasleema Nasreen, the Bangladeshi writer who had been living in Kolkata since 1994, an incensed Muslim mob led by a mullah threatened to execute her, the Marxist Government of West Bengal and the Indian National Congress Government of India joined hands to push her out of India. If the Indian people had been truly secular in spirit in the sense that they abhorred the use of religion for disrupting normal human social relations, none of what has been described above would have happened; there surely would have been popular resistance. In reality, the opposite seems to be true. If politicians make use of religion in their quest for power, they do so with the knowledge that they would win the support of some constituency.
At the end of developments along several strands since the beginning of the seventeenth century, the modern secular age arrived in western Europe and North America in early twentieth century. Its cradle was north-Western Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It is a whole value system of which the principle of separation of religion and state is only one. It also encompasses beliefs in reason, science, human progress and equality of all people, opposition to all forms of tyranny and oppression and, very importantly, diminution of the importance of religion in people's lives. Because of this last, so many popes have issued declarations denouncing the troika of atheism, materialism and secularism. Other religious leaders have also equally robustly denounced secularism. Their declared opposition to secularism has not arrested the decline of religion in west Europe and north America. A few recent examples will illustrate how far this process has gone. Terry Jones, an evangelical pastor in Florida who had publicly burnt a copy of the Qura'an in 2011 said he was going to burn a little more than 2800 copies of the book in New York city on 11th September 2013. Florida police arrested him while he was preparing to leave on his mission. This entire episode was treated as no more than a curiosity by the people at large and that in a country where there have been from time to time eruptions of islamophobia and where evangelical Christians carry great political weight. When not only priests but cardinals, archbishops and bishops have been indicted and sentenced by courts in the USA and Australia on charges of paedophilia or of covering up paedohilia by priests in their dioceses, not only Roman Catholics have not expressed any opposition but the Pope has apologised and the Vatican has cooperated with civil authority. Ireland, a Roman Catholic majority country has an openly gay prime minister and in a recent referendum voted to legalise abortion. Except in the limited context of what are called culture wars in the USA it is well nigh impossible for a politician in a western democracy to use a religious issue for gaining political advantage.
People who led India's freedom movement, faced as they were on one side with demands from the Muslim League for the creation of a state or states that would be home to India's Muslims and demands from the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha on the other side for creating a Hindu state, opted for building a modern, democratic and secular state in India after the British left. They wrote a constitution, complete with guarantees for fundamental rights including freedom of speech and expression, independent judiciary and other independent institutions meant to act as checks on the power of the executive. While they thus adopted a modern constitution for a modern forward looking state, society at large remained firmly rooted in old religious and cultural traditions. As the afterglow of independence dissipated India's old demons of caste and religious divisions, superstition and resistance to change came to the surface. Caste organisations and caste based political parties started proliferating from the end of the decade of the 1960's. As the new century approached, Hindu groups such as the RSS and its affiliates and its political wing, the Bharatiya Janta Party(BJP), firmly dedicated to the creation of a Hindu state in India, gained in strength and now wield unchallenged power not only at the federal level but also in a majority of states. Hindu assertiveness with all its ugly manifestations is now almost ubiquitous. Turkey presents an interesting parallel. There the institutions of a modern secular republic were put in place by a military strongman, Mustafa Kemal in 1923. He banned the use of many outward signs of Islam including the use of the Arabic script. His project had the support not only of the cosmopolitan elite of Istanbul but also of the the Turkish army. For many decades after Mustafa Kemal's death the Turkish Army remained the guarantor of the Turkish secular state. But at the base, Turkish society remained deeply Islamic. With the rise to power, through free democratic elections, of the Islamist AKP, any role of the Turkish army in politics is now prohibited and gone are many of the changes introduced by Mustafa Kemal. The head of the AKP Recep Tayip Erdogan now rules supreme. As he seeks to enlarge his presence and influence in the middle east, many wits say he sees himself as a latter day Ottoman sultan. Indian society has a long way to go before it becomes a secular society in its original western sense. Many Indian defenders of secularism say that in India, secularism does not mean absence of religion, but equal respect for all religions without understanding that in saying so they have already lost the battle for defending secularism, because, as long religions maintain their hold on people, there will be politicians, and, in the case of India, an assortment of god men, gurus and sadhus, ready to manipulate their religious sentiments. The real battle for establishing a genuinely secular, modern society in India has to involve a battle for loosening the grip of religion on people's minds. In Narendra Modi's India such a battle will be doubly arduous.